Emor 5778 – Should Conservative Rabbis Officiate at Intermarriages?

They shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry, nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God …Leviticus 21:7

He may marry only a woman who is a virgin. A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry—such he may not marry. Only a virgin of his own kin may he take to wife, that he may not profane his offspring among his kin, for I the LORD have sanctified him. …Leviticus 21:13-16

Halacha puts a lot of restrictions on who can marry who. Some of those restrictions, that we read in last week’s parsha, most of us would agree are sensible – there are good reasons to ban incestuous relationships.

This week’s parsha has some restrictions that are more difficult for some of us to accept. Leviticus 21:7 tells us a kohen, a member of the priestly class, a descendant of Aaron, cannot marry a divorcee or a woman who has been “defiled by harlotry,” meaning a woman who is not a virgin.

This week’s haftorah, a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, prophesies that those rules will remain in place into the future, with a small modification:

They must not marry widows or divorced women; they may marry only virgins of Israelite descent or widows of priests.

In Israel, a man who is a kohen cannot marry a divorcee or a convert. Such a couple has no choice but to go overseas to get married. Fortunately, as far as I know, the rabbanut, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities in charge of marriage in Israel, are not subjecting women who want to marry kohanim to virginity checks; but I bet they’d like to!

A few years ago I officiated at the wedding of a friend who’s a Kohen to a divorcee in the Czech Republic, where they had previously had a civil ceremony. The Conservative Movement has approved a teshuvah, a Jewish legal opinion, authorizing the sanctification of such marriages. Orthodox rabbis, even American ones, would not officiate at such a wedding.

Why did the Conservative Movement change its opinion? In the teshuvah “Solemnizing the Marriage between a Kohen and a Divorcee” Rabbi Arnold Goodman says that the times we live in – times when there is both a high divorce rate and a high intermarriage rate – we need to encourage Jews who want to marry each other. If we followed this particular teaching of the Torah, Rabbi Goodman said we could drive the couple away from Judaism, leading them to have a civil ceremony and abandoning the unwelcoming synagogue.

The decision in the ruling was not based on the fact that nowadays we don’t see divorced women as “impaired” compared to their non-divorced sisters – but rather on a concern to support in-marriage in a time of demographic challenge.

The Law Committee said that encouraging IN-marriage – encouraging Jews to marry each other – was so important, it was worth overturning an explicit commandment in the Torah.

It’s so important because in modern times – in the wake of the Holocaust which led to the loss of a third of the world’s Jews, and assimilation which is causing the loss of nearly as many Jews as we lost in the Holocaust, we are concerned about Jewish survival – about our critical mass as a people. How can we fulfill our mission of being a “light to the nations” if we are not a nation ourselves? And on a personal level, many of us don’t want our children to be the ones to break a chain going back to Moses and Mt. Sinai.

The verse from this week’s parsha only applies to Kohenim. What about for everyone else? Where does the commandment for endogamy, in-marriage, for the rest of us come from? What passage in the Torah commands us to marry only other Jews?

Turns out it’s not an explicit commandment in the Torah.

Deuteronomy chapter 7 tells us how we supposed to relate to the 7 nations which the Torah says God has cast out before us (the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites), said to be “seven nations greater and mightier than you;”

The Torah commands us to strike them, destroy them, make no covenant with them, show no mercy to them; Deuteronomy 7:3 says “And you shall not make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.”

The Talmud (Avodah Zara 36a) tells us that Biblically this only applies to those specific seven nations. The arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in the Talmud are legendary. However, in this case they agreed: they extended the decree to other nations as well, mandating endogamy for Jews. The commandment for Jews to marry only other Jews goes back 2000 years, to the very dawn of rabbinic Judaism.

Why did the rabbis Hillel and Shammai impose this requirement?

We find out by looking at another passage in the Talmud, Yevamot 76a, where we are told that an Israelite with “crushed stones” – in other words, a man who is not fertile and cannot have children – is allowed to marry a non-Jew. Why is a man with crushed stones given this special dispensation?

It’s because the reason there was a concern about marrying a non-Jew was that the children would grow up to be idol worshippers. In other words, 2000 years ago, the rabbis were worried about ensuring Jewish continuity – the same concern we have today. They decided we needed a rule requiring Jews to marry within the tribe – and that has been the law for the last 2000 years.

For a long time, intermarriage wasn’t a big issue. During the many centuries of anti-Semitic persecution, who would have wanted to marry a Jew? Here in America, for a few generations Jews lived in self-imposed ghettos. In the 50s and 60s, Jews mostly lived in Jewish neighborhoods, socialized almost exclusively with other Jews, and the intermarriage rate was 6%. Back in those days, Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination in America.

Fast forward 50 or 60 years and things are very different. Non-Orthodox Jews don’t generally live in Jewish neighborhoods anymore – they drive to the synagogue from all over town. The intermarriage rate is 58% and trending higher – which means more than two out of three weddings involving Jews is an interfaith wedding (four Jews: two marry each other, and one each marry a non-Jew). Conservative Judaism is shrinking, and among the younger generation it’s shrinking fast: 24% of American Jews over 65 identify as Conservative Jews, but only 11% of millennials.

The Reform and Reconstructionist Movements have adapted to these changes by changing their policies. Some (but not all) Reform rabbis will officiate at an interfaith marriage. The Reconstructionist Movement has gone further than that – it will ordain someone who is intermarried. They don’t even require in-marriage for their rabbis.

Some Conservative rabbis believe – strongly – that it’s time to change the rule. Rabbi Adina Lewittes – formerly an assistant dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s biggest rabbinical school – resigned because she disagreed with the movement’s unwelcoming attitude toward non-Jews. Retired Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom officiated at the marriage of his step-daughter to a non-Jew. He also had the chutzpah to be very public about it – he wrote an op-ed in the widely read JTA talking about it and saying it’s time the movement changed its policy. The Rabbinical Assembly’s response was to expel the rabbi, who had been a member for 40 years.

Several other prominent Conservative rabbis, including Roly Matalon at B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Amichai Lau-Levi of Lab/Shul have said they will start officiating at intermarriages, even if it means they get kicked out of the RA.

The Conservative Movement’s official response was to double down on the intermarriage ban, while encouraging rabbis to be welcoming to interfaith couples after the wedding. A letter from the leadership of the movement – the heads of JTS, the Ziegler Rabbinical School, the United Synagogue, and the Rabbinical Assembly – tried to phrase it lovingly, as only my teacher Rabbi Brad Artson could phrase it:

In such instances (a Jew marrying a non-Jew), we affirm the traditional practice of reserving rabbinic officiation to two Jews, and are equally adamant that our clergy and communities go out of their way to create multiple opportunities for deep and caring relationships between the couple and the rabbi, the couple and the community, all in the context of welcome and love that extends well before the moment of the wedding and well beyond it too.

Many rabbis out in the real world say this approach doesn’t work. If an interfaith couple comes to the rabbi, and the rabbi says “I can’t officiate at your wedding, but I wish you well, come back after the ceremony” a lot of times they don’t come back. They find a Reform rabbi who’ll do the wedding, develop a relationship with him or her, and go to that shul. Or they’ll just say, “Judaism doesn’t want us,” and get married in a civil ceremony or some other religion’s ceremony, and never come back.

This isn’t a question of technical halacha. As technical halacha, it would be much easier for the rabbis to authorize intermarriage than to do what they’ve already done in allowing kohanim to marry converts and divorcees; in the latter case it involved overturning a biblical ban. The intermarriage ban is rabbinic.

The question the rabbis struggle with is “is it good for the Jews?”

What do you think? Would allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate at intermarriages be a way to turn around Conservative Judaism’s declining numbers? Or would it be another step in watering down our product, on the path to where there’s eventually nothing left?

There’s a principle in halacha that the burden of proof is on the one who wants to change the status quo. So let’s start with the arguments in favor of allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages:

Those we push away on Saturday night are not so ready to come back Sunday morning. It is not easy to get over the initial sting of rejection and the ambivalent way we view their marriage. -Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

Intermarriage no longer means you’re making a choice to leave Judaism behind: ““There was a time where it was very clear that if somebody chose to marry somebody who wasn’t Jewish,” they understood the consequence was to “be pretty much marginalized, if not exiled, from their Jewish community. Now, marrying someone who is not Jewish is not an expression of their diminishing desire to stay rooted in their Jewish lives and values. It’s something they’ve experienced as being entirely consistent with … who they understand themselves to be as Jews.” -Rabbi Adina Lewittes

The general stance has been that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. What the statistics show, and the reality on the ground, is that’s not true … We could lose a generation, if not the future of Jewish life. -Rabbi Felicia Sol

The important thing is getting a family to join a synagogue. A 1995 study by the Jewish Federation of Boston showed intermarried Jews who belonged to synagogues lit Hanukah candles, observed Shabbat as special and donated to the Federation at nearly the same rates as synagogue members married to Jews by choice, and at much HIGHER rates than in-married Jews who did not belong to a synagogue. Intermarried families that joined synagogues generally raised their children with unambiguous Jewish identities; it was even stronger when the non-Jewish partner converted. But the biggest difference came with joining a synagogue. And officiating at their wedding will undoubtedly encourage future synagogue affiliation.

Intermarriage sometimes leads to greater Jewish involvement, not less. I intermarried; my wife eventually converted, it led to me becoming a rabbi, and my family moving to Israel.

What are the arguments against changing the status quo?

Jewish identity is not clearly that sustainable in the absence of two parents who are Jewish. -Rabbi Daniel Gordis

To bless an intermarried union is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition. It may be beautiful, it may be loving, it may be worth celebrating on a human level. But on a Jewish level, it’s not fine, and it can’t be made fine. -Rabbi David Wolpe

Ultimately, we’re headed toward one of the greatest divisions in the history of the Jewish people. We’ve weathered the storm of many different hits, but the divide between ultra-Orthodoxy and liberal, pluralistic American Judaism is maybe irreparable. Not only irreparable—it may actually mean that we’re no longer one people. -Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Orthodox)

Additional arguements include tt would undermine the efforts of parents who are encouraging their kids to seek out Jewish partners, and it removes an incentive for conversion.

What about arguments that have nothing to do with “is it good for the Jews?” Are there moral issues to the question of whether we should or shouldn’t officiate at intermarriages?

If we do allow rabbis to officiate at intermarriages, what would the rules be? Should we specify the couple must create a Jewish home? Should we ask the couple to sign a document agreeing they would raise any children as Jews?

This isn’t just an argument about ceremonies – it’s really an argument about the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in America, and what that future will look like. That’s why the passions are so strong on both sides.

I believe it’s appropriate to make the change and do away with the ban on rabbis officiating at intermarriages. We have to respond to the realities of the communities we live in. The Orthodox world has no reason to permit intermarriages – they are being successful at transmitting Jewish continuity with their current approach. Those of us in the non-Orthodox world have very different communities and realities, and we need to respond in a very different way.

Shabbat Shalom

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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