The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

First, let’s talk about how Eisner starts. Her opening shot?

Does it make a difference to the larger Jewish community that the Reconstructionist movement has made the regrettable decision to admit and ordain intermarried rabbis?

Its adherents are miniscule: Only about 1% of American Jews identify with the movement . Cross the continent and you’ll find slightly more than a hundred congregations. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained only six men and women in 2014, and eight this year — the same number that entered the seminary, located just outside of Philadelphia.

Did you get that? It’s not all that important, really, because you’re tiny, Reconstructionism. Sort of a combined ad hominem/bandwagon argument: you’re small, which makes you wrong – plus, no one agrees with you, which makes you wrong. These, by the way, are logical fallacies; they’re bad arguments.

If you have to open with a bad argument, that’s a pretty good sign the rest of what follows is probably short on merits.

But Eisner goes with the negative characterization, and continues her argument by stating that Reconstructionism’s decision is significant because this “miniscule” movement has had an outsized (and one might well conclude Eisner thinks this is unjustifiable) effect on American Judaism. And so, she says, this decision will be important since Reconstructionism has led the way on a number of egalitarian reforms: bat mitzvah equivalent to bar mitzvah, women as rabbis, LGBTQ individuals as rabbis, etc. There are any number of logical fallacies in this, but let’s spot her this bit of the argument, because really, it’s not as important as what follows.

So, assuming Eisner’s correct on the RRC-decision-as-important conclusion, we’ll travel to her next point: when is it too far? Apparently, Eisner thinks RRC has now crossed the line:

At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations — and history suggests that it will — then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.

Hi, kids! Let me introduce you to the slippery-slope fallacy. That RRC did something doesn’t mean that others will. But, setting all that to the side, Eisner needs to prove that this is all going to be bad-Bad-BAD.

She thinks RRC has two reasons for doing this. First, has she mentioned yet that RRC is small and wants to get bigger? She thinks RRC will in the short-term get more students. Sure, though it’s not like JTS and Ziegler, which are parts of a movement much larger than Reconstructionism, are graduating thirty rabbis a year anymore. But Eisner clearly thinks this will fail, because she’s pretty sure those squishes over at HUC will cave to pressure soon, too, and thus beginneth the race to the bottom. (Warning: this slope is slippery.)

Her second supposition? RRC is trying to “mirror the complexity and diversity of Jewish life today.” Now, in this context, Eisner can mean only one thing: RRC recognizes that Jews are marrying non-Jews, and wants to field a rabbinate that looks like the people for whom they provide pastoral are.

This part? This is what Eisner’s really worried about. Because clergy should lead, which in this case appears to mean live a life of the level of piety and non-intermarriage consonant with that of a member of the Conservative rabbinate. You know, the average Jew doesn’t pray that much, but Eisner expects (and suspects that Jews expect) that rabbis will pray regularly. Also, the average Jew may intermarry, but rabbis shouldn’t, because…

That ellipsis? That’s the problem. And that’s where Eisner tries to stick it to RRC.

In a document prepared for Reconstructionist leaders as the movement debated lifting the ban , the RRC argued that “(m)any younger progressive Jews, including many rabbis and rabbinical students, now perceive restrictions placed on those who are intermarried as reinforcing a tribalism that feels personally alienating and morally troubling.”

Reinforcing tribalism. Is that what commitment to the Jewish people has become — an alienating, immoral tribalism? This is perhaps the most depressing and perplexing aspect of RRC’s argument. Kaplan’s lasting legacy was to cast the Jewish people as a people, not in the limiting, pejorative sense of an exclusive “tribe,” but with an emphasis on community and responsibility to one another, balancing universal values with the privilege of particularism.

The growing numbers of intermarried Jews pose a serious challenge to non-Orthodoxy in America, but also an exciting one. It is a propitious time to offer bold ideas to make Judaism more accessible and welcoming, to strengthen commitment among those born Jews and encourage others to join. We need leaders to model that commitment, fully and without embarrassment or hesitation, even at personal sacrifice. That is what aspirational leadership requires, and what 21st century Jews deserve.

So, have you got all that? Modern Jews are worried that the insistence on non-intermarried rabbis is a tribalistic thing. Eisner’s response? How dare RRC use the language of tribalism!? We’re not a tribe: Kaplan said himself we’re a people! (That’d be a masked “no true Scotsman” argument: you RRC people aren’t really heirs to Kaplan.) And Jewish leaders shouldn’t be embarrassed about our peoplehood. Now: STOP. BEING. INTERMARRIED. YOU. JEWS.

Let’s be really clear about Eisner’s argument. Rabbis should be leaders, and leadership involves not being married to someone who is not Jewish because rabbis are role models for the congregants. Rabbis not being intermarried means that they provide a model to their congregants, and that model is marrying someone who is Jewish. (Or…what? Get out? Don’t get married? Eisner doesn’t address this.)

That is the core of everything–everything–Eisner is really writing about here. What does it mean to say that being Jewish in its best form means not marrying someone who isn’t Jewish? It means that you’re circumscribing a particular people. It is, frankly, a tribal drawing of lines, even if Eisner wishes that it weren’t so.

And crucially, Eisner has no real objection–no substantive objection–to the RRC decision. What has she said in her piece? Leaders should marry other Jews, and there’s no other way. Why? Because that’s what 21st Century Jews deserve? Why? Because Jews should marry other Jews. Why? Because intermarriage hurts American Judaism? Why? Because Jews stop being Jewish. Why? Because intermarriage hurts American Judaism. Why? Because Jews stop being Jewish. Why?…

Eisner’s cri de coeur here lacks any real argumentation. It doesn’t consider that an intermarried rabbi demonstrating a strong commitment to Jewish life might be a role model for congregations composed of Jews, non-Jewish partners, and their children. it doesn’t stop to consider whether a model that doesn’t look like the congregation might, in itself, drive off families of mixed backgrounds. It simply says, “This is bad, and I won’t put up with it, because you Reconstructionists ruin everything.”

And it certainly doesn’t stop to think about what might be unethical about saying that those who find love with a non-Jewish partner don’t belong in our communities. (This position–that rejection is unethical–is core to Humanistic Judaism’s approach to the question.)

Yet again, The Forward proves itself to be behind.

(Edit: The Forward also published a counterpiece by Keren McGinity, arguing that RRC’s decision will strengthen American Judaism. I agree with her conclusions, particularly as regards “the essence” of Reconstructionism. Here’s the link. I think there’s more to be said than that, and I think Eisner’s response requires not just a counterpoint, but sharp critique.)