Rabbi Waxman nicely explains the dilemma facing rabbis today with regard to the intermarriage issue. He highlights just how torn many in the liberal movements are regarding intermarriage. But the intermarriage question is part of a much larger discussion that is beginning to emerge regarding the idea of Jewish peoplehood. What does it mean to be a people when so many of our people want to or are marrying other kinds of people?
In the past few weeks Gary Rosenblatt, Jack Wertheimer and Joey Kutzman, Daniel Septimus, David Suissa, and Noah Feldman all, in one way or the other, have written pieces noting the decline in Jewish peoplehood as rallying concept for Jewish identity.
This past week I had a chance to listen to two of the most influencial American rabbinic voices, Avi Weiss and David Ellenson, confront the issues of peoplehood and intermarriage in a panel discussion at the “Why Be Jewish?” gathering in Park City, Utah. (As a matter of full disclosure I co-hosted the gathering along with Adam Bronfman under the aegis’s of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation). Both came at the issues from two very different positions. Rabbi Ellenson tried to redefine Jewish peoplehood by arguing for a broader and more welcoming understanding of the term: Jews should not abandon the idea of peoplehood, but redefine its contours. He argued passionately for a push towards conversion and opening the gates of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to the intermarried. On the other, Rabbi Weiss seemed to side step the issue arguing instead for the importance of Judaism itself, its rituals, ethics and ideals as the core building blocks for Jewish identity.
While I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Ellenson’s argument that we must be as welcoming as possible, I found Rabbi Weiss’s argument to also be very compelling. For years, the Jewish community has privileged the concept of the Jewish people over the message and meaning of Judaism. In some sense our parents generation did not believe in Judaism. Yes, they stood up and defended the Jewish people fighting for its survival but they never really took to the ideas and practices of Judaism seriously. While both the Jewish people and Judaism are important elements it would seem to me that if we first start with Judaism we might have a better chance at having people want to identify with a concept of peoplehood. Or as Leon Wieseltier put it in his text study on Tuesday morning, we need to start with one neshamah (soul) at a time.
More people today are open to Jewish ideas, texts, learning and practices than ever, what they are skeptical about is identifying strictly with Jews.
Which brings me back to “Why be Jewish?” More than anything else the conference highlighted that there is no one entry point into Judaism. Even if we converted every person who intermarried, or on the other hand Jewishly recognized those couples that wanted to remain multi-faith we would still be left trying to offer these two adults a positive Jewish identity. We still need to be able to give them an answer to “Why be Jewish?” In the end four ideas emerged: works (ethics, halakha), spirtuality (humanity’s eternal search for meaning), comfort (Judaism responds to human needs) and belief (Judaism believes that what it offers is right). What do you think is the answer?