To officiate or not to officiate — that is the question.
When a Jew falls in love with a non-Jew, should a rabbi — as a communal leader, as a teacher and exemplar of our tradition, as pastor to a flock — stand under the chuppah to consecrate that couple’s affections?
Presently, if a Conservative rabbi officiates at an intermarriage, it is cause for expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly. And yet — as evidenced by the very fact of a special off-the-record session held at the Assembly’s recent convention, as a movement we clearly are squirming.
Why now, given that neither intermarriage nor the question of officiating is new? Partly because of the findings of a recently published study on the subject from the Cohen Center of Brandeis University. The survey studied some 1,200 post-Birthright married couples who, roughly speaking, can be divided into three buckets: in-married couples for whom a rabbi was the sole officiant at their wedding; intermarried couples for whom a rabbi was the sole officiant at their wedding (presumably a Reform rabbi); and finally, intermarried couples who were married by a justice of the peace or other officiant.
The study followed the trajectories of these couples to see whether there were any differences in their Jewish engagement in the years that followed. The brouhaha that has emerged is the study’s finding that when it comes to synagogue attendance, keeping kosher, Sabbath observance and other indicators of Jewish living, while there is a large gap in Jewish engagement between those couples married by a rabbi and those not married by a rabbi, it is a statistical dead heat in Jewish engagement between in-married and intermarried couples for whom a rabbi was the sole officiant. Simply put, couples with a rabbi officiating — in-married or intermarried — have a higher rate of Jewish engagement.
Given these findings, there are now people in the Conservative movement asking, understandably, that if the data points to the positive impact of rabbinic officiation on shaping the Jewish lives of these intermarried families, then how can we, as stakeholders in the Jewish future, not be present for these couples?
Is it at all surprising if, at the critical moment of establishing a home, their rabbis (and by extension, the Jewish world) turn their backs on them, that these couples should then turn their backs on Jewish life and living in the future? In an era of contracting synagogues and diminishing market share, is it not time for the Conservative movement to do the responsible and forward-looking thing by serving these couples and thus serving the Jewish future?
The argument is a forceful one, and not without its merits. But here are a few thoughts on the subject.
First, the study does not account for pre-existing differences among the couples studied. Are the intermarried couples married by a rabbi more Jewishly engaged because a rabbi officiated at their wedding, or was their decision to have a rabbi officiate their wedding a reflection of the fact that they were already more inclined to be engaged? It strikes me as ill-considered to change thousands of years of Jewish tradition based on data whose meaning is yet to be fully understood.
Second, and at risk of stating the obvious, Conservative rabbis should not jump to officiate intermarriages because doing so is against Jewish law. Of course Jewish law can, and oftentimes should, change. I do not begrudge a young Jew for falling in love with a non-Jew. But just because a rabbi understands it does not mean she or he must be expected to bless it. Just as every individual has every right to choose his or her partner, Jewish law has the right to limit what it can and cannot accommodate. Not every choice Jews make deserves to be validated by Jewish law.
Third, and perhaps most substantively, I don’t think Conservative rabbis should rush too quickly to perform intermarriages for the simple reason that as a parent, as a rabbi and as a shaper of Jewish community and identity, I unapologetically want young Jews to marry other Jews. Rabbinic officiation at intermarriages signals an implicit and explicit leveling of the field, sending the message that all choices are equal, a message that I do not think wise given the undisputed place in-marriage has as the single most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.
The Conservative movement has a unique, delicate and critically important message to communicate and role to play in the landscape of American Jewish life. First, we say loudly and proudly that we want young Jews to marry other young Jews. Second, if a Jew should fall in love with a non-Jew, as they are statistically more likely to do than not, then we want them to know that the path to conversion, to becoming a halachically defined Jew, is warm, embracing and altogether doable. And third, if for whatever reason conversion is not an option, then I want those interfaith couples to know that Conservative synagogues will help you build a Jewish family and future — all the while respecting the spiritual integrity of the non-Jewish member of your Jewish family.
Less discussed than the Brandeis study was another report emerging out of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies studying the demonstrable impact of interfaith outreach, education and engagement on nurturing Jewish identity. As individuals, as families and as a community, we must on the one hand live a model of Jewish life so vibrant that our children and our children’s children are predisposed to “lean in” toward Jewish engagement and marrying Jewish. And when — because it is only a matter of “when” and not “if” — an intermarriage occurs, we must be just as passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike. The message is not a simple one, but that is what the Conservative movement should stand for, and tempting as it may be to change millennia-old policy on a dime, as open and as excited as I am for the communal conversation to come, it is a policy that should continue to be in place for the foreseeable future.
The challenge for the Conservative movement, as for any self-respecting organization, is how to maintain mission authenticity and market relevance at one and the same time. The Reform and Orthodox movements have staked out their territory and should be commended for doing so. I believe there is a differentiated and critically important role for the Conservative movement to play — as the movement loyal both to tradition and the realities of our time. In this case, on this issue, there is an identifiable reason and clear path forward that is ours to take. The only question is whether we will do so or not.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is the spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.