I have been mulling over this the issue of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College accepting rabbis with non-Jewish spouses for a year and have many long discussions with friends and family (some Reconstructionists, some rabbis, some both and some neither) and I am still not really sure what the correct view is. Here are my thoughts, with more questions than answers.
The issue of rabbis and non-Jewish spouses raises a number of questions. The obvious one is what do we expect from rabbis in terms of their personal lives. But it also gets at what we think of marriage roles. And, though no one who has discussed it has mentioned it, it also brings up we mean by non-Jewish.
Here are my thoughts on all three aspects, Rabbi, Spouse and Non-Jewish, with a feminist lens.
What do we expect from rabbis? Though none of the current discussions mention it explicitly, this is a discussion mainly about pulpit rabbis. Most of the concerns voiced on allowing non-Jewish spouse in the rabbinate are less of an issue to varying degrees for rabbis who are primarily academics, or heads of social justice organizations,or for those involved in days schools, youth groups, retirement communities, camps, or in hospital, military or prison chaplaincies.
Jane Eisner writes what she expects in an editorial in the Forward, “After all, we don’t expect rabbis — even rabbis in liberal (read: much less strict) denominations — to pray only sporadically. To go to synagogue just three times a year. To be more interested in tennis than Talmud. We don’t expect rabbis to consider Israel just another country to visit when London and Paris get too expensive.”
What I think Eisner is trying to say is that we expect rabbis to live a deep, immersive Jewish life, that involves daily reflection (if not prayer), continued study and spiritual practices that permeate their experience and provide a lens for other activities, even in their personal life, even in their “spare time”. We expect that from that deeply immersive and reflective life they will offer inspiration, wisdom and guidance to other Jews who may or may not also be living that kind of immersive life.
Is this a reasonable expectation? How all-encompassing or immersive should any job be?
Is a spouse necessary for that kind of immersive life? The numerous single rabbis throughout history attest to the fact that a spouse is not required. But being a rabbi, especially a pulpit rabbi is a tough, stressful, demanding and often lonely job. Unfortunately, while a rabbi is expected to support and serve a community, communities do not always support their rabbis. Would a like-minded companion who could share the struggle with tradition, the festivals, the reflections and many parts of the journey help ? Undeniably. Would a spouse who was supportive but not really interested in the spiritual journey part be helpful? Absolutely. Would a spouse who was living a deeply immersive spiritual life but in a different religion make it harder? Without Question. Impossible? I do not know.
Ben Bernstein in a response in the Forward argues that people seek the rabbinate to confer legitimacy on their view or way of being Jewish and that permitting intermarried rabbis sends the message that being inter-married is a legitimate way of being Jewish. He suggest that this is what has, in part, motivated female and LGBT rabbinical students in the past; to be taken seriously by mainstream Jewish institutions they need ordination. I know numerous female and LGBT rabbis and I don’t think that this was their primary motivation for seeking the rabbinate ( for the most part I think they wanted to serve and lead the community as rabbis, but recognition was probably a secondary motivator). Moreover, I am sadly not sure how much ordination helps. Mainstream Jewish establishments still treat women and LGBT rabbis as less legitimate.
People have equated this issue with the previous issues of admitting women and LGBT people to the rabbinate. While there are some parallels, I think they are not the same. First off, I think people have no choice in their status as female or LGBT. Though in literature love is described as an undeniable force, we do in fact choose our spouses. I will go out on a limb and say that our choice of spouse, of a life partner, to some degree reflects that values and qualities that we hold dear. How many potential RRC students would consider someone they suspected was racist? homophobic? or even (being realistic here- no intention to offend) a Republican?
What is the role of a spouse in a person’s job anyway? This is where shifting societal views due to an increase in women’s rights comes in. Not too many decades ago, even in the secular world women were expected to support their husbands career by showing up to events, sometimes with children in tow, for planning and creating social events that forwarded career goals, for fundraising, and for talking to their husband’s clients. In the Jewish world we expected even more. The rabbi’s wife was supposed to host the students, the stragglers and the lonely for shabbat meals, make matches, visit the sick, prepare brides for marriage, counsel married couples, help run the Hebrew school and numerous shul events, advise on kashrut and recipes, organize the women to cook for events and raise money for tzedakah.
Now that we understand that care-taking and careers need to be accessible to and performed by all genders, it seems these expectations of the rabbi’s spouse should no longer apply. Such expectations would surely deny the spouse’s right to his or her own high-intensity career. As society, though we take a long time to let go of these ideas. And while it is no longer expected for a spouse to set up social events that promote their mate’s career, we often do expect showing up once or twice a year at parties and events. In the Jewish world, we are even slower to let go of what were once gender-based ideas of what we expect from a rabbi’s spouse. A testament to these expectations is that to this day only a minority of senior (or only) rabbis of large congregations, male or female, have a spouse who works full-time. (This not a scientific study; just an observation)
Whether fair and appropriate or not I think many congregations expect the rabbi’s spouse and children (if any) to show up at shul regularly (but not weekly), to attend major events in the shul, to get to know the members or socialize at least while they are in the building and to accept occasional dinner invitations from member families for Shabbat and holidays.
Think of the following scenarios that assume that a rabbi has a spouse and children and think how your current congregation would react and then take a moment to judge if if that reaction is really fair and in keeping with your ideas of how much one owes to one’s spouse’s job:
- The rabbi’s spouse and children never attend shul or come only on high holidays. They are simply not interested in religion.
- The rabbi’s children and spouse attend are active in a congregation of a different denomination of Judaism. They come occasionally but celebrate life cycle events and participate in major social events in the other congregation.
- The rabbi’s spouse and children attend shul but also frequently attend services of another religion.
- The rabbi’s spouse and children do not attend shul but are very active in the services of another religion and actively and daily practice this other religion in their home.
Whether or not a congregation’s expectations of family involvement are fair or realistic they are part of the landscape of the rabbinate that must be negotiated.
Those expectations and the desire for a rabbi to lead an immersive Jewish life makes having a non-Jewish spouse who is actively engaged elsewhere unquestionably more difficult. I view it as similar to spouse’s nature/ other spouse’s job or calling conflicts like those below:
- One spouse wants to run for political office or be a successful musician or TV personality and the other craves privacy and couple downtime every week.
- One spouse wants to be an ER doctor or a midwife or a police detective or a social worker in a shelter for victims of domestic violence and one craves reliable, predictable contact and family time without interruption.
For some couples these might be difficult but solvable problems, for some they might be insurmountable. But it would be foolish to ignore the potential conflicts and difficulties.
Every defender of this policy talks about the wonderful involvement of numerous non-Jewish spouses in raising Jewish children, being lay leaders and committee people in shuls, being highly involved in the social justice activities of a shul or graciously making space for Judaism in their homes. They are far more dedicated and involved than some Jews who have no interest and do nothing.
Personally I know a lot of these non-Jews. They prepare their kids for bar and bat mitzvah lessons and make the numerous arrangements for the day. They send their kids to day schools. They keep kosher kitchens or prepare full seder meals and bake challah. They light the chanukiah even when their spouse is away and make Purim costumes. They are active in shul committees and activities. They volunteer extensively for Jewish-based justice agencies. Some are interested in Judaism, some are not. Many are atheists or agnostics. But one thing they all have in common (at least the ones I know) is that they rarely, if ever, set foot in non-Jewish place of worship, except as guests for life cycle events. The vast majority of these supportive, involved non-Jews are not actively involved in another religion. Most of them are content with Christmas and Easter dinners being celebrated with their parents or relatives and not in the couple’s home. (If they are from non-Christian homes, then my wildly unscientific sample says they are even less likely to observe non-Jewish holidays). Excluding people who marry people like this seems like a mistake.
Those opposed to this policy bring up the scenario of the non-Jewish spouse who actively practices another religion bringing non-Jewish prayers, holidays and practices into the weekly or daily routine of the household and sharing this practice, knowledge and belief with the couple’s children. They ask how can you have a Jewish family life when your spouse and children say daily prayers to a different god and fill the house with symbols and festivals of another religion and refuse to join you in the observance of Judaism.
And therein lies the problem. The non-Jews described by the proponents and the non-Jews described by the opponents are not the same non-Jews.
Ignoring this difference makes this discussion more confusing than it has to be.
Obviously people change and grow and someone’s religious identity at the time of marriage or at the time their spouse is thinking of applying to rabbinical school may be different five or ten years later. But that is true of all applicants and spouses and the decision being considered is based on a static point in time.
Basically, I think having a pulpit position, given the demands of the job, the fair or unfair congregational expectations and the immersive nature of the job while having a non-Jewish spouse who is actively involved in another religion is very difficult. I am not ready to say it is impossible or that some really together, super-mature people might make it work. It is however something that would make and extremely tough job a lot harder.
Would it have been useful to say yes to non-Jewish spouses who agreed to have a Jewish home (however the couple defined it) and raise their kids as Jews, but no to non-Jewish spouses who actively practice another religion in the home (or are clergy in one) and do not agree to raise their children as Jews? A Conservative rabbi has proposed ( and then withdrawn) the idea of allowing intermarriage of couples (not of rabbis- this is Conservative) who promise to raise their kids as Jews. Other ex- Conservative rabbis make the conditions of intermarriage a Jewish home and Jewish children (if there are any).
Would something like that not have worked here? Did the RRC feel that it would involve too much prying and evaluation? Or that it was unfair? A pointless half-step? I cannot tell from their statement.