Why did I join nineteen rabbis in making a public statement in defense of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his vision for Jewish life?
In part, it is to offer a dissenting opinion on a hot-button boundary issue ruled on by two arms of the reconstructionist organizational world. The recent headline in the Jewish Press captured the ruling with six direct words:
“Reconstructionist Rabbis Allowed to Marry Gentiles”
In the internal debate that brewed behind the scenes over the past year, I took a position that I shared with rabbinic colleagues, faculty members of the RRC, and members of the board of the Rabbinical Association (which can be read below) that outlined a very different approach to the intermarriage debate. Unfortunately, those in positions of power rushed to make the policy change and did not take time to consider the many alternative paths to dealing with this issue. While faculty members of the RRC were given an opportunity to vote in a private deliberation (I’ve heard that their decision was not unanimous) there was no vote or poll whatsoever in the rabbinical body of the movement (for reasons that I can not explain… and I speak as a former board member of the association) and there was only limited, controlled discussion within Reconstructionist communities. The process undermined the inclusive and democratic ideals that Modercai Kaplan held so highly. I have since resigned from the rabbinical association – but I continue to be an active member of a thriving reconstructionist synagogue and to identify myself as a reconstructionist rabbi.
The entire agonizing process left me with a question:
As we in the Liberal Jewish world welcome non-Jewish folks into our communities (and for many, into our families) how can we best encourage them to be allies of both Jewish families and of the Jewish people in general?
You might be asking: Why am I using the word ally?
I first encountered the term ally in the late 1980s during my freshman year in college in the context of LGBT rights. The term gave me, a straight male, an opportunity to stand alongside Lesbian and Gay friends and classmates as they struggled for basic rights, acted up to fight AIDS, and challenged religious and cultural norms. In classrooms I was publically vocal about being an ally. But that was not the most meaningful part of being an ally. In private conversations, I often found myself challenging other men on their inherited views of homosexuality. Living on an all-male dorm floor at a large public university I had a very diverse set of friends – including deeply religious friends and friends from traditional patriarchal cultures – so this was not always an easy conversation to have. But I am pretty sure that I cracked open some minds that had been hardened by years of homophobia.
Today, when I look at the wonderfully diverse Jewish community that I am part of, I see many intermarried families. In some of those families, the non-Jewish partner is an incredible, supportive, inspiring, and sensitive ally. I see first hand, with some of my close friends, how those allies enrich the Jewish community in untold ways. I would like to see us, as a Jewish community, figure out a way to recognize these people for their efforts and contributions.
I am stressing the term ally here because it captures a certain sense of standing in solidarity with someone who is different than you are. But I also want to acknowledge that the analogy to the LGBT movement is far from perfect and that the term ally, in our post-Rachel Dolezal world, can raise some uncomfortable questions about who is included and excluded.
But ally best captures the status of those who stand in solidarity with the Jewish people in the way that the ancient term ger toshav once did.
My friend and colleague Steve Greenberg taught me a bit of Torah about ger and ger toshav in the late 1990s. Just as we are instructed to embrace the ger, the convert among us, and avoid shaming the ger in any way, we are also taught to embrace the ger toshav those who “dwell with us.” In particular, Steve used the example of Uriah the Hittite as someone who stood in solidarity with our people. He felt that much of the tension around intermarriage could be dealt with if there were a clear articulation of the status of the ger toshav for our times.
Why bring up the ger and ger toshav?
When a couple approaches me about an intermarriage, I still hold the position that ideally the non-Jewish partner will convert. Sometimes that is an option – and I have had the honor a few times to be on the bet din as we welcomed new Jewish folks into the community.
But what about the cases when someone has an aversion to conversion? Or simply would like to convert but does not want to feel rushed? In those cases, I think that Liberal rabbis should ask the non-Jewish partners who are getting ready to spend their lives coupled with Jews: If you are not planning to convert, are you prepared to publically ally yourself with the Jewish people?
This could happen in a myriad of ways. I know one rabbi who has the person sign a document when the ketubah is signed. Another rabbi requires a public declaration of creating a Jewish home under the chupah that is affirmed by the couple, and another has a series of films, books, and experiences that they require during the pre-wedding months to spark a rich conversation about what it means to be an ally. Here’s what I have learned from those who take creative approaches: Even people who are not open to conversion (for whatever reason) are open to becoming a ger toshav.
Unfortunately, by ruling that rabbis partners can be practicing other religions, and not outlining any mechanism for those partners to publicly affirm their support of Jewish life, my religious movement has jumped to a conclusion that potentially undermines one of the very institutions we seek to bolster – the Jewish family.
This is a shame because I still feel like reconstructionism has great potential. It is the ideology that best matches with the vast majority of non-Haredi Jews on the planet. But if the policies it adopts undermine rather than encourage the notion of Jewish family, I think it will continue to diminish. I’m hoping that by sharing the words that I wrote to my colleagues that I can contribute to a discussion that needs to be had not only in the reconstructionist movement, but in the entire Liberal Jewish world.
Reflections on Conversion, Public Leadership, and the Non-Jewish Partner Policy of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Rabbi Daniel Brenner
Seven years ago, when I taught in a Protestant seminary in Manhattan (New York Theological) one of my African-American students pulled me aside after class and confronted me about traditional Jewish attitudes towards conversion. “The Muslims want me, ” she said “they set up in my neighborhood and tried to get me to join. The Mormons want me. They moved in last year. And I know a dozen churches that want me. Why don’t you want me? I just don’t understand why you don’t want me to be a Jew. Is there something wrong with me? Maybe the reason most people don’t like Jews is because you think that you are better than everyone else.”
This was the first time in my life that I considered the flip side of the Jewish stance against proselytizing. Ever since I was a kid I’d been told that Jews are different (and maybe a little better) because we don’t try to push our beliefs on others. I laughed at the story told by Ruth Messinger about how a group of African children she worked with thought of Jews as “the White people who didn’t make us sing about Jesus.” Jews just want to be left alone to do their thing in peace and we just let other people believe what they want to believe. Want to become a Jew? We like to turn you away – or at least tell you a few reasons why you shouldn’t be a Jew – before we start you on a course of study. And that’s a good thing, right?
Lately I have begun to think differently about the role of Jewish people in this world – and the role of rabbis – in promoting the positive impact that modern Judaism might play in a multifaith context. In short, I think that a reconstructionist approach to Judaism is exactly what the planet needs in terms of coming into balance between the old and the new. It is a framework that values the thousands of years of philosophic, spiritual, and legal thought that precedes it and values the new ideas (democracy, equality) inherent in Liberal thought. It is a counter to both traditional religion that aims to take us back to a strict patriarchy and to universalism which threatens to blend every tradition into a big mush of illiterate fluff. What we have and value is a perfect balance of past and present. And while I may not have all the tactics clearly thought out, I think the time has come for us to be much more welcoming of non-Jewish seekers in a way that attracts a new and diverse set of folks to convert to Judaism. For rabbis reading this I ask the following question: Do you want more talented, intelligent, caring, and committed people to convert to Judaism?
Even though I have spent years devoted to multifaith work and I have found many aspects of other faith traditions to be compelling, I think that Judaism offers a spiritual path and ethical code that is worth more to me than any other faith. I respect other faiths – I speak out against those who denigrate them – but I advocate for Judaism. I care that my children continue on the reconstructionist Jewish path and that they are someday in committed relationships with others on the reconstructionst Jewish path, and that they help to bring up children – of their own or of the community – in that path. I do this not because I have ideas about race that I want to perpetuate, nor because I value continuity of tradition for its own sake, or because I value Jewish peoplehood for the sake of peoplehood – but because I think that a reconstructionst approach to Judaism – an approach that brings modernity (democracy, feminism, multiculturalism, queer thought, etc.) into dialogue with Judaism (the religion at the root of the religious systems practiced by half the planet and a system with three thousand years of discussion behind it) is something the world needs more of. Such an ideology can only survive within the context of community and I think it is time that we advanced our ideology beyond our tiny corner of the Jewish world.
What will it take to do that?
One thing it will take is placing a high value on conversion.
Here is a snapshot of how valuing conversion works in our favor: I am an active member of a Reconstructionist community with a Reconstructionist rabbi who is married to someone who chose Judaism. This fact is known to just about everyone in our community and makes our congregation a strong attraction for intermarried couples and families. One of the side effects of having a rebbetzin who is a convert is that non-Jews who are active in our synagogue consider conversion seriously. I have been very fortunate to have celebrated some of these conversions and heard stories about the process. I know that conversion is valued in my community in large part because the rebbetzin and others are a positive force in making conversion accessible. Having a rabbi who understands what it is like for their partner to go through conversion is also a major plus.
Does that mean that every non-Jewish partner converts? Of course not. We have many active non-Jewish members. But those non-Jewish partners see other non-Jews who do choose to convert and see how conversion leads to a deeper embrace in the community. They get that it is a value to convert…and a possibility. We have, as a result, a wonderfully active adult education program, including Hebrew language classes.
I say this half-jokingly, but in my dream scenario for expanding reconstructionism beyond its current scope, I would want to deploy a large cadre of reconstructionst rabbis who themselves are converts or who are married to converts. The impact that such a group would have on non-Jews interested in Judaism would be enormous. If we patterned our outreach on the model of the 92Y’s Derech Torah “Introduction to Judaism” course and offered ongoing classes led by such a cadre in every major U.S. city, we would triple the size of our denomination in five years. This would benefit every graduate of RRC. But let me get back to reality.
One of my friends from my synagogue grew up in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He became a Jew after falling in love with a Jewish woman and finding a rabbi in New York who had, herself, converted to Judaism and was teaching an intro to Judaism class. “She knew what I was going through” he told me when he first relayed his spiritual journey, “I couldn’t have done it without her.”
I love what converts have brought to our community – such joy, such a desire to learn, such an affirmation of Judaism. The spirit they bring is especially needed by a people that is still, in many ways, wounded.
All this brings me to the discussion at hand – the policy of the RRC vis a vis non-Jewish partners.
Before I say anything about the policy, I think that I need to acknowledge that I have two wonderful reconstructionist rabbi colleagues who I know are in long-term interfaith relationships for complicated reasons and I respect their decisions and wish them only happiness. I know that their paths in the rabbinate have been challenging and that it will likely be difficult for them to read an opinion in favor of the current policy. But I hope that they will consider my words and my approach.
I think that it is important for the RRC to actively encourage conversion of potential rabbinical students and I think that the message to these applicants should be worded positively: if you are partnered with a non-Jew we expect your partner to accompany you on your path to the rabbinate by beginning a process of conversion.
I say this primarily because being a reconstructionist rabbi is not simply about fulfilling a personal spiritual journey, but about taking on the mantle of public Jewish leadership. You don’t need to become a rabbi to fulfill mitzvahs, or care for others, or to study – you can happily do all those things without a rabbinic title. But to be public Jewish leaders, reconstructionist rabbis have to take on responsibilities that are professional, spiritual, symbolic, and otherwise – and take on responsibilities that go beyond being a typical Jew. Religiously speaking, we hold power on a Beit Din, professionally speaking, we are in a particular type of power relationship with those we pastor.
Rabbinic formation is about creating literate and compassionate leaders for the Jewish people. And like it or not, every rabbi who is partnered brings their partner along for the public aspect of the ride. Unlike counseling professions that explicitly disconnect all professional relationships from personal ones, rabbinic work takes place within community – and calls on rabbis to do the difficult dance of finding their place within the communities that they serve. This reality puts many demands on the partners of rabbis, and while those in the Orthodox world invest a great deal of time in preparing partners of rabbis for this reality, for many years we in Liberal circles have ignored the role of partners of rabbis to our detriment.
So, given the public nature of the rabbinate and the value that being in a committed partnership brings, a goal of the college, in my mind, should be to generate as many strong Jewish rabbi/partner pairs as possible. It is also a wonderful thing that we graduate some stellar single rabbis (though I hesitate to use the word “single” – sorry, wish there were a better word) – in fact, I would even say that it should also be a goal of the college to graduate a cadre of single rabbis.
But let’s stop and ask: Why does it matter that we graduate partnered rabbis?
In part, because a large part of the population that we serve is partnered and in need of our emotional and spiritual support in navigating those partnerships. Rabbis with years of partnering experience have something unique to offer in terms of their counseling and spiritual guidance.
Can you build a Jewish home with a non-Jewish partner? Yes. And some people seem to be doing it rather well. But we have to be honest and say that for every success story there are a dozen Jewish folks who would like to be building a Jewish home with their non-Jewish partners but are stuck in an endless parade of compromises, silences, and quarrels.
Conversion – or I should say the option of conversion – is a part of that story. There are thousands of couples that have had a serious conversation about conversion at some point in their relationship and thousands of non-Jewish partners who are on the fence about it. In communities where peers are choosing conversion, conversion classes are an option, and rabbis encourage it, those on the fence organically find themselves getting a Hebrew name and celebrating. In communities where conversion is not that important, well…uh…why bother?
In other words, we may be setting up a scenario that leads indirectly to thousands of Jewish folks saying:
“I’d like to encourage my non-Jewish spouse to consider becoming a Jew but I’m not really sure I’d get support from my rabbi.”
So now let’s talk about the current policy. I certainly don’t like the fact that it is worded in a “negative” rather than in a “positive.” (I don’t like restrictions in general to be honest) But I do think it points us in the direction we should be heading in.
Allow me to articulate a positive vision of rabbinic training that would address the issues underlying the non-Jewish partner policy:
What if every first year student who was partnered was required to bring their partner to an RRC shabbaton, an RRC community shacharit, and a selection of classes? How would that change rabbinic education? What if there were training for all partners in couples counseling and the role that partners play in supporting the rabbi in the family?
Now let’s take this even further – what if we offered a conversion class at RRC or part of RRC’s distance learning that is specifically for partners of prospective rabbinical students? What if there were a “prep year” track modeled in this way? What if we took baby steps in this direction by offering an open house or shabbaton in which partners were welcome?
What if in the final year of RRC there was a preparation for partners that took into account the challenges they would face as they supported the launching of a new rabbi? My sense is that there would be both Jewish and non-Jewish partners who feel a little uncomfortable with this approach but over the long-term it would be a very good thing for our colleagues and our movement. Before someone got the title rabbi it would be expected that the rabbi-to-be’s partner had gone through the process of conversion.
Before there are changes made to the policy, and reconstructionists everywhere are exposed to the scorn that is sure to come our way from both a set of loud and narrow-minded people and some of the best and brightest Jewish minds in our world, I think we as a movement should think about positive steps to encourage conversion of partners of potential students. We should cite the ancient sage Hillel, whose open and welcoming attitude about conversion is as important now as it was two thousand years ago.
We should do so by keeping in mind that these partners are a small subset of the thousands of people on the fence about whether they want to convert to Judaism. As rabbis, we can be advocates for conversion and “tip the scales” in favor of more Jewish choices in these scenarios. But we can only do this if the boundaries between non-Jew and Jew matter to us.
We have a long way to go in our efforts to welcome intermarried folks and our efforts to encourage conversion. I sense that now is not the time to let go of our aspirations for either rabbis or those they serve. Changing the current policy will mean small gains for a handful of well-intentioned Jewish people today but huge losses for thousands of Jewish folks who need their rabbis help in building Jewish homes and for thousands of non-Jewish partners who are considering a Jewish path – not to mention tens of thousands of children and grandchildren – in the years to come.