“Do you have to be Jewish to be a rabbi?”

By Rabbi Felicia L. Sol | Issue Date: November 2011

In 1998 I spent a summer in Anchorage, Alaska, as a rabbinic intern for a Reform congregation (they call themselves the Frozen Chosen). One of my responsibilities was to “do Shabbat” with the pre-school on Friday mornings. One Friday as we finished singing the blessings, a little girl approached me and asked, “Do you have to be Jewish to be a rabbi?” I answered her, but her question, an insight into the innocence and curiosity of young children, has always stayed with me even as it brought a smile. The Jewish pre-school was open to children of all faiths, and this little girl didn’t know where she fit in the scheme of it all. Where were the boundaries?

Ben Azzai in the Talmud teaches that the greatest principle in the Torah is This is the book of the descendents of Adam (Gen. 5) recognizing that all human beings are descendents of Adam and therefore not privileging any one race or religion over another. Rabbi Akiva counters Ben Azzai by putting forth, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19) [your Jewish neighbor],” as the greatest principle. While Ben Azzai presents the universal vision of the Torah, Akiva responds with a more particular one, seeing neighbor as fellow Jew and therefore privileging the obligations to one’s community.

It is in this tension where our community lives. I’m not sure Ben Azzai or Rabbi Akiva would have ever contemplated a 4-year-old from Alaska asking if you have to be Jewish to be a rabbi, but certainly they struggled with how inclusion and universalism interacted with particularism. How can one honor that every human being is created in God’s image while still recognizing that specific communities have responsibilities and privileges of membership?

In his article “Human Rights and Membership Rights” in Judaism and the Challenge of Modern Life, Moshe Halbertal brings the compelling position of Rabbi Menahem ha-Me’iri (13th century) in struggling with the definition of “the other”:

The Me’iri classifies all people possessed of religion as Israel’s partners in Torah and commandments and brings them into the circle of brotherhood with respect to legal standing. … Religion encompasses the fundamental layer of beliefs that underlies the existence of an ordered community—something shared by all believers in a divine-Creator who exercises oversight and holds people to account. The Me’iri’s religious tolerance stems from his recognition of the religious realm common to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and from the fact that the value of this shared religious realm is grounded in its necessary contribution to the establishment of a properly ordered society.

This past September we celebrated 20 years of being welcomed to and in partnership with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew and its pastor, Rev. K Karpen. It is partners like SPSA and ASMA (American Society for Muslim Advancement), with the leadership of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Kahn, that inspire us to build bridges instead of walls. These relationships and our belief that they are essential to who we are help us work together toward creating a community built on the sacred values of trust, peace, and justice—a true expression of How good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in harmony (Psalm 133:1).

It is not only in partnerships beyond our immediate BJ community that we encounter questions around tolerance and inclusion. BJ has many interfaith families. Many non-Jewish parents are partners in raising Jewish children. Non-Jewish partners attend services regularly. The Jewish community generally has excelled at making these families feel defined as “other,” creating an immense amount of fear that intermarriage will cause the downfall of the Jewish people. We at BJ pride ourselves on our interfaith partnerships and our ability to reach out to other communities, creating bonds of friendship and purpose. It’s essential that we recognize the diversity in our own community and build the support and visibility necessary for interfaith partners and family to find a Jewish home at BJ and a path to raising Jewish children without shame.

At the same time, our dream is to be a BJ community that responds to the question, “What is it that God asks of us?” guided by Jewish tradition and values. So, while morally and legally we align with Ben Azzai in recognizing that all human beings are created from the
same first human being, demanding of us to treat all with the same basic human rights, there also need to be boundaries that define the unique nature of our community, endowing it with identity and meaning both for the individual and the collective. Sometimes these boundaries are defined by Klal Yisrael (the general Jewish people), like our upholding of matrilineal descent or the requirements for conversion, and sometimes they’re defined internally by us, as the rabbis. These boundaries often strike a nerve, yet, we as the rabbis know that setting boundaries anywhere inevitably raises questions and sometimes causes pain.

It is not always easy to hold our unwavering commitment to basic human rights for all while also being fiercely dedicated to the Jewish people. It is not always easy to live up to the values of being a tolerant and inclusive community while also having limits and boundaries, yet we strive to live in that creative tension and to serve God in the holiest way we know how.