Do you think anyone else has the right to tell you who you can and cannot sleep with? Do you think anyone else has the right to determine who you can romantically court? Make love to? Marry? Share a life with?
Exactly. So why do so many of my fellow Jews think they have a right to determine who their rabbi courts, makes love to, marries, and/or shares a life with? Our human right to love who love leads us to love does not somehow cease to exist just because some of the gate-keepers of denominational Judaism live in perpetual fear of the extinction of Klal Yisrael.
As I’ve blogged before (see in particular Rock, Paper, Scissors, Synagogue and Progressive Judaism Versus the World), that kind of “Judaism of Survival” does little more than tell outsiders–and other Jews as well–that the best we can do from generation to generation is hope that our children turn out somehow still Jewish, whatever the emotional cost and familial consternation we may have to generate today to try and make that happen. Anything more than that out of life is gravy.
That’s not my Judaism. I live by my Judaism, I don’t merely survive by it. That’s not what I was put here on earth to do, nor is it why you’re here, either. If the best we could do as Jews was mere to survive, healing the world by redeeming all those broken shards of creation would be an impossibility. I hardly think God is that short-sighted, do you?
The rabbinic schools affiliated with denominational Judaism, however, are another story. Rolling along for a few months now has been a debate about whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reform Judaism’s rabbinic school–and by extension all denominationally affiliated rabbinic programs, should admit students who are married to or otherwise in committed relationships with non-Jews. (See recent stories in Reform Judaism Magazine, Sh’ma, The Times of Israel, and last week in The Jewish Daily Forward.)
An April blog post from one liberal rabbi goes so far as to say that allowing intermarried rabbinical students (and by extension, intermarried rabbis), “makes us look bad.” I’m not entirely sure who that “us” is, though–all of the Jewish people, or just those of us with the alleged good sense not to have non-Jewish relatives? The same post goes on to set the rabbinate on a pedestal above other Jews. In this worldview, rabbis are supposed to be living models of how Jews are supposed to live in a perfect world.
Except that we don’t live in a perfect world (hence all those broken shards of creation we go around redeeming throughout our lives.) And if there’s anything I’ve learned from the rabbis I know personally, it’s that the most dangerous thing a rabbi can do–both for their own inner well-being and that of their community–is to go through their lives expecting (or in this case, demanding) to be the most important person in the room.
As a future rabbinic student, I think the debate is tragic, in a literal sense. The reality is and will continue to be that some Jews intermarry, some Jews don’t. To say our rabbis can’t do what so many other Jews do is to tell those intermarried Jews and their spouses that they aren’t welcome under Judaism’s communal tent. To my mind, alienating hundreds of thousands of Jews and their extended families by reifying policies that ensure they cannot directly relate with our liturgical leaders is a powerful way to ensure denominational continuity doesn’t happen.
But if about 3,500 years of imperfect, improbable, yet undeniable Jewish history is any indication, Jews will continue to be.
I’m a Jew-by-choice who affiliates with a Reform synagogue, and I’m gay. Although we live Jewishly and he tremendously identifies as Jewish, my partner is not yet officially a Jew. He may be officially Jewish someday but it isn’t going to happen tomorrow. I’ll be going to rabbinic school. Because of the small-mindedness of HUC-JIR, I will not be applying there, within my own movement. Instead, I’ll be applying to an independent rabbinic school–and unlike HUC-JIR, the school, knowing my background, is already interested in my enrolling there.
And if I remain in my relationship, and I go, and I graduate, and become Rabbi Doyle, what exactly will HUC-JIR’s policy have stopped from happening? It won’t stop me from being a deeply committed rabbinical student. It won’t stop me from becoming a deeply committed rabbi. But it will stop me from being a deeply committed member of the Reform movement, potentially for the rest of my life.
In truth, the only thing that outdated denominational policies demonizing intermarriage achieve is competent rabbis and rabbis-to-be turning their backs on denominational Judaism. That’s it. What they don’t stop, however, is rabbinical students from becoming rabbis, differently thinking Jews from becoming innovative Jewish leaders.
There are so many debates in which it behooves us as Jews to enter gracefully and peacefully and with an open mind to see the potential to adopt the opposing viewpoint. There are an infinite number of instances in which a rabbinic student or rabbi should engage with love and kindness and flowers and puppies and unyielding equanimity.
This is not one of them. No one has a right to tell anyone else who they can love. And no one has a right to tell intermarried Jews–either directly or by dint of gate-keeping policies based on fear and fear alone–that they are somehow lesser Jews, and not worthy of the rabbinate. Of the many Jewish values possible to use as the moral bedrock of the rabbinate, seeing all people equal under God would go a lot farther than “some of you are better than others and I’m better than the whole lot of you.”
I’m reminded of a marvelous quote from the 1995 movie, The American President, spoken by Annette Bening’s character, Sydney Ellen Wade, in reference to a Presidential candidate who clearly held average Americans in contempt: “How do you have patience for people who claim they love America, but clearly can’t stand Americans?”
Or in this case, how do you have patience for rabbinic programs that claim to love Judaism, but clearly can’t stand actual Jews?
Considering that Reform, in particular, is currently seeking a way forward that brings unaffiliated Jews back into the fold, any loss engendered by HUC-JIR’s wrong-headed admissions policy is not on the part of potential rabbinical students. It is a wide Jewish world and HUC-JIR is not the only rabbinic program on the planet by any means.
Instead, the loss is on the part of a movement unwilling to embrace its members for who they are, to honestly acknowledge what Reform Jews and their families look like in real life. Of course, I can’t know for sure how HUC-JIR thinks they look. I can only know how God thinks they look. Kedoshim tiheyu, ki kadosh ani, Adonai Eloheichem.
They look holy.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.