The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement last month expelled Conservative Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, the spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, for performing “interfaith weddings.”
The Torah, which many rabbis are familiar with, prohibits intermarriages: “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from after Me and they will worship the gods of others” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Granted, the Torah here only forbids intermarriage with the Canaanite inhabitants of the promised land; and, granted, the Bible is full of stories about liaisons between Israelites and non-Jewish spouses; but, in the end, Rabbinical law permits marriage only between a man and a woman whose mothers are Jewish, or who converted to Judaism by embracing the commandments before a Jewish court.
In his op-ed for JTA last April (It’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings), Conservative Rabbi Rosenbloom, 72, who admitted to having officiated in many intermarriage weddings, starting with his own granddaughter’s, urged his peers:
“We can no longer stand on the sidelines, piously refusing to involve ourselves in intermarriage ceremonies. If we extend ourselves with acceptance, if we affirm the legitimacy of the loving choices people make by agreeing to be part of their ceremonies, more couples would be inclined to seek the spiritual fulfillment that comes from Jewish commitment.”
The internal contradictions in Rosenbloom’s statement are mind-boggling, down to the point where he suggests that the gentile spouses would somehow enhance their Jewish commitment under the chuppah. “As they plan their interfaith ceremony, they learn more about the elements of a Jewish wedding. They typically choose to have a chuppah, blessings over wine, seven marriage benedictions, a ketubah and the breaking of the glass.”
Alas, embracing the symbols of a religion without the faithful message they represent (in Judaism, an obedience to God through the performance of the commandments) is not spiritual but fetishist, or, as the Torah describes elsewhere, idol worship.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president, Conservative Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, told JTA they are discussing how to deal with the growing demand for inspirational intermarriage chuppahs, but for now the Conservative movement’s adherence to Jewish law requires banning the performance of intermarriages.
“We are a halachic movement and Judaism envisions the marriage ceremony as taking place between two Jewish people,” she Schonfeld JTA. “Through the lens and the vehicles offered by Jewish law and tradition, that’s the avenue that’s open to us in terms of a Jewish matrimonial ritual.”
The 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of US Jews reported that 44% of all currently married Jewish respondents – and 58% of those who have married since 2005 – indicate they are married to a non-Jewish spouse.
The same report found that the rates of intermarriage vary considerably among the major US Jewish denominations. Virtually all Orthodox respondents who are married have a Jewish spouse (98%), and most married Conservative Jews (73%) also have Jewish spouses. Only half of married Reform Jews have a Jewish spouse. Among married Jews who have no denominational affiliation, only 31% have a Jewish spouse.
In his op-ed, Conservative Rabbi Rosenbloom suggested that “we need to recognize that even when two Jews marry, there is no guarantee that their children will be dedicated Jews.” That’s no longer true in post-Pew 2013 America. We do know with certainty that children who are raised as dedicated Jews–regardless of denomination in most cases–are by far more likely to become dedicated Jewish adults.
At the same time, as Schonfeld hinted, there is a creeping acceptance of intermarriages within the Conservative movement. An organization named “Big Tent Judaism” which seeks to embrace intermarried families in the Jewish fold (presumably without the expectation of a conversion of the non-Jewish spouse down the road), in 2015 sponsored a survey of 249 Conservative rabbis which found that 38 percent— 95 rabbis, would officiate at the marriage of a Jew and non-Jew if the Conservative movement lifted its prohibition on these unions.
The survey finds that intermarriage is part of the daily reality addressed by Conservative rabbis and Conservative congregations. Eight in ten respondents have an intermarried family member; seven in ten work with an intermarried volunteer leader in their congregation. Four in ten respondents have attended interfaith weddings, usually of close family members; a handful already officiate at interfaith weddings under some conditions.
On the whole, according to the survey, Conservative rabbis will not marry a person of patrilineal Jewish descent to another Jew, citing halacha, but the survey suggests “their views on Jewish identity are nuanced, as many distinguish between Jewish identity and halachic status.”