All month I’ve been debating whether or not to jump into the Noah Feldman frenzy.
Feldman, for those of you who have spent the past month under a rock, is the bete noire of Modern Orthodoxy: a yeshiva day school grad who recently published a New York Times Magazine article about how his alma mater has ostracized him for intermarrying.
Among his many accomplishments — the man is a Harvard Law professor, a Rhodes Scholar and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations — his latest distinction is that he has garnered even more angry letters to The Jewish Week than I have.
Do I have anything original to contribute to the vast body of Noah commentary, I wondered? Fueling my ambivalence was the fact that I had already planned to address another topic: whether rabbinic officiation at intermarriage “makes a difference,” or whether outreach after a couple has already married is more important.
And then I realized, the two topics are not entirely unrelated. I have no idea whether Feldman and his Korean-American wife sought a rabbi for their wedding, which was performed at the Harvard Club by an assistant secretary of state, but I suspect not, as such a rejection would likely have made for a more dramatic tale than Feldman believing (erroneously, as it turned out) that his photo was excised, Soviet-style, from an alumni newsletter.
But more than anything, the whole Feldman affair demonstrates to me the power of the snub. The Maimonides School fails to extend Feldman a Mazal Tov, and he angrily embarrasses the school and its Modern Orthodox philosophy by critiquing it in a very public forum. The snub — and Feldman’s impolitic response — together push the yeshiva boy and his wife and family farther away from the Jewish, or at least the Orthodox, community.
And herein I think is the dilemma so many rabbis face as they try to decide whether or not to officiate at interfaith weddings. By refusing to officiate, are rabbis discouraging intermarriage and defending the integrity of Judaism, which has traditionally viewed intermarriage as damaging? Or are they simply pushing people away?
Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some couples will just keep asking around until they identify a rabbi who is willing to marry them. Others will give up and be forever bitter. Still others will happily opt for a justice of the peace, but later get excited by a Rosh HaShanah sermon or meaningful seder and decide to send their kids to Hebrew school.
Bob Levy, the Reform rabbi who performed my Ann Arbor, Mich., wedding back in 1998, says he doesn’t accept the argument that refusing to officiate will discourage Jews from marrying non-Jews — but he also objects to “the idea that if I don’t marry someone then I’m dooming them to a life of never feeling welcome in a synagogue.”
“It’s my job to create avenues of openness that people can take,” he explains. “But it’s the responsibility of the individual to find his or her own place in life.”
When my friend Michele Kirschbaum of Concord, N.H., was planning her wedding this summer, she knew at the outset that she’d have to make do without a rabbi, even though she is a member of a Reform temple.
“Every rabbi I knew has said, ‘I don’t do interfaith marriages,’” says Kirschbaum, whose husband, Dan, is a non-practicing Protestant. Herself the product of an interfaith marriage, Kirschbaum is accustomed to Jewish snubs — she converted as an adult, in part because she was tired of people questioning whether she was really Jewish. So rather than stewing about the rabbis, she found a knowledgeable lay leader and had a beautiful ceremony under a chupah made from tree branches gathered by her outdoorsy fiancé.
Nonetheless, she finds the rabbinic attitude “very discouraging.”
“Although I understand the situation Judaism is in — the idea that if people keep intermarrying, Judaism isn’t going to exist in a couple generations, I also think there is this incredible opportunity for Judaism to grow by being more accepting of interfaith couples and their children,” she tells me.
My friends Lorna Ronald, and Brian Kreiswirth, whose son Benjamin participates in Tot Shabbat with my daughter Ellie, got snubbed a few times before they found a rabbi for their wedding.
Ironically, Ronald, who is atheist (of Christian descent) and Kreiswirth who is Jewish, found that younger rabbis seemed less receptive than older ones; two young women rabbis turned the couple away before a newly retired rabbi agreed to perform their wedding.
The snubs were “very off-putting and quite upsetting because it felt like we were being turned away from Judaism,” recalls Ronald.
The family does not belong to a temple now but plans to join one in the next few years so that Benjamin can have a bar mitzvah. Ronald says she would be more comfortable in a place with a rabbi who performs interfaith weddings “because I’ll know I’m accepted.”
Nonetheless, it probably won’t be a make-or-break issue.
“The question will be what’s available. … I know my mother-in-law’s rabbi doesn’t do intermarriages but there are a lot of interfaith couples in the synagogue, so I guess it depends on the whole environment.”
In The Mix appears the third week of the month. For past installments, go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com. E-mail Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org