Not an open primary

Diversity is served by maintaining and respecting differences, not by diluting religions to the point that they become indistinguishable.

A bride and groom kiss under the chuppah at their wedding (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
A bride and groom kiss under the chuppah at their wedding
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
WHILE AMERICAN Jews agonized recently about the physical threat to their safety posed by the bomb threats, toppled tombstones and buildings defaced with swastikas, they displayed a disquieting complacency about a further deterioration on the intermarriage front that jeopardizes the very sustainability of American Jewry.
In early March, American Conservative Jewry’s lay arm, the United Synagogue, overwhelmingly passed a decision to accept non-Jewish members to the congregation (even if at this stage, they will not be called up to the Torah). This retreat was triumphantly marketed as big tent Judaism, diversity, and inclusiveness, thus tarring the opponents of the decision with exclusiveness and pup tent Judaism.
Extending synagogue membership to non-Jews contradicts the policy of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to expel rabbis who officiate at an intermarriage ceremony. This policy was defended quite recently by Rabbi Eliott Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue. “Rabbinic officiation at intermarriages signals an implicit and explicit leveling of the field, sending the message that all choices are equal” when a rabbi’s duty, insisted Cosgrove, is to have Jews marry within the fold. It is hard to understand why extending synagogue membership to non-Jews does not equally send a message that all choices are equal.
Defenders of the new membership policy console themselves that the contradiction is merely a theoretical one and that non- Jewish members are not rushing in droves to become officers in their congregations. But what if the non-Jewish members refuse to play the role of silent partners? Will we not reach a stage where due to the increased prominence of non-Jewish members, antagonism to the remaining slights to “inclusiveness” will intensify and further resistance to intermarriage will erode? We may reach the point where congregations with sizable non-Jewish memberships may tilt against rabbis or cantors who refuse “to move with the times” and officiate at intermarriage ceremonies.
Both problems were envisioned by Rabbi Abel Kass in a 1982 paper for Conservative Judaism’s Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards I 1980-1985 titled “The Non-] ewish Spouse and Children of a Mixed Marriage.” Kass then defended the movement’s existing policy of excluding non-Jews from synagogue membership. “It is not reasonable that a non- Jew, who does not believe in Judaism and may even be a member of a Christian church, be accorded membership in a traditional congregation. To do so would put into question the distinction between a full Jewish marriage and an intermarriage… “In a democracy, a citizen can not only vote, but also be elected to office. A non-Jew, who is admitted as a member, may become an officer and even the president of the synagogue. The thought of a practicing Christian heading a Jewish congregation staggers the imagination.”
In Israel, where the decision is unlikely to increase the prestige of Conservative Judaism, the Masorti movement’s executive director Yizhar Hess sought to put the decision in the best light. “What should a Jewish woman do who married a non-Jewish man, and intends, in agreement with her partner, to have a Jewish home and to give the children a Jewish education? Nobody will deny that the children are Jewish.”
This is, of course, an obfuscation. Intermarriage in America does involve Jewish males marrying non-Jewish partners and, outside the Reform movement, many will deny that the children are Jewish.
The diversity argument is intellectually dishonest. Is diversity served by maintaining and respecting differences or by diluting religions to the point that they become indistinguishable? Judaism is not an open primary where anybody from any party can come to vote and some come in with the idea of perverting the process and electing a hapless candidate.
The proponents of these changes use the right words – inclusiveness, big tent, diversity – making opponents of these trends guilty of exclusiveness and pup tent Judaism.
It can be fairly asked what business do I, as a Religious Zionist, have to butt my nose into the Conservative Movement’s affairs? Well, I consider Conservative Jews part of Klal Yisrael and would hate to see them hurt by a self-inflicted wound born of desperation.
I am old enough to remember the period of cross-fertilization, amid fierce debate between modern-Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
I do not fear recognition of the Conservative stream in Israel partially because it would put Conservative Judaism in a position of “put up or shut up” and the competition would benefit Orthodox Judaism. This latest action unfortunately only further empowers the Israeli opponents of such recognition.
I do not totally absolve Orthodox Judaism in Israel of responsibility for the problem. We have not been vigorous enough in fast-tracking conversion processes.
If the conversion track was facilitated together with the process for recognizing conversions from all streams of Judaism – as prescribed by the late Yaakov Neeman – we could have possibly obviated the unfortunate decision passed by the United Synagogue. 
Contributor Amiel Ungar is also a columnist for the Hebrew weekly Besheva.