A new-old policy on intermarriage for Conservative Judaism?

Illustrative. A wedding. (Shutterstock via JTA)
Illustrative. A wedding. (Shutterstock via JTA)

Much ink has been spilled since the release, about two weeks ago, of a new pastoral letter on intermarriage from the leadership of the Conservative movement.

The document was both applauded and criticized — depending on the reader’s perspective — for reaffirming the Conservative movement’s stance against rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. That is what is old about the pastoral letter.

But what is new?

The document, signed by the leadership of the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, restates the movement’s generation-old policy that its rabbis may not officiate at intermarriage ceremonies, but it goes on to say that Jews’ decisions to marry the people they fall in love with ought to be respected and honored, and that all types of Jewish families must be welcomed into Conservative congregations.

Critics on both sides of the issue are asking whether the Conservative movement can succeed in having it both ways. Can the movement that traces its birth in this country to the famed “Treife Banquet” of 1883, where the conservative wing walked out of the meal at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and went all the way to New York to establish JTS three years later, now manage to hold its (un-hekshered?) cake — and eat it too?

There is an increased pressure within the Conservative movement today for a change in policy on interfaith marriage ceremonies, ranging from a relaxation of the policy that precludes Conservative clergy from being present at an interfaith wedding to a complete permission. On the other hand, there are those who say that Conservative Judaism needs to live up to the “conservative” in its name and stop following the Reform movement on every major issue, a decade or so later. (The Conservative movement welcomed women to the rabbinate 11 years after the Reform movement. The Conservative movement welcomed gays and lesbians into the rabbinate 16 years after the Reform movement.)

But there is a difference here. The Reform rabbinate does not encourage intermarriage; the decision to perform one is left to each Reform rabbi. The more significant development in recent years was the 2013 Pew Study of American Judaism, which showed a dramatic decline in the numbers of affiliated Conservative Jews. That put the Reform movement securely in first place as among the possibilities for American Jewish identity. Many observers correlated the Conservative movement’s drop to the increased rates of intermarriage. The take-away was that more and more Jews are intermarrying, but that intermarriage is a marital rather than a religious decision.

The increased number of interfaith households raised the question of how these Jewish-affiliating families identify themselves, and the answer was that most went to Reform rather than Conservative congregations.

The Pew study was heard as a loud wake-up call to Conservative rabbis and leaders, the ripples of which are hitting us now. Earlier this year, United Synagogue, the organization of Conservative congregations, amended its Standards of Practice to allow each congregation to determine the criteria for its members. The earlier rule had excluded non-Jews from membership in Conservative congregations. The recent pastoral letter gives the context for that decision, affirming that all families, whether both or just one of the spouses are Jewish, are welcomed into the community of Conservative Judaism.

While some continue to push for a more dramatic change on the policy of officiating at weddings, we need to recognize the dramatic change of tone in these two decisions, and their implications for an evolution of culture in Conservative congregations. The non-Jewish spouse used to be persona non grata in Conservative congregations. He or she was not listed on the membership directory. The Jewish spouse was issued statements at the single-member rate. The non-Jewish spouse had no voice in synagogue governance, and was not welcomed on the bimah during worship. The intermarried Jewish spouse often was excluded from positions of synagogue leadership and other honors. And the marriages of children of congregants were not acknowledged if they were to non-Jewish partners. Conservative congregations have or are engaged in all of these issues today as everything is being revisited.

When I first came to northern New Jersey in 2009, I was the first rabbi of my congregation to invite the non-Jewish spouse to stand next to the Jewish spouse as the Jewish spouse recited the aliyah to the Torah at the bar or bat mitzvah of their child. I “forgot” to ask the ritual committee if it was okay to do so because it had not occurred to me that this had not been done before. From the perspective of Jewish law, the questions seemed simple enough to me: the Torah scroll cannot be polluted. And there are many examples of taking liberties with tradition for the sake of Jewish education. Here, when the non-Jewish parent has committed so much time and energy and resources to the Jewish education and identity of his or her child, should not that righteous non-Jew be honored? Should not that righteous non-Jew be given the opportunity to share in the naches of his or her child reaching the age of mitzvot? Is that not the success story that we seek with interfaith families?

Recognizing that Conservative Judaism has turned in a new direction in welcoming interfaith families instead of denying them acknowledgement, I do not believe that the policy of not officiating at intermarriages presents an inconsistency or hypocrisy. I explain my refusal to officiate not as disapproving of the couple’s decision to marry, but rather as respecting the religious affiliation of the non-Jewish partner. I can speak only for the Jewish covenant of marriage, but I respect the non-Jew’s religious identity, whatever it may be. I wish the new couple mazel tov and hope they will find a place in our community.

I return to the legacy of the Treife Banquet. There is no Conservative synagogue that does not welcome members who choose not to keep kosher outside of the synagogue. But by that logic, the decision to marry a non-Jewish partner should be no less objectionable. Indeed, it should be much less objectionable. While I respect the autonomy of Jews, and their right to eat non-kosher food, I don’t see any actual merit in that decision. especially in northern New Jersey, where there is no lack of kosher food.

But finding the right partner to marry is not easy. If someone has fallen in love and found another person, finding completeness and dreaming of building a life together, and if those two people walk into a synagogue, or want to raise their children Jewish, then that should be recognized as a mazel tov not just for them but for us and all Israel, lanu ulekhol Yisrael. And those are the people we are talking about when we talk about welcoming interfaith families in our congregations.

We want them to walk in the door. Our job is to stand in the doorway like our ancestor Abraham, waiting to welcome people in. But unlike Abraham and Sarah, Conservative congregations will not serve lamb and milk together.

About the Author
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly. He received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2010, and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999.
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