May a Jew Married to a Gentile Serve as a Religious School Teacher?
A Jewish woman, who is married to a Christian man, has applied for a teaching position in our religious school. Should our synagogue even consider her (or anyone in a mixed marriage) as an eligible candidate to teach our children Judaism? (Rabbi Seymour Prystowsky, Lafayette Hill, PA)
The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) discourages mixed marriage. We have written that “Judaism resists mixed marriage because it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community,” and because it is more difficult for a religiously-mixed couple than for a Jewish couple to establish a truly Jewish home, one dedicated to the religious values of our people and our tradition. A marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is not a Jewish marriage; it is not defined in our practice as kiddushin, as marriage contracted “according to the law of Moses and Israel” (kedat moshe veyisrael). For this reason, most rabbis will not officiate at a wedding ceremony of a Jew and a non-Jew. The CCAR has long been on record as opposing rabbinic officiation. In its most recent statement (1973), the Conference declared “its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.” It is true, of course, that a number of Reform rabbis do officiate under certain circumstances and conditions at mixed marriages; thus, the 1973 resolution recognizes “that historically its members have held and continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition.” Yet this does not alter the fundamental position of the Conference, one that is shared by all of our members, that the best and most desired marital choice for a Jew is Jewish marriage, a commitment made with one’s Jewish spouse to build a Jewish home and family.
Given this emphasis, it might be thought that a Reform synagogue should not consider engaging a Jew married to a Gentile as a religious school teacher. A teacher of Torah, after all, ought to be a positive role model for our children, one who embodies the Jewish values we wish to inculcate in them, who has made the sorts of Jewish choices that we hope they will make for themselves. As we care deeply about the marriage choices our children will someday make, we might argue that you should not engage this person as a teacher, lest in doing so you signal wrongly to your students that we are somehow indifferent to mixed marriage.
Yet we would caution, for several reasons, against drawing that conclusion. First, we should remember that our response to the phenomenon of mixed marriage is and ought to be one of loving outreach to the couple. The 1973 resolution mentioned above calls upon us “to keep open every channel in Judaism and Kelal Yisrael for those who have already entered into mixed marriage.” This involves educating the children of these couples as Jews; providing “the opportunity for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse”; and encouraging “a creative and consistent cultivation of involvement in the Jewish community and the synagogue.” We are required, in other words, to practice the mitzvah of keiruv, to “bring near those who are distant” from Judaism. It may well be that having her teach in our school is the best way to encourage her own continuing Jewish growth, along with her family’s involvement in Jewish life. Conversely, we are forbidden to erect unnecessary barriers to their participation in our community. A policy which automatically rejects this person as a teacher on the grounds that she is married to a non-Jew erects just such a barrier and therefore runs counter to our goal of outreach.
Second, we should keep in mind the practical implications of our decision. It is difficult even under the best of circumstances for our congregations to find qualified teachers who can communicate knowledge effectively to our young people. It is far from inconceivable that a Jew married to a non-Jew may be the best teacher available to us. Our smaller communities, in particular, may find this frequently to be the case. To reject such persons in principle as religious school teachers is to place a heavy burden upon our schools and synagogues, as well as to deny our children the opportunity to learn from talented teachers.
Finally, let us consider how we are to define “positive role models.” We certainly want our religious leaders to adhere as closely as possible to the ideal of Jewish life as we understand it. This ideal must take into account one’s marriage choice and the manner in which one constructs a Jewish home. And we surely expect and demand that our professional religious leadership-our rabbis, cantors, and educators–will realize this elemental standard in their own lives. We make this demand because in our view 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. On the other hand, we do not customarily say the same concerning our laity, from whose ranks we draw our religious school teachers. While we hope that all our people will make Jewish marriage choices, we do not believe that marriage to a Gentile serves as incontrovertible proof that a Jewish layperson does not and can not live a life of Jewish quality. Our experience teaches us that many mixed-married couples do affiliate actively with our congregations, lead lives of Jewish substance, and raise their children as Jews; our Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, which confers Jewish status upon the child of one Jewish parent when that child is raised with an exclusively Jewish identity, is built upon the lessons of that experience. Accordingly, we do not use mixed marriage as a reason for automatically disqualifying a Jew from positions of lay leadership within our congregations. Given these perceptions, we would not use marriage to a non-Jew as the reason to reject an individual as a religious school teacher. Mixed marriage may be evidence that an individual is not the sort of Jew we want as a religious school teacher, and then again it may not. Each case must be judged on its own merits.
. Our synagogues are entitled and indeed required to ask that those who teach our children be “good Jews,” “positive Judaic role models.” And since marriage choice has a great deal to do with the quality of one’s Judaic commitments, you are certainly entitled to consider this applicant’s marriage to a non-Jew as part of your determination of her fitness to teach. From our perspective, though, a point of view shaped by the experience of our contemporary North American Reform Jewish communities, we do not believe that the fact of her mixed marriage is an automatic indicator of her lack of fitness. The important concern is whether her personal practice and family life are characterized by Jewish depth and quality. If such is the case, then she might well prove to be a qualified and talented teacher for you. By hiring her, you may be doing a favor to your students, and you may help to fulfill the mitzvah of bringing this person and her family ever closer to Jewish life.
- For earlier statements by the Conference, see CCAR Yearbook (CCARY) 19 (1909), 170, and CCARY 57 (1947), 161.
- Gates of Mitzvah
83 (1973), 97. On all the above see Gates of Mitzvah, 82-3 and Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), 242-243. For a historical essay on the subject of mixed marriage, see American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 146.
83 (1973), 97.
- See Bereishit Rabah, ch. 39, on the words “you shall be a blessing” in Gen. 12:2: Abraham is described as mekarev rechokim, one who brings “under the wings of the Shekhinah” those who are estranged from God.
- See the discussion in Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5755.17, 251-258.The resolution (CCARY 93 , 157-160) states that a child of a Jewish and a Gentile parent enjoys a presumption of Jewish status which may be established through “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” These acts testify to the child’s “positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” From this, it follows that a mixed-married household is capable of transmitting a firm Jewish identity to its children.
- Membership in our congregations is restricted to Jews; the non-Jewish family members of a Jew are affiliated with us through that person’s membership. A non-Jewish spouse may not serve as an officer of the congregation or as the chair of a committee which exercises important religious functions. See Suggested Constitution and By-Laws for Congregations, Joint Commission on Synagogue Administration, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, April, 1984; Contemporary American Reform Responsa (CARR), nos. 163-164, and R. Solomon Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 53. These restrictions, however, do not apply to the congregant who is married to a non-Jew.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.