Widely Diverse Views: Passover, Officiation, Selling Judaism

Attitudes about intermarriage – and Jewish “stuff” in general – seem so far apart at times, are we riding on the same bus?


Here’s a timely example, with Passover approaching. The Boston Jewish Advocate is owned by Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, a Hassidic rebbe. His wife writes a weekly column, Ask the Rebbetzin. In the March 24, 2017 issue, someone asked if a Christian friend who is curious about Judaism could attend her Passover seder. The Rebbetzin said that many rabbinic authorities say that “it is not appropriate (and many say forbidden) to have non-Jews at the Pesach Seder.”

Twelve years ago, in April 2005, I wrote a letter to the editor saying I was mortified when the Rebbe made the same statement in the same newspaper. I asked whether he meant to suggest that intermarried parents from different faith backgrounds should be exiled from their own families’ seders, and questioned how many of those parents would want to raise their children with Judaism if Jewish leaders took that position.

This time around I had a respectful email exchange with the Rebbetzin. She explained that traditional Halachah (Jewish law) states that people who are not Jewish should not participate in the seder; that traditionally observant Jews are bound to follow it whether they agree or not; and that others may take a different approach.

I want to be respectful, and I’m in no position to say that members of a Hassidic community should welcome people who are not Jewish to their seders. But on the other hand, when Jewish leaders from that kind of community make a statement in the broader Jewish community that would serve to repel intermarried parents from Jewish life, it contributes to a general negative attitude about intermarriage that isn’t helpful.

At perhaps the other extreme, I loved Kate Bigam’s piece on ReformJudaism.org, Our Non-Traditional, Interfaith Seder: A Little Creativity and a Lot of Love, about her preparations for her first seder with her soon-to-be husband, who grew up Catholic. She wanted to “show him a good one” and focused on assembling what goes on the seder plate; then he arrived with a beautiful seder plate as a gift (shades of the famous O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi). They enjoyed working through the haggadah, but as she hadn’t prepared dinner, they planned to go to a taco place to eat, but ended up at a Thai restaurant instead. I loved her conclusion:

Traditionalists will say we didn’t do Passover right, and maybe that’s true. My Judaism is not perfect, but it’s genuine and passionate and important to me, even when I get a little creative about it. I’ll always remember Mike’s and my first seder together, and I look forward to many more to come.

I had to wonder what the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin would say about that non-traditional seder! There is something core about the seder ritual and more fundamentally about the meaning of the holiday to which both the Rebbetzin and Kate Bigam are very dedicated, but circling around that core are very divergent approaches. It’s easy to say that because they are in such different communities that are so far apart, it doesn’t matter what they think of each other. But I would like to hope that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin could respect the non-traditional approach the way I try to respect their traditional one; that would mean being more careful about statements they make to the broad Jewish community.

Officiation, and Conservative Judaism

Last week I blogged about the Conservative movement allowing synagogues to allow people who are not Jewish to be members, with a reference to the relatively new and apparently increasing discussion among Conservative rabbis about changing the prohibition against their officiating for interfaith couples. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a thoughtful and highly-regarded Conservative rabbi, has weighed in with To Officiate or Not at Intermarriages. Rabbi Cosgrove reveals that there was a “special off-the-record session” at the recent convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) indicating that “as a movement we clearly are squirming.” I have good reason to believe the session was a presentation by people from the Cohen Center at Brandeis about their game-changing study showing that interfaith couples who have a rabbi officiate have a higher rate of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Cosgrove says that if the data shows that officiation has positive impact, and if it is not at all surprising that if rabbis turn their backs on couples the couples will turn their backs on Judaism, then the argument that Conservative rabbis should serve the couples is a forceful one. But he is not persuaded. He says couples who are pre-disposed to be engaged might be more likely to have a rabbi – but the study found that controlling for childhood Jewish background and college experiences, intermarrieds who had sole Jewish clergy officiation were still more Jewishly engaged. He says that although Jewish law “can, and oftentimes should, change,” Jewish law has the right to limit what it validates. And he says that he “unapologetically want[s] young Jews to marry other Jews;” officiation at intermarriages “send[s] the message that all choices are equal, a message that I do not think wise given the undisputed place in-marriage has as the single most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.”

I respect Rabbi Cosgrove’s position but think it is misguided. Once he acknowledges that Jewish law can and oftentimes should change, it’s no longer a debate about Jewish law, it’s about the consequences of the positions taken – which brings us right back to couples turning their backs on Judaism when rabbis turn their backs on them.

Rabbi Cosgrove says he wants the Conservative movement’s message to be: we want you to marry Jews; when you don’t the path to conversion is warm and embracing and doable; if that’s not an option, we will help you build a Jewish family and future while respecting your spiritual integrity. Unfortunately this is the same message that the Conservative movement has been sending for the past twenty years, with no positive results to show. Rabbi Cosgrove says that when an intermarriage occurs, “we must be … passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Refusing to officiate seriously undermines any warm embrace. Daniel Solomon had a great story in the Forward about the Conservative movement’s recent change in membership rules, and his title says it all: Conservatives Welcome Non-Jews – But Will They Be Second-Class Citizens In the Synagogue? Solomon quotes Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as saying they wanted to “deepen the sense of welcome for those married to people of another faith,” but Solomon told me that Rabbi Wernick said the USCJ is going to be issuing guidelines that say non-Jews can’t serve on a synagogue board and the membership resolution will not change prohibitions adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly that do not allow people who are not Jewish to handle the Torah during services.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue wrote what I found to be a stunning explanation of The Power of ‘Yes’ on Interfaith Officiation. Rabbi Buchdahl did not officiate for the first ten years of her rabbinate. She learned that:

[S]aying “No” often leads to a profound alienation from the Jewish community. It pains me now, looking back, to think of the many children of my congregation who came to me with their non-Jewish partners, committed to having a Jewish home, and how I turned them away. Many of them left synagogue life permanently. I could no longer bear the hypocrisy I felt in refusing to stand with them for one of the most important days of their lives, but then inviting them to become synagogue members the next day. This could not be the right decision for our Jewish future.

Rabbi Buchdahl says she is now an “impassioned supporter of rabbinic officiation for a couple who commits to the creation of a Jewish home (the very same standard I apply when asked to officiate at a wedding between two Jews).” Rabbi Buchdahl finds power in saying “yes” in part because of the deep relationships couples build with their officiating rabbis. “Then, on their wedding day — one of the most consequential and memorable days of their lives — Jewish ritual becomes the vehicle for their transformation into a family.”

Over the years, I’ve talked to many rabbis who balked at saying the traditional phrase that consecrates a marriage, “under the laws of Moses and Israel,” for interfaith couples. But in what is to me a great advance in thinking on the issue, Rabbi Buchdahl says that “if a non-Jewish partner is willing to live in a home ‘under the laws of Moses and Israel,’ to study Jewish laws and practice, and to raise any future children as Jews, then a rabbi can consecrate that commitment with integrity.” In another great advance to my mind, she says that those who take Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism course, but chose not to convert, may not become “b’nai Yisrael” (children of Israel), but they become “bonei Yisrael, builders of Israel and our communities.” She says both b’nai Yisrael and bonei Yisrael are deserving of our blessing under the chuppah.

Of course there is a further end to the spectrum: some would say that officiating only when an interfaith couples commits to the creation of a Jewish home does not go far enough. Rabbi Buchdahl says that she will not “co-officiate with a leader from another faith; if the wedding is marking the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, instead of a new beginning, then I have no proper place there.” It’s not clear that she meant that co-officiation does mark the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, and I don’t believe that to be the case. But I’m very grateful to Rabbi Buchdahl for her thoughtful explanation of a position that I believe will clearly engage more interfaith couples in Jewish life than Rabbi Cosgrove’s.

Selling Judaism

Lastly, InterfaithFamily had a mention in the unlikely venue of BloombergBusinessweek, Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included. The article starts out with someone not Jewish celebrating Shabbat – Shabbat is “poised to become the new yoga practice.” Then it moves to Danya Shults, an intermarried Jew who started Arq, “a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions” that include holiday planning guides. The mention of InterfaithFamily quotes Rabbi Ari Moffic from InterfaithFamily/Chicago as saying “You can do Jewish … even if you’re not Jewish. You want to unplug? It’s called Shabbat, and we’re the experts on it.” The article also mentions Honeymoon Israel, which sends “nontraditional (interfaith, same-sex)” couples on trips to Israel. Everything is referred to as “cultural marketing.”

I’m just not sure that celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and traveling to Israel isn’t “religious,” as the article title suggests. Of course it depends on what “religious” means – and I’ll have to leave that for other posts. And I’m not saying that cultural marketing is a bad thing, far from it. To me, what related this article to the Passover and officiation issues is the very big factor of welcoming and inclusion, and those who are interested in perpetuating “religious” traditions should take notice. Because what motivated Shults and her Presbyterian husband to look for something different and to start Arq was that “We never really found a [religious] community that matched what we were looking for, especially for” him. “Many of the synagogues that purported to be inclusive turned out to have an agenda, such as trying to get [him] to convert or cultivating the couple’s political support for Israel.” We’ve got a long way to go on the welcoming and inclusion front.

Best wishes for a meaningful Passover – when, after all, we are charged to remember to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers ourselves.