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Conservative clergy now permitted to attend intermarriages
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Conservative clergy now permitted to attend intermarriages

Rabbinical Assembly ruling keeps ban on officiating

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Wikimedia Commons/ David Lisbona
Wikimedia Commons/ David Lisbona

O

ne New Jersey rabbi called the new ruling by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) allowing Conservative rabbis to attend intermarriages while maintaining the ban against officiating “tone deaf.”

Another said that regardless of the official standard, he had been planning to attend a family wedding, an intermarriage, in a few weeks.

But many of the Conservative rabbis from across the state that NJJN spoke with expressed a sense of gratitude for a ruling they say will allow them to no longer be at odds with many of their friends and family members.

“I believe we must see interfaith weddings as a reality and not judge them as good or bad,” said Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.  “Should the movement allow interfaith officiation, I will also not judge it harmful or helpful — but rather a statement regarding liberal Judaism in America.”

The judgment came on Oct. 19, one year after the movement’s decision-making body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), reaffirmed its prohibition on rabbis’ officiating at intermarriages.

The new ruling, part of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Standards of Practice, states, “Clergy of the Conservative/Masorti movement may officiate at weddings only if both parties are Jewish. Officiation means signing documents or verbal participation of any kind. Attendance as a guest at a wedding where only one party is Jewish is not included in this Standard of Religious Practice.”

The decision overturns a policy in place since 1972 precluding rabbis from being present at an intermarriage.

“I think this decision is tone deaf because the Rabbinical Assembly sees it somehow as groundbreaking,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. He pointed out that he and most of his colleagues had already been attending the weddings of Jewish family members and non-Jewish partners, and of congregants in interfaith relationships. Because the new ruling simply affirms this reality, he said, members of the committee “doubled down on being closed-minded” by not eliminating the ban on officiating.

Some local rabbis see the ruling as a step toward removing the prohibition to officiate.

“This does open the door for further concessions in this issue, which will ultimately end with the Conservative movement allowing officiation at interfaith ceremonies,” predicted Bayar. “I believe we are witnessing a dynamic of interpreting Jewish law consistent with other attempts to liberalize the practices of the movement,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see much difference “between attending and speaking.”

Some rabbis welcomed the ruling as a positive move in its own right. For Rabbi Robert Tobin of B’nai Shalom in West Orange, it’s about how he interacts with congregants and others.

“If we cut ourselves off from people’s most vulnerable and meaningful moments, we forfeit the opportunity to engage with them in a caring and present manner,” he said. “I believe that in the long run this [ruling] will help us to be in the lives of more people in a more welcoming way.”

But other rabbis said the ruling simply responds, in a narrowly drawn fashion, to the personal needs of clergy members. “It now allows us as individuals to potentially share in the simchas of family members and others without worry of some sort of punishment or reprimand,” said Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa.

For Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, the decision is a “concession” to the personal and familial needs of clergy. “It is excruciating to be told you cannot attend the wedding of a sibling, niece or nephew, or cousin because it would be grounds for being expelled,” he said.

He added, “I do not think it addresses the broader issue” of officiating at intermarriages.

Several rabbis have made it clear that they and their colleagues have disregarded the letter of the law being overturned for so long that the policy amounts to no more than a recognition of a standard already observed. “I don’t think this move necessarily marks a step toward allowing Conservative rabbis to perform intermarriages,” said Rabbi Benjamin Adler of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville. “Instead it makes clear a policy that has been in place, de facto, for many years.”

Echoing that view, Rabbi Howard Tilman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains acknowledged that he had been planning to attend a family interfaith wedding in a few weeks regardless of whether the ruling had been enacted. And while he said he is now “happy I don’t have to be ‘in violation’ of policies,” he wasn’t really worried about the possibility of expulsion.

One religious leader, Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, doesn’t struggle with the issue. Instead, in his rabbinate, he looks beyond the wedding. “The best efforts of the Conservative movement to engage interfaith couples and families remains in their post-wedding search for a responsive and tolerant community,” he said.

But Wolkoff of B’nai Tikvah sees the issue slightly differently from his colleagues. While recognizing that intermarriage has become “increasingly common,” he said he was far warier of its consequences for the larger community. “I think from a demographic perspective, intermarriage is disastrous.” While he understands that “many wonderful people become closer to Judaism because of intermarriage,” he said, for every person who converts or supports a Jewish household, many more will pull the Jewish spouse away from Judaism. “It’s nothing less than a hemorrhaging of the Jewish community. It is mitigated by those who come in, but the losses are far greater than the gains.”

The RA issued a statement explaining its position. “This standard continues to affirm our belief that the narratives, symbols, and rituals of the Jewish wedding ceremony we represent are intended for Jewish couples who can authentically accept them as religiously
meaningful.

“This important standard, however, does not preclude our welcoming and reaching out to intermarried couples and families, as we believe it is also important to create positive rabbinic relationships with both the Jewish and non-Jewish member of such a couple.”

In reaction, Olitzky of Beth El charged his colleagues on the CJLS with engaging in a purely theoretical exercise. “They are not interested in hearing from the members of our communities who grew up within our movement, want to remain within our movement, and fell in love with someone from another faith,” he said.

Statements like the one explaining the new ruling, he said, “especially when the RA thinks they are being welcoming, but come off as just the opposite — make it harder for us.”

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