Sharing the privilege of leadership and service

Opening remarks, Interfaith Inclusion Day of Listening, November 5, 2017.

I’ll begin with a few words about process, and rabbinical authority. I’m proud of the way our congregation is carefully and prayerfully considering the ways in which our members who aren’t Jewish might take part in the life of the synagogue. I wish it to be absolutely clear that the authority to make changes in the realm of governance, in particular, rests with the membership. This is not a question that can be settled by deferring to the rabbi’s wishes, and even if it were, I wouldn’t want the authority or the weight of responsibility. That’s a weight which is best borne by many shoulders.

On Yom Kippur I studiously avoided sharing my own feelings on the topic at hand. My goal that day wasn’t to advocate for a particular outcome, but instead to suggest what we might bring to the conversations that would follow: imagination, empathy, and the capacity to see things through another’s eyes. I reiterate that call now, encouraging each of us to approach the conversation with all the humanity within us.

But today I’ll do what I didn’t do on Yom Kippur: share my own thinking on the topic. Because if being the rabbi doesn’t come with unilateral authority (thank God!), it does come with some expertise and with a megaphone, and I would be shirking my responsibility if I were coy about my own feelings on the subject.

An analogy to another moment in my rabbinate will help me to explain my thinking. In 2007, after nearly a decade of saying “no” when asked to officiate at weddings where only one partner was Jewish, I began to say “yes.” As I said it then, in a letter to my congregation, my nine years in congregational life had led me to

[t]he recognition that marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners are often imbued with an appreciation of Judaism (even a love of Judaism) and with the desire to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families.  Where that is the case…I find myself comfortable – eager, even – to join those couples under the hupah and to invite God’s blessing upon their marriage.

Ten years later, it is the same recognition that leads me to believe that we would do well to welcome into certain leadership roles our members who aren’t themselves Jewish in the conventional understanding of the term, but who appreciate and even love Judaism, and who are helping to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. And now, as then, I find myself not only comfortable, but eager, to welcome them — to welcome you — to the table.

My reasoning is both practical and principled.

Practically speaking, I see a generation coming of age for whom identity is fluid and fungible. Gender and race are increasingly recognized not as immutable and defining traits, but as social constructs which people perform. In this context, a strict Jewish/non-Jewish binary is increasingly out of place, and to some even offensive. It seems to me that maintaining the status quo would be out of character for a synagogue that takes future visioning as seriously as we do. Practically speaking, some adjustment to the current practice sets us up to thrive as notions of identity continue to evolve in the coming years.

But this is not only about forecasting future trends, and setting ourselves up for organizational health. Ever since Abraham, when forced to choose, Jews have aspired to do what’s right, not what’s expedient. Demographic trends aside, it just feels right to me to open the door to leadership, at some level, to our members who are not Jewish by the conventional definition, but who are essentially living Jewish lives. We are a synagogue whose calling card is inclusion. As such, I believe that all of our members who appreciate and even love Judaism, who are creating Jewish homes and Jewish families, ought to be welcomed to lead and serve in some capacity. That ought to be the litmus test. I believe that we will be richer for it.

Having said all of that, I conclude by returning to process, with a reminder that the power to set our course in this regard rests not with me but with you. I trust in your collective wisdom. Whatever the particulars that emerge from today’s conversation and the ones that will follow, my prayer is that Judea Reform Congregation will remain healthy and strong, a blessing to this community, to the Jewish People, and to all beings, everywhere.

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