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Ongoing Tasks of Liberal Judaism

Deepening the interpretation of our tradition by ensuring that all Jews - regardless of family status - can be present at the ongoing revelation and interpretation of Torah
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman

Adapted from a lecture at the 2008 Shalom Hartman Institute International Theology Conference titled: Family Under Fire: Challenges to Traditional Form (January 21, 2008)

It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about issues that are of great importance to me on many levels—as a Jewish woman, as a rabbi, as someone who writes in the field of theology and as a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute. I hope what I have to say will be interpreted in the context of the love of both family and tradition with which it is offered.

At the same time, I hope that these remarks will inspire what our teacher Krister Stendahl called, “sacred envy” – the capacity to enhance and repair our own tradition because of what we learn about and value in another’s and from other ways of living our own. Because both the Jewish family and the Jewish tradition face such significant challenges today, we can learn a great deal by looking carefully at how we and other religious traditions have and haven’t responded to the challenges.

While there are many aspects of modern life that challenge the traditional form of the Jewish family, including the more limited role of family in the identity and education of the individual, I want to look specifically at three challenges confronting the entirety of the Jewish people, and consider the extent to which the non-orthodox community – and I’ll focus primarily on these realities in North America and Israel – has been able to respond to or integrate – if not accept – the reality and implications of each challenge. We might also consider what such endeavors might mean for the future of Jewish communal life and theology.

If orthodox Judaism has historically responded to many of the challenges of the modern world with Hatam Sofer’s principle, ha hadash asur min ha-Torah, that adding new elements or changing the tradition in any significant way is forbidden by the Torah – the supreme source of Law in Judaism, Liberal Judaism has, in contrast, generally sought to find ways to enable the tradition to evolve in its current cultural context and to l’kadesh et ha-hadash- to sanctify, make holy, the new Jewish reality.

In most cases such change is made on moral grounds, emphasizing the ethical core of Judaism and its values of dignity and human rights, and liberal religious leaders seek to respond to and integrate the new realities into all aspects of Jewish life through that prism of ethics. To be sure, this process involves a dialectical relationship between the authority of the tradition/covenant and the autonomy of the Jewish individual.

Communal, theological challenges

Three cases of the change in family structure, particularly in the non-orthodox Jewish community (the largest segment of the Jewish people), illustrate these communal and theological challenges. In each case we will consider the response as well as the theological possibilities that emerge:

Change in the Role of Women

One of the biggest and most perceptible changes for the Jewish family in the modern age has been the change in the role of women in society. While orthodox/traditional Judaism is gradually moving beyond the principle of kavod bat melekh pnima (Psalm 45:14: “All the honor of the king’s daughter is inside”) – the honor of the King’s Daughter (God-fearing women) is to be maintained within the palace – that a woman’s place is inside the home with the children and that a woman’s voice in public is problematic for kavod hatzibur -the honor of the public.

Liberal Judaism, in its integration of the ethical lessons of both first and second wave feminism has argued that the honor and role of women should be equal to that of the honor and role of men in all contexts. Thus, the guiding principle has been one of equality and dignity, kavod haisha k’kavod ha-ish – women must have equal opportunity to express their human and spiritual needs in all spheres of human life.

There are now hundreds of women rabbis in the world leading prayer, officiating at lifecycle events, sitting on batei din (rabbinic courts), teaching Torah and writing theology. A handful of them hold or have held top leadership positions. The Reform movement’s recently published new prayer -book, “Mishkan Tefillah,” to be used by millions of Jews, was the first siddur edited by a woman and includes traditional, gender-neutral and feminist interpretations of God and Jewish tradition. Liberal Jewish women together with men are now significant contributors to the evolution of liberal Jewish ritual, prayer and theology.

Shifting to meet challenge

The impact on family has been thoroughgoing: roles of power and authority that both men and women play in the family as well as in the community have followed a wider range of possibilities. In more and more families, men now play greater roles inside the home and with the children; men are praying words written by women about the feminine aspects of God, and young girls have for decades now been able to turn to religious public authority figures who are women.

Or, to quote a young boy named Michael who upon hearing that a male colleague was about to replace me in a congregation that only female rabbis had served during his lifetime said: “I didn’t know men could be rabbis!”

Thus in the case of the changing role of women, the Jewish family and Jewish tradition have shifted to meet the challenge head on.

Homosexual Partnerships and Marriages & Same-Sex Parent Families

A second issue that has challenged the traditional form of the Jewish family has been that of homosexual partnerships and marriages, both between men and between women. Unlike the case of the status of Jewish women, the status of homosexuals and their unions has been a challenge to which liberal Judaism has not always clearly nor consistently responded.

While the dictates of modern human rights usually relied upon by liberal religious leaders when making decisions which deviate from those of the past might have indicated at the outset that homosexuals and their unions be fully accepted and integrated, the response of the liberal Jewish community has been much more complex.

It is only in the last 25 years that the official position of much of the community has been one of full acceptance of the homosexual as a member of its congregations with all ritual privileges. While in theory it sees the homosexual as equal to the heterosexual, in practice some will attest that this is not always the case, that homosexuals are not at yet fully accepted in all leadership roles, nor are their families always fully welcomed and equally honored and supported in all our congregations. It is because of this that there is still significant need for the several congregations which primarily serve and understand the needs of homosexuals and their families.

Complex reality

This complex reality is also evident in the fact that the legal/ritual bodies representing the majority of liberal Jews are not clearly willing to use the same halakhic/legal category of kiddushin used for heterosexual unions for homosexual unions, or offer the same level of unequivocal praise and celebration of its marriages. The majority of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest rabbinic organization in North America, responded negatively to the question of whether or not gay/lesbian unions fit the category of the legal status of a halakhic marriage ceremony. Yet the resolution of the larger organization affirmed that its rabbis have the right to officiate and the right not to officiate at the unions “appropriate Jewish ritual” of same-sex couples.

While openly gay and lesbian individuals have been ordained as rabbis in the Reconstrcutionist and Reform movements for nearly 20 years and very recently have been accepted as students in the Conservative movement, not every congregation or organization is ready to accept a homosexual rabbi, particularly in positions where the emphasis is on serving youth, and not all members of the faculty of two of the liberal rabbinic schools are willing to sign the ordination claf and graduation certificate of gay and lesbian rabbis.

These are but two ways we can see the ambivalence about homosexual unions, the religious leadership of gays and lesbians and the lack of completeness of the response of the liberal Jewish community.

In spite of the incomplete response to the challenge, we should note the new and creative theological responses. During the last couple of decades in particular, new metaphors for the covenant of marriage and for the family beyond the traditional male-female form have emerged. Completion is not always a return to the binary gender model of Adam and Eve; commitment to God or to a significant other does not necessarily recall the frustrated passion of the Song of Songs, or the  prophetic text of Hosea, which likens fidelity to one’s partner to fidelity to God, and idolatry is compared to adultery (Hosea 2ff), and affirmation of the covenant with God as like engagement and marriage (Hosea 2: 21).

As in the case of women, the changing status of homosexuals and same-sex couples and their families in the liberal Jewish community has led to a search for new Jewish categories and rituals to mark the unions and lifecycle events of unions unrecognized by earlier sages and currently by all orthodox rabbis.

New marriage contracts

Some of these new categories have in turn been used by heterosexual couples who continue to seek new ways to express the fully egalitarian nature of their halakhic commitments. The best example of this is are the attempts to create new marriage contracts not based on the ketubah (traditional marriage contract) model, which in its orthodox form includes an element of acquisition and unequal participation in its creation. Instead some have turned to other Jewish categories of commitment, those of brit and of shituf or partnership to express the commitment of same-sex couples.

Now many heterosexual non-orthodox couples are using this as the foundation for their covenantal commitment of Jewish marriage. This is but one example of the ways in which new realities have demanded finding new resources for the response of the Jewish tradition, which has in turn led to greater possibilities for all Jewish families; now the rest of us also have more ways of understanding covenantal commitment, love, family and God.

Extended Unmarried Adulthood

The third and final challenge that I want to discuss is perhaps the area least explored, and which we have been least effective in finding a way of integrating, primarily because it doesn’t easily engender a ideological response. But like the previous challenges, we are equally morally required to respond to this usually not-chosen and painful reality both in the communal and theological contexts. I am referring to the growing population of Jewish adults who spend extended periods of their adult lives unmarried and in homes without children – a situation almost entirely unknown in earlier times.

Marrying and bearing children at much older ages and divorcing at a rate of more than 50 percent, many Jewish adults live Jewish lives without having yet created, or are outside of and geographically far from their own biological nuclear families. These Jews often build close relationships with other non-married adults with whom they celebrate and form non-familial circles of commitment. In these contexts the individuals are playing supportive roles, planning and sharing lifecycle events and holiday celebrations not unlike those played by members of traditional families.

These non normative contexts – which neither they nor we may see as ideal – need to be better understood, as they are the contexts in which a significant segment of Jews are choosing or finding themselves living Jewish life.

Enormous efforts are being made to bring young single Jews together, both to curtail rates of intermarriage and to increase the rates of marriage, but in the meantime, we have not yet been able to find the policies and language to respond to this challenge.

Sometimes in unconscious ways we have been trying to understanding the aloneness of so many in a way that doesn’t distance them from the community but rather allows the community to play the role of surrogate family. But we haven’t developed the necessary language. Indeed we have largely failed to understand what this new reality of adult non-family existence means for the community and for Jewish theology.

Perhaps we need to expand our language to account for this reality. Perhaps we need new metaphors for understanding commitment to community and to God that don’t rely on familial metaphors or the assumption of the family led by a couple.

Those metaphors might stress notions of friendship – reut and ahvah – they might use the model of Ruth and Naomi and the commitment of devekut (an intense connection of oneness), or develop and use in our prayer the model of a covenant of friendship. Perhaps we ought to be more creative and hold forth other models of the ideal Jew that do not necessitate marriage and children.

At the same time we must also ask what such a fuller response will mean for our theology and our community. Perhaps we are discovering non-familial ways of living out Judaism that will ultimately lead to widening the categories of what it means to be a Jewish adult. Perhaps these categories will allow for new ways of expressing commitment for all Jews. Indeed a fuller response to the challenge of extended unmarried adulthood has yet to occur.

Some might argue that these and many other responses to these challenges are leading to the further destruction of the Jewish people and their assimilation. But I believe that confronting these challenges is in fact deepening the interpretation of our tradition by ensuring that all Jews – regardless of family status – can be present at the ongoing revelation and interpretation of Torah, that all can find God and community in their real human experience. In other words, it is precisely these challenges that push us to find new resources for our communal survival and perhaps even for our individual and collective spiritual redemption.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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