For the last two weeks, we have grappled with the reality of modern intermarriage and examined the thinking of the Conservative movement that emphasizes maximally welcoming interfaith couples while inviting and encouraging the non-Jewish partner to convert, and reaffirms the traditional stricture against rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings.
In a blog post dated July 14, 2017, entitled “Sacred Boundaries and the Question of Intermarriage,” Rabbi Rafi Rank, an extraordinarily gracious, generous, wise Conservative rabbi, tells this story of Heather:
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.”
Rabbi Rank’s answer to this thirty-something young woman who grew up in his shul-no-has now been amplified by a document that came out last month entitled “A Pastoral Letter to Conservative/Masorti Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Institutional Leadership and Kehillot,” which also says, very nicely, no. Same answer. Same conclusion. Eloquently put.
So I have a problem. I want to say yes. I would be genuinely happy that Heather, in her early 30s now, found somebody to love. I would want to stand with Heather and her beloved and find a way to sanctify their union. Not chuppah and kiddushin, the traditional language and ritual of Jewish marriage where two Jews wed. But some new and different ceremony that can still sanctify their love.
If I had been Heather’s father, I would have been praying deeply for years that my daughter find somebody to love. Every morning and every night, and when I went to the open ark on Neilah to pray to God before the gates closed, this would have been my prayer: “God, please help Heather find love.” And when she did, and she brought home a mensch, I would have experienced this as the fulfillment of my deepest prayer. I would be really happy. I would want my synagogue to share in my happiness. If my synagogue said no to Heather, if my synagogue said no to me, I would go to another synagogue.
This is not hasty. I have been marinating on this for years. For reasons of principle and conscience, to be faithful to my departed mother’s legacy of loving people for who they are, and in order to advance my best sense of what is right for Heather and her fiance, her parents, her future children, the future of our shul, and the future of Judaism in America, I believe “no” is a 20th century answer that does not work in a 21st century world. A 21st century answer must find some way to say yes.
If you’ve been on social media this week, you’ve seen a rash of painful hashtags. #Me too. I have been a victim of sexual harassment. #Me too. I have been victimized by the patriarchy. #Me too. This is my story. Millions of posts. Millions of people.
I grew up in a home where if somebody Jewish did something wrong or embarrassing, my parents would declaim: it’s a shonda. When somebody Jewish did something egregious, it was shameful for the Jewish people.
Sometimes an ancient story that you have seen a hundred times jumps off the page in a new way when you see it using modern language and modern categories. Consider the unsavory story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.
As we pivot from summer to the start of the year, as we round the corner from August to September, the prevailing feeling I hear from talking to people is edge and anxiety. In the last month alone: Charlottesville, Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida, saber rattling and nuclear bomb testing in North Korea, an earthquake in Mexico, a tsunami warning.
Racial hatred, violence and death, and an abject failure of the White House to offer moral clarity and healing. Hurricanes, plural. The specter of nuclear war. Earthquake. A possible tsunami. In less than a month.
What wisdom does Judaism have here? How do we understand the difference between the world we have and the world we want? In the face of all this, so little of which we have control over, what can we do? What should we do? As a moral being, what must I do?
Tomorrow, our first Talmud class, I am going to share a sparkling typology developed by Yehuda Kurtzer at Hartman this past summer. It is entitled “Jewish Memory and the Future of Jewish Politics.”
At a time of epic, almost biblical, uncertainty, edge and plague, there is something we can do. There is something I must do.
See you tomorrow morning at 8:30.