A Courageous Rabbi Asks Hebrew Union College to Make a Change

As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).

“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”

As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”

It is so easy to be hateful on the internet, because there are no consequences. The internet has caused bullying to become an even more widespread problem than ever before, simply because of the access it provides to anyone and everyone. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel pokes brilliant fun at this phenomenon with his recurring “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment, in which celebrities read aloud vicious words said about them via Twitter. This bit allows the insulted parties the opportunity for a funny retort, helping to diminish the impact of this particular forum of hate speech.

In addition to comments like those on Rabbi Lippmann’s letter being cowardly, small-minded ways to express one’s views, they fly in the face of what forms the basis of Jewish ethics. The old story of Rabbi Hillel comes to mind, wherein he was asked to teach the entire Torah (Five Books of Moses) while standing on one foot:

“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”

This is such a simple ideal, and one that is certainly not unique to Jewish thought. And yet, it is so often forsaken in the name of upholding tenets that are seemingly unshakeable. I am not suggesting that, as if by magic, all movements will come to accept intermarriage because I believe the above statement says so. (I realize that the issue is much more complicated than that, with deep-seated sensitivities for many.) What I am suggesting, however, is that we learn to wrestle productively with these kinds of issues. This means using constructive, inclusive language, setting a standard in the expression of our opinions for how we would hope to dialogue with others. Dialogue is not always about agreement, but it should always be about respect.

I urge readers of our JOI blog, regardless of where they might fall on this issue, to read Rabbi Lippmann’s words with an open mind and an open heart. She offers a powerful voice for the interfaith community (as well as the LGBTQ community), one in which Judaism continues to grow and thrive in new and exciting ways. We at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) are excited to support the interfaith community, and to help pave the way for the kind of dialogue that will lead to real change, inclusion, and acceptance. As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s Executive Director, often says, we must open the tent to everyone, including those with whom we may disagree.

I commend Rabbi Lippmann for her bravery in addressing such an important issue, and hope that it encourages the kind of thoughtful debate that can enrich our core values as members of an inclusive Jewish community, not take away from it.

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