Tradition vs. inclusion

Tradition vs. inclusion

Conservative rabbis grapple with non-Jews’ shul status, intermarriage

Conservative Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom officiating at the wedding of his stepdaughter and her fiancé in 2014. He was expelled from the movement for his act. Courtesy of Stefanie Fox via JTA
Conservative Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom officiating at the wedding of his stepdaughter and her fiancé in 2014. He was expelled from the movement for his act. Courtesy of Stefanie Fox via JTA

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom officiated at the interfaith marriage of his stepdaughter to her non-Jewish groom and was expelled in November from the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative Movement’s umbrella organization for rabbis.

It was the first time the RA had taken such an action, although its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has held since 1972 that officiating at an interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish law. 

“The prohibition on interfaith marriage…begins in the Torah and continues through Jewish law to this day,” said Rabbi George Nudell, religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, who will not perform intermarriages.

As Conservative rabbis continue to grapple with the issue of intermarriage, rabbis who are members of the RA will vote in March on whether to allow non-Jews to receive membership status in synagogues. 

“The Conservative movement is in transition; positions considered written in stone 10 years ago are being questioned and re-evaluated in light of the changing demographics and consolidation of the movement,” said Rabbi Steven Bayer of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. 

He added, “Twenty years ago it was considered pushing the envelope to advocate that intermarriage was neither good nor bad, but a reality we had to accept. Now our congregations are learning that intermarriage outreach is vital to our continuity.” 

Bayer will not officiate at an interfaith wedding. He views that as a boundary he won’t cross — not unlike saying “no” to a Jewish wedding that takes place during Shabbat.

The question of whether to perform interfaith marriages is fraught for some Conservative rabbis who find themselves caught between the ideal of inclusion and the halachic goal of conversion. Some feel constricted by what they view as an inflexible policy of the Rabbinical Assembly; others see it as a line they will not cross. However, few Conservative rabbis will give an unequivocal “yes” when asked if they will perform an intermarriage. 

“You’re torn between these two conflicting imperatives of upholding the values of endogamy and conversion on the one hand and welcome and inclusivity on the other hand. Those two things don’t coexist all that easily,” said Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee.

In most streams of Judaism the issue of interfaith marriage is clear. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are free to perform interfaith marriages. The Orthodox world rejects interfaith marriages outright. Conservative congregations occupy a gray area, where tolerance is balanced with tradition, and rabbis are left walking the tightrope of adhering to Halacha while making efforts to be welcoming to those who marry outside the fold — and to those whom they marry. 

“We all recognize that we live in an open society and people fall in love with the people they fall in love with,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the RA. But she added, “We are rabbis of a halachic philosophy of Judaism. So we do all of those things very vigorously within the limitations that our religious beliefs afford us, within the bounds of Halacha.”

Rabbi Rosenbloom opted for inclusivity over endogamy. 

A Conservative rabbi for 44 years, Rosenbloom, 72, officiated at the marriage between his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish fiance in the summer of 2014, shortly after he retired from Congregation Adath Jeshurun near Philadelphia. Since then he has performed four additional intermarriages and plans to conduct two more. The RA had given him the option of avoiding expulsion by promising not to perform any more interfaith weddings, but Rosenberg declined the offer, saying that his decision to perform interfaith weddings is “a matter of conscience.”

He said that it “is part of my mission as a rabbi to be mekarev, to bring people closer to the community, and I believe that no matter how welcoming we are after the marriage, the sting of the rejection is often the only thing couples will remember when you say ‘no.’” 

Rosenbloom does not think the RA’s rejection of allowing rabbis to perform interfaith weddings will hold over time; in fact, he believes this issue is just one of many that has placed the movement itself in peril. “The movement is in trouble frankly, but I don’t think it’s because we have changed too much, I think it’s often because we changed too slowly, because we don’t because have the courage of our convictions, and because we are constantly worried about whether what we do is going to diminish our standing as a movement,” he said.

According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, the intermarriage rate for Jews has risen from 46 percent in the early 1990s to 58 percent in 2013. At that time, 27 percent of Conservative Jews were married to someone outside the fold.

A 2015 survey of Conservative rabbis by Big Tent Judaism, which promotes the embrace of intermarried families, found that 40 percent of respondents said they would officiate at interfaith weddings if permitted to do so. Conservative leaders, including the RA’s Schonfeld, dismissed the findings as “unrepresentative,” because the results are based upon a self-selected group of 249 rabbis, out of some 1,700, who chose to fill out the survey. Percentages aside, the survey makes clear that there are 99 Conservative rabbis in North America who say they want to marry interfaith couples. It also makes clear that there are at least 152 that don’t.

Locally, rabbis hold views across the board. 

Nudell feels strongly that “no” is the correct halachic response. “Judaism is serious business, and it touches all parts of life, not just a wedding ceremony.” He worries that those asking for a rabbi at an interfaith wedding are really looking for “window dressing,” he said. “Often, it is an attempt to please the Jewish parents more than a desire to find a place in a community.” 

Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit JCC won’t officiate, but he will do everything leading up to the wedding, from announcing the engagement to presiding over a modified aufruf, as well as life-cycle events that flow from the wedding, like welcoming an interfaith couple on the bima for a baby-naming or anniversary, and including the non-Jewish parent or grandparent in b’nei mitzva celebrations. 

Friedman will even officiate at the funeral of a non-Jew who was never converted but was part of the community. “I will go as far as I can to help a family be a Jewish family and to be there for them in difficult times. Further, I want to honor and show appreciation for those non-Jewish parents who encourage and enable the Jewish tradition to be a part of their family life.”

Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield comes closest to saying “yes,” although he has not done so yet. He has gone as far as drafting a list of what he would require of an interfaith couple before he would agree to perform a ceremony and is seriously considering it. For him, it is the requests that come from “committed” families, including two in the last 10 months, that have led him to “deeply question my position on the issue,” he said. 

“What I don’t want to do is to say ‘no’ to these couples — that at this important and formative moment in their lives, I can’t be there for them.” He said he does worry about expulsion from the RA so for now, he will meet with interfaith couples for pre-wedding planning and they can celebrate an aufruf on Shabbat morning in his synagogue. The RA offers health insurance and other benefits to its members.

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, said, “There are many Conservative rabbis who would like more flexibility in order to fashion a response to intermarriage and do it in a way that’s appropriate to them and their community — and not be tied by the…Rabbinical Assembly’s very rigid standard.” But he acknowledged, “The reality is that we’re divided.” 

Membership status for non-Jews is an easier question for many congregations than that of officiating at an interfaith wedding. Rabbi Joshua Rabin, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s director of innovation, said he thinks the RA motion in March will pass. “I think that our synagogues are trying to turn a corner on this just as we are.”

Indeed, the RA, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies have already endorsed the motion. Still, it is by no means s unanimous stance. Nudell of Beth Israel, for example, welcomes the participation of non-Jews in the community, but he would not grant membership status so quickly. Pointing as an example to the duties of members, including volunteering to take on responsibilities for choosing clergy, he said, “Should a committee of non-Jews be empowered to make that important choice for the synagogue? Should non-Jews be responsible for the stewardship of a synagogue and the community? It hardly makes sense to me.” He added, “Non-Jews should not be empowered to adapt Jewish practice and law.”

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