The internet has seen multiple dispatches this week of Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom’s op-ed on why the Conservative movement should drop its ban on its rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings, “before it’s too late” (his words).
As of now the umbrella group of the Conservative rabbinate, the Rabbinical Assembly, has had an unequivocal rule that a Conservative rabbi may not officiate at an intermarriage. But Rabbi Rosenbloom (who recently retired after 36 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania) states in his commentary: “After 42 years as an active rabbi, during which I abided by that prohibition, I now believe it is no longer in the best interests of Conservative Judaism or the Jewish community. Reality has overtaken us. Sixty percent of Jews who wed marry someone from another faith. The Conservative movement’s prohibition is ineffective as policy if our goal is to reduce intermarriage. It is counterproductive if we are trying to influence Jewish souls and bring them closer to the Jewish community. It needs to be modified if we are to serve our congregants faithfully.”
It is certainly true that the movement’s standard has not put the brakes on intermarriage in the United States, where between 60% of all weddings in the non-Orthodox Jewish community are between a Jew and a non-Jew. But the answer is not to abandon a principle enshrined in tradition and Jewish law just because it is now socially acceptable to intermarry. The basic tenets that underpin the restriction have not changed, even if the bulk of society does not feel bound by them.
Rabbi Rosenbloom concludes his piece by saying: “We can no longer stand on the sidelines, piously refusing to involve ourselves in intermarriage ceremonies. If we extend ourselves with acceptance, if we affirm the legitimacy of the loving choices people make by agreeing to be part of their ceremonies, more couples would be inclined to seek the spiritual fulfillment that comes from Jewish commitment.”
Frankly, I have no statistics to prove that this last point is either correct or incorrect. But logic would dictate that his concern is valid in the face of the documented rates of intermarriage in the U.S. and the numbers of couples who approach the Rabbi of one of them to officiate at their wedding.
So what the Conservative rabbinate needs to do to address this challenge (and perhaps the Reform rabbinate should consider this as well) is to use creative thinking. To somehow or other create a ritual that addresses the desire of the couple to be married in a culturally Jewish milieu but not in a Jewish marriage ceremony which, by definition, is something that takes place between two Jews. But how to do that?
Actually, it is not that complicated. Creative thinking on the subject would lead to three operating principles:
- The couple should be advised that while the Rabbi in question is prepared to officiate at their wedding, given the fact that they are not both Jewish it cannot be kiddushin and nisu’in (the two critical elements of a Jewish wedding) as it would violate the principles which have guided our people for 3,500 years. Given the value system of today’s youth my guess is that the couple in question would be grateful for the honesty with which this simple fact is presented.
- The Rabbi should then indicate that as an “officer of the court” (which is a role granted by statute to clergy in the U.S.) he is authorized to marry them civilly and is prepared to do so in any venue they choose as long as that venue does not violate his religious principles. For example, if the couple wanted to be married in a glatt treif Chinese restaurant, the Rabbi might say “but not there.” This civil action on his/her part would make the couple legally married in the eyes of the law.
- Finally, the Rabbi can explain that a special and meaningful ritual has been developed for these special cases (no longer so special, to be sure) which can include multiple aspects of a Jewish wedding. For example, standing under a chupah (the marriage canopy) would be allowed if the couple wanted to do so. Saying a blessing over a cup of wine by the Rabbi is always appropriate before drinking the wine so that would be permitted. Remembering the destruction of Jerusalem by breaking a glass would also not be an issue. But, no sheva brachot (the 7 blessings under the chuppah in a Jewish wedding), no ketubah (the traditional marriage contract read under the chuppah) and no commentary by the officiant as how this is the start of a new Jewish home among the people of Israel, etc.
In this way, all the various aspects of the problem would be addressed and the wedding would be within the law.
Rabbi Rosenbloom continues: “Often they want a Jewish wedding, which is why they want the officiant to be a rabbi, preferably one with whom they have a relationship. That is why they are so hurt when we refuse. As they plan their interfaith ceremony, they learn more about the elements of a Jewish wedding. They typically choose to have a chuppah, blessings over wine, seven marriage blessings, a ketubah and the breaking of the glass. They include these elements not to please their parents but for themselves. They often express surprise at how important these rituals turn out to be for them.”
Well Rabbi, one could make a good argument that if these rituals are so important to them they could have them all by marrying Jews. If they choose to do otherwise, there is a “cost” and even this generation of young people who have been raised in an environment of entitlement can understand when everything is not theirs for the asking and they don’t set all of the rules of life.
Social norms change and there has never been a country in history that has been so welcoming to Jews as the United States. Sadly, the rising rates of intermarriage are a predictable outgrowth of the acceptance that Jews have achieved there. So it is not difficult to understand how personal freedom has led to the increase in intermarriage. The challenge for the religious leadership is to find a way to address that while not abandoning their obligation to lead and not be led.