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Shabbat Morning, February 18, 2006

By Rabbi Gershom Barnard

Certainly, the most striking and memorable part of our Torah portion is Chapter 20, in which Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai, and God comes down and utters Aseret Hadib’brot, the so-called Ten Commandments (better: the Ten Pronouncements). This is another one of the great climaxes which we find in the Book of Exodus. I would like to look, this morning, not at that exciting scene, but at the opening of the portion, in which Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (or Jethro) greets Moses and gives him various bits of good advice:

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt…. 7 Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed and kissed him. They asked each other of their welfare, and they came into the tent. 8 Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had come on them on the way, and how The Lord delivered them. 9 Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which The Lord had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods because of the thing in which they dealt arrogantly against them.” 12 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God. Aaron came with all of the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

But then we read:

27 Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way into his own land.

Who was Yitro? He was a priest of Midian, obviously not Jewish. Yet, he was welcomed as part of Moses family. Yet again, after this warm reunion, when the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai to encounter God, Yitro left and returned to Midian. The conclusion that we may draw form that chapter is that the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews have never been as rigid as one might think, but that there have always been boundaries.

As Judaism took form (and my historical understanding of this process is that the critical crystallization came in the rabbinic period, 1500 to 2200 years ago), one of the firm boundaries that was drawn was that it is forbidden for Jews to marry non-Jews. Some of you may know of the tradition of sitting shiva for a relative who has married out of the faith, mourning for him as if he was dead. In fact, such a practice is not and never has been the official teaching of Judaism. It grew out of the practice of sitting shiva when a relative converted to another religion, the connection being that, in the past, when Jews married non-Jews, the Jews usually converted to the other religion. Indeed, at the turn of the last century, one of my great uncles married a non-Jewish woman and became and Episcopalian. I don’t know if people sat shiva for him, but I do know that, whether by his choice or that of others, he disappeared from the family picture. I know nothing more about him or any children or grandchildren that he might have had.

Actually, even the practice of sitting shiva for an apostate is not well-founded in halakha. The source for the practice is in the 13th century book Or Zarua. There, we read that the son of Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz (in the 11th century) became a Christian, and Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva for him. However, if you read the passage carefully, what it says is that Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva for his apostate son, not when the son converted, but when he died, despite the fact that he had converted. The texts say what they say, and people did what they did, acting on their very deep feelings on the importance of remaining Jewish.

While sitting shiva for someone who marries out of the faith is a very extreme practice, Jewish families, synagogues and communities, have instituted other practices and policies designed to prevent Jews from marrying out of the faith and to maintain the boundaries of the Jewish people. In principle, such measures are not unreasonable. However, some of the particular measures, policies, and practices which have evolved are, indeed, unreasonable, and, both for pragmatic and for ethical reasons, we need to re-examine the whole subject.

The Reform movement was a pioneer in this area, starting Outreach programs quite a while ago. The Conservative movement, some time later, but still a while ago, began speaking of Keruv (which literally means “coming near” or “bringing near”) The official Conservative explanation of the difference between Outreach and Keruv is that, in Outreach, you dilute your product in order to be able to sell it more cheaply and to get a larger market share. In Keruv, you bring people from the margins in towards the center, where you are.

I am very cynical about organizational spin. I believe that the reason why the Conservative movement uses the term Keruv is that, when it started thinking about Outreach, some people objected, “Now we’re going to be the same as the Reform,” as if ignoring or snubbing mixed families was the main difference between Conservative and Reform Judaism. In any case, the Conservative movement did not want to seem to be imitating Reform, so it came up with a different word. Similarly, since the leading arm of the Conservative movement in terms of Keruv is the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the leaders of the United Synagogue, who have a somewhat different approach than that of the leaders of FJMC, began to call their approach Idud (encouraging people – to live Jewish lives). We are calling our effort Keruv, but I really don’t care if people call it Outreach or Idud.

You may have read the article in the NYT to a call by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the URJ, to try to convert the non-Jewish partners of Reform Jews. Some people have seen that development as showing that Outreach or Keruv does not work. I see it as just one of the adjustments of course that people and organizations make as they pursue their objectives. The late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, Rabbi Yoffie’s predecessor, talked 20 years ago about being more active in terms of proselytizing.

In any case, the Conservative movement is not the Reform movement. Although the expression is now the subject of some controversy, I still hold that the Conservative movement is a halakhic movement, and that we always need to measure what we are doing or proposing by halakhic standards. Halakha, Jewish law, changes, of course, but, Conservative Judaism is, and ought to be, conservative. Things don’t change very fast. We should never say “never,” but I cannot imagine, anytime in the foreseeable future, counting non-Jews in a minyan or calling non-Jews to the Torah. We are always going to maintain some boundaries between Jews and non-Jews who come our way. However (and this is very important) many of the practices or policies which relate to intermarriage or to the role of non-Jews in our community are not matters of halakha, but matters of policy. One shouldn’t change policy either every Monday and Thursday, but the dynamics of policy change are not the same as the dynamics of halakhic interpretation.

At this point, I have to state, as clearly and as explicitly as possible, the halakhic prohibition against Jews marrying non-Jews. One of the parts of the Keruv effort is that we not belabor this point. However, if I am not going to say this for the next five years, then I need to say it today. Indeed, I have found that very few people understand that there is a halakhic issue here. The attitude of me and other rabbis and Jewish institutions toward mixed marriage is often wrongly chalked up to personal prejudice.

At Deuteronomy 7:3, we read: “Do not marry them. Do not give your daughter to their sons, and do not take their daughters for your sons.” In its context in Deuteronomy, the prohibition refers to the seven Canaanite nations. However, our interpretive tradition has consistently understood the prohibition to apply to marriage with nay non-Jews. I want to emphasize at this point that the meaning of the verse in its context in Deuteronomy may be interesting intellectually, but it is irrelevant in terms of Judaism.

Our religion is not Deuteronomy; it is Judaism, and Judaism is based on, indeed, we might say that Judaism consists of, the interpretive tradition. In the Talmud, the application of the verse to all non-Jews is found at Kiddushin 68b, Yevamot 76a, and elsewhere. In Maimonides’ code, we find it in Hil. Issurey Biah 12. Maimonides also includes this prohibition in his list of the 613 commandments, Sefer Hamitzvot, as negative commandment #52. In the Sefer Hahinukh, another important compilation of mitzvot, this prohibition is #427. Finally, in the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law today, we find the prohibition in Even Ha-ezer 16.

The reason given in Deuteronomy for the prohibition of exogamy (marrying out) is “for they will turn your children away from me to worship other gods”. This statement sounds rather lurid, but, if we tone down the language, the concern remains valid. The 2000-2001 NJPS showed that, on every one of 16 measures of Jewish involvement, in-married Jews are significantly more involved in Jewish life than are the out-married.

Here we come to a subtle and important point. Many people, presented with survey results like these, try to refute them with anecdotes. According to the population survey, only 5% of intermarried Jews light Shabbat candles. If someone protests, “But I know many intermarried Jews who light Shabbat candles,” the answer is that the half-dozen, dozen, or, or however-many, people that one knows are part of the 5%.

However, by the same token, survey data don’t say anything about what an individual may do. If you are part of a mixed marriage, and you are considering whether to light Shabbat candles, then it is totally irrelevant whether 5% or 50% or 95% of the people in your demographic group light Shabbat candles. The only question that you have is: What is the right thing for you to do?

To me, this is the transition point to what we should be doing about Keruv. Instead of focusing on the sociological problem of exogamy, we ought to focus on helping people and families, no matter what their situation may be, to do as many Jewish things, and to be as much involved in Jewish life, as they want to be.

A shift from trying to prevent intermarriage to trying to promote Judaism has at least two benefits. First, many of the negative things that we have done to try to prevent intermarriage have been ineffective, and, in some cases, offensive. Second, no matter what we do, the reality is that many Jews are going to marry non-Jews, and we can read the survey data in two directions. On the one hand, the intermarried, on the average, are less involved in Jewish life than the in-married. On the other hand, on every one of the 16 measures, intermarried Jews showed some degree of Jewish involvement.

The fact that someone has married a person who is not Jewish does not mean by any means that that person is lost to Judaism. We should not write anyone off. Furthermore, the non-Jewish partners of Jews may or may not convert to Judaism someday – no one can force conversion, and I, for one, am not about to engage in “aggressive efforts’ to convert non-Jewish partners of Jews – but, whether or not they do convert, they can be either more supportive or less supportive of their partner’s Jewishness. Shouldn’t we encourage them to be more supportive?

You may wonder, “What changes in synagogue practice am I proposing?” I am not proposing that we necessarily make any changes in synagogue practice or policy. What I am advocating, promoting, and supporting is a wide-ranging and deep-digging discussion of the issues connected with intermarriage and mixed families, specifically including in the discussion those people who are directly affected by our synagogue policies and practices.

I opened my remarks by looking at the character of Yitro as presented in Exodus 18. Let us now look at the famous climax of the portion, with its account of God’s appearing to the Jewish To most people, the dominant image of this section is the two tablets of the covenant (although, in fact, they are not mentioned until later). I would suggest that, for many purposes, we would do better to focus on another image from the latter part of Parashat Yitro:

16 On the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of an exceedingly loud trumpet; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lower part of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai, the whole of it, smoked, because The Lord descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.

That voice that was heard at Sinai expresses the presence in our lives of an ineffable Eternal Thou, a commanding personal presence, which calls us to engage honestly and directly with all earthly “Thou”s, with all other people, whoever and wherever they may be.


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