Sunday, October 11, 2015

Intermarried Rabbis

Can Chelsea Clinton's husband become a rabbi?
I don’t know how any serious person of faith – much less a Jew - can be a member of a  movement that denies the existence of God. And yet that is exactly what the Reconstructionist Movement does. It denies the existence of a Creator.  What does it actually believe? Reconstructionist Judaism believes in a version of Pantheism that holds god to be the impersonal and unreachable sum of all natural processes.

So what is their Raison d'etre? I’ll be darned if I know. Nonetheless they exist and they ordain rabbis.  I cannot imagine what it is that they worship in their synagogues. Fortunately they are such a small denomination that they are hardly worth mentioning. Except that they appear to have a lot of influence on other Heterodox denominations. As an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner notes: 
(Reconstructionist founder Mordecai Kaplan’s disciples) have been the first to allow girls to hold bat mitzvahs, to welcome interfaith families, to ordain gays and lesbians, to expand the definition of what it means to be a Jewish leader in the modern age. 
None of this directly affects Orthodoxy. However, the fact is that there is now an existential crisis of epic proportions with respect to the future of American Jewry.  This can be blamed at least in part on the failure of these movements to transmit what Judaism really is to their adherents.  

One of the Conservative Movements leading lights, Rabbi Jack Wertheimer, has articulated the reasons he believes this to be the case.  Instead of their synagogue rabbis teaching congregants how to be a Jew, they taught their members how to be good human beings. Well, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a good human being. Which is why so many secular Jews see no value in retaining their Jewish identity.  Which of course has led to the intermarriage epidemic.

Reconstructionists have responded to this phenomenon. They now not only accept intermarried couples, they will accept intermarried applicants for their rabbinate. Which is what led to Eisner’s critical editorial.

Here is what Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College had to say in Forward response to that: 
For those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58% of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications. 
In other words  ‘If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em.  It doesn’t really matter if the non Jewish partner decides to live a Jewish lifestyle or not. What does living a Jewish lifestyle mean anyway, to them? It certainly doesn’t mean believing in God or following  a non-existent god’s laws as outlined in the Torah and expounded by the sages
The fact that that non Jewish spouses do not convert (even by non Orthodox standards) means they choose to retain their identification with their former religion – or no religion at all. This is not a prescription for perpetuating Judaism. It will not solve the defection of so many Jews away from their heritage. And it certainly will not stop intermarriage – probably the single biggest manifestation of the failure of heterodox movements.

Why do I care? I cannot just automatically write off the vast majority of American Jews that are not Orthodox. I will admit that the task of retaining even a small portion of them seems nigh impossible.  But that does not free me or any other Jew from trying.

Which is why I support the work of most Kiruv organizations. They may not be making a dent in the overall percentages of Jews leaving Judaism. However, every Jew they can get to retain their Judaism is a valuable asset. They  will also produce many generations of observant Jews. It is highly likely that their many children and grandchildren will retain their Judaism. That is the nature of Orthodoxy and it is why Orthodoxy is the only denomination that is growing.

Accepting intermarried couples into the community is bad enough.  Reconstructionists have been doing that for some time now, as do Reform and (I believe) Conservative Judaism. The children of intermarried couples where the mother is not Jewish will not be Jewish – although they will think they are.  As bad as that is, at least it does not say that Jews should be intermarrying. It only says that if they do, they should be welcomed and accepted.

But when your rabbi is intermarried, that makes it entirely acceptable. A rabbi is a role model to be followed. If he or she is intermarried, then marrying a Jew becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter.  As Eisner points out, even the Reform Movement has rejected accepting intermarried applicants for their rabbinate.

All this matters to Orthodoxy because of our Kiruv efforts. Should this now catch on in all heterodox movements (as have other innovations that Reconstructionists were the first to embrace) it will be impossible to know who is or isn’t Jewish. No matter what their last names are.

Eisner is right: 
At some point, however, inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations — and history suggests that it will — then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most. 
Couldn’t have said it better.