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Rabbinic Debates and the Necessity of Religious Pluralism

This capacity to hold multiple and conflicting opinions in our hearts is the kind of pluralism of rabbinic opinion that allows the Jewish people to continue to live and thrive

For many of my colleagues today and many rabbinic students I teach, the decision to officiate at intermarriages falls into the category of an ethical imperative, not altogether different from that of ordaining women or homosexuals. The universal ethics liberal Jews widely embrace, which include a commitment to inclusivity and equality, means being absolutely – if gradually – welcoming to the non-Jewish spouses in our synagogues, and it has increasingly meant that rabbis of such communities feel obligated to officiate.
If one witnesses over a decade the increasing possibility that such marriages do not lead to the end of a Jewish family but rather the beginning of a new one, especially when the couples are welcomed and commit to Jewish learning and living, then they are also more likely to raise Jewish children and engaging in all the possibilities of Jewish life, including synagogue affiliation.
So, many rabbis, like my respected and wise colleague Angela Buchdahl and many others, have changed their minds about intermarriage. In recent years, they have increasingly determined not only that contemporary liberal rabbinic standards should allow a rabbi to officiate at such a wedding, but that they should be encouraged to do so. It doesn’t lead to the destruction of Jewish life, but could, with the proper conditions and rabbinic embrace, lead to the creation of more Jewish life. For these rabbis, officiating at intermarriages is not only right ethically, it is also the right position for the Jewish people. They declare: This must be what God wants of us now.
But is it? Given the Jewish identity trends of the children of most intermarriages, many other rabbis believe that officiating at such marriages can’t possibly be good for the Jewish people. Their interpretation is that it still clearly violates Jewish law, and officiating would mean a significant break with the legal and historical understanding of Jewish marriage. Doing so would mean a radical break with what remains of Jewish communal boundary-setting and Jewish legal understandings of the category of kiddushin, the sanctification of Jewish marriage between two Jews. These concerns prevent many rabbis from officiating. How can I as a rabbi bless that which so often means the end to a Jewish familial line? How can this possibly be what God wants from us now?
This wouldn’t be the first or the last time that rabbis absolutely disagree with what God absolutely wants from us. One of the most famous Talmudic texts (BT Eruvin 13b) is about exactly that: a time when rabbinic leadership was divided about something for a long time. Ultimately the disagreement about the right interpretation was not resolved, certainly not in the lifetime of the rabbis disputing what to do.
But the text doesn’t just let the debate continue, it lets in the Divine Presence. It’s one of those precious moments where a bat kol, a voice from Heaven, is heard: "Both these (views) and those (views) are the words of the living God."

The tension between interpretations and the sense that God is in both of them is what allows for the constant deepening and widening of Jewish life. This capacity to hold multiple and conflicting opinions in our hearts and minds and communities is what another great teacher, Rabbi Prof. Eugene Borowitz, calls "capacious pluralism," the kind of pluralism of rabbinic opinion that allows the Jewish people to continue to live and thrive.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

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