Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation Debate


Leaders of the Conservative movement may soon lift the rule barring rabbis from attending intermarriages but last week reiterated that their 1,700 colleagues are forbidden from officiating at such weddings.

The moves come even as more and more Conservative congregations are pushing rabbis to perform such unions.

In fact, whether or not a Conservative rabbi will perform an intermarriage has become a litmus test at some Conservative congregations looking to hire a rabbi, according to Rabbi Phillip Scheim, president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA).

“I’m told there are congregations pressuring rabbis to officiate,” he told The Jewish Week. “One of the questions interviewing rabbis were often asked is whether they would drive on Shabbat for a hotel wedding or to attend a bar mitzvah luncheon. Now it is will they officiate at an intermarriage. Theoretically it could be a disqualifying question.”

Rabbi Scheim said the RA “wants to support rabbis who rightfully answer no so that they will not be shut out of the job market.”

The issue has taken on added significance with the release last week of a pastoral letter that reaffirms the movement’s opposition to Conservative rabbis performing intermarriages. It was written by Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and endorsed by the leaders of the other three arms of the Conservative movement: Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the RA, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The letter comes following the announcement this summer by some prominent Conservative rabbis that they had decided to perform intermarriages, which is grounds for expulsion from the RA. Among them were the clergy at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, spiritual leader of the Lab/Shul in Manhattan. Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Philadelphia was expelled from the RA last December after he announced publicly that he was officiating at intermarriages.

RA rules also require the expulsion of rabbis who attend intermarriages, but Rabbi Scheim said that rule has never been enforced.

“We don’t do witch hunts,” he said, adding that attending an intermarriage is “dicier” than officiating.

“Can you attend and just be a fly on the wall?” he asked. “It’s not so easy. … The rule is under review.”

Rabbi Lau-Lavie told The Jewish Week that he has been in touch with other Conservative rabbis who are “on the fence” in deciding whether to perform intermarriages.

“I have spoken with several who are ideologically convinced that they need to do more than the RA allows but who are concerned about their future employment,” he said. “Rabbis are torn. They want to be there for their congregants but they want to be on the side of halacha [Jewish law]. … I will say yes [to marrying] couples who qualify to be invested in the Jewish enterprise; I am not saying yes to intermarriage at all costs or to co-officiate” with clergy of another faith.

The pastoral letter “explains who we are and the reasons” for the ban on officiating at intermarriages, Rabbi Artson told The Jewish Week. “The Conservative movement is committed to Jewish tradition and law. … We also want to affirm the beauty of love and integrate these values.”

Before he wrote the letter, Rabbi Artson said he spent two weeks meeting with 15 young Conservative rabbis from across the country to get their thoughts.

He said he did not write the paper from a defensive viewpoint but rather to “honor all human beings and the integrity of those who choose not to be engaged in Judaism but who are involved in a Jewish family. For the first time, we have a document saying we will lift heaven and earth for two Jews who are a couple and for a Jew and non-Jew who are a couple. The language is new. It reflects a different attitude that says explicitly that the rabbi will be there before, during and after the wedding.

“The letter is about creating a culture of active embrace and welcome,” Rabbi Artson added. “While halacha might limit some of the liturgical possibilities, it does not limit our determination to help those people with their Jewish journeys. This is not just for those who might convert someday. We believe enough in Judaism to believe that if people include Torah study and mitzvot and community [in their lives], many will convert but some may not and we want to respect their choice.”

Reaction among Conservative rabbis has ranged from positive to questioning what was new in the letter. Many rabbis declined to discuss it publicly. Of the more than a dozen rabbis emailed for their views, only four offered an opinion.

Rabbi Charles Klein of Merrick, L.I., praised the statement, saying that it is important for rabbis to work “more vigorously to make certain that the rabbi’s inability to officiate at the ceremony is not a rupture in the relationship with the couple.”

Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Austin, Texas, said he believes that “with some ingenuity, rabbis can create a welcoming foundation in synagogues.”

“Having a couple speak their truths with the presence and direction of a rabbi is a good beginning,” he said. But, he added, “I am not in favor of offering an alternative ‘ceremony’ for its own sake.”

A similar suggestion was offered by Rabbi Sam Weintraub of Brooklyn, who said rabbis can get involved in “other sorts of public validation of interfaith families, especially when the couple expresses a commitment to raise Jewish children. Rabbis might attend civil ceremonies, or before the wedding call the Jew, accompanied by his or her fiancé, to a Torah aliyah in synagogue to receive rabbinic and community blessings for their health, happiness and spiritual fulfillment and evolving Jewish journey.”

Rabbi Wernick of the United Synagogue said feedback to the letter from Conservative rabbis “has been what you would expect. …. Everybody is uncomfortable.”

But he added that “one of the successes of the North American Jewish experience is that Judaism is not just for Jews anymore, and that we should be more welcoming and open.”

Rabbi Royi Shaffin of Bellmore, L.I., acknowledged that to refuse to marry “a loving couple because one of them is not Jewish sounds and feels insensitive and discriminatory. However, I think that Jews sometimes do not realize that there are people in our society who fully realize and understand the power and importance of tradition and maintaining religious standards. … We’re not trying to be discriminatory or hurtful. We are trying to maintain the Jewish people and Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Howard Buechler of Dix Hills, L.I., said that what struck him in the pastoral letter was the use of “covenantal language — it is the language of faith and inclusiveness, and it also immediately dispels any notion of bias or prejudice against those who choose not to convert. … If someone chooses not to become a member of the covenant, that is their choice and we still welcome them.”

Although Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles said he welcomed the fact that the language in the letter is “more welcoming and open” than in the past, he thought it “needs clarification” regarding the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue.

“It is not clear if there are any functions a non-Jew is barred from,” he said. “My guess is that in every synagogue it will be different. I don’t see any distinctions being made between a Jew and non-Jew other than marriage. … It cries out for further explanation.”

Rabbi Artson said it will be up to a blue-ribbon commission of the RA to set policy, which he believes will be done in the coming months.