Friday, April 09, 2010

Facing Reality

The past few months have seen an interesting upswing regarding intermarriage stories. Here are the best bits.

In March, the Reform movement's CCAR met in San Francisco (woot!) to discuss, among other things, the movement's official position on intermarriage. While on a practical level Reform has long acknowledged that I-M exists, the traditional response to this was to officially condemn it while quietly letting I-F families into the shul. Finally, it seems that Reform is able to get over itself and admit what everybody already knows: Intermarriage is real. Luckily, however, not every intermarriage is necessarily an INTER-FAITH one. My personal experience, and a lot of anecdotal experiences that I've read and heard about, are that one of the crucial elements in determining whether an intermarriage results in a Jewishly-identified couple or family, though, is the response of the community.

In a major shift, Reform rabbis have publicly acknowledged intermarriage as a "given" that calls for increased outreach and understanding, rather than a threat to Jewish identity that must be resisted at all costs.


Now, on a practical level, not much has changed. Reform rabbis are still given the choice of whether or not to officiate at I-F weddings, for instance. But, there seem to be some good policy points that are starting to be articulated.

But now that the group's attitude about intermarriage has officially changed, Dreyfus expressed hope that clergy will make greater efforts to welcome interfaith families into religious activities and life-cycle events like bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children.

"Ignoring intermarriage won't make it go away," she said. "We want to embrace it as an opportunity."

The new position is not a formal policy or resolution, but rather a semi-official "recognition" of changing times based on the task force's 10-page report.

"In the past, there was a great focus on how to prevent intermarriage," the report said. "Today we are more likely to focus on how to deal with intermarriage as a given in our society with the goal of positive Jewish engagement of the family."

One Reform rabbi, Reeve Brenner, thinks it's about damn time, and has a laundry list of things the movement can start taking a hard look at any time they feel they're ready:

Among the neglected issues:

• A Jewish-non-Jewish polarity cannot long be sustained in 21st-century America, seeing that there are so many who constitute our loving eruv rav, the mixed or intermarried “multitude” who are part of us. They are clearly not gentiles in the previous meaning of that term. They are another category.

• The consequences of not recognizing the legitimate needs of the ger toshav family in the synagogue. What is to be lost and what gained were we to allow, if not encourage, the non-Jewish partner(s) to stand alongside his or her child at life-cycle events within the synagogue sanctuary.

Because they are ger toshav and not Jews; because they have only converged, but not converted, are they to be excluded from participation in family life-cycle events in shul?

• That certain rabbis have decided for themselves that they will not participate in an interfaith wedding and, furthermore, no other rabbi should — and, therefore, they give no referrals.

Sound like some great starting points to me. I particularly like one of his last lines:

We have to do better, so these couples do not end up raising Unitarians with a Jewish parent as opposed to raising Jewish kids with an all-but-a-Jewish parent.
The reality is, there are many couples, many families, today, whose dynamic does indeed match this model: an all-but-Jewish spouse with another one who happened to be born Jewish. This is an opportunity that needs to be encouraged, not a case where the couple should either be scorned, or, even worse, aggressively pursued for conversion.

The Conservative movement finally seems to be getting it, too. Shortly before the CCAR meet-up, the Jewish Theological Seminary had an intermarriage-focused workshop for rabbinical students. Given that JTS has tended to be more conservative than the CJ institutions on the West Coast, this is notable.
“When I was in rabbinical school, we were taught there was only one way to respond” to intermarriage, Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs and a JTS graduate, told the group of students. “And that was not to respond at all, but to walk away and say ‘I’m sorry we’re losing another person.’ ”

Speaker after speaker at the workshop urged students not to walk away but to reach out, not only to intermarried Jews and their partners but to longtime congregants whose children have intermarried and who are fearful of being judged.

...Today there is talk of allowing rabbis to attend interfaith weddings of friends and family members. The question will come before the Rabbinical Assembly when it meets later this year.

And in January the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled that the non-Jewish spouses of congregants can be buried alongside their Jewish partners in Jewish cemeteries -- provided they are in a section set aside for this purpose; that gentile clergy do not officiate at the funeral; and that no non-Jewish markers appear on the graves.

In the ruling, approved by a vote of 10 (three law committee members abstained, and one voted against) is the statement, “Our relations to non-Jews are very different than in the past. Many of us have non-Jews in our families. All of us know non-Jews who are strongly connected to the Jewish community although they have chosen not to convert and retain their status as non-Jews.

“In regard to the question of interfaith marriages, we must be sensitive to their feelings and make them feel welcome in our communities. In addition, non-Jewish spouses and children who are involved in our synagogues, while not Jewish, are nevertheless part of our community.”

Today, a number of Conservative synagogues allow non-Jewish family members on the bimah during b’nai mitzvah and baby-naming ceremonies, although some require them to stand on a separate step or make sure to clarify that they are not saying a blessing over the Torah.
As the article points out, this is by no means as sweeping as the Reform announcement (the workshop was only attended by 30 people.) But even if this is a series of baby steps, this is still a major improvement over the past ten to fifteen years:

At one session, a male rabbinical student burst out, “If we’re going to be so welcoming, why not just do the intermarriage? Yet I don’t want to. This feels like a slippery slope.”

A female rabbinical student next to him retorted, “It’s a slippery slope either way. If you don’t slip down one side, you slip down the other side.”

“I want to be welcoming, but I have this ‘but,’ and I don’t know what to do with the ‘but,’” the male student replied.

Intermarried Jews have always been able to join Conservative synagogues, of course, but strict regulations barred them from assuming leadership roles and prevented their gentile partners from participating in lifecycle ceremonies, appearing on the bima or even being listed as a family member on synagogue mailings.

Of all these policies, the lifecycle events seem the most alienating, many at the workshop noted.

Finally, people are grappling with these issues in a real way, instead of pretending it doesn't exist. And, even as Orthodox apologists continue to hammer home the "unchanged since Sinai" line ad infinitum, the J Post points out that they, too, have begun to start adapting to the intermarriage facts on the ground:

Even Orthodoxy has responded to the challenge of intermarriage. The haredi Eternal Jewish Family project actively encourages the non-Jewish spouse of a mixed marriage to convert to Judaism if he or she is willing to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle. This marks a departure from a more stringent position in Orthodoxy that rejects the possibility of conversion for the spouse of someone who has chosen to marry outside the faith.

Now, I of course neither need nor expect Orthodoxy to give sanction to mixed marriages. What I do hope to see one day is an increased willingness to acknowledge the humanity, decency, and commitment of all members of Jewishly-identified families-- Orthodox or not, halachic or not. In the meantime, I'll stick to putting the liberal movements' feet to the fire.

Of course, I have a personal stake in this issue, but for me what's really important is that Judaism, particularly American Judaism, finally stop shooting itself in the foot by turning away committed Jews and Jewish-friendly spouses. Seeing the liberal movements finally starting to get it is a welcome change.

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