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July 21, 2009

Guest post: The last taboo -- intermarried rabbis

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis, a Jewish cyber-outreach organization based in Baltimore.

“In the Mix” is the name of a monthly column by Julie Wiener, carried by The New York Jewish Week. Ms. Wiener, who is Jewish, describes herself as “married to a lapsed Catholic -- one who has encouraged me to become more involved in Jewish life.” But in her most recent column, she nonetheless grapples with her own discomfort at the thought of a rabbi entering into a relationship exactly like her own. As she puts it, “there’s something that feels, well, not kosher to me about intermarried rabbis.”

I am tempted to joke that I have been gifted with prophecy for the following prediction, but it is no laughing matter. I do predict that the Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical seminary of Reform Judaism, will be ordaining intermarried Rabbis within the next decade -- and my main concern, in terms of accuracy, is that I’m giving them too much time by half -- but that just stems from common sense and seeing the writing on the wall. To my knowledge, there has yet to be a deviance from Jewish law and tradition concerning which "a debate has swirled in progressive Jewish circles" which has not become normative "progressive" Judaism sooner or later, and usually sooner.

In most cases, the relevant conflict is between traditional Jewish values, and what today's Western society deems the morally superior position. Traditionally, men and women sit separately during prayers, men lead the service, men are rabbis, and homosexuality is prohibited.

In each of those cases, modern Western thought asserts that the contrary position is morally superior, and this becomes the position of liberal Judaism. To my understanding, similar conflicts -- and similar resolutions -- are found in the liberal wings of many other faith communities.

In this case, though, I do not believe a case can be made that it is morally superior to marry someone of a different faith. Jewish discomfort with intermarriage is not a matter of ethnic bias -- it’s about preservation of our unique nation, and the values we wish to transmit to the next generation. Those fully committed to other religions share this position — even a devout Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant might find too many points of contention to truly provide their children with a single, clear message about religion.

Intermarriage is especially problematic to members of smaller religious groups, as it often leads directly to assimilation into the larger of the two groups of which the respective parents are members. Besides parents and teachers, the strongest influences in young adult life are his or her peers. Ms. Wiener acknowledges that in an intermarriage, "Judaism loses out as often, if not more often, than it wins." In fact, multiple surveys have proven that her assertion that it might be 50/50 is overly optimistic in a country where Jews constitute but 2% of the population.

The prospect of intermarried clergy is distressing, and not simply because a layperson such as Ms. Wiener wants “the ultimate representatives and teachers of Jewish tradition to be more respectful of Jewish law and more immersed in Judaism” than she is. It will further accelerate the process of assimilation, and grant it a greater presence within the synagogue itself.

It has been rumored that among Reform Temples, as many as half of the sisterhood presidents are not Jewish by any measure. If even the clergy are not committed to Jewish partners, the next, logical, inevitable step will be a majority non-Jewish laity. At what point will “progressive” Judaism cease to be a religion practiced, in the majority, by Jews? That turning point is probably far sooner than we think.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.

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