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Why Conservative rabbis most certainly should not do intermarriage ceremonies

Jewish weddings transform love, sex, and relationships into vehicles for holiness; they are not outreach events

My colleague, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, recently published a thoughtful and passionate argument in favor of overturning the traditional ban by Conservative Judaism on rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. Yet I believe that his argument, which is based upon his deep concern for bringing people closer to Judaism, is incorrect.

The main point of rabbinic officiation at a wedding is not outreach, altering assimilatory demographic trends, or even primarily making couples feel welcome. Weddings are not Jewish continuity strategies; they are ritualized opportunities for helping a couple to transform love, sex, and relationships into vehicles for holiness. They happen in the context of the Jewish people, its values, its history and its God.

An officiating rabbi creates a distinctively Jewish atmosphere of sanctity for a couple making the transition to married life, using the distinctive language, symbols and values of Judaism. I can do this for two adult, unrelated Jews who choose to marry with me under a chuppah. I can do this for them whether they are straight, gay or transgender, as long as they are halakhically Jewish. The criterion linking them all is that they are all Jews. Because a Jew is a Jew, his or her levels of engagement notwithstanding, any such Jewish couple choosing to work with me towards a wedding ceremony is welcome and encouraged to do so.

Rabbi Rosenbloom further argues that, because we have no guarantee of long-term success in fostering Jewish commitment when both members of a couple are Jewish, we should have no issue with taking a chance on fostering such commitment with an intermarried couple by marrying them. His first premise is absolutely correct, but his conclusion is not. Once again, this is because the purpose of rabbinic officiation is not to take a chance on fostering Jewish commitment. It is to render a relationship sacred for two people who, even if nominally, are part of the Jewish people and its ongoing conversation in the world.

Finally, while the argument that couples being denied a rabbi’s officiation become hurt and alienated from Judaism has some merit in limited contexts, I think it it is overstated. In my 26 years of rabbinic experience, I find repeatedly that earlier sociological research is borne out: officiation matters far less to couples than the relationships that the rabbi builds with them through time do. Yes, this requires the rabbi to say no to a request at times. Yet, I have personally found it more fulfilling and sustainable over many years of relationship-building.

I say all of this as a rabbi whose eyes are more than wide open to the very bumpy landscape of identity, assimilation, and Jewish survival in the American and Western marketplaces of ideas, lifestyles and choices. I say this as a rabbi who truly empathizes with Rabbi Rosenbloom’s dilemmas and heartache, even if I disagree with his conclusions and his somewhat strident judgments of the Conservative Movement’s prohibition. I say this as a parent of three young American Jewish adults, as well as a friend, family member and rabbinic guide of many intermarried Jews, their spouses and their extended families. I believe firmly that the first, best Jewish values to be applied to working with every intermarried couple are the ones we are duty bound to apply to every person: love your neighbor as yourself, for all people are created in God’s image, nothing more and nothing less.

Yet those universal values must always be balanced with the particularistic value of promoting holiness as a distinctive mode of Jewish spiritual presence in the world. We do nobody any good, least of all the Jewish people and those who seek to be part of it, when we fail at drawing genuine boundaries to foster that framework of holiness, however progressive and loving we may need to be in drawing them.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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