Kol Nidre Sermon: A Radical Approach To Intermarriage

September 26, 2023
By Rabbi Ita Paskind
Category: Sermons

Let’s talk about love.  Whom do you love?  Your partner?  Your children?  Your parents?  Siblings? Friends?

In Judaism, we’re told exactly whom we should love:

V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha–”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

V’ahavtem et-hager–”You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

V’ahavta et-Adonai elohecha–“You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.”

We may have a sense of what it means to love people.  But then we learn “You shall love Adonai your God”–what does that mean?  Follow the mitzvot?  That’s nice, but is it love?  Emulate God’s righteous actions–that’s chesed, acts of lovingkindness, but is that really love?

The prophet Jonah, our Yom Kippur-afternoon hero, learned the essential message that loving God means not being upset that God didn’t destroy Nineveh, but caring instead for people’s capacity to repent, for human life and dignity.

We read last week on Rosh HaShanah about a prime example of how not to love.  Remember the Akedah?  Avraham, take your son–your only son, the one you love, Isaac–and sacrifice him.  Avraham waited his whole life to be a father, but in this moment, the Torah describes the way he placed his fidelity to God above love for his own son.  We watch in horror as the family he and Sarah worked so hard to build up seems to shatter.  Isaac never speaks to his father after that episode; Sarah, according to the midrash, dies when she learns what transpired on Mount Moriah.  We know in our gut that Avraham should have chosen love for his son over love of God; and the fact that God replaced the intended sacrifice with a ram proves that God agreed.

Our primary focus of love must be the care of other human beings, each of us created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s own image.

We know whom we love.  But in our communities–in Jewish America, especially in the Conservative Movement–we’ve been challenged by the people many of our children, our Jewish young adults, have chosen to love.  I’m talking about intermarriage.

It wasn’t that many decades ago that parents chose to sit shiva for their child who married someone of a different background, of a different faith.  I’d imagine that that painful choice is something some of us witnessed or even experienced ourselves.  Making a choice to sever a connection with a beloved child over their love for another human being goes against the message of the book of Jonah, against the ultimate message of the binding of Isaac:  we are meant to choose our loved ones, our children, over and over again.  Every time.

From the moment our children come into the world, into our lives, we shower them with brachot, blessings.  On Friday nights, we offer them the words “May Adonai bless you and keep you.” We want them to be safe and healthy.  As they come of age at their B’nei Mitzvah, we pray that they lean into a life of Torah, chuppah–the wedding canopy, and ma’asim tovim, good deeds.  We want nothing more than for them to be surrounded by love.

Last week, I shared with you my dreams for Israel’s next 75 years.  This evening, I’m thinking about the dreams parents have for their children, dreams I have for my girls. We dream of a life of happiness for them.  We want them to have it easy, not to suffer. We dream of them passing on our beloved Jewish traditions to another generation, just as we have taught them.  We dream of sharing those traditions, if we’re lucky, with grandchildren.

Friends, we have been conditioned to think of intermarriage as a direct threat to these dreams.  Marriage to someone of a different background might make our child happy, but it will be harder, we’ve been taught.  A partner of a different background represents a threat to passing on our traditions, we’ve learned.  Intermarriage, we fear, will hasten the pace of the shrinking Jewish population in America and worldwide.  This line of thinking, I’m sure familiar to many, is scary.

This is heavy stuff.  It’s personal for almost all of us.

Here’s a big statement:  When we reject or criticize our child’s choice of life partner, the love of their life, we are placing our commitment to Judaism over them, over our love of them, over their love of their chosen partner.

And that’s a really heavy burden to place on a happy couple.  It’s a lot for parents to feel at what could be one of the happiest times in their lives.  It’s a lot for members of the Jewish community to sort through when someone says “My child is engaged!”

No, we don’t sit shiva for our children anymore. In generations past, marrying someone of another background was often an explicit rejection of Judaism. We know it’s not anymore.   We give our kids all that Jewish education so that they can marry whomever they fall in love with and still be Jewish, still raise Jewish kids.

But not sitting shiva isn’t enough.  What about wishing the happy couple Mazal Tov in synagogue publications?  What about offering them a pre-wedding ufruf celebration on Shabbat?  What about premarital counseling with the rabbi, or the possibility of the rabbi attending or even officiating the wedding?  Will the partner of a non-Jewish background be welcome in the synagogue–as a member, at services, in family life cycle milestones, in leadership positions?  Will the happy couple be greeted by the Jewish community with big smiles and hugs, or will they suffer through uncomfortable glances and half-hearted congratulations?

Part of our challenge is that there is simply not a movement-wide consensus on many of these policy issues.  Some congregations offer almost all of the above; some offer none; and most are still figuring it out.

Anything less than wholehearted celebration signals to a couple–and to the Jewish partner’s family, not to mention the other partner’s family–that the community doesn’t approve.  Even the most compassionate “I’m so sorry, I’m not permitted to officiate at your wedding” is a form of rejection, and I hate making people feel that.  And feel it they do.  You know, as I do, that most interfaith couples experience that rejection very personally.  Sometimes that means they leave the Conservative world for the Reform community; sometimes it means they leave organized Judaism for good.

In our Congregation Beth El, I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made over the last eight years.  Here’s where we are today:  we always wish Mazal Tov to every family celebrating an engagement or wedding; and we’ve begun offering a pre-wedding ufruf celebration to each local couple.  As of three years ago, we have a beautiful section in our synagogue cemetery where interfaith families are encouraged to pre-purchase plots.  As of five years ago, our congregation counts both household adults as synagogue members with voting rights, regardless of religious background or affiliation; and members who aren’t Jewish are welcome to serve in most leadership positions, and of course to volunteer.  In recent years, we’ve begun to do a better job at celebrating non-Jewish partners and parents in Jewish life cycle events, such as B’nei Mitzvah.  I’m so proud of what we are doing.  And there’s much more we must do.

When our children, or other members of our community, marry someone of a different background, they have already made their choice.  And we–their parents, members of the community–are left with ours: we can either embrace or reject.  There is no in-between.

We have an opportunity–right now, on this Yom Kippur–to engage in life-changing teshuvah–repentance for mistakes made, yes, but also turning, turning towards more human dignity, towards more love.  We can make a radical change to the way we as a Jewish community and we as individuals view intermarriage.  And I believe we must make this change, for the love of our young people, for the dignity and respect of our children.

The Rambam[1], Maimonides, taught that the mark of true teshuvah, repentance, is that when we find ourselves in the same position where we once made the wrong choice, we now do better.  We recognize the hurt we’ve caused to intermarried couples and interfaith families, and now we must do better.

I’ve been working hard to make this radical shift in my own thinking, and I’ve found it so liberating.  This evening, I invite you to try out this set of statements:

Intermarriage doesn’t mean that someone who has grown up Jewish now rejects Jewish tradition.  Intermarriage means that one partner may be more responsible for bringing Judaism into the home, into the family.  It also might mean that the partner of a different background is excited to learn and support their Jewish partner, regardless of whether they one day choose to convert to Judaism.

Intermarriage doesn’t need to mean the end of Judaism for a particular family.  It might mean that Judaism is part of what that family celebrates.  It might mean that by accepting a couple, they choose to raise their family, should they be blessed with one, as Jewish. And it might mean that the people who may one day be grandparents may need to step up their role in teaching our traditions.  Jewish grandparenting can be very beautiful and super important.

Intermarriage doesn’t necessarily lead to fewer Jews.  Intermarriage expands the Jewish family and greatly increases the number of people who love and respect Jews.

Intermarriage per se isn’t what’s causing the Conservative Movement to shrink.  Part of that cause is our reputation for not embracing interfaith families.  Everyone knows that many Reform clergy will officiate at intermarriages, and that a Reform congregation will welcome intermarried couples and interfaith families.  Many of us have family members–adult children, grandchildren–who have found a loving home there.  I hope that one day in the not-too-distant future, everyone will know that Congregation Beth El, and any synagogue in the Conservative Movement, would be a wonderful Jewish home.

These statements are radically different from the way the Jewish world–the Conservative world–has always viewed intermarriage.  This is part of the new discourse in our movement, embraced by a growing number of my rabbinic colleagues and supported by the Interfaith Inclusion specialist at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ), Dr. Keren McGinity.  This approach offers hope, excitement, and opportunity instead of fear and shame.

I wonder how you feel hearing me speak about intermarriage in this way.  I wonder how you might feel after you’ve had some time to mull it over, or when you find yourself sharing these sentiments with a friend, family member, or your own adult child.  If you’re feeling challenged, that’s a good thing–it’s Yom Kippur, and that’s what this day is about.  If you’re feeling bruised or upset, please know that my door is always open for a conversation.

This is the season for cheshbon hanefesh, our personal and collective soul-accounting.  This evening and tomorrow, the most sacred day of our year–this is the time to open our hearts and start to shift from discomfort to love, from worry to opportunity.

I know there have been moments I have caused people pain around intermarriage.  I am sorry, and I regret it.  I am committing to do better.

Over these next 25 hours, may we ask ourselves:  How have we responded to intermarried couples or their families in the past?  Have our words or actions caused pain to people we love, to people in our community?  How do we want to respond in the future?  The Jewish people looks different in 5784 than it did just a few years ago, and that’s ok.

May we love our children even more than we love Judaism.

May we celebrate every time two people find love.

And I pray that our Jewish communities will become, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, houses of prayer–and love–for all people.  Amen.

[1] Maimonides, Laws of Teshuvah, 2:1