Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 6
Going hand-in-hand with the intermarriage issue are questions relating to the role of the non-Jewish spouse in the synagogue and the status of children of intermarriages.
In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who at that time was the President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (U.A.H.C. – the congregational organization of Reform Judaism, now called the Union for Reform Judaism – U.R.J.) offered a radical proposal to our movement. He called it “Outreach.” He proposed that rather than close the doors of our synagogues to interfaith couples, we should open them with a warm welcome. He believed that if we made special efforts to help interfaith couples feel comfortable in our synagogues then we would stand a far better chance of holding onto them and their children for a brighter Jewish future. In this he was proven right as these families flocked to our synagogues and their children filled our religious schools and camps. The movement developed educational programs for these couples which, for the first time, provided such families with the tools to seriously and positively address the challenges of what it means to be an interfaith family. In fact, the efforts of the Outreach program were so successful that the movement found itself needing to address a new question – What should be the role of the non-Jewish partner in synagogue life? This was a radical departure considering the fact that outside of Reform Judaism it was taken for granted that non-Jewish partners had no role in synagogue life.
Still there was the question of the status of children born of an intermarriage. On this issue as well, Reform Judaism had a history of being inclusive. According to traditional standards, a Jew by birth is one who is born of a Jewish mother. However, in the reality of intermarriage, sometimes it is the mother who is Jewish; sometimes the father. According to the standards of traditional Judaism, if the mother is not Jewish, then the children are not Jewish unless that child goes through a process of conversion. For quite some time, the leaders of Reform Judaism saw such a double standard as unfair. Back in 1947, the C.C.A.R. attempted to address this inequity by passing a resolution stating that children of an intermarriage where the mother is not Jewish would not be required to go through a conversion process or ceremony; that a typical religious school education would replace a conversion process and that a Confirmation service would replace a conversion ceremony. What was started in 1947 was completed in 1983 when the C.C.A.R. passed a resolution on what it called “Patrilineal Descent.” According to this resolution, a child with one Jewish parent – whether it be the father or the mother – was considered to be born a Jew if the parents raised that child exclusively as a Jew. Not surprisingly, the passage of this resolution was thoroughly denounced by both the Conservative and Orthodox movements. Indeed, to this day, Conservative congregations are not permitted to recognize patrilineal descent nor are they permitted to engage the services of rabbis who do recognize it. When the Reform rabbis passed this resolution – and I was one of those who voted for it – we knew that it would severely damage our relationship with the Conservative and the Orthodox, yet we chose to take that risk because we believed that it was the just and humane thing to do.
While today, American society is deeply divided over sexual orientation issues, such as same-sex marriage, Reform Judaism has once again proven itself to be a leader in caring and inclusivity. Back in 1977, our movement took a formal stand supporting the rights of homosexuals to equal protection under the law. In 1987, the U.A.H.C., meeting in Chicago for one of its biennial conventions, passed a number of resolutions calling upon its member congregations to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into membership and permit them to share equally in all aspects of congregational life, including worship and leadership; to develop educational programs which would promote a greater understanding and respect for gays and lesbians; and to employ people on their staff without regard for sexual orientation. How well I remember sitting with my congregation’s delegates at that plenary session, voting for these resolutions and being proud of the fact that our movement was willing to take such a principled stand on such a controversial issue. Three years later, in 1990, the C.C.A.R. approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. Ten years after that, in 2000, it would be the first rabbinic organization to formally support rabbinic officiation at same-sex marriage ceremonies. Since the Supreme Court of Iowa legalized same-sex marriage it has been my privilege to officiate at one such ceremony, and my cantor-wife’s, privilege to officiate at two of them.
While it is true that other movements and independent synagogues have subsequently adopted some, or even many, of Reform Judaism’s revolutionary stands on personal status issues, still for me, and for so many other Reform Jews, it is a point of enormous pride that it has been our movement that has served as the trailblazer on these issues. Others may imitate us, especially after we have proved successful in our choices, but it has been Reform Judaism which has led the way and will continue to lead the way in welcoming into our fold those who have been unjustly excluded, both by society at large and by the Jewish world in particular. We have done this, and will continue to do this, because while we look to Jewish tradition for guidance, we look to our hearts to lead us along the path of righteousness.
In part 7, I will reflect upon Reform Judaism’s long and illustrious commitment to Tikkun Olam, social justice.
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