Why Conservative rabbis should think creatively about interfaith marriage
In a recent analysis of Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s groundbreaking proposal on welcoming a non-Jewish spouse into the Jewish community, Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice President Rabbi Julie Schonfeld argues that such action is beyond the scope of the Conservative Rabbi’s authority. Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s proposal is nonviable, she asserts, because the rabbi’s “commitment to the halakhic framework makes this impossible.”
Those who agree with Rabbi Schonfeld would be well served to recall the words of Rabbi Fishel Pearlmutter, written at a time when many applied similar arguments against the ordination of women: “Conservative Judaism prides itself on its historical view,” he wrote. “History…is an essential element in understanding what is to be done now and in the future. Conservative Judaism, therefore, cannot blind itself to the lesson of history which teaches a greater degree of liberation and equality. The record of the Jewish tradition reads as a liberating record, liberating from castle and degraded personal status.”
Surely, Rabbi Pearlmutter’s words are an apt description of how the halakhic process of Conservative Judaism has dealt with issues of personal intimacy. From the middle of the Twentieth Century, our movement has consistently modified past norms to allow a kohen to marry a convert and a divorcee, to find liberating solutions to the agunah problem, and to create pathways to recognize GLBT marriages as sacred and holy. In each instance, creative rabbinic minds had to forge innovative approaches to halakha. They modified substantial precedents, and encountered no shortage of people who argued, “there is no halakhic way.” But they were motivated by the holiness of their work—perhaps the great task of Conservative Judaism—to harmonize Jewish values with the clear moral voice of their time.
To my mind, Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s innovations represent a logical development in the course of Conservative Judaism. Like rabbis before him, Rabbi Lau-Lavie has rehabilitated a viable institution from the Jewish past, and brought it to bear on a compelling religious challenge of our day. This process, coined “creative betrayal” by Gershon Shaked, was explained by Jewish Theological Seminary Professor David Roskies in defining Conservative Judaism: “Just as Hasidism reshaped Lurianic Kabbalah in its own image, so Peretz, Berdichevsky, Buber, Wiesel, and Havurat Shalom reshaped Hasidism in their own image. What makes this approach so Jewish is that it seeks to legitimate the new in the name of the old. It is the dialectical tension out of which Conservative Judaism was born, and continues to thrive.”
I became a Conservative rabbi out of a love for our intellectual tradition, which I—perhaps wrongly—believed was strong enough to hold on to conflicting truths. In one way, I agree with Rabbi Schonfeld: Conservative Judaism is countercultural. We are not so, though, because we assert firm boundaries, as she argues. If anything, recent political events have highlighted a desire among many Americans for an increase in clearly defined moral and religious boundaries. If Conservative Judaism runs against the mainstream, it is because our best values assert that we can be in engaged dialogue and community, even with people with whom we disagree. This is the radical argument of Conservative Judaism.
Over my years of serving congregations in Pennsylvania and California, I have found myself continually drawn to a particular passage in the siddur: “May we be disciples of Aaron the Priest, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving our fellow creatures and drawing them near to our Torah.” In the near 15 years since I began my studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I can recall no moment when my adherence to our policy on interfaith marriage advanced these goals. I can recall, though, many times when I have caused pain to family, friends, congregants, and community members because I followed them.
We live in a world filled with fear, anxiety, insecurity, and shame. Love, as Rabbi Lau-Lavie beautifully asserts in his paper, can be an antidote. As Tony Kushner wrote, love is the “Great Ineffable that breaks through our hermetically sealed worlds of private pain and disgrace and self-hatred, that unites us with others, that makes us willing to give up even life itself for more connection, more strength, more love.” As rabbis and as Jews, we are called to create a world filled with more love–I look forward to my fellow Conservative rabbis joining me in this quest.