In or out doesn’t work any more

In or out doesn’t work any more

Two Conservative rabbis ponder intermarriage as something other than a binary problem

Rabbi Adina Lewittes, left, and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
Rabbi Adina Lewittes, left, and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie

Black or white.

Yes or no.

In or out.

Right or wrong.

That’s binary thinking. It’s comfortable, it’s often convenient, it sometimes works.

But it doesn’t work as well as it used to.

It’s the way the Jewish world traditionally has approached intermarriage. It’s bad. If you do it, you’re out.

The problem — or, that is, one problem — is that we no longer have the luxury of that approach. Demographics tell us as much. According to the 2013 Pew study, as many as 70 percent of liberal Jews have intermarried since 2000.

What to do? How to retain Jewish values — and for that matter to retain Jews — but be open to the outside world?

Rabbis Adina Lewittes of Closter and her friend Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie do not pretend to have the answers, but they say, in a joint op-ed distributed by JTA, that they can no longer pretend that there is no problem.

Both are innovators — Rabbi Lewittes has created Sha’ar Communities here in northern New Jersey, and Rabbi Lau-Lavie has founded both the Manhattan-based Lab/Shul and Storahtelling.

Both grew up in Orthodox homes, with relatives prominent in the Orthodox world, and both chose to be ordained by the Conservative movement, and to join the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, although both head nondenominational — perhaps postdenominational — communities.

“We have a commitment to addressing the reality of the Jewish world today in a way that is both respectful of Jewish tradition and inclusive of Jewish community,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “We both feel strongly that the Conservative movement has the resources, the capacity, the intellectual prowess, and the halachic sensitivity — and should have the ideological courage — to address the issue.”

Rabbi Lewittes decided, with great sadness, to leave the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which forbids rabbis from performing intermarriages, and in fact can expel them even for showing up as a guest at such a wedding.

“Coming from a background deeply steeped in traditional observance and learning, I had to make a journey that required negotiating otherness,” she said. “First, being a woman in the Orthodox world, I had a real sense of calling to engage much more deeply in Jewish practice and ritual, and with the opportunity for Jewish leadership.

“I had to leave home in order to come home to myself.”

When she first encountered the Conservative movement, “I was just so overwhelmed by the discovery of a community that could bring together intellectual openness, curiosity, and courage, with a deep and abiding and dynamic ritual and spiritual expression,” she said. “And that’s the part of the Conservative movement that I still love, and that I believe has the capacity to address the issue with love and authenticity.”

Another characteristic that rabbis Lewittes and Lau-Lavie share is that both are gay. “My second experience of othering was coming out as a gay woman before the Conservative movement had evolved a framework for enfranchising LGBT Jews in the halachic framework,” she said. “That was very painful. Those experiences sensitize you to the experiences of those who feel other in our community.”

Of course, she added, “that doesn’t flatten the distinction between us,” between LGBT Jews and intermarried ones. “But both bring up serious questions about the evolving sense of Jewish identity and belonging in the Jewish community. And it certainly does motivate you to listen deeply to people who feel marginalized, and to listen to what it is they are seeking. To be responsive to the realities of the Jewish world today, and then to think and explore what resources we have.

“We have to be able to open our community as widely as we can — without losing our sense of integrity and authenticity.”

Rabbi Lewittes now does perform intermarriages, but carefully; she agrees to do them according to the rules she has established. “I will work with couples who are intermarrying who are committing to living their lives in the Jewish world.”

She decides to perform a wedding only after serious discussion with the couple. Even then, “I don’t do what you would recognize as a traditional Jewish wedding,” she said. “I will perform a ceremony that includes Jewish teaching, some Jewish music, a chuppah, and other elements that are customary, as opposed to halachic, in order to convey to the couple the embrace of the Jewish community. I explicitly state, in my talk to them, that we want and expect their ongoing presence in our community — our synagogues, our JCCs, our camps, our institutions — and that we want their friendship and fellowship as we continue to work for the future of the Jewish people and for the State of Israel. I am very explicit about that.”

On the other hand, “I do not do kiddushin or the sheva brachot.” Those are halachic requirements. She also does not ever co-officiate at a wedding; that would break her most basic requirement, that the couple commit to living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home, and raising a Jewish family.

“The vast majority of intermarrying couples come to me because they see themselves as committing themselves to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

The question of conversion is a tender one. It is always a goal, but not always a realistic one, for reasons ranging from the family of origin to someone being “not a person of faith, but having a deep appreciation of culture and ethnicity. What we currently offer is a door into Jewish identity that is spiritual and theological. What is lacking are alternative ways of welcoming someone into the Jewish community. One potential model for this is revisiting a biblical and talmudic category that ascribed membership in the Jewish community to people living among us.” That’s a ger toshav — a resident alien.

“We are trying to emphasize that we no longer live in a society that’s binary,” she said. “It is a marketplace of ideas and identities, in which people curate their own sense of self that is often a composite of many different things, a self that often is evolving.

“It is about being thoughtful and mindful. About living in the 21st century. There is a vastness to the array of choices we have.” It used to be heretical to choose anything other than the condition to which you were born, she said; in fact, the Greek root of the word “heresy” means “to choose.” Today, though, “we live in a world with the imperative to choose.”

The balance between longing for a Jewish life, surrounded by Jews, and the need to be clear-eyed about the world is a hard but necessary one, she said; of course, it would be much easier if such balance were not demanded.

“But the reality of intermarriage is that it is something every Jewish family, including my own, may encounter,” she said. “I would be naïve not to know that. And I know full well that trying to make the Jewish community as welcoming and diverse as possible can have deep ramifications for my family too.

“But Jewish tradition — and particularly talmudic tradition — is based on the ability to hold multiple truths and even multiple practices within a singular embrace of community. That is our tradition — the preservation of opinions that were not taken up. Our Jewish world is so much more diverse now that it ever was before in history.”

Unlike Rabbi Lewittes, Rabbi Lau-Lavie does not officiate at intermarriages. He does not officiate at any marriages at all. After a long discussion with his board, he has decided to take the next year to 18 months to wrestle with the issue; at the end of that time he either will decide to stay in the Rabbinic Assembly, working from the inside, or to leave it entirely.

“I think that there is a moment now that is relevant both to the Conservative movement and to the rest of Jewry,” Rabbi Lau-Lavie said. “The paradigm shift is real, and people across the spectrum” — the liberal spectrum, that is — “understand that we need to move on in some way, that we need a shift.

“My own personal narrative is that I chose purposefully to focus on the Conservative movement. That was the place I wanted to be trained, both for my current and my future work, both in the States and possibly eventually elsewhere. I went to JTS for the learning, and for the political and ideological sense that this is where I feel closest.

“At the same time, this issue” — intermarriage — “needs to come to a head. I am taking this time to research and come up with a solution that will absolutely satisfy me and some of my colleagues, and that will enable me to lead my community with integrity.

“I know that there are many people, both in the Conservative movement and outside it, who contacted me recently. This need is shared by many people who are looking for a wise, sensitive, and respectful synthesis and compromise.

“We need ways to be able to be welcoming and provide access to the families that are being formed now,” he continued. “Now more than ever, that has to be reconciled with the historical halachic reality.”

“We need to have continuity and at the same time discontinuity,” he said.

What’s that?

“In every generation, we revamp and rekindle some of what we have inherited, so we can continue it,” he said. “You can see the LBGT teshuva” — that was the 2009 decision of the RA’s Commission on Jewish Law and Standards to allow LGBT rabbinical students to be ordained, and to allow rabbis to perform same-sex weddings — “as a discontinuity, but it also allowed continuity. It’s the same as women’s role in the minyan, and in leadership in general.” It’s that discontinuity that allowed continuity.

“In this case, we are focusing on finding a win/win solution, a nonbinary solution, to invite those who are of other faiths or of no faith to become part of the Jewish community in a beautiful and dignified way, as long as they make the Jewish community and the Jewish home their priority. That does not necessarily mean conversion, because conversion is by definition binary.”

He also is studying the concept of the ger toshav. “It is not exactly clear what the extent of its use was, but with some alterations it could be a very powerful possibility for reimagination,” he said. “We could use it as a model.” Still, “there are many questions that I don’t have an answer for yet,” he added.

In the biblical and talmudic periods, where the concept was created and then evolved, “There was a historical structure that enabled people to understand fluidity and various forms of identity and belonging that were not rigid,” he said.

And there also is a backlash, as the presidential election has made clear. “The reality is that not everyone is going to fit into a box,” Rabbi Lau-Lavie said. “What is happening now is that we are seeing a nostalgic return to what has been defined as a neo-tribal tendency, a yearning for the good old days of binary in and out, us versus them, good guys versus bad guys. And in reaction, some of us recoil from that.

“It is interesting that the Jewish grandchildren in the White House will be the product of an old-school binary conversion. It could have been the other model.” (He’s talking about the children of Jared Kushner, who was born Jewish, and Ivanka Trump, who converted, and the children of Chelsea Clinton, who is not Jewish, and Mark Mezvinsky, who is.) “It is super-interesting,” he said.

“The issue of identity is what is going on now. People are attracted to what we have to offer. Seekers are interested in the notion of Jewish wisdom, and people are looking for ways to share their lives with Jews, who very often themselves don’t have enough knowledge of what we have to offer,” he said.

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