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Position Paper on Non-Jewish Partner Policy

Abstract

This paper was written in 2013 as the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) was considering a policy barring prospective rabbinical students from being partnered with non-Jews. Composed by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., prior to her assuming the presidency of Reconstructing Judaism, it recommends that RRC set aside this policy and replace it with a clearly articulated preference that rabbinical students create for themselves homes with rich Jewish practice, and a requirement that children in the home be raised exclusively in the Jewish tradition. The recommendation emerges from a review of classical Reconstructionist positions as articulated by Mordecai M. Kaplan, the 1968 and 1979 Reconstructionist stands on patrilineal descent, the nature of religious authority, the impact of second-wave feminism on American Jewish life, and consideration of universalism versus particularism. The ultimate conclusion is that RRC’s mission is to attract Jews to Jewish living and not to police boundaries and that adopting a more inclusive partner status policy is an affirmation of key Reconstructionist principles, including fostering diverse expressions of Jewish identity and inclusive Jewish communities, and an authentic step in an evolving understanding of the Jewish civilization.

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Notes

  1. For a full account of how early Reconstructionist thinkers brought the concept of peoplehood to speech in 1942, see my dissertation: Waxman (2010c), Ethnicity and Faith in American Judaism: Reconstructionist Judaism as Ideology and Institution, 1935–1959, 80–97.

  2. The Reconstructionist leadership circle was among the first religious Zionist groups to publicly criticize plans to grant Orthodox rabbis authority over the religious institutions of the early state, precisely out of concerns about authoritarianism that continue to plague Israeli society and impact Israel-diaspora relations. See, for example, Milton Steinberg’s (1959) editorial in The Reconstructionist, “The Test of Time.”

  3. The recently adopted Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Ishut Guidelines use the terms “kinship and consent.”

  4. In his intellectual history of Kaplan’s decision to adopt “civilization” as the defining concept for his ideology, Pianko (2010) argues “Kaplan selected a deliberately vague term and refused to reconcile contradictions in his description of that term for strategic purposes. This ambiguity enabled him to grapple with fundamental tensions between Jewish national preservation and American citizenship, involving irresolvable questions such as the relationship between individual rights and collective recognition, patriotic duty and national loyalty, religious creed and cultural cohesion, and voluntary association and coercive bonds. Kaplan thus found a unified term that would address a series of irreconcilable dilemmas. These strategic silences allowed him to blur the boundaries between such key categories as nation, religion, race, Americanism and Judaism” (98).

  5. In “A Reconstructionist View of Patrilineal Descent,” Jacob Staub (1985) emphasizes behavior and queries conversion in the instance of a pre-bar mitzvah boy raised in a patrilineally Jewish home: “Aside from the physical pain thus caused and the emotional turmoil engendered in a child and family who have lived as Jews, such a requirement communicates powerfully the message that Jewish identity is determined not by the way one’s life is lived but, rather, by arbitrary ritual requirements which almost magically change one’s persona.”

  6. In On Toleration, Michael Walzer (1999) observes that a hyphenated or dual identity is a common choice for minority communities in an immigrant society, though such a strategy usually involves giving up political claims. He assesses “the toleration of individual choices and personalized versions of culture and religion constitutes the maximal (or most intensive) regime of toleration. But it is radically unclear whether the long-term effect of this maximalism will be to foster or to dissolve group life” (33–34). Addressing the history of Jews in America, he notes that American Jewish history suggests a protestantization of Judaism, making Jews look less and less like Jews in other countries, with weakened communal control, destabilization of clerical authority, increased religious autonomy and rates of intermarriage. Whatever it meant internally for the Jewish community, this communal accommodation promoted toleration and coexistence of Jews within the larger American society.

  7. Werner Sollors (1986) exhaustively searched for the first usage of the term “ethnicity” and located it in a 1941 text; as recently as the 1970s, it was found in only some dictionaries.

  8. See, for example, Kaplan’s 1946 exchange with 30 hand-picked leaders of American Jewish youth organizations, most in their twenties, half of them veterans. Kaplan addressed them at an opening session of a convening on the need to cultivate vigorous, courageous Jewish leadership, especially in the atomic era. The participants asked penetrating questions challenging his assumptions, including “Why is it necessary to live a Jewish life? Why cannot I get from the surrounding milieu, the necessary courage and incentive to live as a human being?” Kaplan answered them respectfully and at length, but he did not respond to their awareness of the possibility of exiting the Jewish community to live a life of meaning. (Transcript of Labor Day Gathering, September 1–2, 1946; American Jewish Historical Society, JRF records, I–71; Box 42; Folder 14.)

  9. In a discussion on the matter of patrilineal descent composed decades after the emergence of Reconstructionism, Jacob Staub reflects on maintaining boundaries while living confidently as Jews in an open society:

    Those…who are confident that Jewish life can flourish in an open society are not unaware of the challenges posed by assimilation. They do not, however, assume that Jewish survival is inversely proportional to Jewish integration. Recognizing the rate of intermarriage, they seek, with the patrilineal principle, to increase the permeability of the boundary which separates us from our non-Jewish neighbors, thus making it easier for people to be, and become, Jewish. Otherwise, we confront a situation in which it is easy for Jews to leave the community and incomparably more difficult for non-Jews to join it. (Staub 1985, 101)

  10. Mordecai M. Kaplan (1936), “The Status of the Jewish Woman.” Like many Reconstructionist articles, this one has an extensive genealogy. It was first published in The Reconstructionist and reprinted in the collection of seminal articles from the magazine’s first year of publication, The Jewish Reconstructionist Papers. Kaplan also included the essay in his 1948 book The Future of the American Jew.

  11. In Jacob Staub’s language, “The very authoritative decision-making structure of the halakhic system contradicts our best contemporary intuitions about the value of the democratic process and the desirability of autonomous decisions reached by responsible individuals” (Staub 1985, 99).

  12. In American Crucible, Gary Gerstle (2001) demonstrates repeatedly that the principle of unity and diversity is a constantly shifting conversation about boundaries and authority.

  13. Writing in the 1970 American Jewish Year Book, Charles Liebman grudgingly acknowledged the Reconstructionists as displaying unprecedented and unequalled communal concern in the 1930s and 1940s. “The fact that Kaplan was somewhat naïve about the possibility of creating such a community, or overly formalistic about constitutional and structural aspects must not detract from our recognition of his contribution” (Liebman 1970, 13).

  14. Michael Walzer speaks of “community conceived as free assembly—entrances and exits open, with little claim and little capacity to shape the everyday life of the participants.” He asks related questions: “What will be the staying power and organizational strength of a purely voluntary faith?” (Walzer 1999, 70–71). He urges group strengthening as well as “affirm[ing] the value” of the “manyness of groups and of individuals” (ibid., 102). “Some…members will flee their own groups, join others, or undertake complicated cross-cultural careers. They will seize on the possibilities of dissociation and commingling. They will act as radically free individuals, pursuing their own material or spiritual interests. But if they act against a background of group strength, they will also be agents of cultural innovation and mutual learning. Postmodern vagabonds, when they don’t replace but live alongside members and citizens, are unlikely to find themselves talking only to themselves, endlessly self-absorbed; they will be participants in interesting conversations” (109).

  15. This is not to say that their roles were or are clear-cut. Extensive discussion on the RRA net and other forums reveal the confusing expectations for male partners of rabbis, whom one Reconstructionist colleague calls her “hubbatzin.”

  16. Michael Walzer reminds us that “[divisive] questions about family arrangements, gender roles, and sexual behavior” are not new to contemporary society; “polygamy, concubinage, ritual prostitution, the seclusion of women, circumcision, and homosexuality have been argued about for millennia. Cultures and religions have marked themselves off by their distinctive practices in these matters—and then have criticized the practices of the ‘others.’ But a virtually universal male domination set limits to what could be argued about (and who could join the argument). Today, widely accepted ideas about equality and human rights call those limits into question” (1999, 60).

  17. This re-orientation of Judaism as one of several legitimate paths toward salvation was one element of the Reconstructionist rejection of the concept of Jews as the chosen people, which in their understanding implied hierarchy and thus unavoidable chauvinism (Schulweis 1990).

  18. Jeffrey Shandler (2003), in his discussions about how “Yiddishland” was a similar effort to create an imagined community, emphasizes Benedict Anderson’s point that imagination is not falsehood but an inherent element of creation.

  19. According to the US Religious Landscape Survey released in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

    More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

    The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18–29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion. (“Summary of Key Findings,” 5)

  20. I thank Jacob Staub for this insight.

  21. The larger Jewish community’s ambivalent reaction to patrilineal rabbinical students as anecdotally reported by these students demonstrates that this is still contested in circles to the right of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.

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Waxman, D. Position Paper on Non-Jewish Partner Policy. Cont Jewry 39, 523–539 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-019-09314-1

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Keywords

  • Reconstructionism
  • Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Rabbi
  • Partner
  • Boundaries
  • Intermarriage