Reform Judaism and the Challenge of our Time

Published originally in Haaretz

November 5, 2015


As the Reform movement gathered for its Biennial Convention in Orlando, Florida – its aliyat ha’regel of inspiration, study and celebration – it did so just one month after the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School implemented the very admissions policy that a younger generation of Reform Jews has been pushing its seminary for: admitting students who are in interfaith relationships.

For several years, the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, which prepares students for the rabbinate, has resisted calls to reverse its stated position on intermarriage:  Any student engaged, married or partnered to a person who is not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be admitted or ordained. HUC’s president, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, supports this longstanding policy and has stated that any change liberalizing the policy will not occur on his watch. His successor in another decade or two will have a much more difficult time holding fast to that position. The generational gap on this issue is apparent.

For 30 years, even as the Reform movement championed a vital program for outreach to intermarried couples, it spoke the language of in-marriage as the ideal, and therefore the absolute standard for its rabbis. As intermarriage became more widespread (indeed a majority of all marriages of Jews in the last 20 years), and greater numbers of Reform rabbis decided to officiate at interfaith marriage ceremonies, the movement’s own rhetoric has shifted to focus on the opportunities for Jewish engagement for interfaith couples.

Whether the movement came to adopt a values-neutral position on interfaith marriage, or whether there was simply a sense that encouraging Jews to marry other Jews was ineffective in a multi-cultural post-ethnic 21st century American reality is a matter of debate. In the intervening years, many rabbinical students – some of whom themselves are products of an interfaith marriage – came to view as inconsistent that leaders of the community should have different standards than the community itself. What better model for interfaith families, they argued, than deeply committed intermarried rabbis?

This issue of what it might mean to have rabbis who are married to non-Jews continually resurfaces and will most certainly be discussed in the corridors of the Biennial. While the issue has very little practical implication and would most likely affect very few, it has become a lightning rod for how broad the movement’s acceptance for intermarriage is, and more even more so, for how inclusive of a movement are we prepared to be.

This issue is an illustration of something much larger and far more urgent for the Reform movement to grapple with: How difficult it is for we non-Orthodox Jews to feel comfortable articulating deeply-held ideals, on the one hand, while being open and responsive to the real lives of those Jews with whom we work and live. How do we hold up a model that the majority of our congregants do not uphold without risking that they will feel marginalized or judged by us? Every non-Orthodox congregational rabbi in America knows this dilemma well. Additionally, these are not dilemmas of Reform alone. Last year, the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth voted to relax its ban on its teenage regional and national officers dating non-Jews.

An opposition to intermarried rabbis is just one area in which the championing of a Jewish ideal need not mean rejecting or marginalizing those Jews who make other decisions. In almost every area of Jewish life, rabbis are called to model the best expressions and deepest commitment to Jewish life. That calling does not imply a denigration of those Jews who do not fulfill that high standard. Furthermore, the greatest teaching a rabbi can offer his or her community is how they live their lives off the pulpit and away from the synagogue – how they celebrate Shabbat, how they anticipate and prepare for Jewish holidays, how they prioritize the place of tzedek (justice) and tzedakkah, and how they engage in acts of chesed (lovingkindness). Chief among these is creating the most intensive, all-encompassing Jewish home, infused with Jewish rituals and values and shaped by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.

Additionally, our synagogues and camps are uniquely poised to model institutionally Jewish ideals even when they run counter to the ways most of our congregants currently live their lives: by modeling a Shabbat practice that is celebratory but also serious, guided by principles of rest, joy and holiness; by modeling kashrut and ecological concerns; by modeling hakhnasat orchim (hospitality) and so much more.

Many of Reform Judaism’s most articulate expressions of a commitment to the ideal are found in its vast and impressive responsa literature and in guides to Jewish practice published by the movement. There may be a reluctance to rely too heavily on such material because of the gap between what they recommend and what most Reform Jews actually do. But such resources help us to imagine a community as it might be, supports the most committed in the shaping of their Jewish life, and plants the seeds for the creation of new communities and institutions that may more closely reflect those ideals.

I am well aware of the danger inherent in presenting many ideals that the majority will not uphold. Here in Israel, we see how many secular Jews see Orthodoxy as the ideal. As a result they essentially hand over Judaism to them, robbing themselves of the opportunity to see the relevance of Judaism for their own lives, and therefore not creating their own meaningful Jewish lives. To be sure, we do not want a situation where our rabbis are the ones who do Judaism for us. The rabbi keeps kosher so we don’t have to. The rabbi observes Shabbat but we do not.  However, there is something in that outdated paradigm that is worth preserving. The rabbi must be a model for what we strive to be, what we aspire toward.

It’s a good thing that we care so deeply about not wanting anyone to feel marginalized.  Inclusiveness itself is an ideal. But what we are hoping to include others in is a vision of something that is greater than what we currently are. We want to include others in a community that believes in something big, something demanding, something toward which we can strive together.

I fear for a liberal Judaism that is not able, or unwilling, to articulate ideals, and to build institutions and cultivate leaders who are reflective of those ideals. A liberal Judaism without the ability to say “this is the ideal we are striving for” will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify exactly what most Jews currently do. Without ideals in religious life, we reduce Judaism to a positive affirmation of where we are right now. Our rabbis, our synagogues, our camps, and our seminaries can model those ideals. Such leaders and institutions are not meant to “mirror” our membership ranks, but to inspire and uplift them.

The challenge of our time is how to stand with and stand apart at the same time, how to embrace people for who they are irrespective of the choices they make, and at the same time to maintain an ideal.

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