Inter-Orthodox Debate? One Last Bit on Noah Feldman…

A tremendous amount of words have been expended these past few weeks in the Jewish community (including by us here, here, and here), debating a New York Times Magazine article by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman about being shunned (in ways) by his Orthodox day school after he intermarried.

One interesting aspect about the debate that has gone relatively unmentioned is that it is primarily occurring among Orthodox Jews. This is quite remarkable, considering similar public conversations about whether to welcome or shun the intermarried began taking place in the Conservative Movement only several years ago, and in the Reform movement several decades ago. And we have been pleasantly surprised by some inclusive messages, including a piece from Rabbi Levi Brackman called “Intermarriage rethink thanks to Noah Feldman.”

To me, this is further evidence of the wide reach of intermarriage in this country; if Orthodox families were genuinely immune to intermarriage—as so many communal leaders (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) would have us believe—why such passion over this issue rather than simply writing off Feldman as a crackpot aberration?

Not all comments have come from Orthodox quarters, of course. We at JOI felt the need to reply to Gary Rosenblatt’s thought-provoking editorial in the (New York) Jewish Week with our own letter to the editor (third from top), in which we responded to his pointing out how some Jewish leaders believe “that the community already has tilted so far toward outreach and acceptance of non-Jews that there is little incentive left for them to convert to Judaism”:

The word “incentive” is a particularly interesting choice for describing the shunning, disowning and even sitting shiva that accompanied intermarriage in the past. In the rare cases where those tactics actually led to conversion, the proper term would be “coercion.” Thankfully, we are living in a time when the Jewish values of outreach and acceptance really is “incentive” for intermarried families to find a place in the Jewish community, and the overwhelming majority of converts today are people who really want to convert.


  1. Interesting… but our rabbi won’t even perform interfaith weddings! How can we be inclusive and welcoming if we abandon those in our Temple Family at this important lifecycle event?

    Comment by Sue Wishkoff — August 16, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  2. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for your comments. There’s no question that it is a challenge to welcome intermarried couples when the rabbi will not officiate, because an upcoming wedding is often the first time a couple begins looking for a Jewish community.

    Rabbis are guided by their understanding of Jewish law and we have to respect their rights to marry or not marry anyone they do or do not feel comfortable with.

    That said, synagogues must make sure they are not turning people away — even those synagogues where the rabbi doesn’t officiate. Who answers the phones? What do they tell people looking for a rabbi to marry them? Are these “gatekeepers” polite or rude? Do they offer something else to the couples, like free membership for a year? Most importantly, do they help that couple find a rabbi who WILL marry them?

    For the intermarrying synagogue members themselves, or their children, it can be especially disappointing when their own rabbi won’t marry them — in many cases the same rabbi who bar/bat mitzvahed the Jewish spouse-to-be. Some synagogues are looking to alternatives, such as allowing the couple to be married in the synagogue by a different officiant. Still, there is almost no way around the hurt felt in these cases, and it’s one of the main reasons the Reform movement has surpassed the Conservative movement in size (not that even half of Reform rabbis officiate at intermarriages). Synagogues have to find ways to offset that hurt.

    JOI is working on these issues in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) in a pilot project “Call Synagogue Home” about making lifecycle events more welcoming toward intermarried synagogue members. We blogged about it here.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Comment by Paul Golin — August 17, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  3. Paul, Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear that JOI is making this issue a priority. I believe that there is a great deal of work to be done to make sure that the synagogues are not turning people away simply because their rabbi chooses not to officiate. (and helping to “offset that hurt”)

    One of the top comments/reasons I hear over and over again that people tell me for not being unaffiliated and/or not be involed in the synagogue is the feeling that they, or someone close to them, have felt ‘turned away’ by their synagogue for an interfaith wedding. (Even though the Reform movement is quite welcoming to interfaith couples after the weeding event itself.)

    Thank you again,

    Comment by Sue Wishkoff — August 19, 2007 @ 11:07 am

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