Hadar is "a place in which you can be your full Jewish self without compromising on questions of values and gender that is in line with tradition and really continuing that," [Rabbi Elie} Kaunfer said. "Being a place that other people can point to and say, 'Oh yeah, the kind of Jewish life that I believe in exists, and here it is.'"
Hadar students are “a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity,” Tucker said. “No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students.”
“denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people.”
R' Ethan Tucker 2011
Hadar, a respected pluralistic institute of Jewish study known for its inclusivity of women and queer people, stunned and outraged many of its supporters this week by suggesting that it was redrawing traditional definitions of who is a Jew — to make them more restrictive.
The Orthodox and Conservative movements generally consider Jews of matrilineal descent and converts members of the tribe, while the Reform and Reconstructionist movements include Jews of patrilineal descent as well.
But on Monday, the Hadar Institute posted an application for its Beit Midrash Fellowship that said candidates needed either to have converted or have two Jewish parents.
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Hadar quickly pulled the language from its site, and on Tuesday released a statement apologizing and saying the institute’s policies had not changed; it would continue to follow matrilineal descent for admission to its fellowship programs.
“This language misrepresented our approach to this highly sensitive topic and the lack of clarity led to many people feeling excluded and hurt,” wrote Rabbis Aviva Richman and Ethan Tucker, who head Hadar’s yeshiva program. “We deeply apologize for the miscommunication and the pain that we caused.”
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“Judaism is an invitation to responsibility, and therein lies some of the tension,” Rabbi Tucker [said] in an interview. “To the extent inclusion means you know, just come without any expectations – well, we have a tradition that has expectations,” he said. “That’s part of our covenant, that’s how we reach towards God, that’s how we build community. But it’s very much an invitation.”
Tucker’s three-part essay and a three-part lecture are all available on Hadar’s website. In them, the rabbi suggests that matrilineal descent stems from a tradition in which the mother was the primary parent and that the realities of modern parenting, in which a non-Jewish father would likely take an active role in raising his children, demands a change in approach.
His proposed solution is to perform a giyur l’chumrah, a conversion ritual done if there is any doubt about someone’s Jewish background, on anyone of mixed parentage. The process involves immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, in front of rabbis and, if relevant, a symbolic circumcision in which a drop of blood is drawn.
Jewish status is relevant for its flagship year-long and summer-intensive yeshiva fellowships. “These programs are designed for cohorts characterized by shared obligation in mitzvot and halachic practice,” the statement said. It included among these daily minyanim, or prayer services requiring a quorum of 10 Jews; most Orthodox institutions count only men in a minyan, but egalitarian institutions, including Hadar, generally count all Jews.
In an interview, Rabbi Tucker expanded on this, explaining that “these two programs are anchored around Jewish practice, and so you need a working definition of Jewish status to have shared prayer.”
Tucker wrote: “contemporary intermarriages are best described as an act of ‘ethnic apostasy.’”