Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Agree to Officiate at Intermarriages or Continue to Refuse

Conservative Rabbis, i.e. rabbis affiliated with the Rabbinical Assembly, agree to abide by only two "Standards of Rabbinic Practice". First, we agree not to officiate at intermarriages, that is a marriage between someone Jewish and someone not Jewish. (Where the born non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism, s/he is fully Jewish.) A Conservative rabbi is technically subject to being dismissed from membership in the Rabbinical Assembly for violating this standard. (In practice I know of no rabbi so dismissed.) In fact, so as not to lend any endorsement, members of the Rabbinical Assembly are not only not willing to officiate, we may not even attend an intermarriage. The halakhic basis for maintaining this practice is that Judaism officially only recognizes the marriages between two Jews. Secondarily such refusal demonstrates the threat intermarriage poses to Jewish survival. (The second standard is the agreement of rabbis not to officiate at a remarriage without requiring a formal Jewish divorce from the first spouse where the first marriage ended in divorce.)

There has been general agreement to maintain these standards, though there have been a few violators. Recently the intermarriage standard has come into serious question. A year or two ago one particularly prominent Conservative rabbi publicly announced after serious thought that despite the likelihood of losing his membership, he would begin officiating at intermarriages. More recently rabbis at two popular Manhattan synagogues, following serious study and introspection, made similar decisions. Other rabbis are considering their own practice. Although I have never officiated throughout my rabbinate at an intermarriage, I can appreciate the growing conversation and must admit to a degree of sympathy. (I will admit to attending two intermarriages, but that is a conversation for another time.)

What has happened?

50 years ago with notable exceptions a Jew who decided to marry someone not Jewish, who did not convert, was walking away from the Jewish community. S/he was stating that his/her Jewish identity was largely unimportant. S/he wasn't prepared to convert to the spouses faith, but for the most part the couple would live without affiliation or participation. They had no plans to raise any children Jewish either. In return the Jewish community made no effort to try to save them.

Over the years that has largely changed. Today many Jews see no contradiction between marrying a non-Jew and continuing to identify: to continue to celebrate Jewish holidays, to join synagogues, to be committed to raise children Jewish and provide them with a Jewish education, and often receive the support of his/her spouse in these efforts. By refusing to officiate at their marriages, are we turning away young couples who may have every intention of affiliating with the Jewish destiny?

Alternatively there are those couples who are not committed to Jewish identity, but seek the services of a rabbi in order to salve the emotions of parents or grandparents. How might we distinguish between the former from the latter? Are we simply making a difficult situation of intermarriage easier? By agreeing to officiate are we not undermining our own legitimacy?

A survey once asked the born non-Jewish partner why s/he converted or did not convert. Largely those who converted claimed that it was made very clear that converting was important and desirable, whereas those who didn't convert argued that the issue was never raised, implying that had they been asked, in retrospect several would have agreed to convert. Should Conservative rabbis agree to officiate at intermarriages, would even fewer Jews raise the issue of conversion with the partners they are committed to? Will potential Jews neglect to convert simply because intermarriage is easier and acceptable?

Familiar with our own young people from Neveh Shalom who intermarried, at whose weddings I would have loved to officiate and felt badly that I couldn't, I personally and reluctantly remain hesitant to endorse officiating at marriages between Jews and non-Jews for many of the above stated reasons.

Here's how the Seminary, the school that trains Conservative rabbis, responded to the challenge proposed by the challenging rabbis:

"...Individuals from other backgrounds are warmly invited to join the covenant through conversion. There is also much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish. What we must not do is abandon the core beliefs and practices which are the very foundation of Jewish life.

"For JTS and its partners in the Conservative Movement, the wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.

"Judaism was never meant to be practiced alone. Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. Throughout our history many individuals from other backgrounds have been welcomed into the Jewish people. That remains true, even in the greatly altered circumstances of life today. For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, understanding that their religious identity is no less significant than our own.

"..we believe--and the data confirm--that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with a Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command.
...This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning for hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and beyond..."


  1. Glad to hear that you are talking about this issue, although you don't really conclude one way or the other about whether you think this new trend of Conservative rabbis conducting intermarriage is a good thing or a bad one. Here's my question: Jews are very good at finding legal workarounds for thorny issues. Seems like this one is ripe for a legal workaround as well. Just like many rabbis would like to conduct Jewish marriages for gay couples, but feel as though they cannot, have adopted another ceremony with alternative sections for the homosexual community, it seems like intermarriages might also benefit from an alternate ceremony with some careful pre-marital counseling as a pre-requisite.

    You won't know whether the Jewish couple you marry will raise their kids Jewish (or even have any children), and you don't know whether the intermarried couple will raise their children Jewish. Neither marital ceremony ensures the continuation of the Jewish people.

  2. OK, I tried to post, but couldn't. So, I'll try again. But I'm sure my prior post was better!

    I hate to call this one a no-brainer. But, it's a no-brainer.

    The Conservative movement allows 'inter' couples to become members. That is all that needs to be said about why a rabbi should be able to perform such unions if she or he so chooses.

    Asking the mara d'atra of a synagogue to be in this position is almost indefensible:
    "Hi. Welcome to our synagogue. Along with the rest of the clergy and our other members, we are pleased you've joined our congregation. I couldn't have married the two of you. But since someone did, I personally welcome you."

    That's ridiculous. And not welcoming. Why not extend the olive branch at every opportunity? Why take such an important event and distance yourself? And thus distance Judaism and uniquely Jewish celebrations from this couple?

    Wouldn't it be more welcoming the other way?

    I am glad my Jewish wife found a Jewish person to officiate for us. It was important to my wife. And we'd been attending a synagogue and celebrating, in some form or fashion, many Jewish holidays for several years. And not a single one of her Jewish relatives refused to come because I was not Jewish! They welcomed me to their side of the family, and my family welcomed my wife to our side.

    Look up the article in The Forward by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, "How Interfaith Weddings Got This Rabbi Kicked Out of the Conservative Movement" for a compelling argument.

    - Eric Oslund, who stands Guilty of having the audacity to marry a Jewish woman when I was a Gentile.