Will Conservatives’ interfaith wedding ban make a difference?

Many fear change in policy might rupture movement.

Wedding rings [Illustrative] (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Wedding rings [Illustrative]
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
NEW YORK – Conservative Judaism has always considered itself to be in the Jewish “middle,” which is probably why the movement’s most recent decision to uphold its ban on interfaith weddings has been met with what usually happens to the middle – attacks from both the Right and the Left.
Rabbis from both sides of the movement question the rabbinical letter, which reiterates once again that “rabbinic officiation at weddings is restricted to a marriage between two Jews.”
As some are disappointed by the affirmation of the ban on officiating at interfaith weddings, others question why the movement’s leadership needed to raise the explosive issue once again, with no change to the status quo or the bottom line.
It is clear that the document was written under the impression of an ongoing dispute around one of the main questions facing non-Orthodox Judaism outside of Israel: The place in the community of non-Jews according to Halacha.
More specifically, the context was a series of recent declarations by a group of rabbis ordained by Conservative rabbinical schools, saying they would begin performing interfaith marriages. The document’s goal it seems is to pinpoint the consensus of the Conservative movement.
It’s not every day the entire leadership of the movement stands united behind a fundamental statement, as in the case of last week’s pastoral letter titled “Conservative/ Masorti Judaism, Covenantal Love, & Responsibility.” It was written by Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Zigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, on behalf of the movement’s main leaders, Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“We affirm the traditional practice of reserving rabbinic officiation to two Jews,” the rabbis stated in the five-page document, emphasizing that the way to perform weddings and wedding ceremonies for couples in which only one is not Jewish is undergoing a process of conversion.
But the writers go on in unprecedented words to encourage rabbis to accept non-Jewish spouses according to the Halacha of members of their communities.
At the same time, when it comes to mixed couples, the rabbis encourage other rabbis to “find ways to celebrate their marriage and love that honors their choice not to merge their identity with the people Israel by being present pastorally before the wedding, as rabbinic guides and companions after the wedding, and as loving friends during the wedding period.”
The last sentence appears to contradict the official and binding directive of the movement, which forbids Conservative rabbis not only to perform ceremonies between spouses of different religions but also not to attend such ceremonies. Artson told The Jerusalem Post he believes this ban on attendance will be officially canceled in the foreseeable future by the movement’s institutions.
At the same time, rabbis who violate the ban could lead to their expulsion from the movement. At least one rabbi was recently expelled and two others chose to leave, on the background of the dispute over officiating at interfaith weddings.
Rabbi Daniel Stein, who leads Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, California, is a full member of the rabbinical institutions, but he does not hide his disappointment with the letter.
“I was disappointed, but not surprised,” he told the Post. “Many Conservative rabbis fear that a change in policy might rupture the movement. As a result, conversations around policy changes are often emotionally fraught.”
“I am not sure what motivated the leadership to share this message at this time. In my community, we strive to be as welcoming as we are able and to validate the loving relationships of everyone who chooses to associate with us. This letter will not change that. Like many of my colleagues, I would like the ability to think creatively about participating in interfaith weddings. I would like to be a supportive voice for our tradition as they celebrate one of life’s most important moments. I do not know that I would come out on the side of officiating, but I would like to be able to experiment without the fear of diplomatic action.”
Will the letter stop Stein or others from officiating interfaith weddings in the future? “While I disagree severely with the Rabbinical Assembly’s policy on this issue, I also respect its rules and traditions,” he said.
Artson said he had “much sympathy” for the group of critics who think rabbis should officiate at mixed-wedding ceremonies.
“I understand the position and the reason, it hurts to say ‘no’ to people. We do not say we should not marry, but that rabbis will not hold the ceremonies,” he said.
On the other hand, he opposes criticism from people who thinks “a religious group should respond only to sociology.”
“The Conservative Judaism is not just taking polls and then doing what the pollsters tell us. We have convictions, we believe in the binding nature of Torah and Halacha, we just believe it can evolve over time.”
He also criticized those who claim that nothing new has been said in the statement.
“We say that given where the Jewish people is these days, rabbis and Conservative organizations need to invest much more time and energy in building real dynamic relationships with all couples, and if we do that then it’s no longer just a question of whether we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one ritual moment, it becomes wherever there are actual relationships and real conversation. So that’s something new.”
Artson said the letter itself contains a dramatic innovation, in the language it uses to encourage rabbis to integrate non-Jews according to Jewish law in the communities.
“We are not authorized to change policy,” he said. “You know we’re not the dictators of the Conservative movement, we are just the people running the most significant institutions of the movement in North America. We’re not allowed to change the policy but we are allowed to set the tone and we are allowed to reflect on what rabbis are thinking, and what is clear is that in the history of arguing with this issue not a single Conservative rabbi has ever been disciplined or punished for attending such a wedding.”
What will be the official position of the Conservative movement in five years? Will the present letter be binding then, or will the scenario that Stein aspires to – a full acceptance of interfaith marriage – win over? Artson reiterates the Talmudic saying that “prophecy has been given to fools since the destruction of the Temple,” but added that before he wrote the document, he met with 12 young rabbis from across the US to understand where the next generation of the Conservative leadership stands on this issue. After hearing a presentation from each of them, he said all 12 told him they were participating in mixed weddings, but on the other hand “most of them didn’t push for performing ceremonies. I still think that’s a relatively small group.”
A few years ago, Stein started a Facebook group called “Clergy for Inclusive Conservative Judaism.”
Its stated purpose is “to be a safe space for Rabbinical Assembly and Cantorial Assembly members to discuss issues specifically related to greater inclusion for interfaith families within the Conservative movement. This group is open to all RA and CA members (as well as those who left these organizations specifically because of interfaith marriage), and membership in the group does not necessarily imply endorsement of ideas found herein.
It was established, however, with the expressed goal of encouraging the RA to have more open and transparent conversations about sanctioning interfaith marriage and welcoming Jews with one Jewish parent.