By: Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann
(As told at Light and Heat: Stories of Hope and Defiance, December 2018)
A rabbinic mentor gave me this piece of advice when I was applying to rabbinical school: in any school, any movement within Judaism… you’re banging your head against a wall. The question is which wall.
A movement is defined by positions and practices, moral stances, which comprise its ideological and practical structure. I chose the Conservative Movement because, for the most part, I liked its structure. I loved the community built around a traditional observance of Shabbat, attention to the ethics of my diet through keeping kosher, the emphasis on Hebrew text learning and literacy. And I knew that when I started school, the wall I would bang my head against would be fighting for the right for rabbis to perform same sex marriage and for rabbinic ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.
But that’s not what I’m talking about today, because two years after I started school, under immense pressure from lay people, faculty and students, the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee (the Committee on Law and Jewish Standards) changed its stance. (I entered school straight and left queer. Didn’t see that one coming.)
There was bound to be a new wall, though I didn’t know right away what it would be. After I was ordained, it came into focus: intermarriage.
Intermarriage has been viewed suspiciously by Jews throughout the ages, seen as a choice made at best from ignorance or apathy, or treasonous at worst. Doing Hitler’s work for him. Some parents sit shiva for their children who marry outside the faith. That means they mourn them, as if they died.
After 3,000 years of persecution, oppression, pogroms, and the Holocaust, you can’t blame us for being protective of our boundaries. Intermarriage is one of the three standards of practice in the Conservative movement for which you can be kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. I abided by these standards faithfully, believing that, like I’d seen before, the tides would shift and respond to the real needs of real people.
I remember sitting with a couple at Native Foods on Belmont, people who came regularly to Mishkan, let’s call them Danielle and Kurt, both brilliantly blonde. She was Jewish, he was Catholic. They decided to marry after a 2 year courtship, conducted mostly on Skype while he was serving in Iraq. After a trip to Israel on Birthright, Danielle returned to Chicago wanting to get more involved with the Jewish community and excited to share her newfound enthusiasm with her partner. She sat with excitement about having a Jewish wedding and creating a Jewish family while I responded with, “I really sympathize with your situation, I’m so glad you both love coming to Mishkan. I will refer you to this AWESOME Reform rabbi I know. I hope you’ll still come to Mishkan and know that we totally support you. I just can’t officiate your wedding.”
They looked at me: “We understand, Rabbi.”
What I am supposed to feel is the sense that I’m protecting Jewish tradition and people…that sometimes you need to say “no” in order to say a greater “yes.” But that is not what I was feeling. This conversation played itself out again and again over my first three years as a rabbi.
Eventually I couldn’t stomach it anymore. I didn’t really feel like I was doing the work I went into the rabbinate to do, which was to bring people, ANY people, not just Jews, closer to God and Torah and Jewish community. I became a rabbi to serve God, and fundamentally I believe God is love.
So I started breaking the rules. No official pronouncements or renouncing my membership in the Rabbinical Assembly… I just started saying yes. To dozens and dozens of couples. And it felt really good.
Now, not everyone agreed that it felt good. At one of those early interfaith weddings I officiated, the groom’s grandmother walked down the aisle, head to toe, wearing black.
But more often, friends and parents and grandparents said thank you. Thank you for making this tradition and this people feel like a home for us, like we can see ourselves participating, like we know what’s happening.
At a Jewish wedding we stand under the chuppah – this beautiful structure symbolizing a Jewish home. It doesn’t have any walls. We smash a glass at the end of the ceremony, and I say to that couple, “This shattering sound you’re about to hear is all the brokenness, loneliness and pain in the world: go out as a couple and fix it. As a couple it’s your job to make tikkun (healing) for of all that brokenness.”
And as I look into the faces of the couple I’m marrying: this one, who grew up in a Reform Jewish home in New Jersey or Modern Orthodox in Florida, and this other person who grew up Unitarian in Ohio, or Irish Catholic or Puerto Rican Catholic… and I look at their extended families surrounding that chuppah, people who in any other universe would never have met but who now are in the same family, will be celebrating holidays and negotiating traditions and rituals and their foundational stories together…. I believe – I deeply believe – that part of the unique Tikkun that interfaith couples bring to the world will come from weaving differences together, from finding common ground, from the kind of dialogue that can only come from difference, and from integrating the wisdom of thousands of years of Judaism into their relationships. On this basis, I believe intermarriage actually makes us stronger as a people – not weaker.
For those first few years, I just kept my head down. I did my thing… stood in flagrant violation of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) rules and didn’t suffer consequences. There was always a chance that I would be investigated by the Honor Committee (yes there is a a Va’ad haKavod, an Honor Committee, and their job is to investigate rabbis who violate rules). So when the RA held its annual convention in Chicago a few months ago, I went. I figured, now is the time to find out if these are really my people. If they are still my people.
It was… lots of middle aged men. The Movement began ordaining women 30 years ago, gay and lesbian people less than a decade ago, so diversity is coming, but we still have a long way to go. After a three-hour long off-the-record, professionally facilitated conversation among hundreds of Rabbinical Assembly members from all over the world about intermarriage, it became clear that my position was the minority. There seemed to be a kind of pity for the rabbis who shared vulnerability around this issue. There was a rabbi who, though tears, shared that he didn’t go to his own daughters’ wedding because of the rule. No one cried with him.
I found the leadership of the RA at the end of the conference and told them it was time for me to resign. Surprisingly, what I heard from them was: “Don’t, Lizzi! Stay in, as voice of change from within the movement. We need you.”
What they were basically saying is, “We need you to bang your head against this wall,” on behalf of all of us that want to see change.
So I did. That lasted about 6 months. A few weeks ago the president of the RA called. “Lizzi…” she said. The tone of her voice said it all. She didn’t need to tell me that the Honor Committee was going to investigate me.
The sociologist Dr. Brené Brown says: in order to be part of something, you have to be willing to stand alone. In order to be part of something, you have to be willing to stand alone.
So I resigned from RA.
But the truth is, I’m not standing alone. I’m standing with every couple whose lives are bound together under that chuppah, with every family that feels that instead of the Jewish community pushing them away, we are embracing them, making Jewish community plausible for them. I’m standing with the people and the partners who have made a home in Judaism, and decided, even years later, to deepen that relationship – through Shabbat, through holidays, through keeping kosher, through going to Hebrew school with their kids week after week for years, and sometimes through converting. By not making that last part a precondition, I believe that I’m honoring love, leading with love, and letting the details follow. And they’re important details. And they’re not worth losing great Jews over. And they’re not worth losing love over.
I am a person who loves love. And if I can help two people who love each other connect more deeply with a religion of love, I’m doing my real job.
These are the traditional words said under every chuppah at a traditional Jewish wedding: Mi adir al ha’kol, mi barukh al ha’kol, mi gadol all ha’kol hu yivarekh et he’kalah v’ha’kalah, v’ha’chatan v’ha’chatan, v’ha’chatan v’haKalah.
May the One who is supreme in power and glory and blessing, bless… wait for it – ha’KOL, everyone. We’ve never prayed to or believed in a God who privileges love for some over others. In our most elevated moments, we believe in a God who’s presence and love covers all of us. Jew and gentile alike.
That’s the God I work for.