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Rabbi Jacobs’ Position on Intermarriage Is No Longer Confusing (or Is It?)

by Shmuel Rosner

February 10, 2014 | 4:18 am

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Three weeks ago, writing about interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, I raised some questions regarding URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs' biennial sermon. Especially about the part in which he talks about the virtues of intermarriage.

"It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families" said Rabbi Jacobs. "It is theology as well. We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world. It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want 'in' than Jews who want 'out.' That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead."

I argued at the time that this sermon was different from the sermons we usually hear about this topic, as it wasn't just offering us the "sober view of the realist who doesn't expect gravity to stop, but the view of the idealist who embraces interfaith marriage as a blessing". This, I wrote, was a significant change of course.

I was not the only one to raise questions about that specific sermon. JTA's Julie Wiener did too. And Steven Cohen and Leon Morris also wrote about Jacobs. They took issue with the example he used to prove interfaith marriage is beneficial: Moses. Their point was similar to the one I made - that what Jacobs says might hint that we are entering a new era in our discussion of intermarriage: "Over the years", they wrote (in Tablet) "the discourse in the Reform movement has shifted considerably. Once it focused on the need to welcome intermarried families while urging Jews to marry Jews. Now it seems to be moving toward a values-neutral position—a position that even points to Moses himself to bolster its legitimacy. Over the decades, non-Orthodox American Jews’ relationship to intermarriage has shifted from condemnation to consternation and now seems headed for celebration—and the Reform movement has been anticipating if not advocating these shifts."

Last week, Rabbi Jacobs decided it is time to respond. To further clarify his position with a new article about this topic. Is he backtracking? I think he is, a little. I even thought about calling and asking, but then decided that maybe some things should remain unsaid. Maybe it makes sense for rabbi Jacobs not to have to admit that the article is a way for him to inch back toward safer ground.  Makes sense - not because of ego considerations, but rather because backtracking contradicts Rabbi Jacobs' strategy. And let me explain.

In the article by Rabbi Jacobs there is no sign of "theology". All that is left is the pragmatic argument for outreach: "Delivering endless sermons about the importance of endogamy — or making apocalyptic arguments — is not going to dissuade young people from falling in love with someone who is not Jewish. If that were the case, we would not be where we are today", the rabbi wrote. If his sermon was somewhat confusing, as I argued three weeks ago, the position he espouses in the article is not. Outreach isn't about Moses or about trying to promote a new form of Judaism; it is about the belief that there is no other strategy with which to keep the next-generation of young Jews within the Jewish fold. We are back to thinking about ways to deal with reality, instead of claiming that this is a rosy reality.

So why use Moses and create such confusion? Two possible answers, and I think both of them are partially true:

1. It was a mistake, not well thought through. This happens to everyone, even to a leader as thoughtful as Rabbi Jacobs.

2. The strategy Rabbi Jacobs believes in requires avoiding value-based differentiations in order to make the intermarried feel truly welcome and included (Of course, such a strategy has a price: it makes the values blurrier for everyone).

If the first answer is the right one, the article corrected it. Without much fanfare. And the avoidance of fanfare is justified because of the second answer. Moses is supposed to make outreach more effective, so publicly backtracking would undermine Jacobs' strategy. Of course, if I'm correct in my assessment, my article also undermines the strategy, but this is less of a problem because A) I'm not sure if I really believe in this strategy, and B) I didn't call the rabbi and hence am leaving you with an assessment that is no more than a guess (my assumption: had I called, he still wouldn't have said this was backtracking - either because he doesn't think it is, or because he doesn't want to undermine his own strategy).

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