On September 22, 1990 many rabbis, myself included, threw away one of the High Holiday sermons they had written and wrote a new one based on an episode of a TV show. “Prelude to a Bris”, an episode of “thirtysomething, featured the family tension as Hope and Michael Steadman wrangle with the question of whether or not to have a bris for their newborn son Leo. Hope is not Jewish, and while she had already said to Michael before they got married that she was willing to raise their children as Jews, she wonders now about her place as a non-Jew in a family with a Jewish husband and two Jewish kids (their daughter Janey is a toddler but because she is a girl, there was no question of a bris when she was born.) Finally, Hope says something to Michael that struck me as extremely wise (I’m paraphrasing from memory as I can’t find the episode online). “You say you want our kids to be Jewish and I’m fine with that. But I’m not sure that you really want to be Jewish. You show me that you want to be Jewish and then I am on board.”
The creators of “thirtysomething,” Edward Zwick and Michael Hershkowitz, were both Jewish men married to non-Jewish women, as was Ken Olin, the actor who played the main character Michael Steadman. So it’s reasonable to assume that this script represented some of their own personal wrestling with this issue. For me, it was my first inkling that intermarriage does not always have to be a negative for Jewish identity. Hope actually pushed Michael to embrace his Jewishness more fully and to take responsibility for his children’s Jewish identity. In more than three decades as a rabbi I have seen this dynamic played out over and over again.
A debate has been raging the last few weeks in the pages of eJewishPhilanthropy, which is an online newsletter about issues of concern to the Jewish community. In late February Dr. Keren McGinity, interfaith inclusion specialist for the United Synagogue, published an article called “Conservative Judaism’s new narrative on Jewish intermarriage.” Three weeks later a response, “Conservative Judaism does not need a ‘new narrative’ about intermarriage” was published by Dr. Jack Wertheimer, professor of Jewish history and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Finally yesterday, a response to Wertheimer appeared which was written by four rabbis, of which I was one, who participated in a recent program sponsored by the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly on greater inclusion of interfaith families in our congregations.
Even within the group of co-authors we do not agree on everything. At this point, I am still opposed to rabbinic officiation at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew because I don’t see how this can be done within our understanding of halacha. Others in the group stand ready to officiate if the Rabbinical Assembly changes its rules to allow doing so. But all of us agree that we can and must do everything we can within halacha to make our synagogues a welcoming place for all Jews and for Jewish-adjacent members of their families.
As always, if you have thoughts on what I have written I would love to hear from you. I only ask that you read, not only this “Rabbi’s Message” but all three eJewishPhilanthropy articles as well.
As a continuing reminder, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has established a Ukraine Emergency Fund to meet emergency humanitarian needs. You can find out more and donate here.
Our own Masorti (Conservative) movement has been active in Ukraine for decades with what was until recently a thriving network of congregations, schools, and camps. If you want to assist the worldwide Masorti effort in Ukraine and neighboring countries please give at this link.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian