Chaye Sarah 5783 – Interfaith Marriage and Conservative Judaism

Imagine this scenario. A young woman who grew up in this synagogue, who had her baby naming and bat mitzvah in our synagogue, whose family have been members of Shaare Zion or Beth-El for generations approaches me to ask if I would officiate at her wedding.

I ask about the groom, and she tells me he’s completing his medical residency, and they plan to settle here in Montreal. He’s not Jewish, and he’s not interested in converting, but he’s willing to raise any children Jewish and help her create a Jewish home.

What do I tell her?

Right now pretty much all I can say is, “Mazal tov, I’m happy for you, but according to the rules of Conservative Judaism I cannot officiate at your wedding. My Reform colleague down the road may be able to help you. After you’re married though, please come back, we’d love to have you and your husband as part of our community, and to support you in creating your Jewish home.”

What do you think are the chances the couple will come back here after I turn them away, but a Reform rabbi welcomes them and performs the ceremony?

I can tell you the chances. Slim to none.

And if the groom had grown up in a Reform synagogue, had a bar mitzvah, lived his entire life as a Jew, but was a patrilineal Jew – his mother wasn’t Jewish – I would still have to turn them away.

And this is one of the major challenges facing Conservative Judaism today. My colleagues and I are very worried about it.

According to a 2018 survey, the intermarriage rate in Montreal is only 26%, similar to the rate across Canada. By comparison in Vancouver it’s 60%, and across the US it’s over 50%. But the seemingly low rate of intermarriage in Montreal may be because the community is heavily Orthodox. No doubt it is much higher among younger Conservative and Reform Jews. And the trend, even here in Montreal, is clearly in the direction of rising intermarriage.

This is a particular problem for Conservative Judaism, and it’s a major reason our movement is shrinking. Intermarriage rates are low in the Orthodox world. Orthodox families are much likelier to make Judaism a central focal point of their lives. When I lived in LA for rabbinical school I lived around the corner from an Orthodox synagogue that had fewer members than we do, but they had 300 or 400 people in attendance every Shabbat, and you can bet those families all also kept kosher. Intermarriage is less likely if Judaism is central to your life.

And the Reform movement is growing, and one reason is all of those intermarrying young people who grew up in Conservative and Reform homes end up joining a Reform synagogue, if they join a synagogue at all, because they are more welcoming to interfaith families.

We are in the difficult position of having the higher intermarriage rate of the Reform without having the ability to be as welcoming to interfaith families.

Overall, concern about Jewish continuity and who our children marry is not a new issue.

The first Jew to worry about who his son was going to marry was the first Jew: Abraham.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, Abraham gives his servant Eliezer explicit instructions.  He tells Eliezer to put his hand under his thigh (well, not exactly the thigh – think of where the word “testify” comes from!), and says “swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live.” 

Eliezer finds a wife for Isaac, but of course the wife, Rebecca, isn’t Jewish. Abraham’s son intermarries – but Rebecca becomes Jewish by simply marrying into the family. No conversion ceremony needed. 

Once upon a time, in the biblical era, intermarriage was common and people became Jewish by simply becoming part of the community. Where did the prohibition on intermarriage come from?

The Torah explicitly prohibits intermarriage with the 7 Canaanite nations. 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 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 (in-marriage) for Jews.  The commandment for Jews to marry only other Jews goes back at least 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 – just like we are concerned 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. But that rule was irrelevant for someone who wasn’t able to have children.

Traditional halacha, Jewish law, is very clear on the subject: intermarriage is forbidden. Maimonides extended the prohibition to having sexual relations with non-Jews. He said,

The Torah only forbade marriage, but one who sleeps with a non-Jew in a licentious manner gets rabbinically ordained lashes as a decree lest they come to get married.

The Shulhan Arukh, the major law code from the 16th century agreed with Maimonides, and further claimed that sexual relations for purpose of marriage with a non-Jew is a Biblical prohibition, even though the Talmud is quite clear it’s a rabbinic prohibition.

The Conservative Movement went even further than the Shulhan Arukh: we have a “Standard of Rabbinic Practice,” which was approved by 75% of the members of the Rabbinical Assembly present at an annual meeting many decades ago, that says officiating at, or even attending an intermarriage is grounds for expulsion from the RA. 

The prohibition on attending an intermarriage is widely ignored, as many rabbis have children or other close family members who intermarry and for many of us it’s unthinkable that we wouldn’t attend. The prohibition on officiating at intermarriages is still enforced if a rabbi goes public about it. 

A few years ago a Conservative rabbi was expelled for officiating at an intermarriage and writing about it in a Jewish newspaper. Several rabbis, including Rabbi Lewittes, have resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, over this issue. Despite the harsh penalty, I’m sure there are Conservative rabbis who officiate at interfaith weddings, they just don’t go advertising it to the world.

It is, of course, possible for rabbis to change the rule. We have changed many other rules that were in place for thousands of years, for example counting women in a minyan, or allowing women to serve as rabbis and as witnesses on Jewish legal documents, or conducting same sex weddings.

The question is “should we?” 

I think there are two sides to that question. 1) Is it good for the Jews?; 2) Is it compelling enough to overturn two millennia of custom?

The rabbis put the ban in place because they believed it was good for the Jews. They believed that in their time and place, the best way to ensure Jewish continuity was to insist that Jews marry other Jews.

Times have changed though. Many of my colleagues believe that the best way to ensure Jewish continuity is to be more welcoming to the many interfaith families that are being formed, to draw them into our version of Judaism, which typically has a higher commitment to Jewish ritual than Reform Jews follow.

There are intermarriages where the non-Jewish partner pulls the Jew away from his faith and the children are lost to the Jewish people.  My brother intermarried and I have nieces and nephews who are Catholic.  I talked with a friend in California who is pained that his grandchildren are being raised Catholic; his son and daughter-in-law know better than to invite him to things like Confirmation and suffer the embarrassment of him turning them down. 

But there are also intermarriages where the non-Jew pulls the Jew closer to Judaism. I ended up becoming a rabbi because my ex-wife decided to convert, and I was inspired to study with her. I served a congregation in Birmingham where the president of the synagogue was intermarried, and his non-Jewish wife was a very active supporter of the synagogue and she made sure their kids received Jewish educations and joined Jewish youth groups and attended Jewish summer camp.

Shortly after she decided to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly over the issue of officiating at interfaith marriages, Rabbi Lewittes wrote an article on the subject for Tablet magazine. In her article she said,

For the first 20 years of my rabbinate I turned away interfaith couples who asked me to marry them. I believed it my professional duty to do so. But telling someone that I won’t do their wedding because I disapproved of their life partner increasingly chafed against my calling to engage Jews with their heritage. Judaism isn’t mine to offer or withhold at will. I don’t own it. As clear as my policy was, saying no caused pain for the couple and for me. My refusal was often taken as rejection by Judaism itself, leading couples to reject Judaism in turn.

Some cared little about their Judaism and just wanted the optics of a Jewish wedding. I never struggled, and still don’t, with those calls. It’s a simple no. But those who cared about being Jewish and participating in Jewish life even as they found themselves in relationships with non-Jews started keeping me up at night. They made me think that our line in the sand serves us gatekeepers of Judaism, but refusing those couples erodes our capacity to speak with relevance and courage to the changing realities of Jewish families.

I don’t feel as strongly as Rabbi Lewittes on the subject. I’m not willing to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly over it. My inclination is to say that it would be good for the Jews to make this change. I would agree with the approach Rabbi Lewittes has taken: it should not be used to provide Jewish optics for a wedding ceremony where neither partner has any real commitment or engagement with Judaism. As rabbis, we are here to facilitate the creation of Jewish homes.

This is the current “hot topic” in rabbi circles in the Conservative Movement. I’m sure it will be up for consideration by the movement’s Law Committee, on which I sit. I’ll decide which way to vote on a paper proposing changing the status quo after I see the paper.

It is interesting to note that the halachic questions surrounding officiating at an interfaith marriage are completely different than the question of being intermarried oneself. The officiant at a Jewish wedding has no halachic status or requirements. Not only can a knowledgeable lay person officiate at a Jewish wedding, a trained monkey or a robot could. The only halachic significance is with the couple, who sign the ketubah (marriage contract) and the witnesses to their signatures.

In the meanwhile, it’s clear that boundaries are shifting, and instead of focusing on being gatekeepers, we should focus on how best to engage people who may in the past have been considered “outside” and not relevant to synagogue life.

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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