A Chief Rabbi’s reality gap

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 19, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Chief Rabbis of Israel, Shlomo Amar and Yonah Metzger, enjoy their annual Jewish-Anglican summits. It reinforces the illusion on both sides that they are leaders of major faiths, whilst in reality, they are at best time-serving figureheads of disputed hierarchies, appointed by politicians, fated to walk a treacherous path between the moderate and hardliner camps, respected or revered by neither. The rabbis and the Archbishop realise they are at best second-division clergy, never to wield the absolute power of a Roman Pope or to receive the adulation and loyalty of a Dalai Lama. With so much in common, it is little wonder they get on so well.

Last week's gathering at Lambeth Palace was no exception. They had no problem reaching agreement on the sanctity of holy places, condemning religious and racial incitement and agreeing the need for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Since none of them can do anything to further these goals, why not? Just one issue raised by Rabbi Amar stuck in Williams's craw: he requested that the Archbishop join them in speaking out against intermarriage between the different faiths.

A simple and uncontroversial matter for an Orthodox rabbi, but someone must have neglected to brief Amar that there was absolutely no way that Williams could even have expressed the mildest disapproval for inter-religious matrimony and survived the political and media bashing that would have doubtless ensued.

The most the rabbis were going to get out of him was a mention in the joint communiqué that they had "touched" upon the issue of "the distress caused to families locally by inter-religious marriages". And even that was pushing it.

Amar was left bewildered: how could another man of faith not join him on such an elementary issue?

It would be too much perhaps for a man coming from Amar's environment to understand the constraints of political correctness in which Williams has to operate - and besides, perhaps he doesn't see anything wrong in wedding a Hindu to a Mohammedan. The Church of England doesn't inquire too closely when a couple ask to have their special day in one of its branches.

But this is not about being politically correct, it is about a reality gap. Not one between Jews and Anglicans, but one between Jews and other Jews; between those who have come to terms with intermarriage and those who just cannot bring themselves to touch the issue, indeed seeing the products of such unions as untouchables.

The gap, a yawning chasm actually, is not between Orthodox and pluralistic as might be expected. There is no shortage of secular Jews who would see the marrying out of their children as a tragedy worse than death, warranting total disownment. And there are a growing number of Orthodox leaders and rabbis who, while certainly not condoning the act, do everything in their power to negate the equation between intermarriage and assimilation.

Over the past year, I have seen Charedi rabbis in Russia and Ukraine treat members of their community, not Jewish according to rabbinical law, with the utmost respect, finding every possible way to integrate them into Jewish life, even it they are not contemplating conversion. The most successful project in the United States to bring the children of mixed-marriages in to the fold was the brainchild of the Orthodox head of the Boston Federation. They are not acquiescing to intermarriage, simply dealing with the fact that it exists.

The reality gap is a result, not so much of religious rigidity, but of insularity. Dealing with intermarriage does not have to mean bending the rules of halachah, it does mean understanding the realities of life in western society. Rowan Williams for all his faults understands the society in which he lives in; Amar is rapidly isolating himself and the group he represents.

    Last updated: 12:47pm, September 19 2008



    Thu, 09/18/2008 - 20:09

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    I suspect Amar didn't have the same thoughts as the writer of this article. For many Sephardim, marrying Ashkenazim is a form of out-marriage. For some 'modern' Jewish parents, having their daughter marry an Israeli Charedi might seem worse than marrying a 'modern' Gentile. Satmar parents might feel profound pain if their child married a devout Lubavitcher.Out-marriage has many meanings!