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As Reconstructionists Accept Rabbis With Non-Jewish Partners, Will Reform Jews Follow Suit?

Moved either by a brave spirit or by the notion that widespread intermarriage in the Jewish faith demands this change, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College recently announced that it is revoking its “Non-Jewish Partner” policy, which denied admission to students married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jew.

This decision is likely to have huge implications for other denominations, especially for Reform Judaism, where the practice is not to accept rabbinical school applicants who are in such relationships. It will probably reignite a debate about life partners in and out of the seminary. Reform, and even some Reconstructionist, rabbis will disagree about the meaning of this decision. After all, this goes to the very heart of who is a Jew, and how we define a Jewish family.

As a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, and as the mother of a daughter who is studying to be a Reform rabbi, I see the value of the Reconstructionist decision to reset the criteria. It may encourage more applicants and it would create a pool of interfaith rabbis who will experience the challenges that intermarried couples face, while eliminating the sense that choice of partner matters more than outcome. The outcome, often, is that the non-Jewish partner agrees to raise Jewish children.

In fact, the RRC faculty decided that the important standard to uphold would be that “all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal and family lives.” The model would be “doing Jewish,” rather than “being Jewish.” The change — which, I acknowledge, is like telling priests not to bother to be celibate, but it’s okay if you are — is of major consequence to me because of my 23-year-old daughter, who happens to be single.

The question of life partners was raised in our house even before our daughter signed up for this life. This was the subject of many dinner table conversations. She believes intermarried families are the future of the Jewish faith, since some raise their children Jewish. Why, she argues, can’t the same hold true for intermarried rabbis?

I have my own concerns to add to my daughter’s. Under the current seminary policy, what if students agree to the stricture of “not being in committed relationships with non-Jews,” but keep themselves closeted in such a relationship? What about those in a relationship with a secular Jew, who will be considered fit under the application standards, but will not care much about having a Jewish home and family? And, romantically, where does this leave future Reform rabbis who will be restricted, as their predecessors were, to a defined pool of potential suitors and mates?

Though some rabbis marry other rabbis, they are the distinct minority. As rabbinical students like my daughter go along with their education, they know they are expected to marry within their faith — even if they came from interfaith families. This means they have to find a Jewish partner who wants a rabbi as a spouse: certainly not impossible, but challenging. And it can be a jaw-dropper when a woman becoming a rabbi tells a potential date of her career plans. “You’re going to be a what?” is a common response.

So I was not surprised that when the Reconstructionist announcement hit, it sparked deep interest and vocal support from many rabbis in training.

Millennials have grown up believing there should be no boundaries separating people. “No judgment” is their mantra. This new generation of Jewish leaders has watched how, in the older generation, some of the rebels who married outside the faith actually became more Jewish when their non-Jewish partners started understanding — and then, to everyone’s surprise, started enforcing — Jewish principles. Parents and grandparents also looked on in quiet amazement, knowing this may be the most observant nuclear family in their extended family network.

The Reconstructionist decision is likely to reignite passionate debate about earlier decisions, like the one made in 2013 at Hebrew Union College. In a paper produced at the time, when a change was being considered, Rabbi Michael Marmur, who led part of the discussion, thought it would not be unreasonable to expect applicants to declare and defend their commitment to Jewish life and peoplehood. But he also thought that more nuanced criteria might be used in the admissions process to evaluate the faith commitment and religious identity of students.

That view did not prevail. The result was opposition in the Reform community from those who believed that rabbis should be held to a different standard (note that the words ‘’higher standard’’ were not used) and who maintained that what rabbis did in their private lives mattered greatly.

In the end HUC decided to sit tight, leaving its students to continue to debate such change, wondering who will be the first generation of rabbis that can model what can come of an interfaith marriage.

These students know religious life requires sacrifice. But some also believe that it may be a good thing for the life and values of the rabbi to be consistent with the change that has already taken place in the pews, where interfaith partners sometimes lead the way to committed Judaism.

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