A controversy is roiling the Reform movement over whether its seminary should change its admissions policy to allow students with a non-Jewish partner or spouse. Rabbi Gregory Marx argues that clergy must lead by example.
Of course, the American rabbi must be in touch with his or her congregation in order to serve and to lead. An out-of-touch rabbi is an irrelevant leader. It is essential for rabbis of any denomination to understand the challenges and opportunities of modern Jewish living.
Having said that, the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in an attempt to synchronize Reform rabbis with modern trends, should not reconsider its policy of only ordaining rabbinical students who are in committed marriages — partnerships with Jews. There are many reasons.
First, a rabbi’s authority is predicated on the life that he or she leads. If we believe that in-marriage is preferable to intermarriage, then a rabbi must set a personal example by choosing a Jewish partner. A smoker cannot tell his/her children not to smoke and be taken seriously. Parents who drive without a seatbelt have no legitimate voice when demanding that their children buckle up. An intermarried rabbi will have absolutely no authority to encourage a Jew to marry within his/her own faith and will be rendered mute on what is arguably the most pivotal contemporary question regarding Jewish continuity.
Second, those who maintain that HUC should change its policy argue that the rabbinate must reflect the realities of the American-Jewish experience. While there have been times when the criteria for admission has changed — as with the ordination of women and gays — those situations are exceptional.
In those circumstances, there was no choice. One cannot choose to be a woman or gay. Thus, the decision to adapt HUC’s admission policy was a necessary and worthwhile act of inclusion for those who had been historically on the outside. The case of intermarriage is completely different. One may not choose to fall in love, but intermarriage is most certainly a choice, and not a rabbinic one, by my reckoning.
Third, a rabbi must be a symbolic exemplar of Jewish behavior. Not only do we teach and preach; we set the standard for our individual communities on accepted Jewish behavior. The rabbinate is not a mirror for what Jews are doing. Quite the contrary: We are to be an example of what Jews ought to be doing.
A rabbi may be reflecting the community if he/she is intermarried, but such a rabbi is certainly not leading the community. When rabbis practice what they preach, they are fulfilling their fundamental religious mission. A rabbi toils to inspire meaningful holiday observance because he or she observes them. A rabbi shares a passion for Israel because he/she hopes to increase a greater commitment to the land and people of Israel.
When rabbis reject the idea of leading by example, they simultaneously discard the very idea behind the rabbinate, which is to lead, to inspire and to continue shalshelet ha-kabbalah, a chain of tradition.
It is hard to be a rabbi. No doubt about that. But if a rabbinical student is not willing to make the tough choices, and be an example of Jewish living, then such a person should consider another career path.
Fourth, a rabbi needs to depend on a spouse, as I do, one who appreciates my faith, commitment and passion. I’ve been a rabbi for almost 30 years. The commitment to my congregation and community is monumental. I am out most nights. I am on call 24/7. Even when I’m on “vacation,” I take calls and, at times, fly back to officiate at funerals and other significant life-cycle events for my congregation. It can be exhausting.
I thank God that I have a loving Jewish spouse who appreciates the work I do, and puts up with long absences and distractions from family life. I honestly don’t think that my marriage would have survived the pulpit if my wife were, say, Catholic, and didn’t share my commitment. If I was married to a woman who did not live my faith and understand my sacrifice, then her resentment would grow — and divorce might soon follow. The divorce rate is higher statistically among the intermarried because of the difference in cultural language, values, child-rearing traditions and so much more. That statistic would be compounded if the Jew were a rabbi.
Finally, I always resist the slippery-slope argument, but nonetheless, I can’t help ask: What if an intermarried rabbi chose to raise his/her child in the faith of the partner? What might this suggest about the future of Reform Judaism? It’s laughable, but not, given modern trends, out of the realm of possibility. If intermarried rabbis become the norm in Reform Judaism, it would not only turn the rabbinate into a job, with less commitment, sacrifice and authoritative purpose, it would turn Reform Judaism into a denomination that few could take seriously.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.