More Negative Conservative Officiation News

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The intermarriage debate in the Conservative world over officiation continued since June 21 with a mostly negative focus.

In a positive step, the Conservative-trained rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun explained their decision to create a new ceremony to officiate for interfaith couples. I applaud their decision and think their reasoning is very important: (1) “We subscribe to the approach in Halacha, rabbinic law, that holds that Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in relation to the realities of the community.” (2) There are two current realities: “When selecting life partners, shared American values often play a bigger role than religious identity, even for strongly-identified and -committed Jews; at the same time, never before have non-Jews been as open to playing an active role in the Jewish community, with or without conversion.” (3) They want to “be courageous and expand Halacha as a living and dynamic system with both commitment and compassion.”

Also, at least one more Conservative rabbi thinks it’s time for creative solutions. Rabbi Alfred Benjamin proposes that interfaith couples have a civil legal officiant who declares them married, and a Conservative rabbi lead a non-halachic “celebration of commitment” that is “infused with Jewish meaning, ritual and symbolism.”

When it comes to building and strengthening Jewish connections between an interfaith couple who want a Jewish-faith family, it is time for the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly to be creative, courageous and encouraging. This scenario permits us to do so in a way that respects the integrity of all involved and is also “good for the Jews.”

While I don’t agree with all of Rabbi Benjamin’s reasoning, in particular what a partner from a different faith tradition could do or say with integrity, at least his proposal has Conservative rabbis acknowledging, welcoming and celebrating the couple and their commitments.

But the  Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it was not appropriate for Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples. JTS says that there is “much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish,” but warmly invites “those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families” to convert. There’s nothing new there. But respectfully, the JTS statement goes off the rails when it says first that the data confirms that “by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family” and then continues: “This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning.” It is a non-sequitur to say that officiating for interfaith couples would mean such abandonment; indeed I believe, and the Cohen Center research on the impact of officiation shows, that officiating would lead to more Jewish life of community and meaning.

The New York Post summarized that B’nai Jeshurun was telling interfaith couples to “goy ahead” and marry in their sanctuary. (I hate that term.) A Canadian Conservative rabbi said the “renegade rabbis” at Lab/Shul and B’nai Jeshurun don’t deserve admiration or praise. Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s take on all of the discussion is that conversion should be promoted.

There were three more essays by individual Conservative rabbis that call out for response.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik disagrees strongly with officiating for interfaith couples, arguing that “boundaries are irreducibly critical to the Jew’s quest for a holy life.” But it is a non-sequitur to suggest that being holy by being separate and not like everyone else means that Jews shouldn’t marry people from different faith traditions. It isn’t being separate for separateness’ sake, it means acting in ways that lead to holiness – ways that people from different faith traditions can embrace, without conversion. Rabbi Skolnik also says that interfaith couples choose to intermarry and “Judaism should not be forced to grant its imprimatur to couples whose free-will choice violates the sanctity of the traditional marriage boundary.” While saying that officiating goes too far, he does acknowledge the Jewish community’s “urgent responsibility to make interfaith couples feel welcomed and loved, even if it means pushing the envelope of comfort in synagogues and communal organizations.” Trends in Conservative movement to date have shown that interfaith couples don’t feel welcomed and loved when rabbis won’t officiate for them.

Rabbi Abigail Treu actually says, “When a rabbi says no, couples just find someone else to do what they were going to do anyway. We just lose the chance to bring Jewish life into that moment, or to share their joy and add to it.” I posted on Facebook comment that said “Just? Really?” It’s distressing to me that the director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC Manhattan, someone who lead Introduction to Judaism classes for several years, could so cavalierly dismiss the opportunity that officiating provides for influencing interfaith couples towards future Jewish engagement. Contrast her suggestion that couples don’t want rabbis to officiate anyway to Anita Diamant’s statement in her revised The Jewish Wedding Now that if you want a Jewish wedding “you need a rabbi.” The JCC Manhattan offers great programming for interfaith couples, so I hope I misunderstood Rabbi Treu’s point.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso, who is on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly, wrote A Letter to Couples of Jewish and Non-Jewish Backgrounds, another distressing dismissal of officiating’s potential for positive influence. Rabbi Brusso says that he respects people’s decisions and that they have done nothing wrong by falling love; but it doesn’t make sense “for the wedding ceremony to view [them] instrumentally as builders of Jewish homes” (a pot-shot at Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s argument that they in fact can be); and when they decided to marry “saving the Jewish people” wasn’t on their list of things to do. He says he’s sorry if they don’t come and talk to him in person – but with comments like that, who would want to? Rabbi Brusso’s main point is that the liturgy of a Jewish wedding doesn’t fit an interfaith couple – when it refers to celebrating the wedding “in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for example – but how many Jewish-Jewish couples have that understanding of the liturgy?

Rabbi Brusso dismisses the Cohen Center research by saying “I could play the demographic numbers game and rationalize that my presence under the chuppah with you and others is a statistical winner for the Jewish people. But the chuppah is not a Vegas table.” Actually, many Jewish engagement programs are offered because of belief they will be statistical winners that result in later engagement. He says the wedding is about who the couple is – disregarding who they will be or might become. Tellingly, Rabbi Brusso explains that he seriously dated a Methodist woman while in college, and once when they saw the movie Europa, Europa together, when he sobbed, “she was appreciative of what I was feeling, but it was clear that it simply did not mean the same thing to her.” Respectfully, that perspective is short-sighted – it forecloses the opportunity for a partner from a different faith tradition to gain that kind of understanding and feeling.

Two voices from the Orthodox world chimed in. Rabbi Yogi Robkin says Worried about Jewish Assimilation? Be A Good Person — For Judaism’s Sake with a story of a rabbi who donated a kidney to a stranger. I wouldn’t argue with his main point, which seems to be that the most important thing is to “reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.” Unfortunately he quotes another Orthodox rabbi, Efrem Goldberg, who says that recognizing patrilineal descent and officiating at weddings of interfaith couples represent “gross distortions of halacha, mesora [tradition] and the will of the Almighty,” attempts “to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.”

It’s not surprising that Rabbi Goldberg’s antidote is more adherence to halacha. But it’s disappointing to hear the editors of the New Jersey Jewish News say that
“if the present demographic trends [i.e., intermarriage] continue, Jewish life and peoplehood as we know it may well disappear in the coming decades.” Their proposal: Jews marrying Jews.

This is all rather depressing. To review: Officiating for interfaith couples would mean abandoning Jewish life. Conversion is the answer. Boundaries excluding partners from different faith traditions are necessary for holiness. We shouldn’t be forced to approve voluntary boundary violations. It doesn’t matter anyway, couples will just have a friend officiate. They’re not builders of Jewish homes and they don’t care about the Jewish future. Officiating increases the chance of a Jewish future for them? Well, what matters is who they are now, not what they might become. And anyway, the chuppah’s not “a Vegas table.”

Is it surprising that interfaith couples would not want to participate in a community that sent those kinds of messages?

Fortunately, there’s a more positive perspective.

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