Shabbat Talmud Study: Should Conservative Rabbis Be Allowed to Officiate at an Intermarriage?

Shabbat – April 15, 2017, 8:30 am – 9:30 am

Currently our clergy here treat an interfaith couple as a Jewish-Jewish couple in all respects except that we cannot perform the marriage.  All of the pre-marriage counseling we do.   Blessing their wedding in the presence of their parents and our whole community on Shabbat morning, the auf ruf, we do. But standing with them under the chuppah we cannot do.  Does this last limitation continue to make sense? I bring up this question now for three reasons.

First, look back at your seder tables on Monday and Tuesday nights.  What is the reality of what we see? How many non-Jews are seated around our seder tables?  How many non-Jews are part of our families? What claim does existing reality have on shaping what our response to intermarriage should be?

Second, last week we talked about how pure ideals sometimes need to be compromised in order to live in the real world.  In his book Catch 67, Micah Goodman showed how Israel’s founders compromised on the ideal of a secular state (the Chief Rabbinate has lots of power), the ideal of socialist Kibbutzim (the reality of start-up nation), and the ideal of a Jewish homeland in all the biblical land that God promised Abraham (Israel’s founders agreed to a state on part of the land knowing that we could not get a state on all of it). But compromise here was a good thing. The state of Israel came to be because of these compromises.

The ideal is for a Jew to marry a Jew.  But the 2013 Pew Center’s Portrait of American Jewry found a 71 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and a 58 percent rate overall.   Evidently the existing strictures against intermarriage over the last 50 years have not been working.   Those strictures are inevitably weaker than the power of love in an open and tolerant society and in the assimilatory machine that is America. Do rabbis and shuls need to start compromising on the ideal that  a Jew marry a Jew so that we can support and be maximally helpful to our children and grandchildren who have made different choices?  Would such a compromise be a good thing in that it would create greater connections between the new interfaith couple and their Judaism and Jewish community? Here we will examine the study of Len Saxe and his Brandeis colleagues, “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage,” as well as responses to and critiques of that study.

Finally, for the first time since 1972, the Rabbinical Assembly is taking a fresh look at this question.    Should its ban on intermarriage—Conservative rabbis who perform intermarriage are expelled from the RA—be reaffirmed or amended in light of the changes that have taken places since 1972?  That question was not even asked until now.  That question has been taboo for half a century. It is no longer taboo.

I am genuinely conflicted about the question and am very interested in folks’ wisdom as we read the Saxe study and responses of Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and sociologist Steven M. Cohen.

This question has been gaining traction for years; its time is at hand now.

Shabbat Shalom and moadim l’simcha,