US Reform rabbis debate intermarriage

Intermarriage "has become the litmus test for placement" in the ordination of Reform rabbis.

intermarriage 88 (photo credit: )
intermarriage 88
(photo credit: )
Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, went through plenty of placement interviews after her 1998 ordination as a Reform rabbi. Everywhere, she got the same question: not about her attitude toward homosexuality, not whether she wore a kippa and tallit, but whether she would officiate at an intermarriage. "It has become the litmus test for placement," Bravo said in San Diego at last month's annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement's rabbinical association. Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York, a member of the conference's ad-hoc committee on intermarriage, hoped to introduce a resolution at the convention calling on the organization to condone rabbis performing intermarriages, as long as the non-Jewish partner doesn't practice another faith and the couple is open to leading a Jewish life. That's the standard required by most Reform rabbis that perform mixed marriages. Knowing it was still too controversial to pass easily, however, Davidson and his colleagues put off a resolution until the conference's next convention, in March 2007. Even then, it will be a tough sell. Still, the issue undeniably is heating up. Unlike their Orthodox and Conservative colleagues, who are not permitted to perform intermarriages, Reform rabbis are discouraged but not forbidden from doing so. A 1973 conference resolution declares the group's opposition to members participating in any ceremony that solemnizes a mixed marriage, but the resolution doesn't bind rabbis to that policy. Consequently, Reform rabbis - as well as Reconstructionist, Humanist and unaffiliated rabbis - must decide on an individual basis whether they will perform intermarriages. Many say it's one of their most difficult decisions. "The question of officiation is a very tricky one," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "It's the only time where we say no." "No" is not a popular answer in today's Reform congregations, Reform rabbis say. Though there aren't hard numbers, it's estimated that about half say yes. Their ranks are growing every year, forced more by pressure from their congregants - many of them intermarried themselves - than by any theological revision. Rabbis at the conference convention said the tipping point may finally have been reached: At a time when half of all new Jewish marriages in the US involve a non-Jewish partner, Reform rabbis who refuse to perform intermarriages feel they're on the defensive. "It is becoming more and more uncomfortable to be a Reform rabbi who does not officiate at intermarriages," said Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts. On the other hand, rabbis who do officiate feel they can finally be open about their stance. "We need to be realistic," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Turning mixed couples away at the altar is "enormously hurtful." Some Reform rabbis believe it's time for the conference to adopt a nuanced acceptance of the practice. "We're living in a new era of American Jewish life," Davidson told JTA. The 1973 resolution discouraging rabbis from officiating at intermarriages was predicated on the assumption that those unions "invariably led to assimilation," but growing numbers of mixed couples joining Reform congregations and raising Jewish children have disproved that thesis, Davidson said. "We should be ready to be there when the couple begins its Jewish journey, assuming we feel that's the journey they're going to take," he said. Others, like Rabbi Steven Fox, the conference's newly installed executive vice president, think the time isn't right. The conference should unite Reform rabbis rather than set potentially divisive policy, Fox said, adding that rabbis who don't perform intermarriages "need the support" of the conference for their increasingly unpopular decisions. Even many rabbis who do perform interfaith weddings say it should be an individual decision, not movement policy. After two decades of not officiating at intermarriages, Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California, said she changed her position in 2003 out of "admiration for the non-Jews in our community whose selflessness, dedication and commitment to creating a Jewish life have strengthened the life of the synagogue." It became clear to her, she said, "that if these people are making themselves part of us, then I want to be there for them at every important life-cycle event." But she came to her decision on her own, in consultation with other rabbis she respects. "I don't think the CCAR needs to establish a position," Shanks said. What emerged from discussions at the convention was how carefully Reform rabbis are making these decisions, and how similar their reasoning is, no matter what they decide. "Those of us who do mixed marriages feel we're strengthening Judaism. Those of us who don't do them feel we're strengthening Judaism," said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple in Atlanta. Some say their refusal to perform mixed marriages has led the non-Jewish partner to convert later, out of respect for the rabbi's position. Others say that performing the wedding and embracing the mixed couple from the beginning eventually leads many non-Jewish spouses to convert. Those interviewed agreed that the officiation debate focuses too much on just one step, and perhaps not the most important step, in what should be an ongoing journey of Jewish engagement. Jaffe won't give couples an answer over the phone: He brings every couple in for a personal talk, to open a dialogue that he continues even after the marriage. Citing a recent study by Brandeis University's Cohen Institute, Jaffe said there's no evidence that a rabbi's position on performing mixed marriages plays a role in whether or not couples feel welcome in the Jewish community. "More important than having a rabbi at the wedding is the kind of welcome the couple gets down the road," he said. To help rabbis share their decision-making processes, as well as information on how they conduct interfaith wedding ceremonies, Ed Case of announced at the convention that he'll create a relevant resource center on his group's Web site. "Whether a rabbi should officiate or not is not the issue," Fox said. "How we help the mixed-marrieds engage in Jewish life is more important."