The New Europe, Reconsidered

Are European Jewish leaders becoming more liberal towards intermarriage and conversion?

A new report we blogged about on Wednesday appeared to say yes, but now that I’ve read the report–rather than just the JTA and The Jerusalem Post stories on it–I’m not so sure.

It is true that 85% of the respondents to the Joint Distribution Committee’s survey of European Jewish leaders felt that it was not a good idea to strongly oppose intermarriage and bar intermarried Jews and their spouses from communal membership–which is currently the official policy of Chief Rabbinates throughout Europe. At the minimum, this is an indication that Jewish leaders are chafing at the constraints set by their countries’ rabbinical monopolies.

But these same leaders also felt increased intermarriage was the greatest threat to Jewish life (64% thought so), more so than alienation of Jews from Jewish community life (50%), declining number of Jews (41%), antisemitism (23%) and a host of other potential problems. This would suggest European Jewish leaders still have a rather negative view of intermarriage.

I also might ask: Is it possible that many of those intermarried people who European Jewish leaders would sort-of welcome are alienated from a community that sees their lifestyle choices as a “threat”? Might the declining number of Jews have something to do with European Jewish communities’ harsh approach to intermarriage?

Their attitudes on other issues relating to intermarriage and conversion are more ambivalent than early press suggested: half (48%) felt that communities should allow individual rabbis and the denominations they represent to determine their own policies on intermarriage, while half (52%) felt that there should be a communal policy on intermarriage. Most (60%) were against having community-sanctioned interfaith weddings. The leaders’ ambivalence is probably best encapsulated by the 54% who agreed with the statement that communal policy on intermarriage should be to “tolerate decisions to intermarry, but refuse to sanction by performing a Jewish wedding ceremony.”

While it appears that the leaders are more ambivalent about intermarriage than originally reported, they–especially those who are not Orthodox–are much more liberal towards conversion than their communities’ official policies would have you believe. Sixty-nine percent felt their community “should accept non-Orthodox conversions and recognize those converts who define themselves as living a committed Jewish life.” This number jumps to 82% for Reform/Liberal/Progressive Jews and secular Jews and 84% for Masorti/Conservative Jews. On the other hand, only 40% of Orthodox or Modern Orthodox agreed with the statement.

This points to what may be a larger issue, one that seems to be present in any community that has an official Jewish leadership (Israel is the most notable example): tensions between the denominations. Almost all of the survey respondents reported tensions between the denominations in their community; thirty-seven percent felt that intermarriage and issues of Jewish status were a source of “great tension.” A battle seems to be brewing for leadership–both symbolic and actual–of European Jewish communities. Intermarriage is just one of its fronts.

So back to the original question: are European Jewish leaders really becoming more liberal towards intermarriage and conversion? The answer is yes and no. Yes, European Jewish leaders across the spectrum are more liberal towards intermarriage and conversion than many of their communities’ official policies, but those leaders–most of whom hail from non-Orthodox movements–often have no say over communal policies. As in Israel, as long as a cabal of traditional rabbis are in charge, policies will be set by the Orthodox minority rather than the progressive-secular majority.

At the minimum, though, the simple fact that this report exists and has been publicized will help push the traditional leadership of Europe’s Jewish communities to consider reforming their strict policies.

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2 thoughts on “The New Europe, Reconsidered

  1. I wonder if there are any stats as to WHY people choose an interfaith relationship?

    Could it be they feel alienated or the fear of antisemitism (or maybe some of the other problems these religious leaders see)? For myself, I can say it is the former.

    One cannot isolate one source of “Jewish decline” from the others. Interfaith marriages isn’t necessarily the problem, but perhaps more a side effect of some of the other problems.

  2. Shorty, could you explain what you mean by your choosing intermarriage due to a feeling of alienation? Do you mean alienation from the Jewish community, or something else?

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