Rabbi Lester Bronstein, Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, White Plains NY
While respecting the integrity and authority of the RRC Faculty, Rabbi Bronstein disagrees with its recent decision to accept students, and ordain rabbis, who are partnered with non-Jews. He maintains that this step canonizes a fundamental change in what it means to be a Reconstructionist Jew, and equates ‘peoplehood’ with racist tribalism. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan held that change is welcome when it strengthens our religious peoplehood or is supported by an ethical imperative; the endorsement of interfaith-partnered rabbis does not rise to either of these standards. Whether or not it is a practical form of outreach, it is, in fact, not good for the Jews.
The decision will cause many Reconstructionist rabbis and laypeople to distance themselves from the movement, maintaining that our religious leaders must demonstrate in their personal lives a standard toward which all of us should be able to strive toward and learn from.
Let me state at the outset that I fully respect the sincerity, thoughtfulness, wisdom, intellectual prowess, and integrity of my cherished colleagues who have proposed what I believe to be a well-meaning but mistaken policy change for the RRC, and thus for the Reconstructionist Movement that nurtures and supports the RRC and relies on it for its future rabbinic leadership.
I also understand the Faculty’s claim to full hegemony over its admissions policies, though I think it raises fundamental questions about the meaning of the now-completed merger of the College and lay body. I believe the Faculty understands the severity of the implications for the RRA, for the JRC, for rabbinic placement as a whole, and for the impact on our relations with the rest of the Jewish world. I know that they will not make their decision in a vacuum, and for the most part I feel their respectfulness in this matter.
I also need to state that the Faculty’s paper anticipates most of the critiques we opponents have expressed, and perhaps a few we hadn’t thought of. Therefore, what is left to say, minus a few technical points, is that the proposal typifies a philosophical shift – a sea change – in what it means to Reconstructionist Jews to articulate a notion of religious peoplehood. If one accepts that shift, then this proposal is timely and necessary. If one does not, then, I believe, it is anathema.
Indeed, the chiddush or innovative breakthrough which Kaplan introduced to American Jewish language, and which in some fashion every other Jewish movement has adopted, is the idea that Jews are not solely a religion, as the Classical Reformers would have it; nor are we solely an ethnos or national group, as the Secular Zionists, the Bundists, Yiddishists, and others would hold (and here I include any contemporary American who acknowledges Jewish “heritage” or “lineage” but entertains no religious beliefs or particular identification with things Jewish); but that we are a religious civilization – both religious and communal – and that the combination of the two ensures our survival and frames our aspirations going forward.
Kaplan encouraged the sort of evolution that Reconstructionists have vigorously engaged in over the recent decades. It has brought us to places Kaplan himself may not have recognized, but which have always been arrived at by carefully following his methodology. We have always leaned toward the traditional. We have always welcomed change when we felt it strengthened our religious peoplehood or when we understood there to be an ethical imperative to do so. Likewise we have avoided change when we believed it to be detrimental to that fundamental cause: the creation and furthering of ethical religious peoplehood.
To that end, we have made a number of bold moves over the years involving personal Jewish status, the most relevant to this discussion being our outreach to inter-partnered Jews. At every step of the way, we have continued to “privilege” (as the now pejorative term puts it) the two-Jewish partner model of marriage. When any of our rabbis perform intermarriage ceremonies, they do so according to a liturgical format closely resembling the two-Jew pattern. They refuse (on penalty of sanction from the RRA) to perform weddings along with non-Jewish clergy. They welcome the consideration of conversion to Judaism by the non-Jewish partner. Moreover, if and when the non-Jewish partner expresses interest in conversion at a later time, albeit years after their successful integration into the life of our Reconstructionist congregations, we eagerly facilitate the conversion process.
All of this comes from our experienced realization that Jewish families are more likely to be partners in the building of our Jewish religious civilization when they continue their climb up the ladder of identity and commitment. Otherwise, it would be absurd for us rabbis even to entertain the prospect of their conversion, or anyone’s conversion, as it might be seen as an indication that we, the rabbis, had heretofore held the couple’s inter-partnered relationship as inauthentic or somehow unacceptable. Inauthentic it is not; unacceptable it is not (as a loving marriage). But neither is it ideal for Jewish continuity (statistically speaking and otherwise), and our present policies, liturgies, and structures support that point of view.
Here lies the rub. The crux of our argument with the proposed change in admissions procedures is precisely this: It calls our cherished “religious peoplehood” into question. It sees “peoplehood” – at least the particularist peoplehood at the heart of Reconstructionist Jewish tradition – as “tribalism.” At one time, “tribe” was a benignly useful term for identifying that of ourselves that was particular versus that which was universal. At the heart of Kaplan’s teaching is this precious tension between the two. By contrast, central to the idea of even allowing – much less condoning – rabbis having non-Jewish partners is the rejection of that balance in favor of the universal.
Let me acknowledge the fact that there are numerous Jews in America who want to practice Judaism and to be affiliated with Jewish congregations and communities, and who hold the idea of the tribal or particular to be tantamount to racism. It would be easy to dispute these claims based on the gross misunderstanding of the terms. But it would not help, because the fact remains that this is the way they feel. And many of them are cherished members of our affiliate congregations.
The College Faculty believes we need to re-position ourselves in order to serve this population. Their reading (I would argue it is a mis-reading) of the Pew Report encourages them in this effort. I acknowledge their compassion, their rachmunis. They want to reach out and help a group of Jews – along with their non-Jewish family members – who might not be helped or even cared about by the mainstream of American Jewry. They believe that if at least some of our rabbis were inter-partnered, they would boost the morale of those we have already been serving for decades in other ways. Most importantly, they would put to rest the stigma of inter-marriage by showing that even our religious paragons, our rabbis, no longer “privilege” in-marriage over inter-marriage. Once and for all, Jewish tribalism would evolve away.
I see their point. I follow their logic. I agree that by sending out inter-partnered rabbis into the world, anti-tribalists would find great encouragement. I simply don’t believe that encouraging those sentiments is in any way good for the present or future of the Jewish people. I believe in continuing to privilege in-marriage, for all of the emotional, historic, and even statistical reasons I have always believed in it. I believe that privileging the in-marriage model in no way hampers our holy task of welcoming inter-marrieds and helping them to create Jewish homes and lives, if that is their sincere desire. If it is not their sincere desire, then I believe we need to leave a door open for them, as it were, but to concentrate our efforts on those in-marrieds and inter-marrieds who want to be part of the proudly particular historic tribe of Israel, the Jewish people.
I am not alone among my colleagues, nor am I a singular voice in my own congregation, many of whose members agree with me that this move would be a barrier-crosser that puts into question our fundamental relationship with the movement. We who oppose this measure would like to remain part of the movement that has been for us the most viable vessel of modern Jewish expression available. If we cannot go with the movement to this new place and definition, which from our perspective is not good for the Jews in general or the Reconstructionists in particular, then we will face our own difficult decision. We say these words not as a threat, but as a plea to our fellow Reconstructionists to understand the degree to which this measure symbolizes for us a new and unrecognizable direction.
A point about placement policy in the future: On the day when a JRC-affiliate congregation chooses not to interview a rabbinical candidate because he or she is partnered with a non-Jew, I predict that all of the rabbis in the interview pool will express their solidarity by boycotting that congregation, just as they now properly do when a congregation refuses to interview a gay candidate, or a female, or a transgender, or a male or straight rabbi for that matter. If the students-soon-to-be-rabbis truly believe in the integrity of this cause, they will support it collectively, despite the promise in the College’s paper that congregations will retain the option to privilege in-partnered rabbis over inter-partnered ones.
One further word about the Faculty’s role vis-à-vis our movement as a whole: We certainly understand that the Faculty needs autonomy in order to maintain academic accreditation. But for us in the Movement, the College is not just an academic institution in the way that, say, our children’s colleges and graduate schools are. For us, it is primarily the training body of our reservoir of rabbis. We and the College are one. We are in this together. We’re not talking here about admission standards for some autonomous university in the next town that’s giving master’s degrees and doctorates in academic subjects. The College is us. Its graduates are our rabbis.
The College is talking about nothing less than the radical redefinition of something basic about the identity of rabbis. If we want to do that, fine. But the College cannot do it independently of the rest of us, because they are us. Likewise, they can’t not do it if we all want it to happen.
I don’t want it to happen. But it’s our decision to make with the Faculty, and not as an “affirmation” of their independent decision. We are talking about a precedent that fundamentally alters what it means to be the Jewish Reconstructionist movement and to create religious peoplehood.
Let me conclude by saying that as proud and knowledgeable Reconstructionists, we believe we have a right and an obligation to insist that our most central and prominent religious models, viz. our rabbis, demonstrate in their personal lives a standard which many of us may not be able to emulate, and which the rest of us are not obligated to replicate, but which all of us will be able to strive toward, and at least to learn from, as we each struggle to construct our own Jewish destinies.
For these reasons, I strongly oppose the Faculty’s proposal.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein
White Plains, New York
December 2014; Kislev 5775