Heather was a girl raised in an observant Jewish family that belonged to my synagogue. She was deeply into the congregation’s youth groups, enjoyed socializing and went off to college with hopes of securing a bachelor’s degree and perhaps an available Jewish bachelor as well. During her years at college, she came to me on several occasions disillusioned with her social life on campus. There were plenty of Jewish boys at the university she attended and she was close on a couple of occasions to settling into a long-term relationship, but in the end, something always got in the way. It was her religious observance. She liked to go to services on Shabbat—not every Shabbat, but periodically. She spoke about belonging to a synagogue someday. She kept kosher, not of the “I can’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant” variety, but she was careful with what she ordered outside her dorm room, yet for some reason, her observance was a turn-off for the boys she dated. The tears would slowly make their way down her cheeks when reflecting on her frustrations.
Years later, now in her early thirties, Heather contacts me with good news—she was engaged. “Mazal Tov,” I said, to which she replied, “But he’s not Jewish. Rabbi—he’s the first guy I’ve ever dated who hasn’t made fun of my keeping kosher.” She wasn’t a young lady to exaggerate or beg for sympathy. She was truthfully telling me her experience, and from a purely liberal Jewish sociological perspective, it was a deeply sad tale. To make matters worse, I was about to make matters worse. She asked if I would officiate at her wedding, and I responded, as do all rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, “I’m so sorry, but no, I cannot.”
Heather (with the exception of her name) was a real person with whom I had a very positive relationship. She was unique. She actually went off to school and eventually entered a white-collar work force, living on her own terms, with the intent of marrying a Jewish man. Many of her contemporaries, and I dare say an increasing number of young Jewish people today, do not share her biases. To the contrary, they leave home to mix and socialize with many different people of varied ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds where they are accepted as equals. And these young people are, within the context of the American Jewish experience, what we would call success stories.
What makes them success stories are the ways in which they have so thoroughly integrated into their personal lives, the values that predominate the liberal world of western democracies, values that the liberal Jewish world have promoted to varying degrees. These values include a respect for all people regardless of their ethnic, religious, or racial background; a distancing if not a total rejection of any notion that Jewishness is a superior tradition or that Jews are in some way chosen; and a suspicion that seriously religious people are in some way simple-minded or foolish. These values are the very values that predominate the universities that young Jewish people compete to enter. Jeffrey K. Salkin, author and a Reform Rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, writes:
I was a college freshman, and I was in a psychology class. The subject of religion came up, and I publicly admitted that I believed in God and was a committed Jew.
The professor grew pale. I will never forget what he said to me. “This makes me very sad. I am hoping that as you become more educated, you will, at the very least, question your faith.”
I had not thought of that professor (who was Jewish) and that experience for several decades—until this week with the release of a Pew study on the correlation between religious attachment and educational levels.
More than half of Jews who have not completed college say they believe in God with absolute certainty. But, only about thirty percent Jewish college graduates would say the same.
39% of Jews who have not completed college say religion is very important in their lives. Only 25% of Jewish college graduates say religion is very important to them.
--Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, “Are Jews Too Cool for Shul?” http://religionnews.com/2017/04/28/jews-pew-education-religious/ April 28, 2017
In addition to the highly secularized liberal messages transmitted to young Jewish people, there is one other very non-western message that parents and rabbis sometimes throw into the mixture: “Non-Jews are fine, but don’t marry one.” It’s a message that for all intents and purposes, given all the other messages, is a glorious non-sequitur. It simply doesn’t follow. How can one embrace a philosophical diet of—all people are equal; respect everyone regardless of background; do not regard yourself as superior; don’t get too religious…and “DON’T MARRY A NON-JEW”? At another period in Jewish history, when Jews may have regarded themselves as chosen, and their Judaism as superior to other traditions, the “Don’t marry a non-Jew” message followed logically. But the liberal Jewish world has changed the way it views itself and others, and suddenly, the message of endogamy, that is of marrying within the group, is a heavy message hanging by a cord of diminishing threads of justification! Given all this, has the time come for Conservative rabbis to acknowledge our altered perspective on ourselves and the world, abandon the tradition of endogamy, and begin to officiate at interfaith marriages? Has the time come for someone like me to accommodate someone like Heather?
This question is hardly a new one. It seems as if it has been hotly debated for at least half a century if not longer. And having dealt with the matter periodically over the years, I can tell you that the issue is one that raises the passions and emotions of the Jewish people, whether one is for or against. In 2000, an American Jewish Committee survey found that 50% of Jews interviewed agreed with the statement: “It is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.” But that left 50% of the community believing that it was not racist. That’s about as divided as a community can get. Any rabbi thrown into that divide is either going to disappoint one half of the congregation or the other, or be able to speak at length about nothing thus keeping everyone in suspense. Which, on occasion, is not a terrible tactic. But it does seem as if the issue has come to a head so as pleasant as sitting on a fence may be, it’s time to get off, and the question is, on which side should the rabbi disembark.
The fence metaphor is here by design for it should be clear that the issue at hand is one of where to draw the line. And this, in and of itself, is a very interesting question because we are presently caught in a world in which lines themselves are under attack. The sentiment here seems to be that there is something ghastly unholy about the lines drawn in the world, even those imposed by nature, or perhaps it should be said—especially those imposed by nature. For example, most of the world grows up thinking that there are essentially two genders, male and female, and that these genders are based on unique anatomies which are typically easily identifiable. In contrast, contemporary gender studies would have us believe that gender is a social construct separate and apart from one’s biology. That is to say, a person who is biologically a man may think of himself as a woman, in which case, he is really a she. Or the opposite, a person who is biologically a woman may think of herself as a he, in which case she is really a he. This is not to say that such people are lying or engaged in a grandiose hoax, but it is a radical departure from how thousands of generations of humankind have identified male and female. The academic world, the world of so many liberal universities, are lobbying for such identifications to be based on personal choice. Silly as this may sound, the boundary issue here has practical ramifications in how we determine who is permitted in the Men’s Room as opposed to the Women’s Room. And for those whose gender identification remains ambiguous, there is a movement afoot for public institutions to offer a third alternative, a restroom for gender neutral. The point of this observation is not to be critical of those who are engaged in gender reassessments, but only to offer an example of how boundaries that were once solidly in place are now either questioned or done away with altogether.
This resistance to nature’s boundaries manifests itself in serious and expensive surgeries to physically alter one’s genital anatomy, or in the far more innocuous act of dying the hair in completely unnatural colors or in physical piercings that distort the shape of the body. Such alterations seem to be coming increasingly commonplace. In one particularly egregious example of how boundaries are challenged, a president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was forced to resign after it was discovered that this heretofore black female president was actually born white. Rachel Dolezal has since stated that racial fluidity is just like transgenderism—race is how a person chooses to identify oneself regardless of biology. Apparently, the NAACP leadership didn’t buy it. In their view, race is biological, not philosophical.
It is no wonder that one of the hottest items on the political agenda these days is the security of national borders. This is not an issue debated solely by Americans. The wars and conflicts around the world that have ignited an explosion of refugees fleeing for their lives has forced otherwise liberal countries to question the effectiveness of its own borders. Is there a border in place that allows for the controlled entry of foreigners or not? And should that boundary be as thick as the armor on a tank or as giving as the curtains on one’s windows? Do we or do we not need borders? That discomfort with boundaries is writ into the social consciousness of good people who want to help the world as in such organizations as Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders, etc.
The liberal Jewish world has also struggled with the issue of borders or boundaries, most notably that border between Jew and non-Jew. For example, many synagogues have had to debate the merits of allowing a non-Jew onto the bimah. There was never a question of allowing a non-Jew into the synagogue. But the bimah somehow seemed different and till this day, there are synagogues that permit non-Jews onto that bimah while others do not.
The seriousness of boundary-ambivalence should not be underestimated for the Jewish community, as Jewish communal life for years has been based on sacred, and in most cases inviolable, boundaries. At the end of Sabbath, the last blessing in Havdalah, the ceremony of bringing the Sabbath to an end, reads as follows:
Praised are You, YHVH, our God who leads us through the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, YHVH, for having distinguished between the sacred and the profane.
Actually, the term for sacred in Hebrew is “kadosh,” which carries with it the sense of being separate or apart. This understanding of the term flows naturally from an inventory of those items or concepts listed in the Torah as kadosh. So, for example, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem is kadosh because it is the exclusive home of God; offerings to the Temple are kadosh because once so designated, they cannot be used for anything other than what the priests do with them; Shabbat or the Sabbath day is Kadosh because it is a day during which we create a unique environment, sui generis as compared with all the other days of the week; and additionally, the Jewish people are kadosh, because as the Chosen ones of God, they are to act in a way that is different from all the other nations, presumably in a way that distinguishes them as completely moral in their decisions and mindful of the godliness with which the world is imbued. As Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, the spiritual leader of Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, NY, once put it, “The essence of Jewishness is the quest for kedushah.” In other words, the Jew lives to create holiness, and that is done by observing and maintaining the boundaries that elevate and spiritualize life over and above that which would otherwise be regarded as mundane or profane, vulgar or meaningless.
One of the scariest metaphors for traditional Jews is the one that defines America as a melting pot. It is, on the one hand, a loving image of a place where people of diverse backgrounds come together and become one. But the function of the melting pot is to dissipate boundaries, and for a traditional community whose understanding of sanctity is the guarding of such boundaries, the metaphor itself is an attack on Jewish self-definition.
Then again, this was true only for the Jews who held fast to traditionalism. As for the tens of thousands of Jews who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were only too eager to blend into America, and do whatever necessary to achieve that objective. Those rituals that may have distinguished Jews from the community at large—resting on Shabbat, maintaining the dietary laws, daily prayer, clothing codes and so forth—were increasingly abandoned in favor of an assimilation that made Jews look and behave more American. And as Jews became increasingly assimilated, they were also increasingly welcomed into clubs and institutions that in an earlier era were restricted to them. For a people locked out of the mainstream for so long, every opened door was like manna from Heaven. The melting pot was steaming; the boundaries were finally evaporating. In the last few decades of the twentieth century, it was becoming abundantly clear that not only were Jews and non-Jews socializing together, but they were marrying one another. The most guarded and sacred boundary of all, that boundary between Jews and everyone else, was melting away. And ever since then, this new and disruptive reality inspired a communal debate that continues to rage: Do we accept the new reality and abandon a boundary that is so widely ignored, or do we embrace the boundary even against all odds? There should be no mistake about the broader message to the Jewish community should rabbis agree to officiate at interfaith marriages. The broader message will be: the boundary no longer exists. There is simply no way for a community to value in-marriage while its communal leadership officially sanctions interfaith marriage. That is a paradox that no community can sustain.
If a Judaism for a contemporary world is to be at all appealing, it must first and foremost be honest. It is therefore important to begin with an admission that a message which conceives of all people as equal, worthy, and precious in the eyes of God regardless of ethnicity, religion or race, coupled with the caveat “Please don’t marry them,” sounds contradictory. It is no wonder that the American Jewish Committee survey of 2000 found 50% of Jews understanding the opposition to interfaith marriage as racist. So many of the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews had been dismantled, what remained was some vague notion of gentiles being in some way deficient, inferior, or unworthy. And that is racist. So if in-marriage is to remain a sacred Jewish value, and if the Jewish community continues to view all God’s children as equal, what exactly would the rationale be for promoting in-marriage, Jew marrying Jew alone?
Membership in Jewish peoplehood requires very little. But Jewish peoplehood is only one aspect of Jewishness. There is a spiritual dimension to Jewishness that exists and is real. Some Jews embrace it fully, others reject it in toto, but most Jews are somewhere in between. That dimension of Jewish spirituality, summarized in 25 words or less, would run something like this—Jews partner with God, God acting as the ultimate source of hope and inspiration and Jews acting as God’s emissaries on earth of all that is moral, just, and sacred. That was 30 words but the partnership demands flexibility and compassion so the definition stands. Because this covenant between the Jewish people and God passes from generation to generation, some people are born into it. Jews by Birth may reject it all at some point—it is after all a free world—but the idea here is that Jews are born into a spiritual chain that began with Abraham and continues on to this day. That’s a powerful spiritual heritage. Jewish children, the day of their birth, are already 3500 years old.
The succession of Jewishness through the generations is not, however, based on genetics. And this is clear because if it were, conversion into Judaism would be impossible. But conversion is possible, and the community should welcome such transformations. Anyone may choose to enter Jewish peoplehood via protocols that have existed for centuries. And when people choose to do so, it is reason for celebration. And when people choose not to, that is a decision that deserves our respect. Judaism is a profound and inspirational path to God, but only one of many. And for some, finding a relationship with God may not be an issue at all. In our day, for so many, that is the predominant reality—a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless.
The Jewish wedding ceremony is known in Hebrew by a word that ought to sound familiar by now: kiddushin. Kiddushin is a term from the same root as kadosh or holiness and as such, carries with it implications of separateness and apartness. When a couple enters kiddushin, the two are establishing a relationship that is unique. They are vowing to be faithful to one another, that is, to establish a relationship that is exclusive, a relationship that is separate and in that way special. By the same token, they are vowing to establish a relationship that is exclusive in another way. The kiddushin blessing begins with a formula familiar to all Jews—asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu—[God], You have distinguished us via your mitzvot and have directed us to… That is a blessing that applies to Jews, but to no others—not to Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. It is a blessing that acknowledges Jews as part of this sacred covenant, the partnership that commits us to a special kind of life. There is a boundary in that blessing as clear as the boundary established when the bride circles seven times around the groom.
The fifth blessing of the Sheva Berakhot, the traditional seven blessings of the Jewish wedding ceremony reads as follows: “May Israel, once bereft of her children, now delight as they gather together in joy. Praised are You, God, who lets Zion rejoice with her children.” One might legitimately ask why it is necessary to drag Zion into the Jewish wedding ceremony. What does Zion have to do with two young people choosing to marry? The answer lies again in kiddushin, this idea that the marriage begins as a call to the couple to shape their lives and their relationship in line with 3500 years of Jewish tradition, values and continuity. It is a blessing that is designed for Jews, and not for Chris or Christine, and not for Mohammed or Fatima.
As far as that goes, it may not even be a blessing for Josh and Deborah. They may no longer feel the call to Zion, to a God that is in covenant with Jews, to a morality that emanates from Torah, or to a narrative that stretches back 3500 years. And it should come as no surprise that there have been plenty of Jewish couples who have chosen a Justice of the Peace or a mayor of a town, or just a friend to officiate at their wedding precisely because they no longer want to identify with values that for them have become provincial or passé. We do not live in a world favorably disposed to serious religious belief. But the point is this: the Jewish wedding creates a partnership of two people who are committed to the covenant, either by virtue of birth of by virtue of choice. When the family unit no longer needs to be bound by the covenant, when that boundary dissipates, the spiritual dimension of Judaism takes a serious hit, and may just be a hit from which it cannot recover. When rabbis grant their seal of approval to marriages in which covenant no longer figures, they are undermining the very Judaism they are supposed to promote.
Clearly, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jews in leadership chose to so alter Judaism as to make it more palatable to a larger audience. Our people did this some 2000 years ago. At that time, the argument was we could get more people to be Jews if we didn’t require brit milah, or kashrut, or sabbath observance. These efforts evolved into something that turned out to be enormously successful, the culmination of which we are very familiar with today: it’s called Christianity. But Christianity, for all its glory and magnificence, is no longer Judaism.
Some time ago, a man approached me to unburden himself of an issue that had bothered him for years. He had been married twice. His first marriage ended in divorce, a bitterly contested and ugly divorce, but in the very least a separation that brought to an end 15 years of misery. That was his Jewish marriage. His second marriage, to an Italian Catholic, was a loving, mutually respectful and beautiful marriage. This man was, for all intents and purposes, a devoted Jew, a member of the congregation, a man who could lead prayer if so asked, and one who was forever stymied with the fact that his marriage to the “right woman” could have ended so badly while his marriage to the “wrong woman” could be so loving and fulfilling. How was he to reconcile that?
It should have been obvious, but it simply wasn’t to him or to most Jews, that the issue of in-marriage deals with a Jewish communal existential issue. Can a Jew and non-Jew share a very loving and mutually respectful relationship together? Absolutely! And when that happens, it’s a blessing of a deeply personal nature. But that is not the issue. The issue of in-marriage is about communal viability and continuity. Even where children are to be raised as Jews, the integration with family of other religious backgrounds, celebrating with them non-Jewish rituals, an erasure of the boundaries, as it were, creates too great a potential for a child to see another way of religious life as viable. In truth, there are far worse things in the world than a Jew converting to another religious tradition. But the role of Jewish leadership should be, in large part, the creation or maintenance of those standards designed to minimize that potential. To look a blind eye at that potential is communal suicide.
Religion in our day has sadly become extra-curricular, an activity like hockey or ballet. The argument that rabbis ought to refrain from interfaith marriages grants religiosity or spirituality a dimension of importance that many contemporary Jews and non-Jews may find puzzling. What’s the big deal? Does it matter that much? That sentiment must be understood within the context of a liberal western world that has beat up on the Judeo-Christian ethic for centuries, leaving it fairly wounded and bloodied by now. Modernity would be more honest were it to equally reject its infatuation with non-European cultures which it claims the white male patriarchal society has ignored for too long. The liberal university, having raised the profile of non-European cultures at the expense of its own European Judeo-Christian roots, exposes its disdain for its own roots. The result has been an erosion of religious passion and commitment reflected in the number of college-educated people who have distanced themselves from religion. There are parents who fear for their children falling into religious behaviors with the same suspicion or fear as when speaking of alcohol or drugs. But in the end, disregard of religion has made us stupid, for it is impossible to understand ourselves without understanding and appreciating our roots, and it is utterly impossible to understand America without understanding its European Judeo-Christian history. Is Jewish religiosity a bigger deal than most would care to acknowledge? Yes—it’s a very big deal.
It isn’t easy saying “No.” Ask any parent of the twenty-first century and they will admit that “No” is the hardest word to speak. And that, too, is an affliction which emanates from the erosion of boundaries. It’s an affliction which manifests itself in unacceptable dress, inappropriate language, and disrespect for figures of authority—teachers, police, clergy, and even political figures. “Yes” does not identify a boundary, but “no” does. Rabbis, too, suffer from this affliction. They love to say “Yes” and hate to say “No.” But rabbis have an obligation to preserve long-standing traditions, and when it comes to interfaith marriage, it is the “No” that is said today which will best preserve the Judaism of tomorrow.
One more point: because I am a Conservative Jew, I acknowledge that I am completely uncertain about the rightness of my decision. I may be 1000% wrong in all this, and my colleagues, some of whom will choose to officiate at interfaith marriages, may be 1000% correct. But I am emboldened by the fact that they, too, however committed they may be to the rightness of their decision, cannot be certain either. In a few generations, there will be greater clarity as to which side chose the wiser. And when that day comes, whatever the verdict, I hope later generations will understand that my decision was made with the best interests of the Jewish community at heart.