Sunday, August 02, 2009

The last taboo

The rabbi had nothing but praise for the man who was celebrating a major birthday. He was kind, a fine person to have as a friend, a regular synagogue attendee and chanter of haftarot.

And then the rabbi went too far.

He called the man a good Jew . . .

. . . politely ignoring the fact that the honoree's wife is not Jewish.


Then there's the person of my acquaintance who's intermarried and a cantorial student. Even journalist Julie Wiener has conflicted feelings about the ordination of intermarried clergy, despite being intermarried herself.


In a related story, here are a Conservative rabbi's words on his congregation's merger with a Reform synagogue:

"In the Miami merger, Rabbi Schonblum of the Conservative synagogue said the Who is a Jew issue would not be a problem because his congregation has practiced patrilineal descent for five years. "We can’t enforce it ... so we let it go," he said, referring to the Conservative movement’s requirement that children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother convert to Judaism before their bar or bat mitzvahs.

... I’m bringing in close to 50 or 60 people from my adult Torah study classes who are becoming closer to Judaism and understanding our Jewish traditions. It has been working. ... You can’t enforce anything today on anybody."

. . . Rabbi Schonblum said he believes the "Conservative movement can’t discriminate anymore. We can’t go and say to somebody, ‘You are not accepted because you are not like we are.’ It doesn’t work."

He emphasized that he has been permitting the practice of patrilineal descent "under the knowledge" that the child will not be recognized as a Jew "anywhere outside of the Reform movement. . . . "


Is it simply not possible for Conservative standards to be maintained in smaller synagogues? The tale I told at the beginning of this post is true and recent, the intermarried man in question being a member of my own congregation, which now has probably approximately 80 members. [Sunday, 11:07 AM update: I stand corrected--my husband says we have about 60 members.] My husband, who's the chair of the Ritual Committee, frequently asks him to chant haftarot because he's one of the few members of our synagogue who knows how and who's happy to volunteer. He also often gives the "birthday boy" an aliyah because he's frequently one of the few men in attendance in a congregation that often barely gets enough men for a Torah reading and won't give aliyot to women, though women are counted for a minyan.

And what about the seminaries, possibly not affiliated with the major American denominations, that admit intermarried students to rabbinical and/or cantorial training programs?

In all seriousness, I'd like to understand how the Orthodox, especially those in smaller communities, manage to maintain traditional halachic standards on the issue of intermarriage.

19 Comments:

Blogger Ruth said...

Hi Shira! I found your post because I have an automatic Google Alert set for blog posts on the word "intermarried." Since it's my job as the managing editor at www.interfaithfamily.com to provide Jewish resources to people in interfaith families and to encourage them to raise their children with Jewish education and identity, I'm curious about your approach to intermarriage in this post.

What is the desired outcome of excluding Jews from interfaith marriages from chanting Haftarah or from having aliyot to the Torah? (I don't want to deal with the rabbinate or patrilineal descent, as I think it makes sense for Jews in different movements to deal with those in different ways.)

What do you think the ideal outcome of your community's interaction with intermarried Jews is? Has the traditional punitive approach to intermarriage worked well in the past? (I'm not being sarcastic in that question--from my point of view it has not, of course, but if you have a different set of goals it might seem different to you.)

Sun Aug 02, 11:25:00 AM 2009  
Blogger scarlettscion said...

Hi Shira--I left a comment on your last post of this nature, and it looks like we're here again.

I think what is at stake here is how you want to define "a good Jew." Are lesbians and gay men entitled to aliyot? Or are they "bad Jews" as well? What about those who are considered bnai niddai, but whose parents are baali teshuvah? Is their questionable character enough to prevent them from being "good Jews"? I bring up these two examples because the individuals in question have little to no control over their circumstance--just as one might argue an intermarried person has little to no choice over whom they love.

Even beyond those examples, what about yourself, as you admit on this blog that you break Shabbas by taking the subway? Last time I checked, flagrantly breaking Shabbat was on a par with intermarriage if not worse.


My point is that this is a very thin line, and it's easy to find yourself on the wrong side of it once you start pointing fingers.

Publicly humiliating an elderly man on his birthday--in front of his *wife,* who presumably was there--by pointedly not calling him a good Jew doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than to feed the self-righteousness of others.


None of us are perfect Jews. We're trying, and that's about all you can say for even the best among us. To try to separate us into "good" and bad" based on one halachic decision among many seems unwise at best and prideful at worst.


(I think the discussion of ordaining intermarried clergy is an entirely separate and more complex one, fwiw.)

Sun Aug 02, 01:24:00 PM 2009  
Blogger scarlettscion said...

Shira--

I just wanted to add that I think you sound like a great Jew--the Shabbat thing is just an example.

Also, as to how the Ortho community handles the intermarriage issue....

Um, heard of the shidduch crisis much?


(ok, I know that it's a complex issue--but the punitive tactics do seem to be driving young people, especially young men, away)

Sun Aug 02, 01:33:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shofet said...

As to Orthodox communities - my experience where almost all the other young couples were intermarried was that we, including our rabbi, ignored the intermarriage. As in all the cases, it was the wife who wasn't Jewish there was no problem counting the husband to a minyan. We acted on the presumption that as the men were returning to Judaism either their wives would convert or they would divorce. We dealt with any other problems as they came up.

Sun Aug 02, 04:10:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"What is the desired outcome of excluding Jews from interfaith marriages from chanting Haftarah or from having aliyot to the Torah?" Ruth, I guess it's a question of good role modeling, to use a secular term, or, in Jewish terms, a question of "lifnei iver lo titein michshol,in front of the blind, do not put a stumbling block," interpreted by the rabbis to mean that one shouldn't lead someone to sin if they don't know better, or that one shouldn't tempt someone to sin, in this case by not being clear that intermarriage is against Jewish law.

"Has the traditional punitive approach to intermarriage worked well in the past?" Sigh. That may depend on which segment of the Jewish community one is discussing. Perhaps this still works within the Orthodox community better than among us non-Orthos.

I think what is at stake here is how you want to define "a good Jew." Shira, my own approach to the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender community is, basically, not to ask. After all, we don't ask heterosexuals whether they're "doing it," do we? I hadn't thought about the b'nai niddah issue because, frankly, I've never heard anyone ask another Jew whether s/he belonged in that category. I think that's also a situation in which it's best not to ask.

"Even beyond those examples, what about yourself, as you admit on this blog that you break Shabbas by taking the subway? Last time I checked, flagrantly breaking Shabbat was on a par with intermarriage if not worse."

Touche. Guilty as charged.

"Publicly humiliating an elderly man on his birthday--in front of his *wife,* who presumably was there--by pointedly not calling him a good Jew doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than to feed the self-righteousness of others."

Though I don't think the omission of that particular phrase would have been noticed, you may have a point about feeding the self-righteousness of others.

"None of us are perfect Jews. We're trying, and that's about all you can say for even the best among us. To try to separate us into "good" and bad" based on one halachic decision among many seems unwise at best and prideful at worst."

Thanks for giving me food for thought.

"Also, as to how the Ortho community handles the intermarriage issue....

Um, heard of the shidduch crisis much?"

In spades, I've sorry to say. :(

" . . . we, including our rabbi, ignored the intermarriage. As in all the cases, it was the wife who wasn't Jewish there was no problem counting the husband to a minyan. We acted on the presumption that as the men were returning to Judaism either their wives would convert or they would divorce. We dealt with any other problems as they came up."

So you take the "dan l'kaf z'chut, judge everyone favorably" (give everyone the benefit of the doubt) approach. That might be a good way to deal with the issue.

Sun Aug 02, 08:35:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I may be off the Internet for a few days, so please forgive me if I'm don't reply quickly to future comments. Real life is an occasional distraction. :)

Sun Aug 02, 08:38:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous jdub said...

How do we handle the intermarriage issue? Very easily. It's prohibited. Full stop. We wouldn't give maftir to a man who was intermarried if we knew about it. We wouldn't allow them to join the shul as members.

There's a line in the sand. If you cross it, you can't expect to be welcomed into an Orthodox shul as a member, unless you're non-jewish spouse is in the process of converting.


And the "shidduch crisis" is quite overblown.

This is the last thing I'll have to say. Once you get into it with folks who have an automatic google alert for intermarriage, this thing will go on forever.

Mon Aug 03, 08:09:00 AM 2009  
Blogger scarlettscion said...

" " . . . we, including our rabbi, ignored the intermarriage. As in all the cases, it was the wife who wasn't Jewish there was no problem counting the husband to a minyan. We acted on the presumption that as the men were returning to Judaism either their wives would convert or they would divorce. We dealt with any other problems as they came up."

So you take the "dan l'kaf z'chut, judge everyone favorably" (give everyone the benefit of the doubt) approach. That might be a good way to deal with the issue."

I like this approach. It doesn't openly approve of the intermarriage, but it doesn't judge others in a way that feels hypocritical. I don't think you should *encourage* the couple to divorce, but gently putting forth the hope of conversion seems dandy.

Shira, the bnai niddah issue, as I've heard it described, is mostly an issue among children of BT's in Ortho communities. You don't have to ask--if you know their parents were BT, well, they are suspected of that status.

But you make an interesting distinction: things you can see versus things you can't. You seem to be saying that you would have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards violations of the law which are invisible.

I'm not in principle against a little community peer pressure re: observance. The situation you describe just didn't seem like an occasion for it, since the man was already married. I've seen welcoming and positive ways to encourage interfaith families to convert and raise the children Jewish, and none of them involve telling the Jewish partner that, for that one act, they are a "bad Jew."

All I've ever seen that do is drive the family in question further away from the fold.

As far as the stumbling block issue--I honestly haven't met a young Jew lately that wasn't aware that Intermarriage is Bad. Some of us don't care, but no one is ignorant of the issue. Besides, like I said--all of us are sinful in one way or another. I'd rather have a good man who happened to be intermarried chanting an aliyah than someone who ignored the law of the land or abused his wife and children. We seem to be too quick to condemn for the easily 'visible' violations than those which are more deeply troubling.


One final note--nearly all conservo Jews I know eat out at un-certified restaurants. None of those people seem to be denied honors. Kashrut is just as big a deal as intermarriage. Again, just pointing out the hypocrisy in singling out intermarried folks.

Mon Aug 03, 01:45:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

How should one "pick and choose"? Can you articulate some consistency that allows those who desecrate the shabbat to accept aliyot, but denies them to those who intermarry? And as scarletscion rightfully asks, what about those of us who eat in un-hekshered establishments (regardless of what we eat there)? I've been struggling with this for years. I wanted to prove Rabbi Gilman wrong, that conservative is a halahkic movement. But unless someone soon articulates a meaningful framework for halakha in the 21st century, I'm not very hopeful. The CJLS is hopeless, now that it has a majority seemingly more intent on being politically correct in a 21st century U.S.A. fashion then on truly reconciling 2500 years of jewish legal evolution with the modern age.

Mon Aug 03, 10:22:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous jdub said...

Steve:

I'm not conservative, so I can't answer that question, but marrying out, short of converting or professing one's atheism, is the ultimate denial of Judaism. Heck, in many ways it's even worse than becoming an apostate, because at least in that case, you can always do t'shuva, which is much harder when you have a non-Jewish spouse along for the ride.

Tue Aug 04, 08:36:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

Jdub --

I would like to agree with you. I would like the world to be black and white, but I live in shades of gray.

In the days of the shtetl or the ghetto, you would be correct. Sadly, I know far too many knowledgeable Jews (I'm not referring to totally assimilated people whose only association with judaism was bagels, matzoh and latkes) who intermarried. In all cases, they persist in maintaining a strong jewish identity (we're not talking about an xmas tree in the house, here) both externally and internally. In some cases, the spouses ultimately converted. In 21st century America, do we push these people further away, and lose them forever. I am aware of the default Ortho position, I also have personal knowledge of exceptions being made. Its a struggle, but I don't believe we sit shiva for these people anymore. Are they good examples for my daughters? No, they're not. But they are entitled to be treated with dignity and kavod, because to not do so would be worse. I recognize that this is not in accord with halakha, but it may be that this is an appropriate place for the halakha to change.

Tue Aug 04, 12:04:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

And what about the seminaries, possibly not affiliated with the major American denominations, that admit intermarried students to rabbinical and/or cantorial training programs?

They don't. In a ridiculous display of hypocrisy, NO seimary will admit a rabbinical candidate who is intermarried or in a significant relationship with a non_jew, despite recognizing such unions among their members.

This includes the new non-denominational smicha program in Boston, from which my friend recently received ordination.

Tue Aug 04, 02:51:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous jdub said...

steve,

there's a difference between not sitting shiva, and touting what a good Jew they are from the bima.

See, I come at it from a different angle. Both my parents intermarried post-divorce. My kids get two messages at home: the positive one -- look how beautiful the Torah life is, and the negative one -- if you marry out, you are betraying Judaism. Their grandparents, rachmana litzlan, are their object lessons.

Do I treat my parents with the kavod they deserve? Absolutely. Do my kids know that my parents are wrong in their choices? Absolutely. There are shades of gray in the world, but there is also black and white. Intermarriage is flat out wrong. Full stop.

Tue Aug 04, 03:14:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Agreed, no point is talking with someone who is here professionally pushing an agenda, and props to Ruth for her being open and honest that she is here astro-turfing.

As far as I'm concerned, I've not seen any benefit to the liberal movements openness towards intermarriage. It provided them with a short-term numbers gain, at the expense that at this point, a majority of the few children being raised today in the Reform movement are probably not Jewish. This isn't a problem per se for the Reform movement, which has made themselves a movement for gentiles that are disenchanted with Mainline Protestantism and gay Jews who don't have a home in traditional Judaism. I don't have a problem with either practice, plenty of disenchanted Protestants need somewhere to go worship and gay Jews aren't going to find a home on the traditional side, so I'm glad that they have a way of maintaining a link to their culture that is comfortable for them. I find the homophobia (and other bigotry) present in Orthodox circles disgusting, but that doesn't make the Reform movements homophilia Jewish. In other words, I don't want gay Jews to be mistreated, but I don't think you can claim a linkage to Judaism and Jewish texts while permitting homosexuality as an acceptable behavior.

Regarding the Aliyot, in the Orthodox sphere, the honor is real, and calling someone up who is publicly sinning is a problem. Regarding the Shabbat/Kashrut issue, everyone here is ignoring why modern Poskim have ruled this way

A secular Sabbath-desecrating Jew is
1) not accountable for his actions because we assume he is raised in ignorance, this doesn't apply to an Off The Derech Jew of course, bringing down a ruling regarding a Jew raised by gentiles
2) able to change that status now. Come Saturday night, we begin our new week, and that secular Jew hasn't desecrated the Sabbath yet, maybe they won't. Same rule regarding Kashrut, sure they went to McDonalds for breakfast, but perhaps going forward they will stop.
3) The original idea for the early minyanim on Saturday mornings weren't on call Doctors, it was men that had to work on Saturdays. With an early Minyan, they were a Shomer-Shabbat Jew, worthy of an Aliyah. The later desecration, well, hopefully next week it won't happen.

Why is intermarriage different? Because you are publicly sinning, and need a court order or the death of your spouse, to undo it. All you have to do to stop desecrating the Sabbath is stop doing prohibited actions on the Sabbath, all you have to do regarding Kashrut is stop eating non-Kosher food. Intermarriage is a WHOLE nother animal.

The Bnei Niddah issue is a straw man. It brings down a superstition from the Gemara that mostly has no legal affect, other than providing a few ignorant Chareidi Rabbeim something to spout out about, mostly to bash people not them.

A woman having an affair would potentially bear a mamzer. When a married woman has a child, we assume it is her husband, and we never question that unless forced to.

When 2/3 of Reform Jews are intermarrying, the majority of those affiliated with that movement are intermarried (or it's on that way). Net-net, you can't condemn it, because it's not a sin, it's normal, and in-marriage is backwards, primitive, and tribal.

That's why we cast them out, because the hurtfulness to a single intermarried Jew seems terrible, but the collective actions in the Reform movement is destroying it as a Jewish movement. Sometimes the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the one. Doesn't excuse boorish behavior, but not bestowing communal honors, and reminding the congregation of that one or more times a year of that policy, puts people on notice as to what is right or wrong.

Wed Aug 05, 05:32:00 PM 2009  
Blogger scarlettscion said...

This isn't a problem per se for the Reform movement, which has made themselves a movement for gentiles that are disenchanted with Mainline Protestantism and gay Jews who don't have a home in traditional Judaism.

Wow...as a convert who was never a "mainline Protestant," that was impressively offensive. So you don't like "homophilia," but you're not so down with homophobia either...which leaves what? Ostensibly compassionante condemnation?

As for the idea that a Judaism which accepts homosexuality isn't Jewish...you are entitled to your opinion. I certainly suppose it is possible that the liberal movements will go the way of the Hellenistic Jews. On the other hand, even the most conservative sects of Judaism have undergone wild sea changes in what is and is not acceptable over the centuries, so we'll see whose viewpoint is left standing in a few centuries, I suppose.

And you didn't address the hypocrisy issue. If a movement is at least consistent in denying honors to (for example) : criminals, those who publicly &repeatedly break Jewish law, and intermarried Jews, I have less of a problem.

But that isn't the case in the Conservative movement Shira is referencing. Many Conservo rabbis seem to think the shul president driving on Shabbat is totally fine, publicly breaking kashrut is just fine, but are then boorish/rude to intermarried Jews. Not appropriate.

Thu Aug 06, 10:13:00 PM 2009  
Blogger scarlettscion said...

"I'm not conservative, so I can't answer that question, but marrying out, short of converting or professing one's atheism, is the ultimate denial of Judaism."

Really, jdub? Moses must have REALLY hated Judaism, then. And you know, I always thought that, say, running around killing other Jews, or holding talks with Ahmadinajad while denying the Shoah might just be worse.

Guess not.

Thu Aug 06, 10:20:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was afraid someone would bring up Moshe. But in the context of intermarriage, he's really not a useful example, since his marriage precedes matan torah. Esther, on the other hand, may be an excellent example. Or, perhaps since her children would be jewish regardless, her marriage to a shaigetz is inconsequential.

I think the real problem here, application of halacha aside, is the issue of "standards" particularly among the conservative. Standards are good, but they have consequences and sometimes people are uncomfortable with consequences. I have seen conservative congregations struggle with the intermarried issue -- aliyot, family simchas, etc. There's a peculiarly american reluctance to offend someone. But if you suggest that the answer then is prohibit intermarried families from joining the congregation (which has its own consequences, both social and economic) which prevents the problem from arising, your cast as a biggot. Or worse, someone with a superiority complex. Conservative Rabbis often speak of wanting their congregants to increase their observance, but are afraid to stress this for fear of alienating the vast majority of members, who belong in reform temples, anyway.

Thu Aug 06, 11:01:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

Anonymous at 11:01 pm was me. Unreliable keyboard on an old laptop.

Thu Aug 06, 11:03:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

scarlettscion, intermarriage is seen as a public declaration of apostasy. It's not about sinfulness, it's about a wonton declaration of separatism. Remember, we're only talking about intermarried men here, since we are discussing Shul honors and in the case of the woman, the need to welcome her children (Jews) trumps.

A Jewish man choosing to marry a gentile is clearly ending his family line's association with the Jewish people. While he remains a Jew, his children are not. That is a public break with the Jewish people. Why hand him an honor? To avoid hurting his feelings? He knowing took a course of action that would separate his children from his Jewish heritage, he cut himself off, not the other way around.

Thu Aug 06, 11:38:00 PM 2009  

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