The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi

David Curiel didn’t intend to cause any controversy when he decided to become a rabbi in the summer of 2008. At 35, he was happy to have finally picked a career.

It was a surprising choice for the soft-spoken son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who split his youth between Caracas, Venezuela and the suburbs of Detroit. Curiel always had a strong sense of spirituality, but he ascribed it to his itinerant upbringing rather than to his occasional appearances at synagogue or his five-year stint at Hebrew school. A bona fide wandering Jew, Curiel couldn’t help feeling that Judaism offered, at best, a very windy route to spiritual fulfillment.

His path to rabbinical school was roundabout indeed. It started in 2003, when he met Amberly Polidor, who grew up worlds apart from Curiel in a conservative Christian family. Polidor had left the church, and soon after they started dating, the couple began attending services regularly at Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Beyt Tikkun, a synagogue in Berkeley, California. It was there, Curiel says, that he “found God.” He began taking classes with Lerner and other local rabbis. Shortly after he and Polidor were married in 2005, Curiel felt that he’d finally found his calling.

So he was shocked when Hebrew College (HC), the non-denominational, Boston-based rabbinical school that appealed to him because it seemed “progressive and forward-thinking,” told him he would not be welcome at its seminary because his wife was not Jewish.

Neither Curiel’s situation nor HC’s policy is unique. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) all refuse to admit or ordain students in relationships with non-Jews. “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling,” reads the policy at HUC, the network of seminaries for America’s largest Jewish denomination, “applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”

If the policies affect only a small number of potential rabbis, they channel strong ideological currents. Rabbinical leaders contend that the policies are not only consistent with halacha, but actually embody core notions of Jewishness. “Jewishness has not historically been understood as a matter of individual faith or choice,” explains Jonathan Boyarin, a professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “but as entitlement and obligation based ultimately on descent.” With this notion of Jewish collectivity already threatened by high intermarriage rates in America, the schools see rabbis as the last remaining bulwark in the fight to keep liberal Judaism Jewish; if the levees break and the policies are washed away, they worry, Jewishness as we know it could disappear.

That’s exactly what some policy opponents want: to expand the boundaries of Jewishness with the goal of ultimately redefining what it means to be a Jew. “At stake in this debate,” explains Rabbi Shirley Idelson, dean of HUC’s New York campus, “are competing visions of our people’s future – if and how we will survive, what we will look like, and the role that rabbis and cantors will play in shaping our people’s future.”

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Until recently, the debates over whether to ordain women and gays took precedence over the question of exogamy’s place in the rabbinate. With those issues largely resolved – as of December 2006, even the Conservative movement permits homosexuals to become rabbis, and some Orthodox groups are considering ordaining women – a new generation of American Jews are putting their agenda on the table, and the issue is emerging as the new locus of a sharp ideological divide.

The conflict’s roots lie in the recent surge in intermarriage among American Jews – and in liberal Judaism’s resulting shift in attitude towards the intermarried. Intermarriage rates leapt from 2% at the turn of the century and 10% in 1965 to over 25 percent by the mid-1970s. With demographic studies indicating that intermarried couples were far less likely than their in-married counterparts to raise their children Jewish, the non-Orthodox movements decided to adjust their approach by accepting intermarried couples into the fold.

In 1973, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Reform Judaism’s rabbinical organization, announced that it would permit its rabbis to officiate at intermarriages, reversing a 1909 ban. The Reconstructionists followed suit, and, in the next decade, both movements passed controversial resolutions recognizing the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as entirely Jewish, a departure from the traditional definition which saw Jewishness as being conveyed through the mother. On the heels of these legal changes, the Reform, Reconstructionist and, to a lesser extent, Conservative movements instituted extensive outreach campaigns targeting interfaith families.

Out of this context grew the fear that rabbis themselves might intermarry. As a result, rules that had previously been unspoken gradually found their way into seminary rulebooks. Naturally, the more liberal HUC and RRC codified their policies first (HUC’s came in the form of the “blue sheet” which all students were required to sign); JTS, whose rabbis do not preside over intermarriages, formally barred intermarried students for the first time this year, after one such student recently sought admission.

The problem for the non-Orthodox movements was that they had now codified a different set of rules for clergy and laity. “It’s not clear what the justification is for holding rabbis to different standards than their congregants,” notes Boyarin. Sooner or later, some intermarried and religious person would decide to become a rabbi and would undoubtedly be upset when what appeared to be a rabbinically-sanctioned double standard got in the way.

The issue almost came to a head in early 2002, when Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh raised the question at the CCAR’s annual conference. According to the statement he submitted, a devout congregant of his wanted to know why she could not attend HUC’s rabbinical school.

The CCAR responded decisively, offering its “full and unqualified support” for HUC’s policy. “Someday, perhaps,” its responsum suggested, “her husband will come to share that commitment to Judaism.” Until then, it said, she would have to find another vocation. It also implied that the Reform movement’s welcoming attitude towards interfaith families was born largely of necessity, and not of a sincere desire to become more inclusive. The latter interpretation represented “an incomplete, and therefore incorrect, perception of our attitude toward marriage between Jews and non-Jews…Although we do not use terms such as ‘prohibition’ and ‘sin’ to describe mixed marriage,” it explained, “we do not condone mixed married itself.”

***

Among the earliest opponents of the new policies was Maurice Harris, a rabbi in Eugene, Oregon, who began his studies at Philadelphia’s RRC in 1998. Harris was admitted in 1996 but deferred for a year, during which time he stumbled into a serious relationship with a non-Jew named Melissa Crabbe. “She was really taken with Reconstructionism,” he says. “It absolutely resonated with her approach towards religion.”

Shortly before enrollment, Harris got a call from an administrator who mentioned that Melissa’s last name did not look Jewish. When he confessed that she was not, the administrator reminded him of the school’s policy: RRC “does not ordinarily admit or graduate as a rabbi a student married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jew.”

According to Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the seminary’s 47-year-old president, the school has not admitted any such candidate in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Harris got lucky. After meeting with the administration, the school decided to treat him as if he had begun the program before entering into the relationship (the seminaries do not explicitly prohibit interfaith dating among enrolled students). Harris was allowed to enroll, giving Melissa nearly five years to convert. If she chose not to, the relationship would have to end, or Harris would have to forego his ordination. The school’s policy on interfaith dating, explains Ehrenkrantz, ensures that students like Harris “have time to work it out.”

But Harris recalls learning about at least five fellow students in covert relationships with non-Jews – evidence that many students are too scared even to “come out” about their partners. “We were the only out couple which was an interesting thing in a seminary known for being very gay-friendly and where issues of being closeted had a strong impact on many students and faculty members,” he says. At one point, Harris and others wrote a letter calling for a policy-change, gathering signatures from about a third of the student body, to no effect.

Harris speaks positively about RRC and its faculty, but he believes that “people were doing things to enforce this policy that made them uncomfortable and seemed to put them in cognitive dissonance with some of their own values.” The policy also put a damper on his experience – for years he lived with the discomfiting knowledge that his ordination was contingent on Melissa’s conversion. Although she did eventually convert in 2003 – four years after they married and just in time for Harris to graduate – she felt that she’d done so on someone else’s terms.

***

According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, “in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.

Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.” While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that “we don’t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.” We do know, he says, that “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.”

Rabbi Yael Shmilovitz, a recent HUC graduate who gave a controversial senior sermon in favor of intermarriage in 2007, differs sharply with Cohen. Rabbis should serve as role models, she says, but “endogamy is not a value to be emulated.” In her view, the ideals embodied by the “blue sheet,” which is now colorless and exists only online, are products of “deep-seated Jewish fears of disappearing. It’s about the reluctance to realize that in order to survive we have to change.” And change won’t come if liberal Jewish movements see intermarriage “as a necessary evil to be contended with rather than a blessing,” she says. “If Judaism is strong and vibrant it will survive, and if not, it won’t, regardless of who anyone marries.”

The newly installed president of the CCAR, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, has emphasized her desire to help young Jews find new, meaningful ways to connect to the religion, but she believes that allowing intermarriage in the rabbinate crosses a thick red line. “Being a rabbi is not a right; it is a privilege and an honor,” she says. “There are other ways to serve God and the Jewish people.”

Dreyfus scorns the suggestion that a modified policy could create a more hospitable environment in which students could speak openly about their relationships. “If students “are being deceptive and ‘closeted,’ it is not the fault of the college, but rather of the [potential] student not understanding or accepting clearly stated rules,” she says.

Deceit may have drawbacks, but openness has consequences, too. M, who was admitted to rabbinical school last month after her boyfriend agreed to convert by 2010, says it would have been easy to pretend he was Jewish. Although she decided against hiding his background from the school – albeit “with no judgment for friends who have made that choice” – M remains torn about the conversion. “The fact that it’s forced puts this strain on his relationship with Judaism,” she says. “The worst parts of Judaism, the parts that exclude and marginalize people, seem to be the parts asking the person I love to convert. That’s really hurtful to me.”

Nor is openness always an option. Y began dating a woman from a Christian background during his second year of rabbinical school and felt compelled to take the relationship underground. He told some close friends, but kept his girlfriend a secret from most students, and the faculty. The experience was hardly enjoyable. “There’s the issue of what it did for the person I was dating,” he says, and “how that made her feel that I was hiding her.”

For rabbinical leaders, though, the delicate, personal problems that stem from these policies seem trivial in light of the crisis they are supposedly helping avert. “The bedrock of what it means to be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Ehrenkrantz of the RRC. “Leaders of the Jewish community, who model to others what Jewish life can be, should themselves be in homes that are fully Jewish.”

The fact remains that intermarried rabbis exist, and there is at least anecdotal evidence that theirs is occasionally a valuable – and viable – occupation. In 1992, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the neo-Kabbalistic Jewish Renewal movement, ordained Tirzah Firestone, making her the first intermarried rabbi on record. In her memoir With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Firestone recounts how her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith.

According to Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of ordination programs at ALEPH, the small non-denominational seminary affiliated with the Renewal movement, Firestone’s experience informed the school’s approximately 10-year-old policy to evaluate students with non-Jewish partners on a case-by-case basis. When ALEPH does admit such students, it does so with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will one day “join the tribe” and with the caution, born of experience, that intermarried rabbis face “exceptional challenges.”

Ed Stafman, a recent ALEPH graduate and the 55-year-old rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Bozeman, Montana, was the second intermarried rabbi ordained by ALEPH, and is one of the world’s few intermarried rabbis. He takes a fairly stern view of mixed marriages, only presiding if the marrying couple commits to raising their children Jewish, and arguing that intermarried Jews should be ordained only in exceptional situations – like his own. Stafman, after all, had been married for a decade when he experienced his Jewish rebirth. “It’s not as if I wanted to be a rabbi and then decided to intermarry,” he says.

Shortly after his ordination, Stafman saw an ad for a congregational post in Montana. He called, expecting his intermarriage to be a conversation-ender. To his surprise, the response was, “‘Oh, I see what you’re saying: because we have so many intermarried people in our community, you would be an asset for us.’ They actually felt that I was promoting myself!”

Since becoming Bozeman’s rabbi last year, Stafman has indeed come to see his marriage as an asset to the city’s large interfaith community. When he encounters Bozemanites who attribute their absence from Jewish community life to intermarriage, Stafman tells them, “Well, my wife isn’t Jewish.” For intermarried couples, he says, that’s often a big surprise, and it’s sometimes enough to draw them into the synagogue.

Stafman says the exchanges help put liberal Judaism’s emphasis on welcoming interfaith families into practice. “When rabbis cannot be intermarried and when so many rabbis will not do intermarriages, the message that a non-Jewish partner hears is ‘I’m not wanted,’ he says. “Rabbis can talk all day long about how that’s not the message,” but what intermarried couples hear is, “‘They’ll accept me if they have to, but they don’t really want me.'”

***

As David Curiel remembers, his wife was less surprised than he was to learn of the policy at Hebrew College. Amberly, who is committed to helping create a Jewish household and is prepared to one day raise her children as Jews, was disappointed, and indignant. The policy struck her as “a profound injustice. What was most upsetting,” she says, was the implication that because of their intermarriage, “we were incapable of Jewish family modeling. I thought, ‘Have they lit candles with us on a Friday night or sat at our seder table” Do they know I recite the Kiddush from memory each week? Have they tasted my matzo-ball soup or David’s challah?'”

Curiel was distraught. Here was an official voice of Judaism driving a wedge between the two things he loved most: his wife and his faith. “Had I been single or married to a nominally Jewish woman there would be no problem,” he says. “But I have this rich spiritual connection to my wife, very much informed by the synagogue we attended and inspired by her spirituality, and because of that, it’s virtually impossible for me to become a mainstream rabbi.”

Initially set on HC, Curiel is now weighing his options, but he won’t have very many to weigh until Amberly converts – or rabbinical school policies change. “I think if I asked her to convert she would consider it seriously,” he says, “But I want somebody to convert because they really feel ready, not because of some pragmatic or legalistic reason.” Curiel also concedes that he’s fighting for something much more important than his personal ordination. His struggle, in fact, is for a new brand of Judaism whose values are truly universal.

Curiel envisions a Jewishness free from the exclusive, tribal inclinations that history once mandated for the Jews, inclinations that he feels mainstream Judaism still clings to, and that are excluding him from the rabbinate. “This policy feels like a perpetuation of the pain that we’ve felt as a people for thousands of years,” he says. “The way Jews perceive themselves in the world has to do with that pain, and it’s been almost mindlessly passed on from generation to generation. It’s honestly part of the reason that I was turned off from Judaism when I was growing up.”

Inspired by that vision, Curiel has written a new policy that he hopes HC and other rabbinical schools will one day adopt. It requires applicants “to show commitment, knowledge, and passion for creating a Jewish household” and, acknowledging a variety of valid Jewish identities, agrees to “accept applicants in interfaith relationships and marriages who will be able to engage with, support, and otherwise Jewishly enrich the families of the communities they serve.”

“When we left Mitzrayim,” says Curiel, “we were breaking free not only from being slaves, but also from that slavery mentality. That transcendence that we celebrate every Passover” he explains, “that’s really the Jewish story.”

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