Are Rabbis Who Refuse To Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?

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published by The Forward and on eJewishPhilanthropy
reprinted with permission

The Cohen Center’s new study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, is a game-changer. The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.

Addressing the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages was a major focus of InterfaithFamily’s (IFF) work since it started fifteen years ago. In the early years, IFF published many first-person accounts of the hurt and rejection couples experienced; one of the most striking articles from 2002 is titled Why I Am a Unitarian – you can guess the reason why. But no one seemed to pay much attention.

In early 2008, a study by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, confirmed that the negative experience many interfaith couples had seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, I thought, people would pay attention to research by a respected academic – but it didn’t happen.

In March 2010, the CCAR, after three years of study, released a report that acknowledged the opportunity to engage interfaith families Jewishly through rabbinic outreach, and said that a range of practices, including officiation under certain circumstances, was “respected.” But it also said that encouraging in-marriage was important because of the greater likelihood of continuity, and left standing the CCAR’s 1973 resolution that officially disapproves of officiation because intermarriage is “should be discouraged.” To my knowledge, no one knows how many Reform rabbis officiate for interfaith couples; most published comments say “about half.”

InterfaithFamily never argued with rabbis who said that their position on officiation was based on their relationship with Jewish law. But it’s clear that the opposition of many to officiation is based not on theology but on demographics: the belief that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.” I vividly remember meeting a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me she didn’t officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven Cohen’s research showing that intermarried couples were not Jewishly engaged. When prominent Conservative rabbi David Wolpe explained in 2013 why he didn’t officiate for interfaith couples, the first reason he gave was that “invariably” in an intermarriage the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less. That’s why the new research on the impact of officiation is so important.

When Len Saxe discussed the new study at the recent Interfaith Opportunity Summit, one of his slides generated an audible gasp among the attendees: 85% of intermarried couples who had only Jewish clergy officiate at their wedding are raising their children Jewish, compared to 94% of in-married couples who have Jewish clergy officiate, and 23% of intermarried couples who have other officiants. Moreover, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants are synagogue members, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other officiants.

As careful researchers, Saxe and his team don’t claim definitive causation, but the association between officiation and later Jewish engagement is striking. “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

After this research, Reform rabbis who don’t officiate are refusing to take action they are permitted by their association to take that leads to interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. That can’t be a tenable position any longer, and it’s time for the CCAR to change its official position.

But this isn’t just a Reform issue. At the Interfaith Opportunity Summit, several Conservative rabbis expressed deep concern about their association’s position on officiation. One said, “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A prominent Conservative rabbi earlier this year said it’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. The new research supports efforts to change the RA’s policy from within.

It’s time for Judaism’s religious leaders, instead of making interfaith couples feel that their relationships are disapproved, to truly embrace them. What could be more welcoming than a rabbi embracing an interfaith couple at the nodal moment of the wedding? Rabbis should be leading the effort to change the dominant narrative away from ambivalence about intermarriage and the legitimacy of the intermarried.

With 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly are essential. They cannot succeed without a dramatic shift in attitudes towards the positive.

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