A Provocative Sermon on Intermarriage

A few weeks ago, JOI’s Paul Golin blogged about an article in New Voices, the student run Jewish magazine. The piece, by Jeremy Gillick, was titled “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi,” and in it he got to what Paul called the “crux of what we at JOI have been discussing internally recently, the difference between being ‘tolerant’ and being ‘embracing.’”

In the article, Gillick mentioned a controversial sermon by recent Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform Movement’s rabbinic seminary) graduate Yael Shmilovitz. Originally presented as the HUC-JIR Senior Sermon in October of 2007, the sermon was memorable because Rabbi Shmilovitz said outright: “I am for interfaith marriage. I really am.”

First a little background. HUC-JIR has rabbinic students sign a policy consent form that reads, in part: “…any student currently engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person who is not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be ordained or vested.” This troubled Rabbi Shmilovitz. She said in her sermon:

If I signed it, would that mean that if I met that special person, and they weren’t Jewish, that they would have to convert in order for me to be ordained? Is that even a worthy motive for conversion to Judaism? If making a Jewish family is at stake, can’t I have one with a non-Jewish spouse? What if my spouse was Jewish, but disinterested? Would that then be OK? As an education student, already at HUC for three years, I was fully aware that some of my classmates were born and raised in families where a Jew and a non-Jew had wed; if I signed, what would that say about these unions? That they are regrettable? If I signed, what would it say about my classmates, the children of those unions? What if by signing this sheet, I was signing away an important spiritual tenet of mine? Which is–it is love that binds a family together, and it will be through love that I will make a Jewish family, a new Jewish family, a unique Jewish family, no matter the obstacles? If I signed, what kind of rabbi would that make me?

We urge you to read the entire sermon because, whether you agree with her thesis or not, it’s quite powerful. Sometimes it takes a radical, provocative statement like “I am for interfaith marriage” to get people talking about an issue that most would rather avoid. What are your thoughts?


  1. Yael Schmilovitz’s sermon is brilliant. Intermarriage is not the problem - how we respond to intermarriage (like my traitorous interfaith parents and I, their demon-spawn, and my eternally doomed children) could mean the difference between attracting/retaining participation and truly becoming “irrelevant.” That’s a great insight. I know I’m a threat - I just don’t know why.

    Chabad Lubavitch answers my questions - if I need help, they’ll come through for me, and they’ll do it with grace and kindness and generosity of spirit. I know they do this for any Jew. I know I can count on them. As a result, they are on my list of organizations I support. I don’t support a group that tells me I’m not Jewish or my family isn’t Jewish or that we in some way are inferior, unwanted, barely tolerable, icky, dirty, marginally evil, illegitimate, etc. Who wants to be where they’re not wanted?

    When I am turned away for not being Jewish enough, I assume if I’m not going to be accepted as a Jew, the rules of Jewish life don’t apply to me. If I am not relevant, it doesn’t matter what I do - therefore Judaism itself is not relevant to my life. But on a day when I need to be Jewish and I wear my magen david, I am on my best behavior, because I feel I have to “represent” - I am responsible to all Jewish people everywhere. If I do something good, I want Jews to get credit for it - and if I do something not so good, I don’t want Jews to be blamed for it.

    The commitment goes both ways.

    Comment by Sara — May 20, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  2. I guess what sticks in my gut is todays Blog- Ayssa Stanton- 1st African American..female…conservative…affiliated with the Reform movement…. all the ” right stuff!” - except she can’t marry a non- Jew - somethingas wron with this picture. If we truley want change then it has to start at the top- we teach by example— do as I say not as I do is not a good role model.


    Comment by Ell — May 22, 2009 @ 6:03 am

  3. I want people to understand: Twenty years ago I was young and single. I wanted to learn about Judaism but I was turned away because I wasn’t raised religiously. Now I have children who are Jewish according to halacha - but how can I teach them about Jewish identity if I am barely tolerated myself? From my perspective, it is Jewish people in Jewish organizations who have thrown away not one but three generations of potentially Jewish people - me, my children, future grandchildren - all because of choices made by my parents, who were good, kind, caring people. I didn’t reject Judaism - Judaism rejects me. This has caused me so much pain, grief, anger, bitterness, inner conflict, etc - the fault was not in the intermarriage, it was in the judgmental response and the distancing that resulted. It seems so unnecessary. What do religious Jews want? Are the choices they make going to help them achieve those goals? Please don’t hurt other families.

    Comment by Sara — May 22, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  4. 1/ That sermon is from 2007? Any update?

    2/ Since she says ‘I am for interfaith marriage. I really am’, then I hope she found some nice Gentile fellow. Maybe more HUC graduates will intermarry if that’s what they want.

    3/ Love how she ‘argues with statistics’, because ‘I am Israeli’. Well that should do it.

    4/ BTW I do agree with her that intermarriage is not a threat to Jewish continuity, at least so long at the vigorously anti-intermarriage haredim keep pushing out babies.

    Comment by Dave — May 24, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  5. Read “The Colors of Jews” by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, and learn about the vast diversity of Jewishness throughout the world and within the United States - highlighting the reality that the American Jewish *establishment* (white Ashkenazim) cannot, in very real and practical terms, define or control the boundaries of Jewishness or Jewish identity.

    Comment by Sara — May 24, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

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