By declaring their readiness to officiate — in a limited way — in intermarriages, and preparing to resign from Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, whose policies prohibit such a practice, Rabbis Amichai Lau-Lavie and Roly Matalon have thrown down the gauntlet to American Judaism’s religious center (Jewish Week front-page articles, June 16 and June 23). In a society essentially without the historical walls that excluded Jews from the mainstream of social intercourse, we are, they would say, obligated to acknowledge that, in this brave new world, love must conquer tribe. The time has come to open the Jewish communal door wide, and welcome those who are, in spirit if not by law, our own.
I do not, for a moment, question the sincerity of the rabbis’ intentions, nor their piety. But I disagree strongly with them and those who support their vision, for two compelling reasons.
The first has to do with Judaism’s conception of boundaries, and the role they are intended to play in the life of the Jew.
Today’s America is moving relentlessly towards the removal of societally imposed norms and boundaries. There is no one definitive way to do almost anything anymore, much less to live your life. America is the land of radical free choice, where you can wait in line for half an hour at a Starbucks while the person in front of you customizes his coffee. Gone are the days when even that was a simple exercise. Within that reality, what sociologists like Steven M. Cohen refer to as the “sovereign self” of today’s American Jew is less and less inclined to be bound by the “commanding Presence” of God as expressed through religious authority. Jews like to customize their patterns of observance and affiliation, and certainly whom and how they love.
But as my colleague Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, has, among others, pointed out, boundaries are irreducibly critical to the Jew’s quest for a holy life. Read Leviticus carefully. It’s hard to miss the central point. The desideratum of the Jew is to be holy because God is holy, and the path to accessing that state of holiness is the setting of boundaries, in all aspects of life. Leviticus 19:2 reads “…Be holy (k’doshim), for I the Lord your God am holy.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, famously interpreted the command to be holy as to be p’rushim — be separate. Find your holiness by not being like everyone else. The idea repeats over and over again in Leviticus. It is a message that is fundamental to whom and what Jews are challenged to be. Boundaries matter.
The second reason I differ with Rabbi Lau-Lavie and Rabbi Matalon is grounded in the fundamental dialectic that informs Conservative Judaism — the tension between tradition and change.
Any sentient human being knows that the heart does not always march in lockstep with the head. Love happens, and in 21st-century America, the odds of its happening with a person of another faith are greater than they have ever been. In our radically open society, no one outside of the charedi community is forced into marriage. We are not in Anatevka anymore. And even in Anatevka, as Tevye learned so painfully, there was a Fiedka lurking in the wings…
But unlike the challenges posed to Jewish law by feminism and the LGBT community, when the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards modified existing halachic norms, one’s selection of a spouse or partner is, ultimately, entirely about choice. Whether you’re born a man or a woman, gay or straight, is not a matter of choice. The tradition and change dialectic tilted towards change, not least of all because these were Jews who wanted nothing more than to be more involved in the Jewish community.
But in truth, the interfaith couples who present themselves to rabbis have made a choice. No rabbi can have anything but heartache from having to deny a loving couple a Jewish wedding, and the perceived blessing of the Jewish community. But at the same time, Judaism should not be forced to grant its imprimatur to couples whose free-will choice violates the sanctity of the traditional marriage boundary. Again, boundaries matter.
The Jewish community has an urgent responsibility to make interfaith couples feel welcomed and loved, even if it means pushing the envelope of comfort in synagogues and communal organizations. Though it won’t look the same in all settings, none of us is exempt from the effort. But officiating at interfaith marriages is simply a bridge too far. n
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, and a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly.