Daniel B. Schwartz

Intermarriage, and Orthodoxy’s Entirely Wrong Response

This week, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a retired Conservative rabbi, made a heartfelt argument in favor of his movement allowing its rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings (see here). The issue is not a new one, and the arguments for and against, as well as the Orthodox response are pretty well mapped out. A good example of that Orthodox response can be found here, at Harry Maryles’s well known and respected blog. I find the Orthodox response to Conservative Judaism’s struggle with the intermarriage issue wanting.

It’s not that I favor Conservative rabbis officiating at such marriages. Quite the contrary, I oppose it, vehemently. There is, to my mind, no halachic justification to allow it, none. And rabbis of any stripe ought not be giving their imprimatur to violations of Halacha; ever.  But my very frum feelings cannot form the basis for the Orthodox response to the matter.

The Orthodox criticism of the Conservative movement seems to miss the mark. Like it or not, Conservative Jews do not look at Halacha the same way as do the Orthodox. Conservative Jews do not relate to the principle of religious obligation the way the Orthodox do. And therefore Orthodox appeals to Halacha, or to principles, talk past their intended audience. If anything, the issue addressed in the Orthodox response ought not be Halacha, but rather, the role of a rabbi.

The term “rav” really means teacher. Teachers, at least good ones, do far more than impart information. In the broad sense, they contribute to the development of the students’ characters. They do that by teaching them to think in a systematized fashion, by making them ponder the “big questions,” by commenting on their conduct. In the Jewish sense, a rabbi’s goal should be to develop better Jews i.e more committed Jews. And in simply admitting defeat to the times as he does, R. Rosenbloom abrogates his mission.

Giving in to the demands of intermarrying laity in the hopes that doing so will maintain lines of communication upsets the organic and essential power base that exists in any teacher/student relationship. The teacher has to be in the controlling position if s/he is to teach the student; if s/he is to develop the student’s character; if the rabbi is to develop a better Jew. And sometimes, that means the teacher has to reject the student’s work, or deny the request, in the hope that the lesson learned will contribute to the student’s growth. Same thing for a rabbi. Not every demand of a congregant can be met with acquiescence. Saying no in the hopes that the congregant might grow from hearing it, is also a necessary component. Will many opt out of the tutelage? Probably. But might some Jewishly benefit from it? Equally probable. The issue isn’t maintaining Halachik standards. It’s fostering the development of the Jew’s Jewishness. And so long as Conservative Judaism (rightly) believes that intermarriage is deleterious to one’s Jewish character, its rabbis cannot ever sanction it.  Teachers who misinform their students are not teachers at all, and rabbis who walk with their congregants on a path of spiritual perdition are not rabbis.

But it’s not really that simple.  I discussed Rabbi Rosenbloom’s piece with a friend, the rabbi of a mid-West Conservative synagogue, sharing my point about the role of a rabbi vis-a-vis intermarriage. This is part of what he wrote me in reply:

I. . . would probably emphasize just how hard it is to convey to congregants that any yes or no that I give is part of a bigger Jewish approach to life. For example, yesterday I met with an older couple who would like to marry. Both have been divorced civilly for close to a decade, but neither is divorced Halakhically from their ex-spouses. In fact, the woman asked her ex-husband for a Get when they divorced and he tried to extort her. They are people who do care deeply about the fact that they are Jewish and both chose specifically Jewish partners twice. I’m about to put them through hell to get them to a wedding if that’s what they want and the thrust of my discussions with them is that their first marriages were entered into in a Jewish way, so they should also be ended in a Jewish way. The difference between them and me is that they enjoyed the rituals of their weddings because of their attachment to Judaism, while I really believe that the blessings recited under the Chuppah bound them to their ex-spouses. These two are people who are kindly disposed to Jewish practice already, but imagine speaking to a couple with no knowledge or predisposition.

I think anyone can see how the Orthodox appeal to Halacha entirely misses the point. Rabbi Rosenbloom, in his own (mistaken) way, wants to enable Conservative rabbis to speak to intermarrying Jews in a way to which they will relate. He thinks that might enable him to continue as their teacher. Clobbering him with Halacha, calling him a sell out or suggesting that he lacks the courage of his convictions is pointless. The self righteous Orthodox response to him does not address the core issue; does not provide him any guidance on how to speak to intermarrying Jews in a way to which they might relate. The Orthodox response, abrogates the rabbi’s role of teacher as much as does Rabbi Rosenbloom. And it is for that reason, I reject both.

So why doesn’t the Orthodox response start with the rabbi as teacher model and proceed from them to constructively respond? Probably because Orthodoxy doesn’t recognize non-Orthodox rabbis as legitimate teachers of Judaism. Intermarriage and the struggle it’s engendering in the Conservative rabbinate, is but one more opportunity for Orthodoxy to further delegitimize Conservative Judaism. And that’s a shame. Because as opposed to other inter-denominational disputes, intermarriage affects us all. Like Reform’s decision to accept children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews, Conservative rabbis officiating at intermarriage, giving them an imprimatur, potentially alters the basic homogeneity of religious status the broader Jewish community enjoyed for well over a millennium. It makes it harder for all Jews, including the Orthodox and especially the Modern Orthodox who still might intermarry with Conservative Jews, to confidently assume that the Conservative Jews they meet, and possibly want to marry, are in fact Halakhically Jewish.

Rather than persist in the delegitimization, maybe it’s time for Orthodoxy, in the interest of preserving all of Klal Yisrael, to acquiesce to the reality that non-Orthodox rabbis are the ones to whom non-Orthodox Jews look for religious guidance; their teachers.  Rather than indignantly reminding Conservative rabbis of just how far they have fallen in G-d’s eyes, Orthodoxy should help those struggling teachers formulate a response to this most vexing problem.  If Orthodoxy intends to be relevant in all of Jewish life, if Orthodoxy really cares about Jews of all stripes, now is an opportunity to show it.  What’s the priority, curtailing intermarriage, or self satisfyingly castigating those on the front lines dealing with it?  Klal Yisrael’s future and the Torah’s honor hang in the balance.  What will it be?

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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