Are intermarried couples that had a rabbi officiate at their weddings more likely to be engaged with Jewish life than intermarried couples that were married by a minister or justice of the peace? Yes, as demonstrated by a widely cited study by my colleagues at Brandeis University.

Does that study provide convincing evidence that rabbinic officiation is the cause of those couples’ subsequent Jewish engagement? No, it does not.

I’m a social scientist with an abiding commitment to both Jews and Judaism. I believe that data can and should inform Jewish communal policy, and I was intimately involved in data analysis for the study in question. For these reasons and more, I want Conservative rabbis and others to understand exactly what the study demonstrates — and what it does not.

In recent months, a passionate and pivotal debate over rabbinic officiation at intermarriages has unfolded within the Conservative movement. Some well-intentioned advocates of officiation have cited the study on which I worked to claim that rabbinic officiation leads intermarried couples to greater engagement with Jewish life. In truth, the study doesn’t support that conclusion, and it should not be (mis)used to justify any policy change by the Conservative movement.

Michelle Shain

The study compared two groups of intermarried Jewish young adults: those who had a rabbi officiate at their weddings and those who had another type of officiant, usually a justice of the peace or other non-religious figure. Not surprisingly, the intermarried Jews who had a rabbi officiate surpassed other intermarried Jews on a dozen measures of Jewish behavior, ranging from talking to friends and family about Judaism to attending Jewish religious services.

That said, the old adage that correlation does not imply causation applies here. Intermarried Jews who chose a rabbi to officiate had much richer Jewish childhood and adolescent experiences than other intermarried Jews. More of the group who chose a rabbi received formal Jewish education and celebrated Jewish holidays at home while growing up. The logical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led them both to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddings and to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.

As the study reports, after controlling statistically for pre-existing differences in Jewish childhood and adolescent experiences, the gaps between intermarried Jews who had a rabbi officiate vs. other intermarried Jews disappeared altogether for four of the 12 Jewish behaviors examined. For example, rabbinic officiation had no effect on an intermarried Jew’s likelihood of having a special meal on Shabbat, even “sometimes.”

‘Intermarried Jews who chose a rabbi to officiate had much richer Jewish childhood and adolescent experiences than other intermarried Jews.’

Furthermore, the average age at marriage for intermarried Jews in the study was 29. The study did not collect much information about Jewish experiences in the formative years between high school graduation and marriage, and it could not adequately control for them. With better data, we could test whether the remaining behavior gaps between intermarried Jews who had a rabbi officiate vs. other intermarried Jews are due to uncontrolled, pre-existing differences in the two groups’ Jewish experiences during the college and young adult years, long before the wedding took place. Without such data, it’s premature to attribute these intermarried couples’ Jewish behaviors to their wedding officiant.

The claim that officiating rabbis subsequently guide intermarried couples into the Jewish community is further undermined by the near lack of contact between the couples and their officiating rabbis after the weddings. In a 2010 survey of 52 of these same intermarried Jews who had a rabbi officiate, only five said they had more than passing contact with their officiating rabbi after their wedding. Half had no contact at all. This suggests that an officiating rabbi is a signal of an intermarrying couple’s intentions vis-à-vis their Jewish life, rather than a shaper of their Jewish life going forward.

The study also demonstrates that even with rabbinic officiation, markers of strong Jewish commitment are absent among most intermarried Jews. The typical intermarried Jew who had a rabbi officiate did nothing to celebrate Shavuot or Sukkot, attended Jewish religious services two or three times a year at most, said that keeping kosher was “not at all” important and discussed Judaism and Israel only “occasionally” over the past year. These behaviors hardly reflect “success” according to the Jewish ideals of the Conservative movement.

The study in question can’t support the claim that rabbinic officiation at intermarriages brings intermarried Jews and their children into Jewish life because it lacks the fundamental characteristic of a classic experimental design: random assignment. If we could randomly assign intermarrying couples to either a rabbi or a justice of the peace and thereby create “treatment” and “control” groups, we could determine definitively whether rabbinic officiation has an independent impact on subsequent Jewish behavior. Absent such an experiment, the key question that should be addressed by systematic research is this: Would permitting Conservative rabbis to officiate at intermarriages undermine the strong preference for inmarriage that still persists among alumni of Conservative day schools, summer camps and USY (United Synagogue Youth)?

Social science has demonstrated that what we think of as acceptable is strongly influenced by what we think of as “normal.” Therefore, the consequences of giving rabbinic imprimatur to intermarriage may not be benign, but rather damaging to the committed core of Conservative Jewry. In considering the question of officiation at intermarriages, Conservative rabbis need to ask themselves whether the evidence for any positive impact on intermarried couples is sufficient to outweigh any potential negative impact on the rest of the Jews they have been entrusted to lead.