Oz Torah; Mixed marriages & shule boards – Ask the Rabbi


Q. Who was the Rabbi Ben Ezra about whom the English poet Browning wrote?


credit: Jewish Currents.
credit: Jewish Currents.It was Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century poet, grammarian and Bible commentator.

Born in Toledo, Spain, in 1092, he visited England in 1158 and called it “an island in the corner of the world” (“Angleterre”). He likened the London fogs to the three days of darkness in Egypt just prior to the Exodus. He possibly visited Oxford, where it is said that three university halls were owned by Jews.

Despite his intellectual prowess, Ibn Ezra never became affluent; he used to joke,

“If I made shrouds people would stop dying; if I sold candles the sun would not set”.


Q. May a Jew who has married out of the faith be a member of a synagogue board of management?

A. The Torah (Deut. 7:3) prohibits intermarriage. Maimonides codifies this as the rule (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 12:1).

Nonetheless, a Jew who has “married out” remains Jewish and when he dies may be buried as a Jew.

The Talmud (Sanh. 44a) is clear that an Israelite, though he has transgressed, is still an Israelite and is obligated to observe the mitzvot, but most congregations deny him any honours because his marriage has offended against what the synagogue stands for.

This policy is endorsed by Saadya Ga’on (Otzar HaGe’onim) who says that a person’s communal status depends on his birth or conversion, regardless of his degree of observance.

Rabbi Judah Greenwald (Zichron Yehudah, vol. 1, no. 45) finds no strict rule against calling such a person to the Torah but adds that a community may and should choose to impose sanctions on him.

Until recent times it was unthinkable for a person who had married out to seek to join a synagogue board, but now that it does occasionally happen, a congregation has a right to deny him membership of the board as a matter of principle and policy.

Some synagogues refuse even to let such a person be a member of the congregation. In 1945, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz and the London Beth Din sought to introduce such a rule in the United Synagogue in London but the United Synagogue did not formally accept their ruling.

Their basis was a technicality that Hertz had not acted as Chief Rabbi, in which case his rabbinical rulings would be binding on the United Synagogue, but as chairman of the Beth Din, whose decisions at that time were not automatically followed by the United Synagogue.


Q. In a recent lecture you said that one of the criticisms Judaism has of Jesus was that he said,

“It has been told you… but I say to you…” What does this mean?

A. The Jewish principle is that one speaks in the name of the Torah, not in one’s own name, and cannot contradict the Torah. One does not think or speak independently but within the tradition.

“Chiddushim”, “novellae” or new ideas, do not reject the tradition but find a new way of understanding it. The new way itself was already latent and awaiting the moment to be uncovered.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 2:4) states,

“Anything that a student is destined to expound before his teacher was already told to Moses at Sinai”.

It is a great joy to a Torah scholar to arrive at the meaning of a passage and to feel humbly that this was the destined moment for the interpretation to become known. It is also a joy to find that his interpretation had been anticipated by another sage centuries earlier.

This gives a special point to the verse,

“There is nothing new under the sun” (Kohelet 1:9).

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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