Real People’s Pain

So many posts have been written about the Conservative Movement and interfaith weddings, from Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie leaving the Rabbinical Assembly to perform such weddings through a modern-day revitalization of the category of Ger Toshav to the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun leaving the RA to perform interfaith marriages with commitment to a Jewish future to Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld’s article against performing interfaith marriages to JTS’ statement on marriage and covenant. Two of the most heartfelt articles I read were by Rabbi Aaron Brusso and Rabbi Abigail Treu. It’s an emotional topic that has divided many people. There is a petition to affirm the traditional standard against rabbis performing interfaith marriages, whether religious, secular or civil ceremonies (while concurrently getting rid of the prohibition on rabbis attending interfaith marriages).  I have not signed the petition because I want to see if there’s a way for us to take an intermediate ground on this position: to affirm the couple choosing one another while not engaging in Kiddushin (religious sanctification of the marriage) as that requires one to follow the laws of our people. A way to strike this balance was found in the LGBT commitment ceremonies

My classmate Steven Abraham motivated me again to write when he wrote his article For the Sake of Heaven. He wrote about friends from USY and college who wrote to him about their life choices. I imagine these individuals were not marginally connected to our movement but rather were amongst the cream of the crop of well-educated Conservative Jews.

It made me reflect on my own story as a day-school educated Jew who attended synagogue every Shabbat, grew up in a kosher home and enjoyed Friday night dinner every week with my family. I went to a public high school which was one-third Jewish and was off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Everything was set up for me to follow the ideals set out my family and my religion and only date people who was Jewish-and yet my first girlfriend was Christian. Needless to say, this created difficulties, not the least of which was my personal struggle between my head and my heart. At the time I did not want to be a rabbi but I still felt torn between what I had learned from home versus what I was encountering in reality. I also wondered why I seemed to be drawn more to Christian girls than Jewish ones.

Ultimately things did not work out but I remember in the process those who were most liberal telling me, “See where things go and if they get serious you can ask her to convert.” I was repulsed by this-it felt inauthentic to me to ask someone, no matter how secular, to abandon their faith of origin for me. If someone chooses to do so it is a completely different story-in fact, the 2 students I have converted and the one who will go to mikveh next month have all genuinely embraced the Jewish faith, and I am proud to welcome them into the Jewish people. At the same time I’ve met people who have converted “in name only” just to please someone else, and I have seen the resentment this creates. Some are now painting an either/or choice between intermarriage and supporting conversion, and I don’t see things in those black-and-white terms. Conversion is the ideal to strive towards but if someone does not want to give up the religion into which they were born is that a reason to scorn and write-off the couple? I think not.

After attending college at UW-Madison I moved to New York to begin rabbinical school at JTS. Of course with New York being the largest Jewish community in the United States, I felt I was bound to meet someone. Yet I watched my classmates get married one by one while I remained single and struggled to date. Even as a rabbinical student who loves and reveres Jewish tradition I recall wishing I could date 50% of the population rather than being limited to dating Jews. There were also a couple times when I would meet someone only later to find out that she was of patrilineal descent and have to start over again.

Make no mistake-I am blessed to have met my besheret (in Tucson, much less Jewish than New York :)). and to be raising a beautiful daughter with her. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I have no regrets about the path that I took. In fact, I believe that my struggles dating helped me understand the pain of others who find themselves in this quandary. I’ve learned that no matter what your parents preach or your teachers teach, your heart can lead you in a completely different direction. In my case as a Conservative rabbi I ultimately waited until I found the right person for me. Others, however, will fall in love with someone of a different faith and not let go of him/her, which leaves us with four choices I want to explore: 1.) to write off the family, 2.) to not perform the marriage but to accept the children if the mother is Jewish and convert the children if the father is Jewish (what the Conservative Movement currently does) 3.) to perform the marriage but to only accept the children if the mother is Jewish without conversion (what B’nai Jeshurun is doing) and 4.) to perform the marriage and accept the children without conversion.

Choice 1.) used to be the norm but is hard to justify sociologically with such a high intermarriage rate. Choice 2.) has become the norm but has the risk of losing the family to somewhere they are accepted as they are. Choice 3.) will be interesting to explore-I find it a tough sell to say “I’ll do a marriage for you but won’t accept your offspring as Jews without conversion.” Choice 4.) is common amongst the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements.

What I don’t want us to lose sight of is that we are dealing with real people, some of whom have gone through great pain. That does not mean that anything goes and standards should get thrown out the window, but it should mean that we deal with these issues with an understanding and sensitivity that these are people with stories, most of whom I would argue have not written off the Jewish community and in contrast are afraid that the community will reject them for the choices they have made. I understand the statistics but I care much more about the people and individual situations behind the statistics than I do about the numbers themselves. Who we fall in love with and how we create a life together is not something that’s as simple as being a statistic

Lastly I recognize that while these topics do not have a grave impact on me today (as I mentioned in my previous article I only have a handful of people I’ve encountered here who have asked me to perform an interfaith ceremony or who are of patrilineal descent), there are other rabbis who are dealing with these issues every week. I feel for them and hope that the Conservative Movement will come to a resolution which will not create a schism.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman joined Bet Shira Congregation in 2019. He values personally engaging with each individual he meets and hearing their story. Karina and he are the parents of two beautiful girls: Ariela Shira and Leora Rose.