Seventeen years ago tomorrow I delivered the same sermon I will deliver today. I stood in this pulpit – or actually, I stood about where Hal Gould is sitting right now – and I talked about intermarriage. It was a bold topic for a young rabbi in a new congregation to address, or at least that’s what I told myself back then. I delivered a line that some of you still quote back to me: by the time a young couple comes to see me, they are in love, and two hearts beat a Jack every time.
Some people were very insulted by what I said that morning. In fact, some of them still won’t have anything to do with me seventeen years later. I can’t help that. But just in case you were offended by what I said back then, I want to give you fair warning. I haven’t changed my opinion one bit. I am not about to deliver some revisionist version of my remarks all those years ago.
However, I am no longer a young rabbi and you are no longer my new congregation, so I figure you deserve to hear what I have learned about this subject over the past seventeen years. I have learned a lot, some of it from some of you. We have celebrated life cycle events together, including partners, parents and participants who are not Jewish. I have studied with some of you toward conversion, even when your conversion would create an intermarriage. I have counseled you, or your children, or your parents. And I didn’t know what I had learned until this past July.
The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs is the umbrella organization for the Men’s Clubs in Conservative synagogues in North America. It is the most activist and cutting-edge arm of the movement. Women’s League does great stuff, including our own Sisterhood – how many benefactors for Torah Fund do we have, a hundred and what? The Rabbinical Assembly is a source of support for me as a rabbi. The Jewish Theological Seminary will reach out in an extraordinary way to our congregation beginning in November. And United Synagogue works hard to serve its congregations. But the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs – FJMC – has taken on the real issues facing us as Conservative Jews. From the renewal of essential ritual, such as tefillin, to enhancing the moments of Jewish life through the “Art of Jewish Living” series, to addressing the confusion men feel in contemporary synagogues and society where their roles are so ill-defined, FJMC has grappled with the stuff that really makes a difference. They do so not just by repackaging existing traditions, as some traditionalists do, and not just by celebrating change, as some liberals do. They do so by seeking that place where tradition meets change, each with the obligation to the other.
And this year, the FJMC took up the subject of intermarriage. It has published a book not like the books you are used to seeing on the subject. There are a hundred books out there about preventing intermarriage. And there are another hundred books out there about embracing intermarriage. Most of them are merely a way to pass some time with discretionary reading. But the Men’s Club book is appropriately called Let’s Talk About It-- and subtitled “A Book of Support and Guidance for Families Experiencing Intermarriage and for Synagogue Leadership.” And it is terrific.
The book was introduced at the FJMC convention in Florida this past July. I went for a day in order to hear the keynote address and to spend some time listening to delegates and talking with some of my colleagues. The keynote was delivered by a classmate of mine, Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman, who is the rabbi of Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, NY. Jef is a former USY International President and among the more traditional members of the class of 1982. I listened carefully to him because he said almost exactly what I said seventeen years ago.
Rabbi Segelman distinguished between two concepts in halakhic thought – l’hat’chilah and b’di’eved. L’hat’chilah means “before the fact.” B’di’eved (probably more accurately pronounced b’di’avad) means “after the fact.” L’hat’chilah and b’di’eved exist in relationship to each other – before and after. There is no before without and after. And there is no after without a before. L’hat’chilah, he suggested, we are all opposed to intermarriage. B’di’eved, we are all in favor of marriage. We all want happiness; we all want fulfilling partnership, for ourselves, for our children, for each other.
But here is what Rabbi Segelman added to my understanding that I did not quite grasp in 1987. He said that there are two different kinds of intermarriage. In the first instance, there are the people whose distance from Judaism enables the intermarriage. These folks are the ones for whom Judaism is incidental. They may or may not have an affection for it or an antagonism toward it, but mostly Judaism is not so important in their lives that they would ever consider the religion of another person to be of any more concern to them than their own. In some few instances, there are Jews who marry non-Jews for the very reason that they are non-Jews, but that’s an entirely different story and an entirely different sermon. Those folks are not in this room today.
In the other instance, it is the intermarriage that enables the distance from Judaism. Young people set out to marry a Jew, but they happen to fall in love with someone who isn’t. These are our former b’nai mitzvah, our USYers, our Hillel leaders. They are not looking to fall in love with a non-Jew, but they do. Such an intermarriage is the inevitable result of an open and egalitarian society – a referendum on freedom that is at odds with Jewish parochial interests. And when these Jews fall in love, says Rabbi Segelman, they take the learning we gave them and find a way to justify their marriage. Didn’t we teach them that all people are created in the image of God? Didn’t we teach them that we all came from a common ancestor so that no one could say, “my father was greater than yours?”
And here is where we find ourselves in a bind as a Jewish community. We want to say what is absolutely true: intermarriage is wrong. I won’t shy away from that statement, even though I know it infuriates some of you. But it is true. Intermarriage is as wrong as eating pork, or as building a fire on shabbat or as withholding tzedakah from someone in need. I’m not talking about sociology. Go read those books I mentioned a moment ago if you want to know about birth rates and self-identification and affiliation. I am talking about our values and principles as Jews, especially as Conservative Jews, but also as just plain Jews.
But we wink when we eat at the Dixie Pig and we excuse the necessary trip to Shirlington on Saturday afternoon and we justify the problems we have with the United Way and Federation and the bum at the Farragut North metro stop. We do all those things and still consider ourselves to be pretty good Jews. So it shouldn’t surprise you that our dear children whom we love are able to say, “It’s wrong – but it’s not that wrong. I am still a good Jew.”
Says Rabbi Segelman, so we offer them a cold shoulder. And they reciprocate. And in the chill wind that develops between our official positions and life in the field, the distance grows and the pain is unbearable. And again, I am not talking about sociology. Families have their ways of finding a path and making accommodations. I am talking about the pain of the empty seats that were once occupied by b’nai mitzvah students and earnest singles and men and women of a certain age who feel they are being judged too harshly for finally, finally finding the person who will love them more than anyone else in the world, and the children who wonder where they belong. Their hearts ache for Jewish community. And our hearts ache for them.
Is there a way that our tradition can guide us in dealing with this tension? The answer is “yes.” And so I share with you two pieces of Talmud that illustrate how to begin to deal with this dilemma.
In the tractate Menachot (29b) is a story I have told you before. R. Judah told it in the name of Rav:
When Moses ascended to heaven, he found the Holy One affixing crowns to the letters [of the Torah]. Moses asked, “Lord of the Universe, [why be so subtle]? What holds you back [from being explicit and writing out your intent]?” God replied, “At the end of many generations there will arise a man by the name of Akiva ben Yosef. He will infer heaps and heaps of laws from each jog and tittle on these crowns.”
“Lord of the Universe,” said Moses, “Let me see this man.” And God replied, “Turn around.”
[Moses found himself in Akiva’s study hall] and sat down behind eight rows [of students, where the beginners sat, to listen to the discourses]. He could not understand what they were saying. He grew so upset that he became faint. But they came to a certain subject and the students asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” Akiva replied, “Halakha l’moshe misinai, it is a law given to Moses at Sinai.”
And Moses was reassured.
There is a good deal more to this midrash, but we have reached the important part for our discussion. Halakha l’moshe misinai, it is a law given to Moses at Sinai. The refuge of every rabbi, including arguably the greatest rabbi who ever lived, is to lay claim to the authority of Moses, who spoke to God. Moses himself, present at the discussion, was so confused he didn’t even understand the arguments, didn’t understand the points, didn’t know what the heck was going on.
One of my favorite movie moments is in “Annie Hall.” Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are waiting in line for a movie and listening to some guy carry on and on about what Marshall McLuhan thought about this, that and the other. Woody Allen disagrees and starts to argue with the guy. Finally, Woody says, “Well, for your information, I just happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here--rdquo; and with that, the camera pans back to reveal McLuhan standing in line.
But our midrash makes it clear that if one of Akiva’s students had said, “Well, for your information, I just happen to have Moses sitting right behind me--” that Moses would have been completely stymied. He would have had to wave his hands and stammer and say something like, “you know, it has been so long--”
Instead, Moses is gratified to hear that Akiva was able to build on his foundation and give his modern teaching the same authority that Moses had given those two tablets. The preservation of the authority of the tradition gave continuity to Jewish law, to Jewish commitments and, therefore, to Jewish life. That responsibility rests in the hands of those who devote themselves to Jewish law.
Nowhere in the Bible will you find a general prohibition against intermarriage. In fact, from Dinah daughter of Jacob to Moses to Joshua to Samson to Solomon, intermarriage is a fact of life. Ezra the Scribe railed against the practice and put an end to it, but it isn’t until much later in Jewish history that it becomes codified as halakhah l’moshe misinai.
You know how that is. Over 227 years ago Thomas Jefferson confidently proclaimed, “All men are created equal.” Unless we want to attribute to him a sense of inclusiveness he could not have possessed, we cannot claim that he foresaw liberalizations such as modern feminism, or civil rights legislation, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, or that anyone would take seriously a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners of war.
And it works in the other direction as well. The right to bear arms in the second amendment to the Constitution, there to allow the quick assembly of a militia in times of emergency, has been expanded by its proponents to include private ownership of weaponry never imagined by the authors of the Bill of Rights.
As a rabbi, I must say l’hat’chilah, before the fact, intermarriage is wrong. It violates our conception of what Jewish family is and what Jewish marriage is. And I do not need to point to chapter and verse in the Torah. It is foundational – halakhah l’moshe misinai.
I can see from looking around that some of you are ready to storm out of here. If you do, you will have to hear the rest of the sermon second-hand, and that would be a shame, because it sounds better when I say it first-hand.
The second piece of Talmud comes from tractate Brakhot (45a). There is an argument among the rabbis about the matter of which brakhah, which blessing to say before and after eating certain foods. The question is do you say she’hakol ni’h’yeh bidvaro after or before you eat, or do you say borei n’fashot rabbot v’chesronam. I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but in its context and its time it was as important an issue as whether we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and, if we do, do we include the words “under God.”
At the end of the discussion, the matter seems unresolved. And so Rabba bar Rav Chana said to Abaye, or perhaps to Rav Yosef: What is the law? What is the halakhah?
And he replied, “Puk chazei mai d’ama d’var – go out and see what the people are doing.”
Do you think that Abbaye or Rav Yosef couldn’t come up with a legal ruling? Do you think that they were without an opinion as to which was the proper practice? I will tell you what I think: I think they had it in mind that their answer was different than public practice. And the fact that people who took that practice seriously did it differently counted for a whole lot in determining halakhah.
This notion of puk chazei, go out and see, is of critical importance in our lives as Jews and as members of the human family. Puk chazei, go out and see if the study of our mystical literature is prohibited to those who are not 40 years old and married. Puk chazei, go out and see if a marriage is nullified when the bride gives the groom a ring and says, “behold, you are betrothed to me.” Puk chazei, go out and see if a woman’s voice in song distracts from the purity of thought.
Puk chazei, go out and see what the law is concerning gays and lesbians in our community. Forty years ago they were ferreted out of government like Communists. A generation ago they were the object of scorn and derision, all the men limp-wristed hairdressers and all the women man-hating weight lifters. Today, in spite of the efforts of the religious right, puk chazei mai d’ama d’var, go out and see what the people are doing. Straight people live among gays without feeling the need to justify their heterosexuality.
Another colleague of mine pointed out that the Jewish population of the Roman Empire was between four and seven million, or between twenty and thirty percent of the population. In the eighty or so generations between then and 1930, the Jewish population of the world increased no more than four-fold, when it should have reached a hundred million. We did not lose all those people to pogroms and plagues. Large numbers of Jews have assimilated into the general population. Rabbis have railed against it and religious authorities have threatened penalties both earthly and otherworldly in the name of halakhah. Puk chazei, go out and see how the generations have lived. The generations since 1930 produced not only Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Kaplan and Rabbi Kushner and Rabbi Schneerson, but they produced Madeline Albright and William Cohen and Wesley Clark and Julius Lester and even that arbiter of American idolatry, Paula Abdul. Puk chazei, go out and see how we have embraced the shards of Judaism and Jewish consciousness in the children of intermarriage and brought them near again to our hearts and to our tradition.
It is a mitzvah to love our neighbors because we are all children of God. It is a mitzvah over again to love our fellow Jews because in addition to being our neighbors, they are members of our family. Ahavat yisrael, the love of the people Israel and the love of each person of Israel is the entire reason for halakhah. It is the way God showed love for us, by bringing us closer through the commandments. And those of us who have intermarried members of our families – and who doesn’t – have learned how easy it is to fulfill this mitzvah and how important it is to fulfill this mitzvah. And I am not speaking of sociology or anthropology. I am speaking of theology.
The fact is that just like l’hat’chilah and b’di’eved, these two principles of halakhah l’moshe misinai and puk chazei are dependent on each other, almost contained in each other. Jewish law is not a matter of fiat – it evolves and develops, it stretches and twists, it reinvents itself like a song two thousand years old and every day brand new. Jewish law is also not a matter of majority vote or temporal fad or mob rule. Those who pervert our tradition out of personal ego or to ease their exit strategy find the Torah intact in spite of their best efforts.
The word we use for outreach to the disaffected is keruv. It means, “to draw near.” But, as Rabbi Segelman said, keruv will not happen through the Rabbinical Assembly, because its rabbis – your rabbi included – have been charged with the responsibility to conserve the tradition, to set the standard for which we should all be reaching.
Instead, this “drawing near” must be articulated through you, my fellow Jews, who outnumber me today a thousand to one, and who feel drawn near to this institution and the values it represents. I can stand before the holy ark behind a representation of Sinai and tell you what the halakhah is and ought to be. But if I or anyone wants to go out and see what the people are doing to encourage couples to draw near to Agudas Achim and synagogues like us, then you the people have to be my partners. You have to be able to articulate to the Jews in your life who have drawn away why it is important to them and to you that they draw near again. And you have to model for our community how to draw them close. And you have to expect that they will interact respectfully with your rabbi, and that your rabbi will interact respectfully with them.
We are all in this together, my friends. Those of you who are married and those of you who are not. Those of you who have a Jewish partner and those of you who have a non-Jewish partner. Those of you who have children and those of you who are children. We are all in this together. That was the lesson that was taught as Moses revealed the law from the mountain – halakhah l’moshe misinai. And if you don’t believe me, puk chazei, go out and see.