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Rabbinical Assembly Speakers

Last month I blogged about Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, when he announced his retirement as a result of his being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Tom Lantos passed away this morning in Bethesda naval hospital. He was 80-years-old. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to meet Rep. Lantos this past March at the AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C.

Tom LantosTom Lantos was a real mentsch and an important voice for human rights in Congress, even if he would never have been allowed to speak at a Rabbinical Assembly convention. Since Tom Lantos was married to a non-Jewish woman (in photo), he would have been forbidden from addressing the Rabbinical Assembly during its annual convention. As a dues-paying member of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I was surprised this week to learn of this policy.

A JTA article explains the little known RA policy prohibiting intermarried Jews from being speakers at the RA Convention. Therefore, the article states, it was difficult for the RA to maintain a balance between speakers on the right and left of the political aisle at this week’s convention in D.C. So, while Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is speaking at the Convention, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (married to a non-Jew) will not be allowed to. The policy even applies to non-Jews who have married Jews making Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ineligible. Each of these men are married to Jewish women (to be fair, Reid’s wife converted from Judaism to Mormonism so I’m not sure why he’s still blacklisted).

I can understand the RA choosing not to invite intermarried speakers to address the Convention if they are only going to promote intermarriage as a virtuous decision, but I don’t believe that choice has to be crafted into a written policy. I wonder if the RA asks all speakers at the Convention to disclose the religion of their spouse when they are invited to speak.

This policy would preclude a lot of politicians, business leaders, authors, and entertainers from speaking at RA conventions. For instance, Christina Aguilera would not be able to perform at an RA Convention (I’d pay to see that!) or speak about what it is like raising her son in the Jewish tradition (married to the Jewish Jordan Bratman, the couple’s son recently had his bris). This policy would also prohibit Jon Stewart from speaking at the RA Convention since he married Tracey McShane, a non-Jewish woman.

As the Conservative Movement tries to reach out to interfaith families through edud (insiration and encouragement), it would be helpful for Conservative rabbis to hear from couples who are living in interfaith relationships. However, under this policy it would be impossible for speakers like Jim Keen, an outspoken gentile father committed to raising Jewish children, to be allowed to speak at an RA convention.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler rabbinical school in Los Angeles, said “It’s the right priority, but the policy isn’t the right policy for the goal.”

My sense is that this policy will soon be reversed. It is possible for the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative Judaism to stand firmly against intermarriage without barring speakers who happen to be married to members of another religion.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |