A Relevant Jewish Question

Halachic commitment is the way to fight intermarriage

Shaqlo v'tariyo
My Facebook feed is, probably, the finest source to my relevant news. On the one hand, I have Samuel Moyn and his illuminating articles and suggestions. On the other, I have a vast army of Jewish friends and rabbis who share the latest debates in the Orthodox world.

After a week checking only the Facebook page of El Tempsthe Catalan weekly magazine I lead—, I took some time checking my beloved Facebook feed, where I found an important Orthodox debate on intermarriage. My friend R. Avram Mlotek published a piece arguing that we should welcome intermarried couples in Orthodox Judaism. Even though he advances some kind of outreach for the non-Jewish partner, there is a blur in the matter: it seems Avram could accept the intermarried couple as such and ignore the serious halachic consequences derived from it.

Avram’s proposal has received two relevant responses. The first one comes from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Open Orthodox yeshiva founded by R. Avi Weiss and where Avram got smicho. YCT just published a reminder of the halachic grounds where the institution stands. At the same time, YCT advocates for active conversion efforts of non-Jewish partners in intermarried couples. The second response comes from another friend, R. Dr. Ben Elton. Also a YCT graduate, Ben is seriously worried about the lack of a halachic perspective in the issue. Nonetheless, his essential point is a mention to the religious Weltanschauung dear to Rov Soloveitchik. Ben argues that the Rov lamented that his students did not get imbibed by his religious proposal. The students accepted his ideological and personal openness, but not his commitment to halocho.

The issue on intermarriage, conversion, YCT, Open Orthodoxy is very close to me, because it shapes the core of what I am today.

I am myself a Jew by choice, a convert. I came to Judaism for the sake of halocho and love of Torah. The reasons could not be more simple. It took years of my life to find a meaningful Orthodox conversion—following the Rov’s balance and understanding. It ended up being in New York. After my conversion, Ben invited me to join a learning program at YCT. There, I met R. Daniel Goodman. Daniel is now my brother-in-law. Daniel was part of the so-called progressive faction of YCT—together with Avram. I live between two worlds, Ben’s and Avram’s. This is not a comfortable position.

Like Ben, I live now in a city that is not New York. This means that our Jewish options in town are radically different from what we were used to. In my case, this is even more dramatic. My Judaism is New York. It was born there, it grew there, it thrived there. When my wife and I moved to Barcelona, our Judaism took a new turn. We assumed a challenge: to be observant in a city with little Judaism, little Jewish resources—and with a divided, unfriendly Jewish community.

The first thing I did when moving to Barcelona was to read all Soloveitchik. I had read Halachic Man, but I felt I needed everything. I needed to get imbibed by his Weltanschauung, including his halachic positions. The result was even more painful: I realized I would alienate myself in Barcelona, not from the modern, gentile world, but from other Jews. The Rov’s Judaism does not exist here. Not to mention Open Orthodoxy. Few families are observant. The halachic commitment you can find in Barcelona comes from a very narrow-minded sephardi version, fueled by intolerance and a dubious, judgmental rabbi. The closest thing to what I was used to comes from Chabad Barcelona—where the rabbi happens to be a great reader of Soloveitchik. For the rest, we are alone.

Reality has made Barcelona Judaism even more painful than expected. My wife and I launched a hospitality service for Jews visiting Barcelona, Shabbat Barcelona. We offer Shabbos dinners in a family setting. We reproduce what we had in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Barcelona Jews do not send invitations for Shabbos meals. Shabbos social activities are restricted to some meals in shul. Study options are very rare and, when I have time, I study online with rabbis from New York and Jerusalem. Chabad is our only reliable partner—constricted by the mental limits of Barcelona Jewry that threatens its own survival.

I am mentioning all these random thoughts on Barcelona for one reason: intermarriage here is the norm, unless you are from the tiny core of sephardi who adopt a chareidi façade. Barcelona Jews may not lack ideological and personal openness (when they are not crazy unfriendly), but what is truly absent is halachic commitment. This painful reality is clearly present in the local Jewish school: half of the students are gentiles just because the same school targets non-Jews in order to grow. Jews are only taught Hebrew—with no religious education at all—, and some parents have voiced us their concerns that the Hebrew level is miserable. Kids do not receive any immersion in halocho. The Talmud Torah courses offered by some shuls before bar/bat mitzvah look more like Catholic catechism than anything Jewish. Barcelona Jews are creating the perfect environment for intermarriage.

Avram’s openness and welcoming solutions will not solve this critical situation in Barcelona. Instead, an open and welcoming halachic commitment imbibed in the future of the community—children—is the real solution. 

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