The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

The wedding officiation debate continues

The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.

The rabbis of the Jewish Emergent Network – certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country – expressed solidarity with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing “hope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in an article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldn’t officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition – not overturning it, but defining what it means.

I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing the Cohen Center’s research showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couples’ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Center’s interpretation makes much more sense: “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.”

The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the “wedding talk,” while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children…. And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.” He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,

We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement is at odds with its members. “The Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.”

Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.

But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.

The New Jersey Jewish News had an interesting essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she won’t officiate for interfaith couples, “but I wish I could.” (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)

Finally, there was a great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because “there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

The Flip-Side: Positive News About Intermarriage

  

Positive News

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.

Leave it to Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to provide much-needed perspective on how rabbis asked to officiate are actually helping interfaith couples.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says

If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled “hypocritical” by those affected by it.

Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.

In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, an excellent article in the Boston Globe about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”

Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.

After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children – and there’s positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28 percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith families and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish – for example, 89 percent of interfaith families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67 percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaith families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is “exciting” to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.

One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. It’s interesting that PJ’s influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCC’s; that’s not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.

The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.

After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.

That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples – as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.

Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and “makes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.