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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Should we accept intermarried couples as members of our synagogues?

Beitzah 11

The debate at the synagogue ritual committee meeting was hot. 
Should we give aliyot (Torah call-ups) to men who are intermarried?
Traditionally, when one married out of the faith, the parents would engage in the traditional mourning rites of shivah.  The offender would be cut off from the family.  The intermarried couple would not be accepted as members of the community.  He would certainly not be given any synagogue honours.

But tragically we live in a day and age when intermarriage is the norm.  Sadly, today it is more prevalent than intra-marriage.   Should we treat intermarried couples and families with the same censure with which we have traditionally dealt with them?  If the goal was to discourage intermarriage, clearly it hasn’t worked!

On Yom Tov, one may engage in many Shabbos-proscribed activities that have to do with food preparation.  How about going to the market to buy fruits and veges?   Since it is forbidden to buy and sell and handle money on a holy day, one may only ‘purchase’ from a vendor with whom you are well-acquainted.  The goods are handed over, but no price is discussed and no money exchanges hands until after Yom Tov. 

In Talmudic times, shopkeepers would remove their window shutters when they opened shop in the morning and use these shutters as trays to exhibit their wares.  Beis Shamai avers that removing these shutters would be considered a form of construction on the holy day.  Beis Hillel permits their removal, on the basis that it helps everyone’s ability to enjoy the festival, by having adequate food to eat. 

In fact, Beis Hillel even permits returning the shutters to the window holes after use.   I understand why we should allow the vendors to take out the shutters on Yom Tov – we need them to open up shop to provide us with food for the festival.  But why should they be allowed to replace the shutters, an act that has no food-prep purpose on Yom Tov?

Ulla explains that if we wouldn’t permit the vendor to close up shop by replacing their window-shutters at the end of the day, then they wouldn’t be prepared to open up shop at the beginning of the day.  Since we need them to open up shop and not just take the day off because we need to eat, we also must allow them to close up shop.

According to Ulla, some things are permitted in the end because of the beginning.  We don’t want to forfeit the beginning act of opening the shutters, which is 100% permissible, so we grant a pass to the ending act.  Or to flip a popular concept: Sometimes the means justifies the end!

One practical example of the application of this principle pertains to doctors driving to the hospital on Shabbos.   Many halachic authorities also permit a doctor to drive home after she has concluded her duties.  The rationale is that if we do not allow her to drive home, then she might be hesitant to jump into the car when she gets the call of duty.  This hesitance may lead, G-d forbid, to loss of life.  Therefore, we permit her to drive home (the end act) so that she will drive to the hospital (the beginning act).

Similarly, if we refuse all synagogue privileges to someone who is intermarried, they will never step foot in our buildings.  We have a duty to reach out to them.  Our only hope of bringing them back is to engage with them, not to shun them. 

In this case, perhaps we might also apply the principle that we permit the end in order to promote the beginning.  If we allow them to become members of our congregations, then they will consider entering the synagogue.  If not, then we run the risk of losing them and their children – 50% of whom are Jewish – forever.   Why should the children of an intermarried woman lose out on the opportunity to embrace Judaism, because their mother made a certain life-decision that we don’t agree with? 

Does everything then become permissible for the sake of kiruv – drawing the intermarried family near? 

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Vancouver was once faced with an enormous dilemma.  A congregant had a daughter who had chosen to marry a non-Jewish man. 
“Rabbi, am I allowed to attend the wedding of my daughter?  After all, aren’t we obligated to do kiruv?  If I don’t embrace the couple, then what chance will I ever have of educating my future grandchildren in the ways of Judaism?”
Rabbi Rosenblatt took this daunting question to Rav Dovid Cohen of Brooklyn.
“No, he may not attend the wedding,” was the rabbi’s response, “That would be condoning and supporting an intermarriage, which is a major concern.”
“But what about kiruv?” inquired the younger rabbi.
Kiruv,” replied Rabbi Cohen “begins the day after the wedding.”

We need to do everything we can to reach out to our assimilating brothers and sisters.  We must keep them engaged.  We must include them as full members of our congregations and communities.  Shunning them has not worked and has not stemmed the tide of intermarriage. 

But we must still maintain our standards and know that there are certain red lines that may not be crossed.  We may never condone or encourage intermarriage.  And yet, the next day we must be there, delivering a kosher breakfast to the newlyweds’ hotel room, to show that we love them and that they are always welcome in our families and communities. 


  1. wow Rabbi - you amaze me with your logical response to a real life quandry. Yet you balance out the loss on the one hand with empathy love and possible gain on the other. A discussion worth of Solomon.

    1. Thank you for your kind and generous sentiments, Phyllis. We live in challenging times and my heart goes out to all who are grappling with such daunting life questions and situations.