Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews want their religious leaders to be unquestionably Jewish, and most of them also want their communal leaders to be Jewish. They disagree as to whether a leader must have a Jewish spouse

Questions about the standard of Jewish leaders’ “Jewishness” were more compelling to Diaspora Jews than to Israeli Jews, whose leaders are the democratically elected politicians of Israel. Also, in Israel the issue of Jewish fluidity is much less conspicuous and hardly concerns the Jewish population. In Diaspora communities though, the issue is very much alive with questions about norms, qualifications, local customs, cultural sensitivities and other questions all being part of the larger question: How Jewish should a Jewish leader be, and in what ways?

The leadership under discussion in Dialogue seminars, were of two main types:

Religious leadership – most of all rabbis, but also cantors, and, to a lesser extent, the lay leadership of synagogues, from presidents, to heads of committees (as discussed previously).

Communal leadership – meaning lay and professional leadership of federations and large Jewish organizations.

Separate and distinct criteria apply to each category. In most communities, most participants agreed that both religious and communal leadership ought to be “Jewish” under widely accepted criteria: having been brought up Jewish or having undergone proper conversion. It seems that Jews tend to be more particular and demanding in their belief that religious leadership will adhere to Judaism’s more traditional norms. For example: “It is okay to have a top federation executive have a non-Jewish spouse but not the Rabbi of the synagogue since they are the Jewish leader (even if the Rabbi’s congregation may have predominantly interfaith couples),” reasoned a participant in Detroit.218 Other opinions expressed on the subject include:

  • “My rabbi has to be Jewish, but I don’t see any reason why the head of a Jewish federation has to be Jewish. The federation is a professional organization, and what we need there is the best professionals we can find, Jewish or not Jewish.”219
  • “It is ok to allow all who are interested to come in, but not okay to let them lead.”220
  • “Being Jewish may be a qualification for some positions – rabbi, liturgy, perhaps synagogue leadership – but not for others. For some positions, understanding of the community is important, but this doesn’t necessarily require someone to be Jewish.”221

The differentiation between federation and religious leaders seems to rest upon an assumption that is open to dispute: that the federations are “professional” organizations with little or no symbolic meaning. Such a claim was raised in several discussions, but most Dialogue participants did not accept it. This led some of them to the conclusion that “head of a federation is a symbolic position – and should be held by someone who is clearly Jewish,”, a Palm Beach participant said.222 It led others to attempt to differentiate between different positions within the federations: “The CEO could be non-Jewish, but not the President or Chair”;223 “Professionals do not have to be Jewish, lay leaders should be actively Jewish”;224 Some argued that “a non-Jew cannot lead a federation, for federation are supposed to lead the Jewish community, and federation must lead as part of the community.… Most people would not want a federation CEO who has a non-Jewish spouse because they are supposed to serve as an upstanding example to the community,” an Atlanta participant argued.225

Family issues of spouse and children – were highly sensitive in all discussions. Clearly, Jews can no longer argue that, as a rule, Jews tend to marry other Jews. The question concerning people in leadership positions is whether they could or should be expected to adhere to a different standard (some would argue “higher”) than other Jews. Put simply: is it acceptable for communal leaders to have non-Jewish spouses, as is the norm for members of many Jewish communities?

Recent events could not be ignored as the discussion about spouses unfolded. Earlier this year, Reconstructionist Judaism was mired in a fierce debate over a new policy that allows the ordination of intermarried rabbis and the graduation of intermarried rabbinical students.226 That debate, as one rabbi who resigned from the movement in the wake of the new policy put it, “goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jewish leader.” If a majority of Dialogue participants argued that communal leaders – as well as religious leaders – must be Jewish, there was no such consensus with respect to their spouses. “There was notable disagreement on whether having a non-Jewish spouse disqualifies an individual from heading a Jewish federation,” the Boston summary notes.227 “The group agreed that a Jew who has a non-Jewish spouse should be able to head a federation,” notes the summary of the Miami discussion.228 “Most (80 percent) agreed that the head of a Jewish Federation (or in the Australian case, the head of a community roof body) could be half Jewish or have a non-Jewish spouse. The important thing is to be passionate about and supportive of the community and organization,” reads the summary from the Melbourne.229 But there were also those who felt differently: “Many of my friends have non-Jewish wives whom I adore, but the leader of the community needs to serve as a beacon of Judaism and having a spouse that is not Jewish does not fit this description,” a discussant in Washington said. An Orthodox rabbi in Dallas said: “If the leader of the community has a non-Jewish spouse the Orthodox group will not take him seriously.”230

In some communities the discussion went even further to the question of children. Some participants argued that they would accept a non-Jewish spouse of a communal leader (and fewer of them, a rabbi) if the offspring of the leader is raised exclusively Jewishly. Yet if the leader has not only a non-Jewish spouse but also children who aren’t Jewish, the case would be different. “I want my leaders to have a Jewish family,” a participant in Chicago said. “If the spouse has reasons not to convert, that I can see, but if the children are not Jewish the leader can’t be a real role model.”231

The question of “leader as a role model” becomes significant in this case, only when the encouraged “model” is an in-married Jewish family. Clearly, this is what most of the Dialogue participants believed to be the case. In JPPI’s Dialogue survey, as we have shown in previous chapters, more than 80 percent of participants agreed that the community “should encourage Jews to marry Jews.” Their arguments in favor of such a model (without it implying the justification of criticism of Jews who made the personal decision to marry non-Jews) were usually straight forward. Such marriages, from a communal viewpoint, are more promising. According to Pew, the only type of families in which a high percentage of children are raised Jewish by religion is in-married families. Among in-married couples, “96 percent say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and just 1 percent say they are not raising their children Jewish. But among Jews married to non-Jews, just 20 percent say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and 37 percent say their children are not being raised Jewish.”232

Jewish for What?

Based on our examination of the data, the discussion summaries, and discussions among the JPPI fellows that participated in the Dialogue process, we are able to sketch a diagram of Jews’ priorities and standards of “Jewishness” preferred in different circumstances and for different positions. We do not attach numbers to the diagram as this is a non-scientific formulation based on impressions and discussions. Its main purpose and value is in more clearly highlighting how engaged Jews allow for different formulations of Jewishness in different situations, and how these formulations scale on a diagram that includes specific criteria. It shows to what extent Jews in the Dialogue believed various situations\roles justify a narrower and more specific definition of Jewishness. A symbolic hierarchy of the roles and situations discussed emerges. For example, congregational rabbis are considered to be in positions of high symbolic significance in Jewish life, and are expected to adhere to a more rigorous level of Jewishness. On the other end of the scale, Birthright applicants seek to participate in a broadly available Jewish program – hence there is no requirement of adherence to more stringent criteria of Jewishness. And, of course, what we present here is not an agreed upon formulation of either hierarchy or desired criteria. (Is a communal lay leader truly more senior in Jewish life than a synagogue president? Who knows?)

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