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Intermarriage debate divides Jewish rabbis; is Mormon model a remedy?

Published May 24, 2013 1:40 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Should someone married to a non-Jew become a rabbi?

The question has arisen among Reform Jews at this time because Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement's central rabbinical school, is reconsidering a policy requiring that prospective students sign an agreement that "any student engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person who is not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be admitted or ordained."

Dana Evan Kaplan, a rabbi in Kingston, Jamaica, supports the policy as a way of maintaining Jewish identity for a movement he says "is losing its religious focus."

Kaplan argues in The Jewish Daily Forward that "Reform Jews may be on the verge of not believing anything, but simply identifying with the Jewish people as defined by the Reform movement."

If this trend continues, Kaplan writes, "reform Jews will undermine the claim they once had to representing a true and compelling ethical monotheistic faith."

In a separate Forward article, Brooklyn Rabbi Ellen Lippmann asks that the policy be reversed.

Lippmann, whose spouse is a woman, says she founded "a now-thriving congregation that has engaged hundreds of people in Jewish life," where she has worked toward conversion with dozens of candidates. While her partner, who has been with Lippmann since 1984 and whom she married in 2011, hasn't converted, she does welcome the Sabbath in their home, attends services and reads Jewish texts.

If the school's policy had been in place when Lippmann applied, she would have been excluded.

"Today's rabbis may demonstrate special knowledge, but once the teaching is over, the rabbi is just a human being, not elevated above any other," Lippmann says. "If a rabbi is a Jew like all others, we should welcome rabbis who are married to non-Jews just as we welcome Jews who are married to non-Jews into our congregations."

Both rabbis acknowledge the problem of intermarriage for the Jewish community.

According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 27 percent of Jews were married to someone of another faith, writes Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Her solution?

Learn from the example of Mormons, who have only 12 percent intermarriage.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes "that marriage and family are crucial to involvement in the faith, and so they try as soon as possible to get their members married and settled into a particular community," Riley writes. "The church does not want members to experience those 'odyssey years' when 'emerging adults' tend to drift in and out of relationships and in and out of religious institutions. That is when you start to lose them."

It is unclear whether the Mormon marriage mantra would work among Jewish young people, but the issue of intermarriage is not going away.

Peggy Fletcher Stack