In most matters, a Conservative rabbi is autonomous and free to follow his or her own conscience. But some policies are hallowed as “Standards of Rabbinic Practice,” grounds for expelling. One of those standards states that rabbis may not officiate at, participate in or attend an intermarriage.
I never considered myself a rebel. And during my career in the active rabbinate, in which I served congregations in Detroit and Philadelphia, I abided by the rule. But I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this restriction because it seemed out of touch with today’s Jewish community.
The tipping point for me came when my stepdaughter, Stefanie, became engaged to Dan, who is not Jewish. My inclination was to ask one of my Reform rabbinic colleagues to officiate, just as I had done for many congregants in the past. But the couple wanted me to do it. They did not want someone whom they did not know, and did not have a relationship with, to preside over this special time.
The Conservative Movement is struggling to address the new rate of interfaith marriage, which is now at about 70 percent in the non-Orthodox Jewish Community, according to the Pew Research Center. It is not uncommon for Conservative rabbis to offer a public blessing for an interfaith couple before they marry. After the marriage, Conservative congregations are eager to open their arms and offer the new couple the opportunity to become a part of the community. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, for instance, recently changed its policy to allow member congregations to afford membership status to non-Jewish spouses.
But the wedding itself is still off limits to rabbinic officiation.
The original 1972 statement that includes the prohibition argues that the mere presence of a rabbi or cantor indicates approval. Does maintaining the prohibition indicate that Conservative Judaism views an interfaith marriage as illegitimate? If so, doesn’t that make our “blessing” and “welcoming” insincere and hypocritical?
This opposition is grounded in the concern that interfaith marriage is a threat to the future of the Jewish community. Its advocates argue that the children of interfaith marriages are not likely to be raised as Jews. Eventually, if unchecked, the Jewish population will be unsustainable. If a rabbi officiates, the argument goes, it removes a last remaining tool for stemming intermarriage.
But the truth is, many children of interfaith marriage do choose to identify as Jews. But more to the point, does anyone believe that a rabbi’s refusal to officiate will change the mind of any couple in love? And that a rabbi’s rejection of the couple’s wedding ceremony will influence them positively to have a Jewish family?
I know that there are many of my colleagues in the rabbinate who believe that officiating at an interfaith ceremony would compromise their integrity. In their view, Jewish law prohibits them from taking this step. And they do not want to be pressured into violating their conscience.
I respect that. But I want them to understand that for me the decision to officiate is a matter of conscience. I believe that refusing to officiate separates us from our communities, families and friends, and it denies them our love and respect when they need and desire it most. And it makes them less likely to want to raise a Jewish family.
When Stefanie and Dan asked me to officiate, it was time to follow my own heart, and my own conscience, and do what was right for my family and for the larger community. My love for them led me to honor them, honor their relationship and honor their request. Since then, I have officiated for others who are also dear to me by friendship, loyalty, and love.
Rabbis need to understand that when a couple invites us to officiate it is out of love and respect. They want us to participate in a sacred moment of their lives because they want Judaism to be part of that momentous occasion. And they have chosen us as Judaism’s representative.
Our refusal, no matter how lovingly it is presented and explained, is interpreted as rejection. That is what they will remember. That sting of rejection is not easily overcome when we subsequently “welcome” them to our congregations; or when they consider whether they want to be part of the Jewish community at all.
I know that my colleagues who enforce the prohibition believe that what they are doing is in the best interests of preserving the Jewish community. But I believe that when a rabbi officiates, it increases the likelihood that a couple will want to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews, a conclusion reached in a recently published Brandeis University study.
I know I am not alone. Many rabbinic colleagues want more freedom to address the reality of interfaith marriage. But they are stymied and cowed into submission by the firewall the assembly has maintained, and the threat to summarily expel anyone, like me, who dares to breach it. While for me, the consequences of being expelled are largely symbolic, for younger rabbis, expulsion could severely limit their career options since they would not have access to the RA’s placement service.
I predict that the assembly’s prohibition will collapse in the foreseeable future because it is untenable and incompatible with today’s community standards and needs. It is inconsistent with the overall message of welcome the Conservative Movement has otherwise adopted toward interfaith couples and counterproductive to the Jewish future and the ability of rabbis to influence it. Ultimately, we must work for more inclusion, more acceptance, more understanding and more love.
Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom retired in 2014 from Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., after 36 years. He now holds the honorific title Distinguished Service Rabbi.