Address of to the Board of Trustees by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Houston, Texas December 2, 1978
It is good to be here, my friends, good to be re-united with the leaders of Reform Jewry, with men and women from many congregations and communities but of one faith, bound together by a common sacred cause. Your presence here gives us much strength as does your work throughout the year. We are what we are because of you, a product of those rich gifts of mind and heart you bring to our tasks.
It is good to have our number enlarged by the presence of leaders and members of our Southwest congregations. We are grateful for your hospitality. You are true sons and daughters of Abraham whose tent, so the Midrash informs us, has an opening on each of its sides so that whencesoever a stranger might near he would have no difficulty in entering Abraham and Sarah?s home.
We are grateful for the sustaining help which you have given us over the years, your material help, and the time and talents and energies of your leaders who have always played an indispensable role in our regional and national councils.
It is not my intention this night to give you a comprehensive report of the Union?s activities?as I do at these Board meetings from time to time?but rather to offer a resolution which recommends the creation of an agency within our movement involving its every arm which will earnestly and urgently confront the problem of intermarriage in specified areas and in an effort to turn the tide which threatens to sweep us away into directions which might enable us to recover our numbers and, more important, to recharge our inner strength.
I begin with the recognition of a reality: the tide of intermarriage is running against us. The statistics on the subject confirm what our own experience teaches us: intermarriage is on the rise. Between 1966 and 1972, 31.7 percent of all marriages involving a Jew were marriages between a Jew and a person born a non-Jew. And a recent survey shows that the acceptance of such marriages among Americans in general is on the rise, most dramatically, as we might expect, among Jews.
We may deplore it, we may lament it, we may struggle against it, but these are the facts. The tide is running against us, and we must deal with this threatening reality. Dealing with it does not, however, mean that we must learn to accept it. It does not mean that we should prepare to sit shiva for the American Jewish community. On the contrary, facing and dealing with reality means confronting it, coming to grips with it, determining to reshape it.
Most often, Jewish education ? more of it, and better ? is put forward as the surest remedy to intermarriage. And, indeed, there is some evidence that suggests that the more the Jewish education, the less the likelihood of intermarriage. But alas, it is not always so. As the Mishnah long ago averred, "Not every knowledgeable Jew is pious", not every educated Jew is a committed Jew.
Nonetheless, we believe in Jewish education, for its own sake as well as because we believe it a powerful defense against the erosion of our people. The bulk of the resources and the energies of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is invested in programs of formal and informal education of which we are justly proud. We operate summer camps and Israel tours and youth retreats, college weekends and kallahs and teacher training institutes. We generate curricula and texts and educational aids. And some 45,000 youngsters participate each and every year in the programs, which we sponsor.
We know that such programs are our first line of defense in the battle against intermarriage. We know as well, however, that they are an imperfect defense, that even among those who are exposed to our most ambitious efforts, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who will intermarry. There is a sting to the honey of freedom.
But we know also that Jewish education is not "wasted" even on those who do intermarry. Study after study informs us that it is the Jewish partner of an intermarried couple who is most likely to determine whether or not there will be a conversion to Judaism, and whether or not the children of the couple will be raised as Jews. The richer the background and the stronger the commitment of the Jewish partner, the less likely is the absolute loss.
Most simply stated, the fact of intermarriage does not in and of itself lead to a decline in the Jewish population. As Fred Massarik, one of our leading demographers, has observed (MOMENT June 1978), "That decline ? if a decline there be ? depends on what the Jews who are involved in the intermarriage actually do."
As important as Jewish education is, in the context, I believe that there are other steps we can ? and must ? take if we are to deal realistically with the threat which intermarriage presents to our survival. And it is on three such steps that I want to focus my attention.
The first of these has to do with the conversion of the non-Jewish partner-to-be. It is time for us to reform our behavior towards those who become Jews-by-Choice, to increase our sensitivity towards them and, thereby, to encourage growth in their numbers.
In most communities, the UAHC offers "Introduction to Judaism" courses, and congregational rabbis spend countless hours providing instruction in Judaism. History and Hebrew are taught, ideas explored, ceremonies described. But there, by and large, our efforts end. Immediately after the marriage ceremony, we drop the couple and leave them to fend for themselves. We do not offer them help in establishing a Jewish home, in raising their children Jewishly, in grappling with their peculiar problems, in dealing with their special conflicts. More important still, we do not really embrace them, enable them to feel a close kinship with our people.
On the contrary: If the truth be told, we often alienate them. We question their motivations (since only a madman would choose to be a Jew, the convert is either neurotic or hypocritical). We think them less Jewish (ignoring that they often know more about Judaism than born Jews). Unto the end of their days, we refer to them as converts.
A colleague of mine recently received a letter from one who elected to become a Jew:
I know that I personally resent being referred to as a convert ? a word that by now is alien to my heart. My conversion process was nearly ten years ago ? I have been a Jew for a long time now. I think, eat and breathe Judaism. My soul is a Jewish soul though I am distinctly aware of my original background and birthright. This does not alter my identity as a Jew. If one is curious about whence I come or if indeed "am I really Jewish," the answer is categorically "Yes, I?m really Jewish ? a Jew-by-Choice." I shall continue to grow and to search as a Jew. My "conversion process" was just that ? a process which ended with the ceremony. From then on I was a Jew."
Such Jews-by-Choice have special needs and we need special guidance on how to meet those needs. What, for example, is to be done where a convert is more enthusiastic than his/her Jewish-born partner? And what of the past of the new Jew? He may have broken with the past, but in human terms he cannot forget, nor should he be expected to, his non-Jewish parents or family, and at special times of the year, say Christmas or Easter, he may well feel some ambivalence. And what of the difficult process through which one learns that the adoption of Judaism implies the adoption of a people as well as a faith, of a history as well as a religion of a way of life as well as a doctrine? May this not sometimes seem overwhelming to the new Jew?
It is time for us to stop relating to the new Jews as if they were curiosities, or as if they were superficial people whose conversion to Judaism reflects a lack of principles on their part, a way of accommodating to their partners-to-be. We should do that for their sake, and also for our own. For we need them to be part of our people. They add strength to us only if they are more than a scattering of individuals who happen to share our faith. Newcomers to Judaism, in short, must embark on a long-term naturalization process, and they require knowledgeable and sympathetic guides along the way, that they may feel themselves fully equal members of the synagogue family.
Let there be no holding back. It was Maimonides himself, answering a convert?s query, who wrote:
You ask whether you, being a proselyte, may speak the prayers: "our God and God of our Fathers" and "Guardian of Israel who has brought us out of the land of Egypt," and the like.
Pronounce all the prayers as they are written and do not change a word. Your prayers and your blessings should be the same as any other Jew?This above all: do not think little of your origin. We may be descended from Abraham. Isaac and Jacob, but your descent is from the Almighty Himself.
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But we must look beyond conversion. Most of the non-Jewish partners to intermarriage do not convert to Judaism. Such data as we have suggests that two out of every three intermarriages involve a Jewish husband and a non-Jewish wife, and in these cases, one out of four wives converts to Judaism. In the one third of intermarriages which involve a Jewish wife and a non-Jewish husband, the incidence of conversion is much, much lower. But we also know that in very many cases of intermarriage without conversion, there is a "Jewish drift"; Massarik informs us, for example, that, "nearly fifty percent of non-Jewish husbands, although they do not formally embrace Judaism by their own description nonetheless regard themselves as Jews."
I believe that we must do everything possible to draw the non-Jewish spouse of mixed marriage into Jewish life. The phenomenon of Jewish drift teaches us that we ought to be undertaking more intensive Jewish programs which will build on and build up these existing ties, this fledgling sense of Jewish identification. If non-Jewish partners can be brought more actively into Jewish communal life, perhaps they themselves will initiate the process of conversion. At the very least, we will dramatically increase the probability that the children of such marriages will be reared as Jews.
Nor can we neglect to pay attention to the Jewish partners of such marriages. Frequently, they have felt the sting of rejection by the Jewish community, even by their own parents. They may feel guilty, they may feel resentful, they are almost sure to feel some confusion and ambivalence toward active involvement in the community. They may feel inhibited out of a sense of regard for their partner?s sensibilities, or out of embarrassment in the face of a community they think will be hostile to their partners.
We must remove the "not wanted" signs from our hearts. We are opposed to intermarriage, but we cannot reject the intermarried. And we cannot but be aware that in our current behavior, we communicate rejection. If Jews-by-Choice often feel alienated by our attitudes and behavior, how much more alienated do the non-Jewish spouses of our children feel?
We can also remove those impediments to a fuller participation, which still obtain in all too many of our congregations. Even the strictest halachic approach offers more than ample room to allow the non-Jewish partner to join in most of our ceremonial and life cycle events. The halachah permits non-Jews to be in the synagogue, to sing in the choir, to recite the blessing over the Sabbath and festival candles, and even to handle the Torah. There is no law which forbids a non-Jew to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
And as for the children born of such a marriage: if the mother is Jewish than the child is regarded as fully Jewish. But if she is not, even Orthodox Judaism, provided the consent of the mother is obtained, permits the circumcision of the boy, his enrollment in religious school and his right to be called to the Torah on the occasion of his bar mitzvah ? and everlastingly thereafter, to be considered a full Jew.
All this is possible under Orthodoxy. How much the more so within Reform, which has insisted on the creative unfolding of halachah.
As a case in point, why should a movement which from its very birth-hour insisted on a full equality of men and women in religious life unquestioningly accept the principle that Jewish lineage is valid through the maternal line alone? In fact, a case can be made that there is substantial support within our tradition for the validity of Jewish lineage through the paternal line, and it is this kind of possibility which we should begin energetically to explore. I am not scholar enough to propose an instant revision in our standard practice, but I do think it is important that we seek ways to harmonize our tradition with our needs.
It may well be that when we have done that, our collective wisdom and our concern for Jewish unity will lead us to conclude that there are certain privileges which simply cannot be extended to non-Jews. If that proves to be the case, then I am confident that the thoughtful non-Jew who is favorably disposed to Judaism will recognize and respect what we have concluded, and will understand that conversion remains the path of entry to the totality of what Judaism has to offer.
Let no one misinterpret and infer that I am here endorsing intermarriage. I deplore intermarriage, and I discourage it. I struggle against it, as a rabbi and as the father of five children. But if all of our efforts do not suffice ? and, manifestly, they do not do we really banish our children to sit shivaover them? No. Our task then is to draw them even closer to our hearts, to do everything we can to make certain that our grandchildren will nonetheless be Jews, that they will be part of our community and share the destiny of our people.
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I now come to the third and likely the most controversial aspect of the matter, I believe that the time has come for the Reform movement ? and others, if they are so disposed ? to launch a carefully conceived Outreach program aimed at all Americans who are unchurched and who are seeking religious meaning.
It would be easy to tip-toe here, to use obfuscatory language and be satisfied to hint at my purpose. But I will not. Unabashedly and urgently, I propose that we resume our vocation as champions of Judaism, that we move from passive acceptance to affirmative action.
No, I do not have in mind some kind of traveling religious circus. I envisage instead the development of a dignified and responsible approach. Let us establish information centers in many places, well-publicized courses in our synagogues, and the development of suitable publications to serve these facilities and purposes. In short, I propose that we respond openly and positively to those God-seekers whose search leads them to our door, who voluntarily ask for our knowledge.
I do not suggest that we strive to wean people from the religions of their choice, with or without the boast that ours is the only true and valid faith; I do not suggest that we enter into rivalry with all established churches. I want to reach a different audience entirely. I want to reach the unchurched, those reared in non-religious homes or those who have become disillusioned with their taught beliefs. I want to reach those seekers after truth who require a religion which tolerates ? more than tolerates, encourages ? all questions. I want especially to reach the rootless and the alienated who need the warmth and comfort of a people known for its close family ties, a people of ancient and noble lineage.
The notion that Judaism is not a propagating faith is far from the truth. It has been a practiced truth for the last four centuries, but it was not true for the forty centuries before. Abraham was a convert, and our tradition lauds his missionary zeal. Isaiah enjoined us to be a "light unto the nations" and insisted that God?s house be a "house of prayer for all peoples." Ruth of Moab, a heathen by birth, became the ancestress of King David. Zechariah foresaw the time when men of every tongue would grasp a Jew by the corner of his garment and say, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."
During the Maccabean period, Jewish proselytizing activity reached its zenith: schools for missionaries were established, and by the beginning of the Christian era they had succeeded in converting ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire?roughly four million people.
It is true that the Talmud insists that we test the sincerity of the convert?s motivations by discouraging him, by warning him of the hardships he will have to endure as a Jew. But the Talmud also says that while we are "to push converts away with the left hand," we ought to "draw them near with the right."
After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, and later, again, when Islam conquered the world, Jews were forbidden to seek converts or to accept them. The death penalty was fixed for the gentile who became a Jew and also for the Jew who welcomed him. Many were actually burned at the stake, and the heat of the flames cooled our conversionist ardor. Even so, it was not until the 16th century that we abandoned all proselytizing efforts; only then did our rabbis begin their systematic rejection of those who sought to join us.
But this is America and it is 1979. No repressive laws restrain us. The fear of persecution no longer inhibits us. There is no earthly?and surely no heavenly?reason why we cannot reassume our ancient vocation and open our arms to all newcomers.
Why are we so hesitant? Are we ashamed? Do we really believe that one must be a madman to embrace Judaism? Let us shuck our insecurities; let us recapture our self-esteem; let us, by all means, demonstrate our confidence in the value of our faith.
For we live in a time when millions of our fellow-Americans are in search of meaning. Tragically, many of the seekers go astray, and some fall prey to cultic enslavement. Searching for meaning, they find madness instead.
Well, Judaism offers life, not death. It teaches free will, not the surrender of body and soul to another human being. The Jew prays directly to God, not through an intermediary who stands between him and his God. Judaism is a religion of hope, not despair. Judaism insists that man and society are perfectible. Judaism has an enormous wealth of wisdom and experience to offer this troubled world and we Jews ought to be proud to speak about it, to speak frankly and freely, with enthusiasm and with dignity.