Rabbinic Life Partners: Do They Have to Be Jewish?
The current policy of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is not to accept rabbinical students who are intermarried. Should that policy change? Here, two rabbinical students at the seminary, Daniel Kirzane and Brandon Bernstein, exchange letters explaining their positions.
In the last two generations, outreach has worked. Today, across North America, Jewish families with non-Jewish members have served their communities lovingly and capably, and these families often serve as the models of Jewish engagement. No wonder that the current outreach brochure of the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] opens with, “Intermarried? Reform Judaism welcomes you.”
Are these families exceptional? Absolutely. But then again, all families who are so committed are exceptional, whether or not they have non-Jewish members. And, at HUC-JIR, we strive to be exceptional. We hope to attract the most devoted, passionate, and talented Jewish leaders in the world to train to become rabbis, cantors, and educators. Some of these leaders will most certainly be found in committed relationships with non-Jewish partners. To exclude them on the basis of their partner’s religious status no longer makes sense, and HUC-JIR should catch up to the reality of today’s Jewish world.
I welcome your thoughts, Daniel
It is always a pleasure to engage in both learning and discussion with you. I very much appreciate your passion and perspective, but I still support HUC-JIR’s current policy not to admit, graduate, or ordain students with non-Jewish partners.
While I agree that outreach has been a moral imperative for the Reform movement, especially given the realities of American Jewish life, outreach is a healthy response to intermarriage rather than a sanctioning of it. Despite adopting Rabbi Schindler’s 1978 outreach policy, the movement maintains the official stance it elaborated in a 1973 CCAR [Central Conference of American Rabbis] resolution that declared “its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.” Furthermore, the Union for Reform Judaism empowers individual rabbis to decide whether or not to officiate at Jewish weddings for interfaith couples, and the camps seem evenly split.
As a movement, we have not yet made peace fully with the issue of intermarriage. How can we rush to advance a policy change regarding our future leadership in the face of such unresolved ambiguity? Were HUC-JIR to retract its current admissions policy as you suggest, it would represent an implicit though clear endorsement of intermarriage that ignores the full complexity of the current situation.
HUC-JIR students — and the rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals we become — are not only exceptional, as you stated; they are also emblematic of a higher commitment to Judaism, which we model. Our actions carry a symbolic weight. Choice in life partner is one of the most
intimate and public decisions we make. What, then, does it say when a rabbinical or cantorial
student chooses a partner who is not Jewish? Despite the exceptions, which certainly exist, I fear that our personal choices about marriage send a message that our commitments to Judaism are only individual; extending them to home and family is optional.
I look forward to your response, Brandon
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. While you’re right that members of the Reform movement have diverse opinions on how to teach about and support Jewish families, HUC-JIR’s current policy does not adequately reflect that diversity of opinions. Rather, the policy communicates that Jews should marry only Jews, which shuts out voices arguing that Jewish families should be embraced and endorsed even when they include non-Jewish members.
If HUC-JIR changes its policy, congregations and institutions will still be able to decide if a rabbi, cantor, or educator with a non-Jewish partner is a good fit for their community. The movement’s professional organizations — for rabbis, cantors, and educators — already take this approach: none of them has a comparable policy about members’ partners. Reform Judaism stands for informed choice; changing the school’s policy allows for more choice on a community-by-community basis.
Our partners are a significant part of our Jewish life and leadership. However, a partner’s Jewish status is not an essential signifier of what kind of Jewish home the family will have. Connection to the Jewish people, history, beliefs, state, or mythos, for example, can be much more important and powerful an indicator than Jewish status, and to presume that a non-Jewish spouse does not have such connections is not only inaccurate, it’s unfair. What’s to suggest that a person with Jewish status automatically does have such a connection? If we’re concerned about the rich Jewishness of a Jewish leader’s home, then we must ask about these components of identity, not merely whether one’s partner is Jewish. “Intermarried” is no longer a synonym for “apathetic.”
I wonder: Would you oppose the ordination of a rabbi who was married to a self-proclaimed “secular Jew”? How important is status vs. commitment?
Thank you for this dialogue, Daniel
I appreciate that you continue to keep me on my toes. [Christian theologian] Paul Tillich once described religion as an expression of our “ultimate concern.” I believe any HUC-JIR student who chooses a life partner who does not share his or her ultimate concern, even someone of Jewish status, will face a formidable challenge to creating a rich Jewish home.
You write that the application process should investigate components of Jewish identity, but removing the line that questions one’s partner’s faith would leave literally no articulation of what is expected — Jewishly — of students. Any hypothetical policy change should clarify the school’s standards and expectations rather than eliminate them entirely. I’m curious: How would you propose we measure Jewish commitment responsibly?
Commitment alone, however, is still problematic. We cannot escape the reality that, in Judaism, status matters. Circumcision, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings — each of these milestones offers an opportunity for ritual celebration and for recognizing the sanctity of a change in status (a welcome into the covenant, a transition to Jewish adulthood, a shift from separate existences to one shared life) because Jews recognize the significance of such change. So, too, should anyone with a passionate connection to Jewish life, belief, and/or practice.
As you said in your first letter, we are debating for the sake of exceptional families, not discussing a non-Jewish partner completely apathetic about Judaism. Yet, when someone not Jewish possesses such a powerful commitment to Jewish life and chooses a life partner who wishes to embody that commitment — publicly and religiously, as a rabbi, cantor, or educator — it begs the question: Why doesn’t this partner convert and take on Jewish status? Beyond that, what impetus would there be for anyone to convert to Judaism, if one could simply “marry into” the family, as it were?
Do you so value the universal that you would give up entirely on the Jewish particular?
Thank you for considering these issues,
I’m delighted that you’ve brought one of my favorite theologians into our conversation. In his teachings on “ultimate concern,” Paul Tillich warns us against mistaking a symbol for God for the divine itself. In Dynamics of Faith (1957), Tillich uses nationalism as one example: “If the nation is someone’s ultimate concern, … the nation receives divine qualities which far surpass the reality of the being and functioning of the nation. The nation then stands for and symbolizes the true ultimate, but in an idolatrous way.” (50-51)
I fear that Jewish peoplehood can be taken to this extreme. Sometimes, we spend more energy trying to increase the Jewish people than magnifying our higher purpose. When HUC-JIR bars admission, graduation, and ordination a priori to those with non-Jewish partners, we make membership in the Jewish people more ultimate than it actually is, forgetting the deeper values that am Yisrael (the Jewish people) stands for.
Your hypothetical “standards and expectations,” which include elements of particularism, would, I believe, reflect these deeper values. I therefore support the reevaluation of what we look for in our Jewish communal leaders, and I would support an effort to establish more robust expectations of HUC-JIR students. I also agree that a non-Jewish partner who does not convert — for reasons that it’s not our place to judge — would complicate a student’s ability to satisfy some potential expectations. However, we cannot assume that such complications necessarily disqualify a student from meeting those expectations.
I wonder if we might agree on a position that both affirms the particular and welcomes the universal: If HUC-JIR establishes a new set of “standards and expectations” that exemplify Reform Jewish values, would you support the admission, graduation, or ordination of a student with a non-Jewish partner who met those criteria?
In appreciation for this rich conversation,
I share your sensitivity to losing sight of what truly matters to us, but I must disagree with your reading of the situation currently before us. Cherishing peoplehood does not necessitate forgetting our deeper values.
Let us consider Ruth, the biblical foreigner-turned-proselyte par excellence. Ruth professes her loyalties to Israel by declaring, “Ameich ami v’Elohayich Elohai,” “Your people are my people, and your God is my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Ruth speaks of peoplehood and religion, for authentic Judaism contains both elements. Just as I refuse to confuse Judaism for mere nationality, I am unwilling to reduce Judaism to a Western religion wherein volunteerism is the only way to view membership.
As such, Daniel, I still cannot support the admission, graduation, or ordination of a student with a non-Jewish partner. The one exception I could entertain would be admitting a potential student whose partner is already in the process of conversion. Yet, even as I acknowledge such a possibility, I must caution that rules should not be based on exceptions.
Throughout your letters, you have put forward a discourse of rights. Judaism, however, is a discourse of obligation. Even without a binding halakhic system, liberal Jews still possess responsibilities toward God, toward ourselves, and toward each other. This connection to, and consideration of, both the divine and the human are what Dr. Eugene Borowitz calls our “covenantal relationship.”
As future clergy, we have a covenantal responsibility to model both Jewish status and commitment within our families. This is why I call for a thorough, positive articulation of HUC-JIR’s standards and expectations — so that we may clarify what exactly our religious and communal obligations are, even as we struggle with, and disagree over, how best to fulfill them.
With much gratitude for this dialogue,
Daniel Kirzane, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Rabbis Without Borders Rabbinical Student Fellowship. He has served as a student rabbi in Steubenville, Ohio, as an educator at Union Temple in Brooklyn, and as a rabbinic intern with the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press.
Brandon Bernstein is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He serves as a rabbinic fellow at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel at Columbia University and as a member of the steering committee of the Brooklyn-based Shir HaMa’alot, an egalitarian, independent havurah in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.
1 Intermariage FAQ’s on the URJ website. http://urj.org/ask/questions/intermarried/
2 According to CCAR Press director Rabbi Hara Person; find at JTA.org, and enter “more rabbis agree to officiate at intermarriages.”