Creating a Jewish Future: Korah and Contemporary Jewish Challenges - Rosh Hodesh Tammuz - June 24, 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777
Jun 25th 2017

Many of you read the book or saw the film “Moneyball”  Even if you didn’t, you probably are aware of a development that is occurring in many areas of professional sports. Sabermetrics is the data-driven analysis of baseball statistics that measure in-game activity. Sabermetrics is an attempt to evaluate players, through computer driven analysis and evidence in addition to the gut feeling that was historically used to evaluate players or to for a game plan.

If you watch a baseball game, you will notice that when certain players are at bat, the defensive players in the infield and outfield dramatically shift where they stand. They recognize that the batter may occasionally hit to the open field, but—based on statistical probability—they position themselves where the batters are most likely to hit the ball.

The widespread use of sabermetrics is found in every professional sport.  Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, analogized the conflict about sabermetrics to the current debate within Conservative Judaism about intermarriage. A statistician will tell you who is likely to catch a touchdown pass. But no one can anticipate a specific play that changes the momentum or result of a game. The current discussion on intermarriage also reflects the difference between head and heart.

A few colleagues have begun to speak about why they favour rabbinic officiation at interfaith ceremonies. They point to couples where one is a Jew and the other is not who love each other and want a Jewish ceremony overseen by their favourite Conservative rabbi. Their poignant personal stories have led some rabbis to decide that, within a properly constructed framework, officiating at these weddings will prevent a wide-spread alienation from Jewish life.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Levi reflects the heart when he writes: “I couldn’t bear saying no. The firsthand encounter with the pain of rejection and its consequences to the couple, to me, and to our community convinced me of the need for an urgent solution. It has become not just a practical issue but also one of deeply personal, ethical, and theological dimensions.”

Others, reflecting the head, want to maintain a caring relationship with the couple, but draw the line at officiating at interfaith marriages. A statement issued  by the Jewish Theological Seminary states:

Individuals from other backgrounds are warmly invited to join the covenant through conversion. There is also much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish. What we must not do is to abandon the core beliefs and practices which are the very foundation of Jewish life.

In addition to this theological position, there are also functional reasons that support this halakhic perspective.

Here is our general situation. Studies of the American Jewish community indicate that for young, non-Orthodox Jews, aged 25 to 54, “just 21 percent are married to Jews, while well over twice as many are non-married and 29% are intermarried.”  Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, who conducted an analysis for the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), point out that the non-Ultra Orthodox Jews are in a demographic decline, due to no marriage, late marriage, delayed and low birth rates, and intermarriage. In fact, Jewish-Jewish marriages with Jewish children represent only 15% of the total group.

Advocates believe that rabbinic involvement and officiation will keep dual faith couples within the Jewish community. But years of experience with American Reform, Reconstructionist and other rabbis do not validate that claim. There is no statistical evidence that rabbinic officiation makes a significant difference in Jewish outcome.

Returning to the Sabermetrics analogy: We appreciate the great catch, the amazing shot on goal, the spectacular basket, or the unexpected hit, precisely because it is unusual and infrequent. There are some wonderful dual-faith couples who have created Jewish families. They are outliers, not statistically probable.

According to the research by Cohen and Barack Fishman, the difference between the in-married and the intermarried is “truly enormous”. In-married couples, and we are celebrating two such aufrufen today, are more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important. They are more likely to have Jewish friends. They are more likely to belong to a synagogue. And they are more likely to raise their children as Jews.  Families where there has been conversion show remarkably similar commitments to those of born Jews; but non-Jewish spouses and non-Jewish children lower the likelihood of Jewish engagement.

Our Sages imagine Korah, who challenges the leadership of Moshe, as a scholar, one of the select individuals who carried the Holy Ark (Bemidbar Rabba 18:3). His 250 associates are described as kri’ei moed, anshei shem—the elite of Israelite society (Bemidbar 16:2; see Sanhedrin 110a). Yet, despite his argument—“the entire community is holy”—that each person knows what to do, that there is no need for boundaries or borders, Moshe rejects this claim, because the Torah tradition will be established by privileging covenant and community over the choices of individuals.

There is a teaching of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitze (1801-1854) the founder of the Izhbitza-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidic Judaism which saw Korah as having positive but premature ideas. He wanted an immediate radical openness that can only be attained in messianic days. Judaism realizes that only sincere and slow progress will bring us to the End of Days.

We should be sensitive to dual faith couples seeking Jewish support for their relationship and marriage, but that does not mean we should change the framework for Jewish marriage. As the JTS statement points out,

The wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.

Judaism was never meant to be practiced alone. Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community, and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. … For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, … their religious identity is no less significant than is our own.

At Beth Tzedec, we have sought to open doors and create bridges to bring interfaith couples into our community. We have developed programs to reach out to supportive non-Jewish spouses. But we should not lose sight of our historic borders and boundaries. They define who we are and they make being part of our people significant and valuable.

Officiating at interfaith weddings or the recognition of patrilineal descent gives an illusion of addressing the problem which contemporary Jewish life faces. But it doesn’t really respond to the passive relationship that most Jews have to their Jewish identities. It is only a passionate Judaism that will  strengthen Jewish identity and practice. It is only a passionate Judaism that will build a Jewish future.

R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the last rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in his spiritual diary:

You cannot remain static in this torrent river just by standing firm in your place—you must actively swim against the flow. You may not be successful in swimming upstream, but at least you will not be swept down by the flow. So it is with spiritual life and the purity of spirit that you have attained. 

You cannot retain [that purity of spirit] against the flow unless you continue to struggle for spiritual growth. You must swim upstream without respite—upward, onward against the flow. There may be a limit to how far you can go, but at least you will not be drawn down with the flow.

We should make the process of joining our age-old covenant accessible and compelling. Rav Adam, Reb Yacov and I have been working to develop better support for individuals making a decision to become Jews.

There is both joy and responsibility involved in the practice of ritual and the study of Torah, actions of hesed and advocacy for mishpat (social justice). These flow from our encounter with the Divine, our embrace of Torah and our love of the Jewish people. We believe that our approach to Jewish life will nurture a community and provide personal meaning to individuals, couples and families. Judaism is counter-cultural and we hope that our efforts to welcome and engage will also forge a different personal calendar and rhythm from the larger society in which we live.

W.C. Fields may not have heard of Korah, but he certainly was correct when he said, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”  We must be willing to swim upstream and to support those around us who share our vision of Torah and Jewish life. As well, we must maintain boundaries—even as we welcome others by creating bridges of intense love.