This has been an interesting time for the Conservative Movement in dealing with the issue of intermarriage. After decades of unquestioned resistance, the Rabbinical Assembly has seen a marked upsurge among rabbis pressing for change.
There was this Washington Post article in April, written by a rabbi who performed an intermarriage and then got expelled from the RA (which is automatic when that happens). There was this independent survey, indicating that 40 percent of Rabbinical Assembly members would perform intermarriages, given their druthers. There have been calls to redefine Jewish peoplehood, including this piece by the former director of Interfaith Family.com, claiming that non Jews need to be welcomed with no strings attached - as well as my own column published by JTA, which only spoke tangentially about marriage ceremonies but made the point that we need to redefine Jewish identity in a manner that would expand the boundaries outward.
Now, this month, two bombshells by independent but Conservative-connected Manhattan congregations.
Amichai Lau-Levi, the founder of Storahtelling (which we brought here a number of times) and LabShul, was ordained at JTS just a year ago. He spent the better part of this year analyzing this issue and just released his conclusions. You can see the fruits of his labors, a pamphlet, entitled Joy: A Proposal. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
This proposal is the product of my year-long research into possible solutions, initiated in June 2016 by assembling a research team, along with rabbinic and academic advisors. The research focused on the exploration of historical and halachic models that point at a more fluid approach to Jewish identity and affiliation, with possible applications and halachic relevance to our time.
While the numbers of Jews who choose gentile partners is without historical precedent, the tendency is neither new nor unique. Likewise, previous generations have sought solutions to address the practical realities that emerge when Jews include people of other backgrounds in their families. Numerous religious leaders and scholars have offered more nuanced approaches to defining Jewish communal boundaries that are grounded in biblical, rabbinic, historical and sociological sources.
One approach, raised in recent years by various rabbis and scholars, stands out as particularly pertinent. Based on the rabbinic category of ger toshav, or ‘resident alien’ and the historical model of Yirei HaShem or ‘the pious ones’, as well as other examples of fluid identities in the Jewish communities throughout history, this approach suggests exploring revisions of this model for our times. These categories were created by the early rabbis and adapted by later generations of leaders in response to evolving societal conditions, but have been largely forgotten and disregarded in recent centuries. The sources studied, including classical and contemporary halachic writings as well as sociological and historical scholarship, present positions that grapple with the option of these categories, and seek to retain and honor the exclusivity of traditional Jewish obligation, while also addressing the necessity of greater inclusivity. Traditional Jewish sources clearly do not condone intermarriage, but they leave the conversation more varied and open to nuance than contemporary communal discourse might lead one to believe.
One passage from the Babylonian Talmud describes the rabbinic response to specific challenging cultural boundaries. The Talmudic dictum (p. 40) resonates for us as it has for previous generations struggling with gaps between halachic aspirations and societal norms: “We make no decree upon the community unless the majority are able to abide by it.” Today’s categorical prohibition on intermarriage with no nuanced way to distinguish between varying degrees of affiliation with the Jewish community is seen increasingly as an unsustainable and unrealistic decree for the majority of liberal American Jews.
An additional source cited in the proposal is the 2006 Responsum written by Rabbi Gordon Tucker on Homosexuality and Halacha, in which he argues for “a different overall halakhic methodology” that will better serve, at times, our evolving realities. Tucker suggests that some cases will call on rabbinic leaders not to offer “a reprise of past decisions and interpretations, but rather an enterprise, at least on occasions that call for it, in improvising on established themes.”
Citing several arguments, and motivated by halachic approaches such as the one suggested by Tucker, this proposal calls for the restoration of the ger toshav category, with necessary revisions, for the American Jewish community of the 21st Century. Not without considerable challenges and application issues both theoretical and practical, the recognition of a renewed ger toshav category may enable clergy to welcome gentile partners who do not, or do not yet, formally convert but are members of the community, and to officiate at their weddings with a Jewish partner. Such steps will have implications for the evolving Jewish community that far exceed the roles of rabbis at weddings and at other lifecycle milestones.
The honorific ‘Joy’ is proposed as one possible way to name the modern ger toshav.
The proposal outlines the possible ramifications of activating this category and concludes with my recommendation to do so. While I am not a posek, jurist, or halachic expert, I am convinced the proposal I offer is the right one for my community, and my rabbinate at this time. I hope it will interest and benefit others.
In order to further explore the practical aspects of this proposal and honestly evaluate its implications, this research will continue for the next five years (2017-2022) and will include continued learning, sociological research, and communal conversations.
Though there are implications to my decision that involve some affiliations, I trust that in the spirit of debate for the sake of the sacred שמים לשם מחלוקת ,continued friendships and collaborations will deepen and flourish.
If the choice of love over tribe is the source of our anxiety as we grapple with this issue, it will be the choice of addressing our concerns with more love, and less fear, that will help us overcome these challenges and flourish as a community.
The Torah reminds us, again and again, to love. We are taught to love God, to love each other, to love the other within our gates. The Torah passage we recite each day and nail to our doorpost include the words ‘And you shall love ואהבת ‘.That extra vav, this ‘and’ calls on us, to expand our doorways, and expand our love to all those we love, who love us back, and are part of our evolving story.
The collective wisdom that has enabled Judaism to flourish, transform and persist through the ages will continue doing so, deeply attuned to the truths and changing needs of each generation. Judaism, in many forms for many different people, continues to offer an extraordinary set of values, practices, tales, and tools that bring more meaning to our private lives and connect us to each other, to a community that binds us, and to a world that needs our caring, courage, love, and joy
Almost simultaneously, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, a maverick, independent synagogue that has always had ties to the Conservative movement, announced that they too will be performing interfaith wedding ceremonies. In this week’s Forward, they wrote “Why We Decided to Perform Interfaith Weddings.” An excerpt:
The 21st-century American Jewish experience may be unprecedented, but Jews have always negotiated the borders of belonging, creating porousness and making room for those who wish to live with us.
“Open the gates, and let the righteous nation (goy tzaddik) enter,” says the prophet Isaiah. Midrash Sifra interprets, “‘Open the gates and let Priests, Levites and Israelites enter,’ it does not say, rather ‘and let a righteous gentile who keeps the faith enter.’”
If we do not stretch the boundaries and make room for those who wish to join us, live with us and build a Jewish future with us, we will be called to account for having failed future generations of the Jewish people. Read More
On the other side of the debate, JTS itself released a statement, entitled On Marriage and Covenant: A Statement by JTS. Here it is, in its entirety:
The Jewish Theological Seminary affirms that the study of Torah, the sacred wisdom of our people, and the performance of mitzvot, Judaism’s sanctified pattern of religious practice, stand at the very core of Jewish identity. Torah and mitzvot have always been the foundation of the Jewish people’s covenant with God, guiding and sustaining us for three millennia in nearly every corner of the globe. They remain so today. Individuals from other backgrounds are warmly invited to join the covenant through conversion. There is also much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish. What we must not do is to abandon the core beliefs and practices which are the very foundation of Jewish life.
For JTS and its partners in the Conservative Movement, the wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.
Judaism was never meant to be practiced alone. Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community, and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. Throughout our history many individuals from other backgrounds have been welcomed into the Jewish people. That remains true, even in the greatly altered circumstances of life today. For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, understanding that their religious identity is no less significant than is our own.
We understand the arguments made for our clergy to officiate at interfaith weddings, knowing that they come from a place of genuine concern for bringing near individuals and families who are or might be estranged from the community and tradition we love. However, we believe-and the data confirm-that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command. JTS will in coming months expand our efforts to welcome all families, including those that are interfaith, to explore Judaism together with us. We will do all we can-along with our partners in the Conservative movement-to make the process of joining our age-old covenant attractive, accessible, and compelling. This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning for hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and beyond. Let us join together in confidence about the wisdom of the path to which we are committed.
Meanwhile, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has moved incrementally in the direction of more inclusiveness, recently passing a proposal allowing non Jews to be members of Conservative synagogues; while I respect the need for deliberativeness in forging monumental changes, this resolution has the whiff of a horse that has already left the barn. I alluded to that precise point a few weeks ago in this space and elsewhere.
I wrote: Jews have reached the post “gevalt” stage of our assimilation into the American mainstream. Rather than moaning about what we are losing, we need to capitalize on the new energy that diversity is bringing into American Jewry. I see examples of that all the time. Rather than railing against windmills, we need to turn, spread our wings, and let these winds of change take us to new and higher places.
We are heading into a fascinating new phase of the American Jewish conversation, similar to the one that broke so many barriers for LGBTQ involvement in Jewish communal life. We will celebrate that at our Pride Shabbat tonight, with TBE congregant Elise Feldman speaking about her experiences and special musical guest, the world-renowned Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals, commenting about hers.
As the Shabbat-O-Gram bids farewell for a summer hiatus (don’t worry, you’ll be hearing lots from me when our group is in Europe), I leave you with this topic to ponder. Download and read Amichai Lau Levi’s treatise and the other materials here. Read the resources on Keruv (outreach) from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs that have helped to formulate our own expansive program of outreach to interfaith couples and families here.
And then, look at this material, “Sh’ma: A More Perfect Argument,” which guides us on how to discuss serious and potentially divisive issues in a respectful manner “for the sake of heaven.” It so happens that this is a major theme of this week’s portion of Korach - and we will be discussing that pamphlet tomorrow.
When the summer is over, maybe we can gather and have a conversation - or series of conversations - about this topic that has so shaken the Jewish world over recent weeks.
Shabbat Shalom - and have a restful and replenishing summer.
And PS - we are open 24/7/365 - join us for services every week - every day, in fact!
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