Montreal’s Congregation Dorshei Emet, one of Canada’s three Reconstructionist congregations, opposes the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s (RRC) Sept. 30 decision to revoke its “non-Jewish partner” policy.
The policy stipulated that a Jew married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jewish partner wasn’t permitted to enter or graduate from the rabbinical school.
“I think rabbis need to model maximal Jewish living and not model what’s on the rise – mixed marriages,” Dorshei Emet’s Rabbi Ron Aigen said.
The RRC consulted his synagogue board last year, he explained, when both he and the board expressed their resistance to removing the ban that prevented the ordination of intermarried rabbis.
While his congregation hasn’t made any decisions about whether to continue its affiliation with the college, Rabbi Aigen stressed, “We’re not happy with the situation.”
He argued that allowing rabbis to intermarry promotes the practice and sends the message that conversion of non-Jewish partners needn’t be considered.
While rabbis should support interfaith couples striving to raise Jewish children, he said, “for a rabbi to take that route [of intermarrying], to me seems wrong.”
In a Sept. 30 statement, the Philadelphia-based RRC – the Reconstructionist movement’s only seminary – announced the revocation of the ban, the result of a faculty vote held Sept. 21.
It said the movement believes the boundaries of Judaism are “porous and constantly evolving” and that the Jewish future depends on “shifting focus toward Jews ‘doing Jewish’ in ways that are meaningful to them rather than on ‘being Jewish’ because of bloodline or adherence to mandated behaviours.’”
In a media conference call Sept. 30, RRC president Rabbi Deborah Waxman said faculty reached the decision after an extensive, two-year consultation process with RRC students and alumni, as well as with leadership from congregations across North America.
The exact results of the vote are confidential, she noted.
Rabbi Waxman said the RRC doesn’t believe it’s the job of rabbis to “police boundaries” and believes the change will potentially expand the number of “passionate, excited, creative Jewish leaders” and increase the number of rabbis who can model what it means to create a Jewish home in a mixed-faith household.
Intermarriage is prevalent in the United States, she said, yet “there are interfaith families living wonderfully rich Jewish lives and making beautiful Jewish homes. We can work with them and help raise them to the highest level of leadership.”
Rabbi Aigen said he takes issue with the notion that two partners can have completely separate spiritual identities, arguing this contradicts the value of Judaism being a “family affair.”
“Judaism is about creating unified family identity – not one that’s [necessarily] racial or biological, but one you can join, if you want.”
He stressed that Dorshei Emet welcomes people in mixed marriages to the congregation and encourages their participation in synagogue life, however, “ritually, there are certain limitations [on non-Jewish participants] in terms of what they can do in synagogue. Those limitations are part of them saying, ‘I’m not Jewish and I don’t want to become Jewish formally.’ But you can’t say, ‘I don’t want to be Jewish, but I want to be treated like a Jew and given all the rights and privileges of Jewish life.’”
Rabbi Tina Grimberg of Toronto’s Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam, wouldn’t comment on the new policy, but said she expressed her views on the subject in a piece she wrote for The CJN last May, exploring whether rabbis should be permitted to intermarry.
In discussing the issue’s complexity, Grimberg challenged the notion that “intercoupled” rabbis are more likely to help integrate interfaith couples into the Jewish world.
Rather, she wrote, “empathy, understanding, real engagement in people’s lives… is what fosters integration.”
She concluded that, while there’s evidence children of interfaith couples can and do live Jewishly, ordaining intermarried rabbis isn’t the way to accomplish such integration.
“The Jewish life of a rabbi has never been meant to be a mirror for his or her community,” she wrote.
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist congregation, said she believes the decision represents a positive change.
“I’m very optimistic and hopeful as a Reconstructionist rabbi about our approach to Judaism and to training Jewish leaders,” she said.
Rabbi Waxman said that the RRC, which typically graduates between eight and 10 rabbis each year, has previously turned away potential students who would otherwise make “wonderful rabbis.”
“We want… our rabbinic leadership… to model openness, transparency and consistency in their lives, and we hope [with the changed policy] students can bring their full selves to their training as rabbis.”
She said she could not speak at this time to how enrolment will be affected by the policy change.