The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is considering ordaining intermarried students as rabbis.
This move would be a destruction of Jewish tradition, not reconstruction. One can only reconstruct so much before making Judaism too diluted, trendy, “Jew-ish.” An intermarried rabbi is as logical as an illiterate teacher: you can do most of the work, but you kind of miss the point. If even rabbis won’t bother building a Jewish home with a Jewish spouse as a keystone of Jewish identity, American Judaism is doomed.
Undoubtedly there are wonderful people, who would make great Jewish pastors, who could give lovely sermons, who happened to fall in love with someone special from a different community. But Judaism is not a set of cultic rituals seeking emcees. Judaism is a team sport and a way of life, making being Jewish more than a full-time job, for all of us.
Being a rabbi is not just a job requiring a particular professional degree. Jewish leadership is more than an occupation, it must be a preoccupation, a calling, a mission, a sacred pursuit. If Judaism is not important enough to a rabbinical student to find a spouse who is Jewish or willing to convert and join this wonderful adventure called being Jewish, how can that student inspire others to lead Jewish lives? With intermarriage rates among liberal American Jews topping 70 percent, this generation has normalized intermarriage.
The “Thou Shalt Nots” don’t work. Once, only disengaged Jews intermarried. Today, even the engaged intermarry. Many campus Jews who attend Shabbat services or defend Israel nevertheless date non-Jews.
Some of those activists carry that contradiction to rabbinic school. But do rabbis really wish to be Jews at the office and on the street but not Jews at home with Jewish spouses and children? It’s better to recruit their loved ones to join the people and religion they wish to represent.
Interdating rabbinic students should test their Jewish mojo by missionizing, starting with their significant others.
In today’s American playground, which mistakenly views establishing tribal boundaries as “racist” rather than enhancing community, only one argument works against intermarriage. One friend has long said that saying “you should not intermarry” backfires. Each Jew can only declare “I could not intermarry.” The argument must stop being against intermarriage but for individuals seeking to raise Jewish families and build Jewish homes, with Jewish spouses as the foundation. Therefore, I won’t say rabbinic students shouldn’t intermarry, but intermarried students shouldn’t become rabbis! Rabbis should be role models, living this “I statement” Judaism. An intermarried rabbi violates religious commandments to marry Jewish and the Zionist commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Marrying Jewish is more likely to keep you on the Jewish-people-and-community-trajectory, while marrying out derails you. Intermarried people and their children are less likely to “get” Israel. The demographer Steven Cohen explains that intermarriage marks “the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’” including “Israel attachment.”
Liberal Jewish fanatics are paralleling ultra-Orthodox Jews in fragmenting Judaism, three centuries after their predecessors failed to do so. Both extremes value an ethereal super-spiritual Judaism over peoplehood and the Land of Israel. Most modern Jews enjoy a more multidimensional, integrated Judaism, reflecting what Reconstructionism’s founder Mordechai Kaplan called Judaism as a civilization.
The Zionist Rx to intermarriage is simple: Israel. While Israeli Judaism has its own challenges, it is growing rapidly – and welcoming many once aggressively “secular” Jews into a more American-style continuum of diverse levels of observance.
Zionism also counters the vapidity, materialism, selfishness and hedonism of much of the American Jewish experience – exemplified by the painful stereotyping and superficial Judaism in the otherwise sensitive, complex and compelling TV series Transparent. The more tied to Israel Jews are, the more likely they will say “I could not intermarry.” Israel can be the way into Judaism, tradition, peoplehood, for those for whom God-talk and religious obligation no longer resonate. The Jewish homeland, as the center of exciting, authentic, 24/7 Judaism offers an inspiring alternative to passive, juvenile, superficial “lox and bagels” Judaism.
Beyond visiting whenever possible, American Jews should expand their Zionist vision by starting their family narratives earlier, before Anatevka. Rather than recycling shtetl folktales, seeing America as the redemption from European oppression, start the story – and include Sephardim! – with the thriving Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Seeing modern Americans as inheriting the values, traditions and survival skills reaching back 3,500 years to the Bible and to Eretz Yisrael teaches the delightfully subversive, liberating Zionist lesson that our story – our greatness – is rooted in Israel, not the Diaspora.
Zionism emphasizes that Judaism is about our history, our community, not just our beliefs. Campbell Brown, the former TV news anchor who converted to Judaism, was moved by her mother-in-law’s refugee tales of maintaining Jewish customs amid Nazi oppression.
“How could I not raise my kids with the tradition they worked so hard to uphold,” she asks. Yet when asked about her favorite part of Jewish culture, Brown moves from oppression to peoplehood, answering, “It’s the sense of community.”
Endorsing in-marriage (not opposing intermarriage!) offers a positive, utilitarian Zionist vision. As a modern yet traditional father of four, I seek anchors in core values. I hope our family will define ourselves together, relating to our tradition, building our land, writing the next chapter of our miraculous Jewish story, which has sustained us while helping humanity.
Unlike the movie Trainwreck, whose protagonist stumbles into appreciating traditional values of family and community, modern Jews – and our rabbis – should embrace Judaism, Zionism and Israel as vehicles toward meaning, as paths toward rootedness, as communal bonds. Remember the key lesson – which intermarried rabbis would undermine. Judaism is a 24/7, communal and familial way of life, seeking integration and interconnection not individuation and compartmentalization.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, which will be published this October by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. A professor of history at McGill University who will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution this fall, this will be his eleventh book.
Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com.