Conservative Judaism and the Intermarriage Question

It happened more than thirty years ago, while I was teaching a session at a kinus (a weekend educational program) run by United Synagogue Youth (USY), the youth movement of Conservative Judaism. We were discussing the perils of interfaith dating when one of the girls in the group, one whom I didn’t know, asked a question. “When my father started dating my mother, she wasn’t Jewish,” the girl began, “but she converted and became Jewish. Isn’t that all right?”

I was somewhat taken aback by the question, not because it was conceptually difficult to answer, but because it pointedly reminded me that, to a growing number of American Jews, intermarriage was not an abstract subject, but rather an intensely personal one. I responded to the girl’s challenge as best I could, explaining that her father had been lucky that her mother had been willing and able to convert. By virtue of that conversion, her mother was a full-fledged Jew, and her parents’ marriage was thus not an intermarriage. But there was no guarantee in advance that an interdating situation would end so well, and on matters of such importance, it’s unwise to depend on good luck.

Today, of course – more than three decades later – the girl’s question wouldn’t take me by surprise. Today, any experienced youth leader teaching such a session would know better than to assume that every teenager in the group has two parents who are Jews by birth. Even among those who do, moreover, most are increasingly likely to have one or more extended family members – to say nothing of friends and acquaintances — who are intermarried. For all but a small (and probably shrinking) minority of American Jews, any discussion of intermarriage is likely to bring out complex and sometimes contradictory personal feelings.

What brought that incident to mind was the controversy surrounding the decision of USY’s national board, at its recent convention, to revise the organization’s standards for its national and regional teenage leaders with respect to interfaith dating.  In place of the prior policy, which unambiguously prohibited USYers holding such leadership positions from dating non-Jews, the wording of the new policy is more ambiguous, requiring the leaders to:

[…]  strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).

Not surprisingly, the USY decision was widely reported by Jewish newspapers around the country.  Many of the news reports characterized the teenage leaders’ decision as an abrogation of USY’s long-standing opposition to interfaith dating.   The lead of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) report, for example, asserted that USY had “voted to relax its rules barring its teenage board members from dating non-Jews” and ran  the story under the headline “USY Drops ban on Interdating”.

The JTA piece focused much attention on the views of a 17-year-old USYer from Maryland, who expressed disappointment that she had been precluded from seeking a regional board position because she had a non-Jewish boyfriend.  She told JTA:

It disappointed me a lot that I had to give up that opportunity because of my secular life.  Obviously people who are active in USY are people who are passionate about their Judaism.  I believe that as a progressive youth movement, if we choose in our secular life to date someone who is not of the Jewish religion, I don’t see why there should be limitations within USY.

From a traditional Jewish perspective, there is a great deal that is troubling about the Maryland USYer’s statement.  The dichotomy between her USY activities and her “secular life” is the polar opposite of  a traditional Jewish perspective; the purpose of mitzvot is precisely to infuse our “secular” lives with holiness.  Her explicit assumption that all active USYers “are passionate about their Judaism” is either wildly naïve or else sets the threshold of “passionate” so low as to make it virtually meaningless.  Her characterization of USY as a “progressive youth movement” is worth further reflection, but I’ll save that for another time.

Predictably, the USY vote provoked many comments through the entire spectrum of the Jewish blogosphere.  Some of the comments on this issue were thoughtful, others less so.  Many of those comments critical of the vote were of the all too familiar more-proof-that-the-Conservative-movement-is-going-to hell-in-a-hand-basket genre.  Many of those supportive of the decision argued that intermarriage is inevitable in an open society like America’s, so there’s no point in fighting it.  Others seemed mystified by the notion of requiring teenage leaders to observe behavioral standards stricter than those commonly observed by ordinary members.

The more or less official response of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the movement’s congregational umbrella and USY’s parent organization) to the widespread controversy was contained in a statement issued by the lay and professional adult leadership accusing the media of mischaracterizing the USYer leadership’s decision.  The statement described the process by which the change was adopted and insisted that:

USY continues to affirm the value and practice that those in leadership positions should date Jews. The change in language represents the teens’ desire to state this standard in a more positive, welcoming and non-judgmental way.  It was not intended to remove the expectation that USY’s teenage peer leaders should refrain from interdating but rather to express that expectation in more positive language.

On my first reading of both the newly adopted policy and the official statement defending it, my initial reaction was that, with apologies to Yogi Berra, it seemed like déjà vu all over again.  As the Conservative movement has radicalized over the years, it has often sought to play down the extent of its radicalization by issuing carefully nuanced documents of one kind or another.  Some of these documents may have been deliberate attempts to obfuscate the halakhic issues while others may have represented genuine attempts at compromise with more traditional elements within the movement.  Regardless, the nuances have been quickly forgotten, and the oversimplified media-driven version of the movement’s position has prevailed.  Wouldn’t you think that by now the leaders of Conservative Judaism would have learned from experience that the most simplistic understanding of a decision, however inaccurate, is the one most likely to be remembered?

The more that I read and thought about the USYers’ decision, however, the more convinced I became that, while I believe the decision was a mistake, it was not the abject surrender to assimilatory pressures that some believed.  Almost lost amid the uproar over interfaith dating was the fact that the same teenagers, at the same board meeting, refused to relax the requirement of Shabbat and holiday observance by teenage leaders.  Most Jews, I suspect, both inside and outside the Conservative movement, would find that combination bewildering.

A little historical context might be helpful.  When I was active in USY in the mid-1970’s, national board members were expected to observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays within the parameters of Conservative Judaism.  The year that I was a member of the regional executive board of USY’s metropolitan New York region (METNY), we voted to apply the same Shabbat and holiday observance standards to our regional executive board members.  It appears that those same standards remain in effect and that the USYers who decided to change the wording of the interdating policy consciously chose not to make any change in the Shabbat observance standards.

To the best of my recollection, during the years I was a USYer, there was no express policy concerning interfaith dating by peer leaders.  The current interdating standard, it appears, was adopted in the 1990’s. I’m not suggesting that interdating by USY teen leaders would have been acceptable in the 1970’s.  Rather, its unacceptability was so self-evident that an express policy would have been superfluous.  There was no explicit policy against shoplifting either, presumably because none was needed.

During the 1970’s, intermarriage was viewed by many Jews as among the worst of sins, at least of those that did not actually constitute crimes.  The only thing that could get a Conservative rabbi expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly (except, of course, for violating placement rules) was attending an intermarriage, even if he was not officiating.  Indeed, one of the primary reasons that parents – many of whom were three-day-a-year synagogue attendees – encouraged their children’s USY participation was to connect their children to a Jewish peer group as a means of discouraging interdating and thus preventing intermarriage.

The anti-intermarriage consensus in those years was not limited to the Conservative movement.  Rather, it was a part of what some at the time called the “civil religion” of American Jewry, along with Holocaust memorialization, support for Israel, and the unified communal effort for Soviet Jewry. The Conservative movement’s adult leadership, both lay and professional, knew full well that the anti-intermarriage consensus was fragile and in need of frequent reinforcement if it was to remain potent for the next generation.   Rabbis frequently used the specter of intermarriage as a bogeyman with which to frighten parents into increasing the Jewish content of their family lives. The horror with which Jewish parents viewed the prospect of intermarriage was based on a visceral sense of identity, reinforced by Emil Fackenheim’s famous “614th commandment”  (“Thou shalt not hand Hitler a posthumous victory”) and further strengthened by the surge of pride following Israel’s overwhelming victory in 1967.

As  many anticipated, however, the visceral sense of identity that undergirded the communal anti-intermarriage consensus has weakened over time as each successive generation has had progressively fewer Jewish memories upon which to draw.  Fackenheim’s “614th commandment has lost much of its potency as the Holocaust continues its inexorable transition from memory into history.  The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively ended the Soviet Jewry movement, which had been the least controversial component of American Jewry’s “civil religion.”   Support for Israel remains strong but is neither as uncontroversial nor as urgent as it once was, making it unlikely that support for Israel would be enough by itself to sustain a meaningful secular Jewish identity.

Two other factors have combined with the progressive weakening of overall Jewish identity to further complicate the fight against intermarriage.  One of these, a by-product of the civil rights movement, is the growing tendency to equate ethnic pride with racism as part of a world view sometimes referred to as “political correctness.”  Even a brief summary of that process is beyond anything I can attempt in this post.  Suffice to say for our purposes that many secular American Jews have become increasingly uncomfortable with the preeminence once accorded to opposing intermarriage for the sake of Jewish continuity.  Unless it is a product of religious commitment, some have argued, adamant opposition to intermarriage borders on racism.

The second factor obstructing the battle against intermarriage is the extent to which the increasing prevalence of intermarriage is self-reinforcing.  The USYer who challenged me with that difficult question three decades ago was ahead of her time, but she was the harbinger of a trend that has since become unmistakable.  Every intermarriage creates a mixed couple, but it also creates a universe of relatives and friends who are personally touched by intermarriage in a way that they may not have been previously.  The more such people you know well, the harder it will be to persuade you that intermarriage is fundamentally wrong.  To have any chance of reducing the rate of intermarriage, it is essential to couch intermarriage avoidance in positive terms.  That, I believe, is what USY’s national board was trying to do by its change in the wording of the leadership standards.

In approving the change, the USY board was focused on how the new policy would affect behavior of the teenagers who occupy peer leadership positions.  For those teenagers, there would be ample opportunity to clarify any ambiguity resulting from the wording change, so little harm would follow.  But as the storm of controversy that followed the vote clearly showed, in our hyper connected world, the adoption or modification of policies on a subject as sensitive as intermarriage cannot be a purely internal matter.  The biggest problem with the new policy the USY leadership adopted is that, quite apart from its effect on those at whom it is directed, it is also part of the overall communal discussion as to how to respond to the ominous growth of intermarriage and avert the looming demographic catastrophe that is likely to follow if the trend cannot be reversed.

In that communal discussion, unfortunately, the Jewish media has now effectively enlisted the USY teen leadership on the wrong side.  The on-line brouhaha that followed the USY decision is a timely reminder that once a process or decision is released into the public square, those who initiated it no longer control its message.  That is a lesson that the leadership of the Conservative movement has long had a problem internalizing.  If there is to be any chance for the Conservative movement of the future to play a constructive role in the ongoing discussion of this issue, the next generation of the movement’s leaders will need to internalize that understanding to a far greater extent than their elders did.  For the sake of American Jewry’s future, I hope they succeed, but they are not exactly off to an auspicious start.


About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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