By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
A: I think you’ve stumbled upon a really profound question: What is the ideal Jewish family? What is the role of the rabbi‘s family in the modern faith community? Your timing is perfect, too, because Hebrew College in Boston has just announced that it will accept and ordain rabbis who have partners from other faith traditions. It is the second rabbinical school (after the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2015) to do so.
This represents a growing recognition that partners from another faith, not only can, but are enriching Judaism. With seventy one percent of non-orthodox Jews marrying out and fifty eight percent of orthodox Jews doing the same, unlike the predictions that this would be the end of American Judaism, the Jewish population has grown. Two-thirds of intermarried couples are raising their kids, at least partly, Jewish. Intermarriage, along with many other trends, is changing, but not completely undermining the Jewish people. The definition of the rabbi’s ideal family changes along with Judaism. Like other changes to the ideal Jewish family, it is increasing those who identify as Jews and adding allies to our community.
There are many examples in the history of the Jewish people of our faith growing through intermarriage. Moses was an ideal Jew, he brought his people out of slavery, and he married outside of the faith. Ruth represents another, different, exemplar -– she is a convert who embraced Judaism and is the progenitor of King David. We have the opportunity to keep that aspect of history tradition alive today and welcome the opportunity of new examples and leaders intermarriage can bring.
The model of the rebbetzin is not a static, biblically-ordained, figure. The role has changed as the times have changed and the needs of the community have evolved. The presence of interfaith couples in positions of religious importance is another link in our adaptation to the society in which we live. There was a time, in America, the idealized family was the father working and the mother looking after the children (this ideal was of course, not the norm for all). In contemporaneous Judaism, the rabbi’s family were the community faith leaders. They observed shabbat the “right way“ in accordance with the community beliefs, did the holidays the right way, kept kosher, were perfectly modest, etc. Today the rabbis and their families may still hold this role no matter their family configuration.
Before the Women’s movement, the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) was expected to be a helpmate, to be active in all the synagogue’s auxiliary activities. She was expected to be an unpaid, prominent leader in the community. As women entered the workforce, many wives of rabbis either consciously rebelled against, or merely no longer had the time for, this role. With the ordination of women, we saw few husbands taking on the support role in the same way.
Now with the growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, the rabbi’s partner may be a man or woman. When the rabbi’s wife was no longer always a straight woman, the definition of the role itself became more fluid. The rebbetzin was freer to choose their role in the congregation and the congregation began to accept the many forms of Jewish families. Obviously, these changes are not the sole product of a changing Judaism, but also are due to a changing society.
Too many of us know examples of wonderful people from other faith traditions who have supported the Jewish education of their children to categorically say that in-marriage is the only way of preserving Judaism. Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjiman Spratt argue for more acceptance of intermarriage in their recently published book Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership and Belonging Groups like 18Doors and the Jewish Grandparents Network have recognized that all “Jewish Grandparents” may not be Jewish but still want to support their grandchildren’s Jewish education.
Much of the Jewish community is grappling with the notion that an ideal Jewish family might be better defined by their actions than by their configuration. Interfaith families who encourage Jewish learning are leading through action, even if their family configuration doesn’t match what we might traditionally think of as the “ideal Jewish family.” Like the acceptance of women rabbis and greater participation of women in prayer, we may continue to find our people strengthened by welcoming, explaining, and inviting. Our task is to continue to learn and, as Deuteronomy tells us, diligently teach our children.