Rabbinical School and the Interfaith Marriage, Part 2


Last week Ruth Abrams blogged about an important article by Jeremy Gillick in New Voices, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi, about men and women seeking to attend and be ordained by rabbinical schools that will not accept them because they are intermarried.  Shortly before the New Voices article came out, we published Why I’m Not A Rabbi, in which Edie Mueller explained her experience of this rejection 15 years ago. I’d like to now explain our position on this issue, prompted in part by a parallel discussion that is taking place on the Jewish Outreach Institute‘s JOPLIN listserv.

Years ago when David Ellenson, whom I respect tremendously, became president of Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, he was quoted in a publication as affirming the policy not to admit or ordain intermarried students because rabbis are “role models.” I wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that there could be no better role model for interfaith couples than an interfaith partner who is so Jewishly engaged that he or she is a rabbi.

For denominations that consider traditional Jewish religious law (halachah) binding, it may make sense to require rabbis to live in halachically recognized marriages. But the seminaries training rabbis for other denominations are free to consider that their graduates will be serving constituencies with many interfaith couples and families. Those rabbis presumably want to inspire their constituents to more Jewish engagement. Intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring to the interfaith couples who they served — and there is no reason they could not be inspiring to in-married couples as well.

When congregations hire rabbis, lay leaders are the ones who select them. Many congregations that want to promote in-marriage won’t hire rabbis that they perceive to encourage interfaith marriage. Presumably these lay leaders would chose not to hire an intermarried rabbi. Congregations that want to promote conversion as a solution to the issue of interfaith marriage presumably would chose not to hire a rabbi whose non-Jewish partner had not chosen to convert. But congregations that are focused less on these boundary lines and more on supporting the Jewish engagement of all community members might well welcome an intermarried rabbi. Congregations are diverse, and rabbis could be as well.

Over the years at IFF we have talked with a number of exceptional people who would have made great rabbis who were frustrated because they couldn’t be accepted at the seminaries because they were intermarried. David Curiel, the lead subject of the New Voices article, is one of them. Edie Mueller is another. We believe that turning these people away is a mistake.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

10 thoughts on “Rabbinical School and the Interfaith Marriage, Part 2”

  • Ms. Jerris – do you actually practice Judaism? You state that you belong to some “secular school of Judaism”. Judaism is a religion. It is not New Age and it is not voodoo.

  • I’m pleased to see the conversation taking place here, and to know that it goes on in other places, as well. This was my hope, and the reason for writing the article. And personally, I’m very glad to see others agreeing with me! When I told my rabbis and other congregants that I was denied entrance to rabbinic school, the response was “Oh, that’s too bad.” And that was that. For all these years I’ve sat in silent pain. This conversation is a step toward healing. . . toward opening the windows and letting out the “stink”, as Tzipporah said, about having to choose between my life’s calling and the love of my life.

  • As I also stated on the JOI listserv, the International Institute for Secular and Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) Rabbinic seminary has from the very beginning welcomed qualified rabbinic students regardless of the cultural or religious identity of their partners or spouses. I am happily intermarried for more than 18 years and never feel that my ability to serve the Jewish community is compromised or that my strong Jewish identity is inhibited in any way.

    I believe that I am a positive role model for most modern Jews today.

    Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Society for Humanistic Judaism
    Faculty, IISHJ

  • (reposting what I said at Joplin):

    Having personally known couples forced to choose between their life’s calling and the love of their life, I can say – it stinks.

    We are now holding up in-marriage as a goal in and of itself. In-marriage started, originally, as a tribal system for preserving inheritance, and was later codified by zealots like Malachi. In the disapora, it was something enforced externally, by those who wished to keep us separate from the “good Christians.”

    I am not at all convinced that intermarriage is a problem, absent all the discrimination and exclusion the Jewish community – and even the rabbinical institutions – direct at it.

  • I am so glad you are raising this issue. When I was applying for rabbinical school and heard about this policy, my first impulse was to try to fight something that seemed so contrary to the spirit of acceptance and inclusivity that otherwise pervades progressive Judaism. However, my partner chose to convert rather than obstruct my rabbinic aspirations. While I was a student at RRC, a group of us organized to raise the issue of non-Jewish partners. We may not have changed any policies at the time, but we did succeed in making people conscious of the issue, and, hopefully, that much more supportive of interfaith couples in their own rabbinates. I consider this a crucial issue, and with each year as a pulpit rabbi I become only more convinced of the need for interpartnered rabbis if we hope to maintain a healthy and viable Jewish community in the 21st century, and are able to move beyond insularity to address the most pressing issues of these challenging times.

  • Ed,

    Thanks again for your kind words. The more responses I read to the excellent articles you mentioned above, the more I’m convinced that, fundamentally, the sticking point is the unease that the interfaith issue still brings up for many people. The ordination issue is simply a way for people who otherwise might feel it’s un-PC to touch the topic, to vent their frustrations. To the extend that venting is a good way to ultimately get over it, I’m fine with it.

    On the right (see this article in the JPost), it’s stoked pretty ridiculous talk of the failure and ultimate demise of liberal Judaism. I’d like to think otherwise. Last week’s torah portion talked about the The Arba’ah Minim—Four Species—meaning the etrog/lulav combo we use for sukkot. Our sages have written a lot about this, including describing “four types” of Jews, varying in their devotion to study and mitzvot (good deeds/commandments). The teaching is that unless we are all bound together, we cannot be redeemed as a people. I’ll skip discussion of what it means to be redeemed for the moment, but for this argument, let’s say it’s to come closer to God, Godly ways, or the Spiritual Reality of the universe. When we talk about “four things,” according to our mystical tradition, we mean from all four directions, or, in other words, everything. So four Jews means all Jews. I read this as a call toward accepting pluralism within our ranks, not out of some modern relativistic sensibility, but because Torah calls for it to be so. I may not agree with much of what an ultra-orthodox compatriot has to say on many a subject, but I embrace Jews, in whatever flavor they come and regardless of who their spouse or parent is, in order for us as a people to come closer to God. May we all be blessed to find ways of embracing our brethren and their families, no matter how Jewish.

  • The smikha (ordination) program of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is open to (with great care) the possibility of admitting a student who is married to or in a committed relationship with a person who is not Jewish. See http://www.aleph.org/rabbinic.htm

  • I couldn’t agree more!

    22 years ago, my parents thought that life as they knew it had ended. Their daughter, who was raised with a strong traditional, Conservative background, had just come home to announce she was getting married, to a Non-Jew. Just a hair away from mourning my death, the next 7 years were the bridge to my resurgence of connection to my faith, and my people. The next 15 were spent fine tuning that connection, becoming a Cantor, and understanding where my life experience would be most helpful to Jews who find themselves in the same situation.

    Today, I believe with every fiber in my body and soul that I am a role model. I successfully raised 2 Jewish children, who self-identify strongly as Jews. One has been to Israel 3 times, and calls it home. He davens every morning, and believes he is a Jew first, and an American citizen next. Both of my children love and respect their father and his faith, but we have navigated the world of Interfaith successfully as parents.

    The marriage did not survive, sadly, though we still consider ourselves role models. We did not play battle in a courtroom. We respected each other enough to end the marriage but preserve the friendship. Today, we are best of friends, and most importantly, active, positve parents to our children. If we are not role models, I don’t know who is.

    Certainly, as you mentioned, I would never expect to be held up as a role model in an Orthodox community, but what about the unaffiliated community? Who is working to engage them, from a clergy perspective? Who can forget that 80% of South Florida’s Jews are unaffiliated? But, that does not mean they reject the Jewish faith, it only means, they haven’t found someone to accept them, and help them, incorporate Judaism into their lives, at the level they are willing to do so.

    Someone needs to support this community, and I am proud to do so. I am proud to help an Interfaith family incorporate Shabbat dinners into their homes, and to claim their connections proudly, even if it means they don’t “belong” to a synagogue. I am proud to teach their children about the Jewish faith, and how we are a loving, God-loving people. Adapting to the times and upcoming generations means being flexible. A flexible tree bends when the wind blows. A hard, dry, brittle tree cracks from the pressure, and grows no more.

    We must continuously find ways to minister to those who may not feel the alignment with others, but wish to remain connected, somehow. Who better to help these families, than someone who can proudly say – “I understand”….and mean it?

    Cantor Debbi Ballard

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