Conservative movement doubles down on intermarriage

A letter from Conservative movement leaders urged rabbis to welcome interfaith couples, but reiterated a ban on rabbis performing their weddings.
Photo by Justin Oberman/Creative Commons

Rabbi Mina Goldsmith of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon scoured a letter last week from her Conservative movement’s leaders on intermarriage.

“I read it with a fine-tooth comb, looking for an innovation. And I could find none.”

The letter, signed by the leaders of the centrist movement’s four major institutions and made public Oct. 18, does not reflect a change in policy. It reasserts the ban on rabbis performing interfaith weddings while urging its member synagogues to welcome interfaith couples in any and all ways before and after the nuptials.

“I do feel it affirmed me in my practice,” she said.

“It pretty much states the status quo,” said Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom in Rockville.

“A lot of rabbis felt like this latest letter really is non-news,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, a technologist who serves as a part-time pulpit rabbi in Toledo, Ohio, and administers a Facebook group for Conservative rabbis. “To just come out and restate the ruling in a nicer way isn’t news, and ultimately it doesn’t help those families who are hurting.”

The letter was prompted by declarations by a few Conservative-ordained rabbis earlier this year that they would begin performing mixed marriages. It affirms “the traditional practice of reserving rabbinic officiation to two Jews, but emphasizes that its authors are “equally adamant that our clergy and communities go out of their way to create multiple opportunities for deep and caring relationships between the couple and the rabbi, the couple and the community.”

Despite the effusive language welcoming non-Jewish partners, several leading Conservative rabbis are criticizing the letter, questioning why it was necessary and calling for the ban either to be lifted or modified.

Some rabbis say the letter is at best repetitive and at worst damaging — another reminder to interfaith couples that the movement does not sanctify their marriages.

“For some people, it’s going to be a big turnoff and they’ll just go on to the next rabbi,” said Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. “Maybe that’s the reality.”

Rabbi Jack Moline, the former rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria and now a civil liberties activist, added: “This is a phenomenon we’ve been dealing with for a long time, and why this particular statement was issued at this particular moment is confusing to me. My objection to it isn’t that we shouldn’t be taking this position. My objection to it is there’s no ‘there’ there. Why am I focused on this right now? Everything about it seems to be random.”

The Conservative movement has long attempted to straddle the question of intermarriage — neither accepting it like Reform Judaism nor declaring it anathema like much of the Orthodox movement. Its ambivalence toward mixed marriages comes from the movement’s mission to observe Jewish law while embracing the modern world — and from congregations that include both traditionalists and, like a majority of American Jewish communities, families affected by interfaith marriage.

Conservative Jewry falls in the middle when it comes to the data on intermarriage. About a quarter of Conservative Jews are intermarried, compared to almost no Orthodox Jews and half of Reform Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.

“We are committed to the principles of inclusiveness and welcoming and human dignity of all people,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, who wrote the letter. “We’re also committed to the principles of the integrity of Jewish law and commanded-ness.”

Artson says the language of welcoming is more assertive in this letter than in past statements, and that the unanimity it represents among Conservative institutions makes it especially powerful: It was co-signed by Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly; and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Artson said he consulted with 15 young, up-and-coming rabbis while writing the letter. But Shull said that not enough attention was paid to the rabbis in the pulpits.

“I would have appreciated to get some outreach, saying we’re going to do this,” he said. “The leadership didn’t have to wait for a conversation, but I think there should be a conversation.”

Artson portrayed the letter as another stage in a long process of re-evaluating the ban. Conservative rabbis are prohibited from officiating at or even attending intermarriages; failure to heed the ban is one of three ways a Conservative rabbi can be expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly. The other two are performing a conversion that violates Jewish law and performing a wedding of someone who was married but did not have a Jewish divorce.

Some rabbis said the movement could go a step further, crafting a ceremony for interfaith couples that does not conform to the traditional Jewish wedding ritual, called “kiddushin.” Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., noted that the option for such a ceremony already exists in Conservative liturgy for same-sex couples.

“If the Conservative movement is truly a pluralist movement, there is room for more than one opinion even on the biggest questions,” he said. “Jewish law and tradition can sanctify anything in the world.”

Goldsmith says her colleagues are divided. “Some are anxious to get permission to perform intermarriages. Others think the day that we can perform intermarriages will be the end of the Conservative movement.”

Ben Sales is a correspondent for JTA News and Features. David Holzel is the managing editor of Washington Jewish Week.


The Conservative movement can, and should, welcome the intermarried

By Bradley Shavit Artson, Arnold Eisen, Julie Schonfeld and Steven Wernick

Contemporary Jewish life is graced by extraordinary blessing: We are the heirs of a Torah of compassion and justice that has grown ever more supple and vibrant because of the dynamic nature of halachah (Jewish law) and the opportunity to observe mitzvot (commandments).

At the same time, modernity has removed barriers of discrimination and anti-Semitism, as well as opened doors to broader cultural participation and professions previously closed to Jews. We face the challenge of remaining true to the best of our ancient tradition while also enjoying the blessings of the best of modern civilization.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism understands our goal to be the integration of these two streams: the values and practices rooted in Torah leavened by contemporary insight and knowledge. While that challenge is real, it should not blind us to the blessings that democracy now makes possible. It is a blessing that growing numbers of non-Jews are willing to see us as colleagues, neighbors, friends and even family; it is miraculous that many turn to Judaism as part and parcel of their own cultural heritage as human beings.

Integrating those blessings, which sometimes conflict, requires all the courage, vision and heart that our Torah demands of us. Honoring and loving the actual people whose lives are in our care remains a high privilege and duty. This integration of responsibilities requires us to recognize that there will properly be a pluralism of incompatible responses from different sectors of the Jewish world. We salute all constructive contemporary forms of Jewish vitality that root themselves in a Jewish vision of human dignity, rigorous and respectful debate, and a Torah of chesed (lovingkindness), tzedek (justice) and emet (truth).

Within that cluster of Jewish communities, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has long taken a stand among those who continue to hear the commanding voice of the Divine reverberate in our sacred texts and who find joy and purpose in communal lives of covenantal loyalty. We hold to the time-honored practice of mitzvot as interpreted in an unbroken yet dynamic link from Moses to the present day. New insights and possibilities (when they strengthen covenantal living) are integrated within the structure of halachah. We see ourselves as faithful to traditional Judaism when we facilitate the organic growth of Torah and Jewish law to respond to a changing world, even while our primary response is to affirm and conserve traditional Jewish observance.

Judaism survives as a communal system, worldwide and across generations, by changing as little as possible as late as possible, modifying it only when necessary and only when there isn’t already a solution within the system of halachah. Honoring the integrity of both partners in a wedding, and for the sake of deepening faithful Jewish living, rabbinic officiation at weddings is and should remain restricted to a marriage between two Jews.

We also recognize the precious personal good of finding a loving partner and that all people can benefit from access to Jewish wisdom and community, so we call upon all Conservative/Masorti rabbis and congregations to foster deep and loving relationships with all couples, and to create a rabbinic relationship that is broader and deeper than simply the moment of officiation.

To achieve both the desired goal of rabbinic officiation and the goal of meaningful Torah observance, we invite the non-Jewish partner who seeks rabbinic officiation to share responsibility with the rabbi by studying Judaism and then linking their identity with the destiny of the Jewish people through conversion. Conservative/Masorti Judaism welcomes those who would convert to Judaism, and thousands of those converts each year elevate our communities with their faith, passion  and resolve.

We take the path we do as an expression of our understanding of Torah and Judaism: an ancient, communal and dynamic covenant that seeks to shine the light of Torah across the ages, augmented in each generation by the new insights of its time. In our age, we are blessed that many gentiles love us and seek to share their lives with us. We love them, too. And we respond to them with open arms. For those who would join their identities and destinies with ours, we will move heaven and earth to share Jewish community, wisdom and observance, culminating in conversion to Judaism. Having chosen to join the covenant linking God and the Jewish people, those individuals bring their integrity as Jews to every moment of their lives, including their wedding ceremony.

For those who have not chosen (yet) to convert, and those who choose not to, we will move heaven and earth with equally open arms: honoring their identity as life partners of Jews, potentially someday as parents of covenantal Jews. We joyously include them and their families in the lives of our congregations and organizations, in our teaching of Torah, in our worship, in our social action. And we find ways to celebrate their marriage and love that honors their choice not to merge their identity with the people Israel by being present as pastors before the wedding, as rabbinic guides and companions after the wedding and as loving friends during the wedding period.

We hold out an open hand to those whose souls calls them to a life enriched with the kind of dynamic and deep Torah that characterizes Conservative/Masorti Judaism: fusing the writings and faith of the ages with the knowledge and moral advance of each new age. Together, we will keep our ancient covenant strong, supple and holy.

Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University; Arnold Eisen, Ph.D., is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly; and Rabbi Steven Wernick is executive vice-president and chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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  1. This article defines the problem with the Conservative movement in the 21st Century, by example of how their rabbis are treated, as well as their members/potential members when it comes to marriage ceremonies. I am truly shocked that a Conservative rabbi cannot even attend an intermarriage ceremony.


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