May A Jew Married to a Non-Jew Become A Rabbi?
A resident of my community, a Jew married to a non-Jew who does not practice any other religion, wishes to become a rabbi. She has been told that, because of her marriage, she will not be admitted into the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She wishes to know why, as a believing Jew who is committed to Jewish life, she cannot be accepted into our seminary as a candidate for the Reform rabbinate. (Rabbi James Gibson, Pittsburgh, PA)
Most Reform rabbis in North America, members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), have attended and received their ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). It is the policy of HUC-JIR that a student who is married, engaged, or partnered to a non-Jew will not be ordained as a rabbi or invested as a cantor. Moreover, an individual in such a relationship will not be accepted as a student in the rabbinical or cantorial program at the College-Institute. HUC-JIR is an independent institution that sets its own rules and standards for admission. It need not consult with the CCAR or with this Committee before adopting them. Still, we have been asked for our opinion as to this particular rule, and in our opinion the rule is a good one. We give it our full and unqualified support.
There was a time, not so long ago, when a sh’eilah such as this would surely not have been raised. Jewish law prohibits mixed marriage, that is, a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew in which the non-Jewish spouse does not convert to Judaism. The halachah goes so far as todeclare that such unions are not recognized as marriages at all (ein kiddushin tofsin). Until very recent times, this prohibition was strongly felt and observed by the preponderant majority of the American Jewish community. The situation has changed, however, primarily as a result of two factors. The first of these is the rise in the incidence of mixed marriage among American Jews and the acceptance of this fact within the community. Indeed, surveys indicate that many Jews today regard mixed marriage as a “normal” aspect of Jewish communal life. The second factor has to do with the response that many Jewish institutions have undertaken toward this phenomenon. If the Jewish community once turned its collective back upon those who “married out,” today’s emphasis upon Jewish survival and continuity leads many of our organizations to open their doors to the mixed-married in an effort to “keep them within the fold.” The Reform Movement in particular has instituted an energetic program of outreach, designed to help mixed-married couples and families feel welcome within our congregations and to explore and study Judaism. These two factors seem to have created the impression that marriage to a non-Jew is no longer an impediment to full participation in Reform Jewish life. If that is the case, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand why a Jew might sincerely believe that her marriage to a non-Jew ought not to stand in the way of her becoming a Reform rabbi.
That belief, however, rests upon 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, and although we welcome mixed-married households into our community, we do not condone mixed marriage itself. As our Conference has written, “It is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry a Jew so that the sacred heritage of Judaism may be transmitted most effectively from generation to generation.” Judaism, that is to say, “resists mixed marriage because it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community, and because it makes it more difficult to establish the mikdash me’at [sanctity] that should be the goal of every Jewish marriage.” These words carry a special weight for us as rabbis. The purpose of our rabbinical function, our teaching, counseling, and leadership, is to help our people make Jewish choices, build Jewish homes, and ensure the transmission of Jewish life and identity to our children. Mixed marriage tends to frustrate the achievement of these ends. For these reasons our Conference has resolved its “opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.” It is true that a significant number of Reform rabbis do officiate at mixed marriages (under widely varying circumstances, requirements, and limitations), and the resolution itself notes that members of the Conference “continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition.” Yet those rabbis who officiate at mixed marriages do so out of the hope that officiation will encourage the non-Jewish spouse to help build a Jewish home, to help raise Jewish children, and to one day make the choice to become a Jew. To put it differently, we Reform rabbis are not indifferent to the marriage choices of our people. On the contrary: we want them to make the choice for Jewish marriage, which by definition is a marriage between Jews. We do not in the least regret our welcoming attitude toward the mixed married and our efforts at outreach to them. But we should never forget that the ideal toward which we rabbis strive, teach, and lead is that Jews should marry Jews. Since one of the ways in whic we convey our teaching is through personal example, a rabbi’s life and home should embody this ideal.
It might be argued that our position here contradicts that which we enunciate in another responsum, where we suggest that a Jew should not be disqualified from teaching in a Reform religious school solely because he or she is married to a non-Jew. If it is conceivable that a religious school teacher, who instructs his or her students in Judaism, may be a partner in a mixed marriage, why do we set different expectations for the rabbi, who is also a teacher of Judaism? The answer is that the religious school teacher and the rabbi play two very different roles in the life of our community. Mos of our religious school teachers are drawn from the ranks of our congregants, and they teach our children on a part-time basis. Our rabbis, by contrast, like our cantors and our Reform Jewish educators, have accepted upon themselves (and are properly expected by our community to live up to) higher standards of Jewish learning and observance than those that we demand of others. It is true that none of us, including those of us who are rabbis, achieves these higher standards with perfection. It is also true, however, that we and the people we serve continue to hold us accountable to them. We therefore conclude, as we write in that responsum, that “a Jewish religious professional, whose very life is dedicated to setting an example of Jewish commitment to which our people should aspire, cannot serve as a ‘positive Judaic role model’ if he or she is married to a non-Jew.”
We have no doubt that the individual who prompted this sh’eilah is a committed and caring Jew. Her desire to enter the rabbinate testifies to her commitment and to what we can only imagine has been a long and involved religious journey that has brought her to this point. Someday, perhaps, her husband will come to share that commitment to Judaism; should that happen, she might wish to consider once again a career in the rabbinate. Until such time, though the rabbinate is not yet a proper career choice for her, we hope that she will find fulfillment in the many opportunities for Jewish life and learning that are afforded her as a member of a Reform Jewish community.
1. On the training and qualifications of rabbis, see section 2 of Reform Responsa for the Twenty-first Century, no. 5759.3, vol. 1, pp. 319–29. There, we note that as a matter of technical Jewish law no formal ordination is required in order that an individual may acquire the title “rabbi.” On the other hand, it has become the widespread minhag, or customary observance in our community to require that an individual seeking to function as a rabbi successfully complete a course of study at a recognized rabbinical school or yeshivah.
2. These rules are spelled out in section 6 of the “Policy and Consent Form” that each applicant for admission to HUC-JIR must fill out and submit to the National Director of Admissions and Recruitment. That section reads: “It is the policy and practice of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion that any student currently engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person who is not Jewish (conversion is acceptable) will not be ordained or invested by HUC-JIR. Therefore, no person currently in the aforementioned circumstance shall be accepted to the Rabbinical or Cantorial program of HUC-JIR. Any applicant who is in a significant relationship with someone who is not Jewish (even if that person intends to or is already working towards conversion) should contact the National Director of Admissions and Recruitment to discuss how the policy may affect his/her application.”
3. This prohibition is rooted in Deut. 7:1– 4. Although the Torah text explicitly mentions the seven Canaanite nations, the Rabbis interpret the passage so that the prohibition applies to all gentiles (BT Kiddushin 68b). The Talmudi passage cites two midrashim, or derivations, in support of this extension. The first is the Torah’s statement in 7:4, “for they [the members of the seven nations] will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods”; this, says the Talmud, comes to include all those who are capable of turning your children away, and that includes all non-Jews. The other derivation is based upon the permit to maintain a female captive taken during war (Deut. 21:10 –14). The key phrase is verse 13, “after that you may come to her and possess her.” The Talmud understands “after that” to mean “after she converts to Judaism”; thus, prior to her conversion, marriage is prohibited.
4. Deut. 7:3 declares lo titchatein bam, which might be translated as “do not marry them.” The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 68b), however, reads it as “there shall be no legal institution of marriage between you and them” (see Rashi ad loc., s.v. lo titchatein bam). As Maimonides puts it, “When one marries [m’kadeish] a non-Jew, no valid marriage [kiddushin] exists” (Yad, Ishut 4:15). See also SA, EHE 44:8 (gentiles do not belong to the category of those individuals who can contract valid kiddushin).
5. In the words of one such survey, “The Jewish taboo on mixed marriage has clearly collapsed.” The findings indicate that 50 percent of the respondents “agree” with the statement “It is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.” Still again, 56 percent of the respondents are either “neutral” (40 percent) about marriage between a Jew and a gentile or see such marriages as a “positive good” (16 percent). See Responding to Intermarriage: Survey, Analysis, Policy (American Jewish Committee, Department of Contemporary Jewish Life, January 2001).
6. See www.urj.org/outreach.
7. Simeon J. Maslin, ed., Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR Press, 1979), 36.
8. Ibid., 37.
9. For the text of the resolution, see CCAR Yearbook 83 (1973): 97. On the history of the CCAR’s attitude toward mixed marriage, see Rabbi’s Manual (New York, CCAR Press, 1988), 242– 43.
10. See Reform Responsa for the Twenty-first Century, no. 5758.14, vol. 1, pp. 275–79.