Intermarriage is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

By Keren R. McGinity

We can learn a lot from actor Michael Douglas about gender and intermarriage. “I am a Jew,” he said with pride when he accepted the Genesis Prize last month in Jerusalem. He admitted it was “a long journey” to making this statement. He is the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother and has two children with his non-Jewish wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan and Carys. He elaborated how his son’s decision to have a bar mitzvah and his father’s reconnection to Judaism late in life influenced his own thoughts about being Jewish. Michael Douglas and his family, both of origin and by marriage, teach us that the experience and meaning of intermarriage are complex. Jewish identity is fluid and can deepen long after the wedding. Interest and participation in the Jewish community can also increase over time. Going forward, it shouldn’t take winning a million dollars to make clear that someone is counted as a full-fledged member of Klal Yisrael.

Men’s voices need to be included in the intermarriage discussion. When I spoke publicly about my previous research on intermarried Jewish women, in my first book Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, people would often ask me: “What about my son? What about my brother?” Those questions motivated me to research the lives of intermarried Marrying Out CoverJewish men. In order to truly understand Jewish gender, I realized, both sides of the relational coin must be evaluated. My new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood illustrates that, contrary to common assumption, they and their families are not “lost” to the Jewish people. It is, however, much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman. Ethnic gender ascription assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage. Patrilineal descent continues to be one of the most divisive issues among Jewish movements, with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements assenting and the Conservative and Orthodox dissenting. The lack of consensus is exacerbated by a lack of awareness in the general public about patrilineal descent and the formal actions it entails. Making things more difficult is the American construct of masculinity, which perpetuates the idea that “real men” put their careers first and suggests that being a “good guy” isn’t worth striving for because it lacks cultural currency. This junction between achievement and being a mensch is where American manhood clashes with Jewish values, creating what I call the Jewish masculine mystique. Men suffer from competing priorities and communal disenfranchisement like women suffered from overeducated and underutilized minds prior to second wave feminism. Men are struggling to prove themselves as men while onlookers question the depth of their Jewish identity and commitment after bar mitzvah.

Unlike intermarried Jewish women who maintain the affiliations in which they were raised, my research shows that intermarried Jewish men shift from one branch of Judaism to another in search of connection and community. Whether and where they affiliate is influenced by interactions with clergy and being sure that their wives would be welcomed and their children would be considered Jewish. Intermarried Jewish men’s investment in how their children are raised illustrates a particularly Jewish take on American gender. Personal testimonies about fathering Jewish offspring suggest that the process of becoming a parent can have a profound effect on a man’s Jewish identity. Yet, the men’s insistence that I speak to their wives also alludes to the fact that women continue to shoulder most of the labor associated with child rearing. Thus, even when a man insisted that his children be raised Jewish, it was often the woman of another faith background actually doing the work.

Equal parenting has yet to fully take hold in America, which creates both opportunity and challenge for interfaith families. Women who were not raised Jewish have the chance to learn about Judaism in order to teach their children and to potentially choose to become Jewish, as some do. Men, too, can learn more about being and doing Jewish. The challenge is in reconstructing Jewish gender to increase the social value of men’s roles as parents, not just professional providers, and to emphasize the acceptability of learning alongside their children rather than being expected to know.

Jewish institutions can better support intermarried Jewish men who want to create Jewish families and raise Jewish children by actively communicating: “we want you and your family.” Individual clergy and Jewish professionals can personally reach out, make explicit the invitation to actively join the Tribe, and apologize for any past exclusion or alienation, perceived or otherwise. Jewish day schools and supplemental education programs can invite applications from interfaith couples regardless of which parent is Jewish, as well they should. Organizations can collaborate to empower men as co-parents by calling on them to fulfill their roles as Jewish fathers and creating programming that fits their interests. It’s high time to emphasize the value of Jewish father-child relationships, events, activities, and learning opportunities.

In order to mobilize Jews of mixed parentage and intermarried Jews to take pride in their Jewish identities and actively engage in Jewish life, Jewish pluralism—regardless of observance level, Hebrew fluency, Judaic literacy, or skin tone—must be celebrated just as marriage equality has finally become the law of the land. Perhaps then it will become clear to doomsayers that the American Jewish future is bright because of intermarriage, not despite it. Love is indeed love.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis KRMInstitute and a research affiliate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Learn more at


What Do Rabbas Mean to Me?

By Rachel Putterman

rachel_puttermanWhy am I, a non-Orthodox female rabbinical student, brought to tears at the recent images of Modern Orthodox women being ordained as rabbis in both Israel and the U.S?  Why does this historic shift resonate so deeply with me, given that the liberal movements have been ordaining women for decades?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that I have been advocating on behalf of women for most of my life, first, as a public interest attorney, and now as a rabbinical student.  Thus, on a basic level, I am incredibly moved by the fact that real concrete change is happening, and at such a rapid pace that it appears to constitute a paradigm shift.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that two cohorts of Orthodox women–one in Israel and one in the U.S.–would be granted semikha in 2015.  Indeed, at the JOFA Un-Conference held a mere nine months ago, in response to participants’ urgent questions regarding when women would be ordained as rabbis, a prominent male leader of the Modern Orthodox establishment said that the structure of rabbinic leadership would look very different within one to two generations. The ground is literally shifting beneath our feet!

Another part of the answer has to do with me being a decidedly non-Orthodox rabbinical student.  Despite my utter freedom to pursue the rabbinate, and the multiple options I had regarding where to receive rabbinic training, I was never able to shake an awareness that the path that I was pursuing was essentially off limits to women within an entire branch of Judaism.   And, I experienced that exclusion of women as a type of Jewish glass ceiling. I felt stigmatized by the fact that being a female rabbinical student automatically signaled that I was not Orthodox.  [For purposes of this discussion, I am putting aside the issue that all non-Orthodox rabbis are not considered valid rabbis by most Orthodox].  Whereas a male non-Orthodox rabbinical student could “pass” as Orthodox, so long as he dressed appropriately, the minute I said I was a rabbinical student, it was a given that I was not Orthodox.  I find it extremely liberating that with the ordination of Orthodox women that is no longer the case.  I am elated that my Modern Orthodox sisters have gained the right to become rabbis if that is their hearts’ desire, albeit with much more risk attached to their endeavors than to mine.  These women and the men who are supporting them are truly heroic, given the extreme censure and backlash that they face from the ultra-Orthodox.  They are the trailblazers, while I am the beneficiary of courageous women who preceded me.

I have met or corresponded with two of the newly-ordained female Orthodox rabbis and they have been so happy to connect with me that I’ve realized that we have more in common than I originally thought.  I met both of these women in the context of working towards solutions to the plight of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce).  Perhaps it was our shared journey, combined with our mutual goal of helping agunot that overrode our denominational differences.  And this is yet the last reason why I’m moved to tears. The nascent expansion of the tent of Jewish women clergy has the potential to lessen the painfully entrenched division between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which will in turn lead to the further empowerment of all Jewish women.

Rachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence at HBI and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

nashim spring 2015

Feminist Interpretations of the Talmud explored in latest issue of Nashim

By Deborah Greniman, Managing Editor, Nashim


Deborah Greniman

How does one go about writing a feminist commentary on the Talmud—the literary-legal corpus, notorious for its exclusion of women, that has transfixed Jewish (and non-Jewish) scholars for millennia?

Availing herself of the toolbox of feminist theory, does the prospective feminist commentator focus on the places in the Talmud that mention women specifically? In the absence of women, does s/he attend to conflicting definitions of masculinity intimated by the Sages of antiquity? Does s/he interrogate larger theoretical structures for indications of how the Rabbis conceived the binary male/female division? Does s/he analyze the Sages’ characterizations of typically male and female behavior—and how women’s actual behavior, as they recorded it, may have challenged those characterizations? Does s/he scour the texts for indications of how the differing status of men and women played out on women’s bodies, in their lives and work, in the violence to which they may have been subjected and in the protections that rabbinic law may or may not have held out to them?

All this and more—that is the answer given by the contributors to the Spring 2015 issue of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues (No. 28), dedicated to pioneering feminist Talmud scholar Judith Hauptman on the occasion of her 70th birthday. In this early spinoff of the larger project of creating a full-blown Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, initiated by Tal Ilan of the Institut für Judaistik at the Freie Universität Berlin, each author presents a small piece of the tractate upon which she is working to exemplify her strategies for interpreting this quintessentially androcentric text. In the words of consulting editors Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Jane L. Kanarek and Marjorie Lehman, “Just as the corpus itself is multi-genre and in many ways multivocal, so, too, do its feminist commentaries choose among a diversity of strategies, both as pertinent reading tools and as strategies for claiming intellectual ownership of the text in new ways.”

With the consulting editors’ own contributions and those of Hauptman and Ilan, Gail Labovitz, Sarra Lev, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander and Christiane H. Tzuberi—all leaders in the revolution that has brought hundreds of women to study the Talmud in recent decades—this issue of Nashim honors Judith Hauptman by giving readers a taste of the innovative perspectives that feminist commentators are bringing to a text that has spurred over a thousand years of interpretation.

About Nashim

Nashim a publication of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and Indiana University Press provides an international, interdisciplinary academic forum in Jewish women’s and gender studies. Each issue is theme-oriented, produced in consultation with a distinguished feminist scholar, and includes articles on literature, text studies, anthropology, archeology, theology, contemporary thought, sociology, the arts, and more.

Published semiannually
EISSN 1565-5288 | PISSN 0793-8934

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Happy Bicentvicentdecennovennial!

By Amy Sessler Powell

On July 4, our nation once again celebrates its birthday, but most Americans would have to stop and do the math to figure out how many candles to put on the cake. This birthday has no fancy name, no bicentennial or semiquincentennial, but birthday number 239 comes after a few weeks that may be worth noting for the ages.

Rarely has a short period of time been known for so many milestones for Jewish women and for all citizens in the realm of equality. While there is much work to be done, progress of any kind reminds us that change is possible.

Thirty years ago, the first female Conservative rabbi was ordained and it was a big deal, but it has become quite ho hum to us now. I remember a family friend in my own synagogue quitting when women were counted in the minyan in 1976. She recently showed me her beautiful new tallit and I kept my mouth shut. I’m glad to see that she’s finally on board in her senior years.

Two years ago, the first group of female Orthodox rabbis received smicha from Yeshivat Maharat, but they did not take the title “rabbi” or “rabba.”  Now, the third class is changing that, taking these titles. Years from now, will this too be ho hum?

There is so much more recent news. The U.S. Treasury announced that a notable woman will be replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. They are accepting nominations on Twitter, using #TheNew10. We saw the U.S. Supreme Court approve same-sex marriage, uphold the Affordable Care Act and strike a blow to gerrymandering by allowing independent commissions to draw political maps. This bodes well for Congressional districts that truly represent their populations, a necessity for better legislation.

In the world of sports, Major League Baseball added the first female ever, Melissa Mayeux, a shortstop on the French U-18 junior national team to their international registration list, which means she will be eligible to be signed by a Major League club. Misty Copeland,  was named principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater, making her the first African-American woman to do so in the company’s 75-year history. Our U.S. women’s soccer team will face Japan in the World Cup Final July 7.

There is plenty of bad news, plenty of things that need work. Our black churches are burning in the south just as we finally are having an important national conversation about Confederate symbols. Too many people die from gun violence. But, the events of the past few weeks should remind us that grassroots work on issues often succeeds, gains momentum. Let us be inspired by progress to take on the difficult issues facing us.

So, America, Happy Bicentvicentdecennovennial! It’s been a good year.

Amy Powell

Amy Powell

Amy Powell is the HBI Communications Director.


Overseas Report: Experiencing Orthodox Feminism at University of Cambridge

By Ranana Dine

Ranana Dine

Ranana Dine

Before I arrived here, I was warned that I might be disappointed by the state of Jewish Orthodox feminism in England. Sure, there’s JOFA UK and a small partnership minyan in London, but the great strides that have been taken recently in the U.S. just haven’t made it across the pond, I was told. There’s no Yeshivat Hadar or Drisha Institute, nor Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women to be female religious authorities in the Orthodox community. I assumed that for the six months that I would be spending in England, studying at Cambridge, I would survive in a more traditional setting, if gritting my teeth at times when I felt that women were undervalued in the Jewish community.

When I first stepped into the synagogue in Cambridge, I thought I should try and keep my feminist leanings a bit under wraps. Stay quiet for a little while; abstain from mentioning my experiences gabbaying or reading Torah. This plan worked for maybe a grand total of 24 hours, if that. My cover was quickly grown blown as I discussed Ethan Tucker’s teshuva on Egalitarian services over coffee at The Buttery, and made jokes about being the tenth person in shul for daily shacharit. My concerns about not being accepted because of my views regarding a woman’s place in the synagogue and within religious Judaism were unfounded, I quickly discovered. Even though not all my friends in the Cambridge Jewish community agree with me about whether a woman can get an aliyah or should count for a minyan, all treated my opinions with respect, understanding and a good dose of humor as well.

During my time in Cambridge, I swapped books with friends about Jewish feminism, the pages getting dog-eared as they passed through many hands and filling up with coffee stains as we argued about the merits of Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, and Tova Hartman over kosher dinners and mugs of hot chocolate. Together, we read about the Belz ban on women driving; expressed our anger over the decision; and, then moved on with humor and laughter.

This is not to say that at points in my six-month stay in England my feminist instincts were not troubled. Coming from a college in the U.S. where I am expected to layn and lead services regularly, I have found myself missing the chance to read directly from the Torah and play a role in synagogue ritual. Over Shavuot and Passover, I did not get to layn Megillat Ruth and Shir HaShirim, two books I have taken much pleasure in reading for others over the last few years. Although there is a vibrant egalitarian service on Friday nights (which I must honestly admit I did not regularly attend in favor of praying with the traditional Orthodox service), opportunities for women to read Torah and lead services during the week and on Shabbat mornings were limited. At times, the conversation regarding women’s issues in Judaism took on a less than pleasant tone – like when I was told by someone who attends shul far less frequently than I do that women cannot call for access to leadership roles without expecting to take on the other “masculine” mitzvot, like coming to shul regularly. And, I vividly remember the parting of a large group of black-clad Haredi men as my friend and I walked by them in London over Passover, as if we bore some contagious disease.

But, overall my experience in England as a Jewish feminist has been quite different than what I expected when I arrived. I’ve been impressed with people’s knowledge and caring. I’ve felt respected, acknowledged and appreciated while in services, even if I cannot count for the minyan itself. I was given the chance to study Talmud in both female only and mixed settings without anyone batting an eyelid. I’ve enjoyed the humor people bring to this important subject, that matches their thoughtfulness and desire to learn more. My friends, here, are quick to point out that not all of English Jewry is like the community in Cambridge and that the Jewish community in this small college town is more knowledgeable and thoughtful on this subject than in other parts of the UK. Although this may very well be true, I cannot help but think that the Cambridge community must, in some small way, be representative of larger trends in English Jewry.

When I arrived in England, I learned quickly that I could not hide my feminist instincts, even for a short while. At the same time, I also learned that I had no need to. The conversations about women’s place in Orthodox Judaism are happening here too, and cannot be avoided. I am glad to report that in Cambridge, at least, just like in Jewish college communities in the U.S., the conversation is taking place with grace, respect, knowledge and quite a healthy amount of humor.

Ranana Dine is a former HBI intern and a rising senior at Williams College. She recently spent a semester abroad at the University of Cambridge.