On Rabbinic Authenticity and Ambivalence

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
April 15, 2013
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I’ve waited until the last minute to write this blog, mainly because the prospect of broaching the subject of conversion to Judaism necessitates that I look squarely into the face of a conversation I try to avoid: it’s about intermarriage.  As a Reform rabbi, I (unlike my colleagues ordained by the Conservative or Orthodox movements) am not mandated by any institution or organizational body what my stance ought to be with respect to intermarriage.  There are Reform rabbis who “do” and Reform rabbis who “don’t”.

We worry that saying “no” to an inter-faith couple wishing to marry will permanently turn both the Jewish and non-Jewish partner away; that establishing boundaries and parameters of identity will repel, rather than attract, those who might otherwise choose to be “inside”.   So we agree to co-officiate with clergy of other faiths, recite 1 Corinthians, and invite non-Jews into a covenant “according to the law of Moses and Israel”.

It just feels dishonest.

I used to perform inter-faith weddings.  The only time I co-officiated with a Christian minister, it couldn’t have been more pleasant or collegial.  He repeated again and again how similar our faiths really are and how much we share in common.   I smiled, read “scripture” verses from the “Old” Testament, and felt increasingly that I was betraying something ancient and holy for the sake of something safe and comfortable.

I realized from that experience that while I’m deeply committed to inter-faith dialogue and inter-religious sharing, in order to dialogue and share, there need to be two distinct parties.  The lines between “Jewish” and “not Jewish” have become so blurred that sometimes it’s near impossible to distinguish anything as authentic.

I’ve always thought the question, “do you or don’t you (perform intermarriages)?” avoids the root of the issue: our own ambivalence about being Jewish and inviting others to become Jewish. I don’t think any of us do enough to encourage people to consider conversion to Judaism when they approach us to perform intermarriages.

Being Jewish is awesome.  Why wouldn’t we want to invite people into a vibrant and colorful dialogue with our tradition, rather than watering-down that tradition so that it looks more like other religions or turning them away completely?  If this person is already planning to join a Jewish family by marrying a Jewish partner, why not encourage them to embrace the community and tradition that go along with that choice?No, it’s not necessary to convert to Judaism in order to raise Jewish children or have a Jewish home in the 21st century.  But why sit on the sidelines of the game while the kids are playing on the field?  Judaism isn’t a spectator sport.

There are actually few Jewish lifecycle events over which a rabbi must preside in order to mark their authenticity as “kosher” rituals.  Conversion to Judaism is one of the most important and, I believe, most special of these events.

Teaching adults interested in joining the Jewish people and helping to guide them on their path toward Judaism have been among the greatest and most exciting roles I’ve had as a rabbi.  Some of the best questions I’ve been asked have come from these adults because they brought curious, nuanced, and thoughtful adult minds to the table alongside a genuine desire to learn.

Sitting on a beit din (Rabbinic court) that ultimately presides over a prospective Jew’s conversion is much like witnessing a birth: what a gorgeous gift we can give to that person, to that couple, to that family - to the Jewish people as a whole - when we welcome a new soul into our covenant.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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