Wed­ding Vow

Why this rene­gade rabbi is propos­ing to marry Jews to the Jew- ish.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Jane Eis­ner

Early in my ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, a bril­liant ed­i­tor en­cour­aged me and other re­porters to look for the sto­ries that “oozed” — the ones that are found just be­low the sur­face — be­cause day-to-day news can ob­scure deeper and more sig­nif­i­cant trends. Among Ortho­dox Jews, the ooz­ing story of our day is the emer­gence of a tra­di­tion­ally learned and trained co­hort of women spir­i­tual lead­ers who will, in my es­ti­ma­tion, chal­lenge the gen­der hi­er­ar­chy of the most con­ven­tional and fastest-grow­ing seg­ment of Amer­i­can Jews.

Among Con­ser­va­tive Jews, the ooz­ing story is in­ter­mar­riage.

All around are in­cre­men­tal signs that the old norms are be­ing changed or chal­lenged. In­di­vid­ual syn­a­gogues are now al­lowed to ac­cept non-Jews as mem­bers — al­though in only a lim­ited way. Some rab­bis are qui­etly ig­nor­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion against at­tend­ing mar­riage cer­e­monies of a Jew and a non-Jew. One or two are not so qui­etly de­fy­ing the re­stric­tion against of­fi­ci­at­ing at such wed­dings al­to­gether.

As in­ter­mar­riage rates con­tinue to rise, the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment — wedged be­tween the more in­su­lar Ortho­dox and the more open Re­form — is strug­gling to bal­ance its sig­na­ture em­brace of moder­nity with the stric­tures of Jewish law and tra­di­tion.

Into this mix comes Amichai Lau-Lavie, an en­tre­pre­neur­ial, bound­ary-break­ing rabbi with a rad­i­cal pro­posal to wel­come the non-Jew un­der the Con­ser­va­tive wed­ding canopy. The re­sult of a year of deep thought, study and con­ver­sa­tion, his pro­posal — which he in­tends to soon un­veil pub­licly — will surely be the sub­ject of praise, skep­ti­cism and some de­ri­sion.

Count me as one of the skep­tics. But af­ter two long con­ver­sa­tions with Lau-Lavie, I came to ap­pre­ci­ate the evo­lu­tion of his ar­gu­ment and the need for bold ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the face of un­stop­pable so­cial dy­nam­ics. “How do I come to this with more love and less fear?” he asked. And, sur­pris­ingly, he found the an­swer in tra­di­tion.

His quest grew out of his own ex­pe­ri­ence. Al­though or­dained at the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary only last year, Lau-Lavie, 48, has func­tioned as a spir­i­tual leader ever since 2013, when he founded Lab/Shul. The or­ga­ni­za­tion de­fines it­self as an “ev­ery­body friendly, artist-driven, God-op­tional, ex­per­i­men­tal com­mu­nity for sa­cred Jewish gath­er­ings based in NYC, reach­ing the world.”

As you can tell, it’s the kind of place that’s go­ing to at­tract un­con­ven­tional peo­ple, in­clud­ing cou­ples that have one non-Jewish part­ner and want Lau-Lavie to of­fi­ci­ate at their wed­ding. “I faced the un­bear­able re­sponse of hav­ing to say no — to some friends, to some fam­ily mem­bers,” he re­called dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view in the For­ward’s of­fices. “It be­came a be­trayal of why I be­came a rabbi in the first place. I needed so­lu­tions.”

So he em­barked on a project to re­search the Bi­ble and Halacha, Jewish law, hop­ing to stum­ble upon some prece­dent for in­ter­mar­riage, since, af­ter all, Jews have lived along­side non-Jews for cen­turies. He came up empty-handed. Jews were not per­mit­ted to marry non-Jews, end of story.

But Lau-Lavie was cap­ti­vated by a re­lated con­cept

Rabbi Amichai LauLavie of­fers a pro­posal to wel­come the non-Jew un­der the Con­ser­va­tive wed­ding canopy.

he first thought about in a JTS class: the ger toshav, akin to a “res­i­dent alien” or “tem­po­rary im­mi­grant,” men­tioned in the To­rah and then wo­ven through rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. It’s an in­vented term to de­scribe a non-Jew who lives among Jews and as­cribes to ba­sic Jewish laws. “Not a for­eigner, not a Jew,” he said. “It’s our neigh­bor, who has not con­verted but is choos­ing to be part of the Jewish com­mu­nity. I al­most hear the con­ver­sa­tion that echoes to­day.“

Lau-Lavie is not the first to sug­gest adapt­ing this con­struct to mar­riage, and his pro­posal is not meant to push for an ac­tual change in Jewish law (yet). But he en­vi­sions us­ing the ger toshav within a ha­lachic frame­work to jus­tify in­ter­mar­riage un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.

He will ask prospec­tive cou­ples to de­vote at least six months be­fore the wed­ding to learn­ing more about the core Jewish val­ues that mat­ter most to them — whether those val­ues in­clude con­nec­tion to Is­rael, cel­e­bra­tion of Shab­bat and hol­i­days, study of To­rah, or pur­suit of so­cial jus­tice — and to demon­strate a gen­uine com­mit­ment to com­mu­nity.

“What should make a dif­fer­ence is not what is in your blood or on your doc­u­ments,” he told me. “It’s did you show up. Are you a part of this?”

He won’t of­fi­ci­ate if it’s clear that the only rea­son a cou­ple wants a rabbi is to pla­cate Grand that ma. And he won’t co-of­fi­ci­ate with non-Jewish clergy. “Even if the cou­ple is of mixed her­itage, the wed­ding shouldn’t be mixed on mes­sages,” he ar­gued.

Per­haps the most in­trigu­ing as­pect of his pro­posal is to es­sen­tially turn the ex­per­i­ment into a clin­i­cal trial. He plans to en­gage aca­demics to study whether this ex­plicit wel­come-with con­di­tions will re­sult in a strength­ened Jewish com­mit­ment or just another data point in the de­press­ing trend of in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples moving fur­ther away from Ju­daism.

There are plenty of pit­falls. Some, Lau-Lavie is aware of and is grap­pling with al­ready. His pro­posal turns rab­bis into gate­keep­ers, with the power to de­cide who is suf­fi­ciently Jew- ish enough to marry, and that go-it-alone ap­proach is prob­lem­atic. He also is de­fy­ing the norms of the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment and most likely will have to re­sign from The Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly — which he said he would do “with pain and re­spect.”

Be­yond the bu­reau­cratic and struc­tural ques­tions, though, is a more ba­sic one: Haven’t we tried this al­ready? Re­form rab­bis are of­fi­cially dis­cour­aged from per­form­ing in­ter­mar­riages, but many still do so; half of Re­form Jews are mar­ried to non-Jews, with the per­cent­age ris­ing dra­mat­i­cally among younger Jews.

Mean­time, the smaller Re­con­struc­tion­ist move­ment de­cided in 2015 that even its rab­bis can have non-Jewish spouses.

And we know that those in­ter­faith fam­i­lies are far less en­gaged in Jewish life on just about ev­ery mea­sure you can imag­ine.

Here, Lau-Lavie is, I think, overly op­ti­mistic about the un­charted wa­ters he is try­ing to nav­i­gate for a Con­ser­va­tive move­ment that still holds to cen­tral Jewish val­ues, in-mar­riage be­ing one. It is true that iden­tity — be it re­li­gious, gen­der, eth­nic, what­ever — is be­com­ing less bi­nary, more fluid, more hy­brid in Amer­ica writ large, and the firm dis­tinc­tions be­tween Jews and non-Jews seem ridicu­lous to many younger Jews. So does the need to choose be­tween love and tribe.

But the rea­son this story is “ooz­ing” is be­cause we don’t know how and where it will end. How im­por­tant are bound­aries to main­tain­ing so­cial co­he­sion? How can non- Ortho­dox Ju­daism re­main dis­tinct and value-driven if its con­nec­tion to gen­uine Jewish life and com­mit­ment is ever more ten­u­ous? Even if the ger toshav had been a fea­ture of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties his­tor­i­cally, the scale of Jewish in­ter­ac­tion with non-Jews is dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent in 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica.

Lau-Lavie, to his credit, rec­og­nizes the risks in­volved in his ap­proach. “It’s a huge par­a­digm shift,” he ac­knowl­edged. “I hope I won’t be re­mem­bered as one who opened up more flood­gates. In­stead, I want to be part of a wave of peo­ple who safely ne­go­ti­ate be­tween what we in­her­ited and what we pass on. We’ve got to adapt. Keep­ing [in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples] in­volved in my com­mu­nity raises the chances of Ju­daism rein­vent­ing it­self.”

His pres­ence as a Con­ser­va­tive rabbi does of­fer proof of the power of adap­ta­tion. Lau-Lavie is a scion of a rab­binic dy­nasty that dates back 39 gen­er­a­tions, but as a gay man he did not have a sanc­tioned place in lead­er­ship of a ha­lachic move­ment — un­til 2006. “I’m here as a gay man be­cause the rab­bis in the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment re­de­fined thou­sands of years of abom­i­na­tion and stigma. I’m part of that grate­ful thread,” he said. “And we keep evolv­ing.”

The dif­fi­cult task is dis­cern­ing when evo­lu­tion bleeds into ex­tinc­tion. I am fas­ci­nated by Lau-Lavie’s ex­per­i­ment, but even if it is deemed suc­cess­ful, even if the cou­ples he will now marry re­main fer­vently part of the Jewish con­ver­sa­tion many years hence, we still don’t know whether this ap­proach can sus­tain and en­rich mod­ern Jewish life on a much larger scale.


Union Man: Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of­fi­ci­ates a Jewish wed­ding.

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