I gave a sermon on intermarriage to my congregation in 1994. I did not do so again until this year. No rabbi is in favor of intermarriage, but there are few congregants in Conservative and Reform synagogues (and in many Modern and centrist Orthodox ones) that do not have someone in their family married to a non-Jew. Anything that might be said on this sensitive subject will inevitably touch a nerve and cause hurt, however unintentionally.
I decided to speak on intermarriage during the High Holidays this year, motivated by the frequent requests of my congregants to officiate at their child’s marriage to a non-Jew. These young people grew up at my synagogue with their families attending services regularly on Shabbat and were often involved in USY and Camp Ramah. They wanted me, the rabbi they have known for much of their lives, to be there with them.
I explain that as a Conservative rabbi I am not allowed to officiate at their wedding, or to even attend. I then add with a cringe, “Once you are married, we will welcome you back into our community.” Our synagogue, like most others, happily extends memberships to intermarried families, but our movement prevents the rabbi from engaging with them at one of the most important moments of their lives, their wedding. Before we welcome them, we turn them away. I have often wondered if this is the best approach. Do we really expect married couples whose weddings we shun to feel welcomed into our communities? I am not the only one who wonders. A recent survey on intermarriage of Conservative rabbis by Big Tent Judaism found that 40 percent of the 249 who responded were in favor of some change regarding intermarriages.
I have no doubt that sometime in the not-so-distant future Conservative rabbis will officiate at intermarriages. The question is whether this be done ad hoc and chaotically, or with well thought out standards and practices. It seems to me that having such standards will be a much better way for the Conservative movement to proceed. This will help engage and steer intermarried couples towards meaningful participation in the Jewish community. The Conservative movement is uniquely situated to do just that, if we take a more proactive and visionary approach.
What might the standards be? I proposed the following to my congregation: When a couple comes to their rabbi, an honest conversation should take place about conversion. When conversion occurs, the marriage has fewer hurdles to overcome and is strengthened. If the possibility of conversion is rejected, the couple would then be required to take a class in basic Judaism so that both partners will have a greater foundation of Jewish knowledge. The couple would also be asked to attend services throughout the year. Often, the future non-Jewish spouse is only exposed to the most difficult aspects of Jewish life, such as lengthy Rosh HaShanah services and fasting on Yom Kippur, or the most surface kinds of observances such as lighting Chanukah candles. The joy of Shabbat, Simchat Torah and Purim are left out. It is critically important that the couple be given the opportunity to experience the beauty of Jewish life if they are to be part of a Jewish family.
The wedding ceremony would contain only Jewish rituals and only Jewish clergy would officiate, though the non-Jewish spouse could have his or her clergy speak under the chuppah. Syncretistic practices, such as offering communion during the ceremony, would not be permitted.
The couple would be asked to make the following written pledges: All children would be raised as Jews, celebrating only Jewish life cycle events. This would mean a bris for boys and, if the wife was not Jewish, bringing the child to the mikvah. It would entail a commitment to enroll the children in a Hebrew or day school once they begin their education. And only one religion, Judaism, would be observed in the home. That means no Christmas tree or holiday observances other than Jewish ones. Visits to non-Jewish relatives on their holidays and for their life cycle events would be appropriate, outside of their home environment. Finally, they would be asked to pledge to join a synagogue within five years.
Personal pledges are unenforceable, but those made during the wedding ceremony have a special quality and resonance. Most people take very seriously the pledges they make as they enter into a marriage. I have no doubt that these will be regarded as such.
Intermarriage rates, in spite of all our efforts, will continue to rise. It is perhaps the most serious challenge the American Jewish community faces today. When we reject couples at the exact moment they are reaching out for acceptance, what message does it send to them?
Yet allowing rabbis to officiate without insisting on a meaningful Jewish commitment produces negligible results and does not create active and engaged Jews. The evidence for this is everywhere, most pointedly in the 2013 Pew report. The Conservative movement can offer another way. We can allow Conservative rabbis to officiate in exchange for a serious process that will commit the family to go down a path towards a Jewish future. If couples are ready to undertake that process and make that pledge, we should meet their good will with our own, with the hope that it will translate into a stronger future for the Jewish community. Will our officiating be chaotic or will it be based on a clear and firm strategy to develop Jewishly engaged couples? We still have time to choose.
Rabbi Steven Kane has been the spiritual leader of Cong. Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., since 1993.