For Conservative Jews, no interfaith weds (yet)


Conservative Judaism has surrendered to the rising tide of intermarriage among its followers. The movement wants to engage interfaith couples in “meaningful ritual ways” but should not officiate at interfaith weddings “at this time,” according to a standard suggested by a working group of the Rabbinical Assembly, the nearly 125-year-old international association of Conservative spiritual leaders.

“Fifty years after the RA formally adopted standards that prohibited members from officiating at interfaith wedding ceremonies, our connections to these families and understanding of their roles in our communities have changed significantly,” the report states. 

Many North American Conservative congregations include interfaith families who are raising Jewish children and “frequently” play leadership roles, it adds. “This reality did not exist when the RA standards were implemented in the 1970s, at a time when intermarriage was viewed broadly as a ‘threat’ to Jewish survival.”

The report aims to move “beyond a binary discussion about Jewish identity and marriage and towards the countless opportunities to welcome and engage interfaith families in the beauty and meaning of Jewish community and practice.” 

It adds that Conservative spiritual leaders ought to “fully embrace interfaith couples through their pastoral approach and through updated policies.”

In the 1970s, Conservative rabbis were thought to have authority, but it turned out that they “failed to dissuade Jewish community members from intermarrying.” Instead, per the report, they alienated many families that might otherwise have participated in Conservative Jewish life.

“Today, rabbinic authority is much more about trust and relationship,” the report said. “People don’t explore and evaluate their beliefs, practices and behaviors with a rabbi because they are convinced the rabbi is right — but because they believe the rabbi knows and cares about them and because they respect the rabbi’s knowledge base and commitments.”

The working group recommends that Conservative rabbis retire “the legacy of disapproval.” (A rabbi from the Midwest who was part of a listening session reported rarely officiating at weddings “because of how normalized intermarriage is in their community, which has a small Jewish population.”)

“I have been asked to officiate at interfaith weddings and every situation is different,” one spiritual leader told the group. “I would like the standard to change to give me latitude to figure out what is best.”

“I used to get requests as Hillel rabbi to officiate at intermarriages. Not now,” another said. “They know I don’t and it makes me irrelevant to my families. People are not ashamed. They just don’t tell me.”

It became clear to the working group that Conservative communities vary globally.

An Israeli Conservative rabbi told the group that “any change in the standards would be a disaster for the movement in Israel. It would cause a schism in our Assembly.”

A Latin American rabbi added, “There are already some who don’t see us as being ‘proper’ rabbis.” Those whom the rabbi marries want another wedding ceremony afterward with an Orthodox rabbi.

“If we were to permit intermarriage, then the Jewish public would see us as not being halachic,” the rabbi said.  —JNS