Working group members:
- Aaron Brusso, Chair
- Pamela Barmash, Bruce Bromberg Seltzer, Mikie Goldstein, Josh Heller, Lauren Henderson, Amy Levin, Michael Knopf, Stewart Vogel, Eric Woodward, Eric Yanoff
- Jacob Blumenthal, Staff
Intermarriage and the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life are among the most important issues that the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) and Conservative/Masorti movement are addressing.
Fifty years after the RA formally adopted standards that prohibited members from officiating at interfaith wedding ceremonies, our connections to these families and understanding of their roles in our communities have changed significantly. Many Conservative/Masorti congregations, particularly in North America, now include interfaith families who are raising Jewish children, participating meaningfully in Jewish life, and frequently playing leadership roles. This reality did not exist when the RA standards were implemented in the 1970s, at a time when intermarriage was viewed broadly as a “threat” to Jewish survival.
Last year, as part of its Strategic Planning 3.0 process, the RA formed the Standards Working Group (SWG) to understand the role and impact of our standards, particularly around intermarriage and interfaith couples. The standards address issues of Jewish identity, which have implications beyond any individual community and therefore require awareness of these collective implications.
The 12 rabbis on the SWG represented a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, approaches, and Conservative/Masorti communities. The group included three members of the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which sets halakhic policy for the Conservative/Masorti movement, and two rabbis from Israel, where intermarriage is viewed differently than in many American communities. The SWG spoke with almost 200 rabbinic colleagues through 10 group listening sessions and dozens of one-on-one conversations. The group heard many narratives that felt familiar, along with the experiences of colleagues that might have seemed foreign.
This report provides an overview of the working group’s approach, methodology, and findings. It includes a series of next steps and recommendations to move the Conservative/Masorti movement beyond a binary discussion about Jewish identity and marriage and towards the countless opportunities to welcome and engage interfaith families in the beauty and meaning of Jewish community and practice.
As the working group studied the standards regarding officiation at interfaith weddings, it saw that many Conservative/Masorti rabbis are open to change. It also recognized that these standards are relied upon by a significant portion of RA members, are central to some members’ sense of identity as Conservative/Masorti rabbis, and that they nurture rabbinic relationships between diverse global regions, where intermarriage is viewed very differently.
The working group recommends that the standards around officiation at interfaith weddings be maintained at this time. However, the group is recommending other significant changes that will empower Conservative/Masorti rabbis and congregations to more fully embrace interfaith couples through their pastoral approach and through updated policies.
The rabbis we engaged in this conversation—who express a wide range of attitudes toward the existing standards — are seeking meaningful ritual ways to engage these couples outside the context of the actual wedding, whether in the synagogue or in their homes. In many cases, these couples include community members the rabbis have known long before their weddings and with whom they hope to remain connected for years to come. And many want to have a richer and deeper conversation with interfaith couples and families around the question of officiation and wedding ceremony.
When the standard that prohibits officiating at interfaith weddings was established in the 1970s, the presumption was that rabbinic authority was, to a certain degree, about power. The rabbi had the authority to make decisions, including about people’s identities and relationships. That approach failed to dissuade Jewish community members from intermarrying — but succeeded in alienating many families who might participate meaningfully in Conservative/Masorti Jewish life.
Today, rabbinic authority is much more about trust and relationship. People don’t explore and evaluate their beliefs, practices, and behaviors with a rabbi because they are convinced the rabbi is right — but because they believe the rabbi knows and cares about them and because they respect the rabbi’s knowledge base and commitments.
In this new context, the SWG’s report explores how rabbis can replace the legacy of disapproval. It offers a series of next steps and recommendations, including:
- A fast-track review by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of outdated teshuvot (rabbinic responses) that dictate disapproval of interfaith couples. These include archaic, decades-old prohibitions on congregations congratulating families on an interfaith couple’s engagement or on hiring professionals who are in interfaith marriages. CJLS has already begun reviewing ways that rabbis can offer blessings outside the context of the wedding ceremony, including aufrufs on Shabbat morning or mezuzah hanging ceremonies [Hanukkat Habayit] in a couple’s home.
- Increased pastoral training related to these issues so rabbis can shift from positions of disapproval and approval to fostering meaningful dialogue as they engage with couples and families. Such conversation can help the rabbis learn more about who a couple is, what their needs are, and what roles the rabbi can play in their lives.
- Creation of a “Brit” document that would articulate a positive definition of who Conservative/Masorti rabbis are, instead of relying on standards that are more focused on “what we don’t do.”
Through these efforts, we are committed to developing new pastoral and philosophical approaches. We are committed to moving away from policies built around rabbinic approval and “yes or no” approaches and towards those built around dialogue and shared responsibility with couples and families. We are committed to leaving behind conversations about demographics and synagogue market share so we can fully embrace our roles as pastors and teachers of Torah.
We aspire to provide Conservative/Masorti rabbis more opportunities to engage authentically with interfaith couples as we enter these conversations. We seek to provide an approach and toolkit that supports our colleagues’ in having these conversations of shared responsibility.
I. Background and Process
As we reached five years since the approval of our RA’s Strategic Vision, the Executive Council called for an evaluation and update to the plan. The 3.0 Strategic Planning team was tasked with looking at the rules, policies, and infrastructure of our Rabbinical Assembly in light of the cultural shifts we implemented in our last planning process. Even as we leaned into support, transparency, and wisdom-sharing in creating a 21st century rabbinic organization, we knew we would have to evaluate aspects of our RA that were built decades ago to determine if we needed different policies and structures.
Six sub-committees were formed as part of the overall planning effort. One of the sub-committees, the Standards Working Group (SWG), evaluated our Standards of Religious Practice as outlined in section III of our Code of Conduct. The SWG was composed of a diverse group of colleagues, including three current members of the CJLS and two members of our Israel region. The team was tasked with understanding the role of the standards in the lives of our members and our organization, and to determine if any changes were needed either to the content of the standards or if the concept of standards was still relevant and needed for Our RA.
The working group conducted 10 listening sessions and numerous one-on-one conversations with almost 200 colleagues to better understand the role and impact of our standards in the field. These sessions allowed us to hear about the very different geographic and career contexts in which colleagues function and appreciate what it means to bring our Torah to very different communities. The SWG also embarked on “learning journeys” and spoke with religious leadership of other faiths to understand how their denominations created and evaluated religious standards for their clergy. The SWG generated questions for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards related to the issues contained within the standards and developed pastoral training to assist colleagues in facilitating sensitive conversations with families. What follows are the learnings and recommendations of the SWG.
II. Listening Sessions and One-on-Ones – Methodology
The SWG held 10 listening sessions open to members of the Rabbinical Assembly. Before each session, participants received questions for reflection in order to focus the conversation. Those questions were:
- Think of pastoral cases and stories you have dealt with related to the content of our Standards of Religious Practice. How do these standards function in your rabbinate? Were the standards helpful? Harmful? Insufficient? Do the standards position us well to handle these situations? Do they give you the room you need to do your job effectively? Do you feel you have been trained sufficiently to implement the standards in pastoral counseling situations?
- From the perspective of members of your community, are these standards helpful? Harmful? Are the standards sufficiently articulated to be understood by our community members? Do they need to be framed or positioned differently?
- How have these standards come to define us as Conservative/Masorti rabbis? Are these helpful means of identification? Do they express who we are? Should they? Would it be helpful if these "policies" were articulated instead in halakhic language as teshuvot? Do they help to create shared expectations amongst colleagues? Do these policies and the issues they represent play out differently in different RA regions?
- How should an organization like ours address ritual standards that carry the penalty of expulsion? Apart from ethical standards should we have ritual standards? Are there other ways to articulate shared ritual expectations? Should we have a regular process of review of these standards and if so what would that look like?
Listening Session Assumptions
The SWG discussed, for the sake of the issue of standards, but also for the culture of our RA as a whole, the idea that everything we heard in the listening sessions was our responsibility. It was our responsibility to hear not only the narratives that felt familiar, but the experiences of colleagues that felt foreign. And we felt it important to share that sense of larger responsibility for each other with the rest of our RA colleagues. Part of that responsibility required us to assume the best of all our colleagues we heard from. The idea that everyone was trying to be the best rabbi in the career, geography and communal contexts in which they served. And we felt responsible for the question of how to think through issues in order to support our colleagues to be the best professionals they can be. That included rethinking issues in order to avoid historial binaries that have governed conversations on issues of Jewish identity and marriage. And to commit to thinking creatively about new positions of pastoral and halakhic integrity. Almost everyone we heard from, regardless of whether they wanted things to change or not, wanted to have positions of integrity from which to move as rabbis. And we felt a responsibility to give that our best thought.
III. Listening Sessions and One-on-Ones – Findings
One of the powerful outcomes of the sessions was that colleagues from different geographic and career contexts listened to each other in order to appreciate the different realities they inhabit. In one session we had a colleague from the Midwest in the United States who said they rarely do weddings because of how normalized intermarriage is in their community which has a small Jewish population. In conversation with this colleague was an Israeli colleague who explained that their legitimacy in the eyes of the wider Israeli public and members of the government-supported Orthodox infrastructure is connected to what other Conservative/Masorti rabbis do or don’t do in the United States. The listening sessions forced us to resist solving these tensions but hold both colleagues and their realities in our hearts at the same time and, as the midrash prescribes, build a heart of many rooms.
The sessions surfaced a number of themes expressing the scope of influence of the standards and what they have come to represent.
We heard from colleagues that “part of being a rabbi is being able to say no” and that the lines drawn in the standards when it comes to Jewish identity, marriage and divorce represent the limits of what is acceptable from a legal perspective but also moments when rabbinic authority comes into clear focus. Saying ‘no’ for some colleagues is what it means to lead a community that accepts the ultimate authority of the rabbi.
Other colleagues understood rabbinic authority differently and noted that “we now live in an era when clergy no longer have hegemony over lifecycle events. Friends are now officiating.” These colleagues pointed out that a rabbi’s ‘no’ is not the conclusion of a conversation but a departure point from which community members move in order to find ways to get their lifecycle or identity needs met.
What does it mean to represent a system of laws and norms and play an authoritative role in people’s lives at a time, where there are so many options?
Movement Identity and Authenticity
Some colleagues associated the standards with Conservative/Masorti movement identity and authenticity claiming that if we were to do away with them our constituencies would wonder “what distinguishes us from Reform colleagues” and that “standards make us a movement.”
Other colleagues wondered if these standards are really the bonding ideas for an ideological moment. As one colleague articulated it, “if these standards are supposed to unite us, what does it say that our fear in doing away with them is that our communities will ask us to do what these standards prohibit? Do our communities share these values with us?”
Participants also asked, “is there a way to articulate who we are aside from the standards?”
Rabbis talked about how complicated it is to take certain positions and still maintain good relationships with congregants. The standards, one colleague shared, “allows me to protect relationships with my congregants” and another said, “when we run out of arguments we have the standard.”
These colleagues felt that one of the things they rely on our RA for is protection when we need it most.
The professional organization plays a role in protecting its members and and also empowering them. What role should our RA be playing here?
A Policy in Search of its Torah
Some colleagues felt that the standards were terse, rules oriented expressions of highly complicated issues. They felt that we need a deeper understanding of the embedded issues, more nuanced ways to express them and handle them as rabbis. One colleague asked, “what is the Torah of the standards? Can we help colleagues understand their meaning and purpose so we can implement them better?” Another said, “we need a theology around interfaith couples/marriages and the role of members of other faiths or no faith.”
Other colleagues felt that a more fleshed out discussion and articulation of the issues would help them to maintain the positions the standards intend to maintain, as one colleague said “ (I) don’t want to use the policy/halakhah as an excuse. What I want to say is that endogamy is a value.” Whatever the underlying values of the standards, these colleagues felt they would like access to them so they could feel a sense of ownership and not defer responsibility to a professional organization policy.
Limitation on role of mara d’atra
One of the important roles rabbis play in communities is the role of mara d’atra, empowered to determine the best halakhic positions for their communities based on the uniqueness of their situation. The CJLS offers positions to inform a mara d’atra’s process but ultimately it is up to the individual rabbi. Not so with the standards of religious practice. The standards address issues of Jewish identity which have implications beyond any individual community and therefore need consensus on a collective approach. In the interest of uniformity of practice colleagues cede their authority to our Rabbinical Assembly. However, these issues, expressed as they are in brief policy statements, commit colleagues to positions that telegraph conclusions before we have encountered and been allowed to apply diagnostics to specific cases. One colleague represented a desire among some to be given back this authority by saying, “I have been asked to officiate at interfaith weddings and every situation is different. I would like the standard to change to give me latitude to figure out what is best.”
They Don’t Engage Us
Because the policies are expressed in terse language without context, they send messages, intended or not, to our communities about our willingness to discuss the issues. One colleague said, “I used to get requests as Hillel rabbi to officiate at intermarriages. Not now. They know I don’t and it makes me irrelevant to my families. People are not ashamed, they just don’t tell me.”
There was a sense among some colleagues that the standard and officiation are not one and the same and that they would prefer to handle these issues in the context of a relationship. As one of our colleagues said, “I would like access to these couples ahead of their wedding” and another said, “I find out about these engagements when people make donations and they are reported in our bulletin.”
Colleagues said they are looking for alternative approaches as the current one is not working for them. As one explained, “the standard has not been helpful in the last 15 years. It's gotten in the way of me doing my job. Referring people out is not great. I lose people. I lose opportunities to connect with people. In my neighborhood it's causing pain for me and others.”
There was a concern among some colleagues who do not wish to participate in intermarriage ceremonies that without the standards, market pressures would increase for rabbis to officiate at intermarriages and as one colleague said, “If the standard is dispensed with it will be impossible to get a job.”
Participation not Offication
Colleagues interrogated the core purpose of the standards and came to different understandings about what they represented. Based on those different understandings they wondered what the territory and limits of the standards were. For example one colleague said, “I can explain halakhically why I can’t officiate. I am vested with the power to do a Jewish wedding. But why can’t I offer an English blessing? It would be helpful to have a teshuvah on this.”
Another colleague developed language for how they speak to community members about the standard saying, “‘I’m a rabbi and this is not kiddushin…’ I would do this but how do we clarify what is happening Jewishly?” This colleague felt alone in thinking this through and felt that, “a teshuvah and not a standard could help sort these questions out.”
Some colleagues wanted to pursue the question of the difference between officiation and participation as represented by one colleague who asked, “Is there a way to continue to not do interfaith weddings but participate? Once I tell people I won’t officiate I don’t see them again. I could use support from RA to figure out the nuances - can the shul be used for interfaith weddings? We need to clarify the standard and what’s included and what’s not”
Pastoral Skills Training
The standards don’t guide colleagues in how to have actual conversations with community members impacted by these issues, preventing the forming or deepening of relationships. There was a sense that a brief policy about identity was insufficient in the face of the humanity of a person discussing their identity. One RA member said, “I wonder about how to have the conversation with a patrilineal Jew. The standard makes that hard and I would like the RA to recognize my need for discretion.”
This was also true for colleagues who do manage to have discussions with couples before their wedding. As one RA member said, “There is not enough training to deal with saying no, because of the Standard. Often it is used as a rule to hide behind, instead of having tools to walk the couple through pastorally.”
Rabbis With a Parent of Another Faith or No Faith or Conversion
In the listening sessions we had rabbis with a parent who grew up with another faith or no faith. In the midst of a conversation about historic halakhic permissabilities like teshuvot about driving to shul or kashrut leniencies, one colleagues said, “I am a child of exactly this and my father didn’t convert until 1999 and raised Jewish children and two rabbis. These are human beings. Can we not speak about my parents in the same category as parking lots and pots and pans?”
One of the things that became clear through these listening sessions is how different these issues play out in different geographic contexts. A colleague from Israel said, “any change in the standards would be a disaster for the movement in Israel. It would cause a schism in our Assembly.” And a Latin American colleague said, “There are already some who don’t see us as being “proper” rabbis (they want another huppah with an Orthodox rabbi afterwards!). If we were to permit intermarriage, then the Jewish public would see us as not being halakhic.”
IV. Historical Inquiry
Original Purpose of Standard on Officiation and the Blue Ribbon Commission of 2017
Since it was clear that colleagues were not in agreement about the original purpose of the standard on officiation we looked at proceedings and minutes of the CJLS and Rabbinical Assembly conventions to see if we could clarify the intention of standards in general. In those discussions, for some colleagues the creation of Standards was about ensuring consistency of practice around Jewish identity and ensuring a unified Jewish people and Conservative/Masorti movement. For others, standards were intended to create a bulwark against change, distinguish ourselves from the Reform movement and protect colleagues against trends in the Jewish world that might create pressures on rabbis.
A statement made at the 1986 RA convention debate on creating a standard of matrilineality for Jewish identity articulates these functions:
“Standards are reactive; but the reaction is directed primarily to ourselves and to our constituents. It reaffirms our stand publicly and forcefully. Was the Standard forbidding officiating at intermarriages promulgated because significant numbers of Conservative rabbis were actually officiating at them? No. It was promulgated in order to reaffirm our absolute opposition to intermarriages in a public and forceful way because of a challenge to the norm in the larger community.” (1986 RA Convention Discussion on Jewish Identity Standard).
It also became clear that the standard on officiation was intended to telegraph “disapproval” of intermarriage and “dissuade” Jews from entering those kinds of relationships as represented by this quote from RA proceedings shortly before the standard on officiation went into effect:
"[One should] dissuade any Jew who is contemplating marriage with a non-Jew from this course. He shall further consider it his duty to cooperate with the family that seeks his help in bringing all legitimate pressures and influences to bear upon the young man or woman in order to break up the proposed alliance. He must realize that this is not a matter of concern simply to a particular family, but is the concern of the Jewish people as a whole, and he is their representative.” (Rabbinical Assembly Proceedings, 1964, p. 246).
This is also reflected in the minutes of the CJLS from January 1973 which stated:
“(a) Conservative rabbi may not grace by his presence either during or immediately before, or immediately after, the ceremony or reception or any celebration of a marriage in which a partner is non Jewish without any type of conversion.” (CJLS Minutes 1/20/73, p. 2.)
The thinking that gave birth to the standard on officiation was acknowledged explicitly later on as other ways of expressing disapproval such as withholding wishes of congratulations were suggested:
“The Conservative movement has been committed to discouraging both the idea and the act of intermarriage. Beside the obvious commitment of the movement to halakhah, the other major reason that such a commitment has stood is because tolerance might encourage others who are so inclined to intermarry without consequence.” (Congratulations to Mixed Marriage Families, March 20, 1989, adopted by majority of CJLS).
Those who grew up in the movement would recognize the messages that were sent in an attempt to stop a trend that leaders at the time saw as harmful to the future of Jewish identity and commitment:
“There are significant segments of the Conservative Jewish community who believe that there is a value to the application of ‘sanction’ to the sphere of intermarriage in that its application helps to maintain a climate of anxiety and tension. The anxiety and tension in connection with intermarriage may encourage parents and other concerned individuals to take stronger stands before an individual falls in love, selects a mate and presents a fait accompli….many Conservative Jews no longer exhibit embarrassment in acknowledging the intermarriage of a child or grandchild…” (Congratulations to Mixed Marriage Families, March 20, 1989, adopted by majority of CJLS).
In 2017 a blue ribbon commission was formed to address the question of whether attendance at an intermarriage was part of the prohibition on officiation. Many RA colleagues over the years had shared stories about pain caused within their extended families as they turned down invitations to attend the weddings of cousins, nieces, nephews, close friends and their own children. The commission concluded:
“On December 21, 1971, the CJLS passed this unanimously: ‘Resolved: that no member of the R.A. may officiate at the marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. The rule is therefore now binding upon all members of the R.A.’
“We conclude that the term ‘officiate’ referred to all activities that are, could be construed as, or give the appearance of the rabbi serving as an officiant or co-officiant in the ceremony. This applies whether the rabbi presides over those activities in a recognizable Jewish form’ (e.g., ketubah, berakhot, bedeken, drash, tisch) or in another form including but not limited to: signing or reading any of the documents of the ceremony; speaking or singing any of the liturgy of the ceremony; speaking or presiding over any related wedding ritual or ceremony.
Based on our research, as summarized above, ‘attendance’ was never elevated to the level of a Standard of Practice by the procedure, required at the time, of two consecutive unanimous CJLS votes.” (2017 Blue Ribbon Commission Report).
Through a technical reading of the process for creating the standard, the Blue Ribbon Commission concluded that an RA member attending an intermarriage is not in violation of the standard.
The Blue Ribbon Commission did important work in alleviating a tension between RA members’ commitment to their professional organization and their family. But it left open the larger question of whether the intention of the standard as a programmatic response to intermarriage had been effective. In addition, in allowing attendance it seemed to have altered how a program intended to “approve,” “dissuade,” “discourage,” and “sanction” was practiced in the field. Was “approval” no longer part of the purpose of the standard? And if so, is there a new purpose that replaces the old one?
V. Researching Other Religious Communities
Members of the Standards Working Group spent time with clergy from the Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist and Methodist denominations of Christianity to ask how they develop, evaluate and change standards of religious practice for their clergy. The learnings include:
- There is an appeals process
- There are regional differences
- Policies are reviewed yearly and amendments suggested
- They have an ethics body that reviews cases
- Process to ensure clergy read and understand expectations
- Process for yearly review and receiving of suggested amendments and voting on whether to accept
- Hierarchical church with a process for navigating local practices
VI. Understanding Our Current Moment
Changes Since Standards Were Implemented
Fifty years after the standards went into effect there have been significant changes in our understanding of interfaith families and the roles they play in our communities. Demographic studies of the Jewish community analyzing how marital choices impact Jewish involvement may lead some to continue to want to rely upon policies preventing normalization of certain marital choices. However, many of us have interfaith families in our communities raising Jewish children and participating meaningfully in Jewish life. We now have RA colleagues who are products of those families. For colleagues working on the ground in communities it has become less sustainable over time to say that intermarriage is a threat to “Jewish continuity,” while the interfaith families in our communities actively work to build a Jewish future. This is a reality that did not exist when the standards were implemented.
The way identity is formed and how rabbinic authority functions have also changed. There may have been a time when someone’s identity was communally conferred or rabbinically determined. Now identity is more individually constructed or discovered and then presented to the community. The same holds true about relationships. The presumption in the past seems to have been that rabbinic authority was to a certain degree about power. The rabbi was the one with the authority, based on training and experience, to make decisions, including about people’s identities and relationships. Today rabbinic authority is much more about trust. Authority today doesn’t begin with the knowledge and the credentials of the rabbi but when the person inviting the rabbi into their lives feels known. People don’t interrogate their beliefs, practices, and behaviors because they are convinced a rabbi is right, but because they are convinced a rabbi knows and cares about them.
In this new context the SWG has been asking whether we are positioned to play impactful roles in people’s lives with the restrictions of the standards. How do we give people the dignity of self definition when it comes to their own identities and relationships and at the same time affirm the authenticity of tradition and halakhah in the conversation? If policies that telegraphed disapproval are less effective, what new position of integrity can we establish that feels like firm, principled ground and that is also relational and relevant?
VII. Next Steps
Repositioning Ourselves Pastorally
When rabbis counsel a family the strength and authority of our role comes from the fact that we are a trusted facilitator who is not subject to the tumult and dissonances within a family system. We remain outside of family systems so that we can guide people in negotiating conflicts and differences when we conduct premarital counseling and work with families, and in particular families with divorce, around life cycle events.
There are moments when actors in those family systems attempt to pull us into the conflicts by triangulating us with others in an attempt to get us to solve problems for them. They will sometimes work to win us to their side by getting us to divulge our personal judgment of a person or an issue or complete a task without informing another actor in the family system. The pastoral best practice in such counseling is to remain outside the family system and, when the family tries to transfer the hard work to us, to guide them compassionately back to working through the complicated relationship dynamics themselves.
An example of how important this pastoral positioning is and how different it is than our role as educators and preachers would be counseling an engaged couple on whether to keep a kosher home where one grew up observing kashrut and the other did not. If the observant partner asked us to explain the meaning of kashrut to the other partner, as an educator we might be tempted to do so. But without the permission and buy-in of the other partner we might unwittingly be allowing the observant partner to bring us in to solve a problem that really belongs, not to us, but to both partners. And without permission and buy-in we risk sacrificing our role as trusted facilitator positioned outside of this relationship dynamic.
How have we positioned ourselves pastorally when it comes to interfaith issues? When an interfaith couple dates or gets engaged this may generate feelings from their parents. Those parents should be figuring out what their feelings are, whether it's joy, sadness, love, loss or a mixture of these emotions, and whether and how to share that with their adult children. The dating or engaged couple should turn towards each other and be asking important questions about the role religion has played in their lives, what role they see it playing in their wedding and in their lives moving forward. These are not easy conversations and quite often families are invested in avoidance. As we heard from colleagues, there is a perception this avoidance is enabled by the standard as families blame or bypass us. Intended or not, the standard telegraphs a message of disapproval that pulls us into the family conflict, preventing us from assuming the helpful guiding role we play in other situations. And if the only reason we won’t officiate, other than the standard, is disapproval of intermarriages, it's not an easy conversation for us either. From a pastoral perspective the standard is a kula not a humra since it is easier for us and the families to avoid these conversations then to engage.
What would it look like to develop another position of integrity that would replace the legacy of disapproval and allow us to enter into those conversations not thinking about our needs, what we can or can’t do, but the family’s? What would it look like to not hold this issue as ours to solve alone but to give the work back and share responsibility with couples and families? What would it look like to use the wedding ceremony as a text that we study with the couple and allow it to be in conversation with them to figure out who they are in relation to it and who they are in relation to each other? Maybe this would allow for a critical conversation to take place about who this couple is individually, what is the mutual statement they want to make at their wedding and what is the significance, integrity and religious power of the narratives, rituals, symbols and faith statements of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Such dialogue would build on the conversations that many rabbis have long strived to have with couples about trying to picture their home in 20 years, exploring what Jewish practices they could see for their family, and sharing their dreams with one another, just as they do about careers, where to live and how many kids to have.
This is a conversation about authenticity, and as opposed to approval, it is a conversation that invites the couple, the rabbi and tradition to be in honest dialogue about identities and truth. It is a sharing of responsibility in which the couple’s dignity of self definition, their encounter with Jewish tradition in all of its religious particularity and their latitude to determine what is authentic for them is honored and lifted up. As rabbis we represent religious particularity which means we may not be the right person to officiate, but most of this cannot be determined before a preliminary encounter. Such a conversation can help us learn more about who the couple is, what their needs are, and what roles we can play in their lives. We all have to go into these conversations with open minds and hearts. Our Rabbinical Assembly is committed to helping rabbis and communities understand the importance of these conversations.
The SWG has prototyped pastoral training with this shift in mind and suggests creating more trainings to assist colleagues in developing positions of integrity from which they can engage couples and families, without referring to the standard of religious practice while it still defines our own rabbinic commitments..
Our hope is that as we work to develop new pastoral and philosophical approaches in moving away from policies of approval and towards dialogues about authenticity and integrity, we can also leave conversations about demographics and market share behind, reinhabiting our roles as pastors and teachers of Torah.
Finding New Approaches: Questions for the CJLS
The Standards Working Group developed a list of questions for the CJLS in the spirit of shifting away from approval/disapproval to new theological, halakhic and philosophical positions of integrity that acknowledge change in the past 50 years and position colleagues better to work with individuals, couples and families.
These questions fall into several broad categories. The CJLS has set up a working group to fast track these questions for assignment to members of the CJLS, with teshuvot to be considered by the CJLS as a whole.
Conceptual Underpinnings and Boundaries of the Standard
Setting forth a conceptual grounding of the halakhah behind the standard. What is the nature of the prohibition against intermarriage? Given that our movement has allowed for other marriage ceremonies which lie outside the bounds of traditional kiddushin, are interfaith marriages different, and if so, how? What is the role of the officiant/mesader kiddushin, and how is it distinct from auxiliary roles that clergy and others may play in the larger context of weddings? A clear conceptual framework would make it easier to discuss the standard with integrity amongst colleagues and with those whom we serve, and to map out its boundaries. In particular, this framework is essential to answering questions that arise as to what we mean by “officiation.” Are there distinctions between a rabbi speaking to a couple under the huppah, at a rehearsal dinner or preliminary gathering, or at a reception following? What are the distinctions between different types of assistance that might be offered, ranging from providing counseling, to offering a referral to alternative officiant, to lending a huppah, to hosting an intermarriage on site at a Conservative/Masorti institution?
Ways of Blessing/Engaging Interfaith Couples Outside of the Wedding Context
Many colleagues who have no desire to change the standard still want to find meaningful ritual ways to engage with couples who are intermarrying, that are outside the context of the actual wedding. Aufruf and mezuzah hanging ceremonies have already been proposed. What types of blessing or ritual might be appropriate, within the bounds of the standard, to offer a couple who is planning to, or have already entered into, an intermarriage? How might colleagues identify which of these are consistent with their own halakhic approaches and the circumstances of their own communities?
Reconsideration of Teshuvot Dictating “Disapproval” of Interfaith Couples
As we consider how to relate to intermarried families in our midst, we note that there are topics where the most recent teshuvot of the committee, dating from more than 25 years ago, were deeply grounded in the “disapproval” frame. Examples include the the 1989 teshuvah (cited above) prohibiting congregations from offering congratulations to a family on the occasion of an intermarriage or the birth of a child from such a relationship, prohibiting the hiring of professionals who are intermarried (“Issues Regarding Employment of an Intermarried Jew by a Synagogue or Solomon Schechter Day School,” 1997). These teshuvot have not had the intended effect, and do not reflect the practice of many Masorti colleagues and institutions today. Is it possible to re-examine the halakhic categories undergirding these questions? What other responses might be permissible in the current context?
Terminology regarding Patrilineal Descent
While much of the conversation has centered around the intermarriage standard, questions have also been asked about the standard of matrilineal descent. There is a generation of Jews with only a Jewish father who see themselves as Jews. While we remain committed to upholding the halakhic precedents surrounding Jewish identity and conversion, are there ways of recognizing the Jewish connections of those with patrilineal descent, such as using specific terminology which reflects their specific status, or offering an expedited path to full Jewish status? Are there corresponding pastoral approaches that sustain the integrity of halakhic precedent but also allow for the dignity of self definition?
VIII. Formal Recommendations
- We recommend initiating a process of acknowledging shifts in the communal landscape and our thinking on these issues that have happened in the last 50 years requiring us to revisit the issues within standards by:
- Reporting out results of listening sessions to RA membership so that we can hear the nuance of our diverse experiences and commit to helping each other be the best professionals in our disparate geographic and career contexts.
- Providing pastoral training related to these issues to shift our approach from positions of approval to dialogues with couples and families around authenticities. The goal would be to help colleagues function without using or needing a standard by offering another framework of integrity.
- Recommending CJLS take up questions around these issues that would update our halakhic approaches and framings
- Call for papers around these issues to shift from policy based to ideas based conversations.
- Standards are largely about “who we are not” and “what we don’t do” – they are seen as “part of our brand/identity.” We recommend the creation of a Brit document that would articulate a positive definition of who we are as Conservative/Masorti rabbis and the nature of our Torah. It is possible that such a positive articulation in a brit could eventually replace standards.
- Review the learnings from other religious denominations in how to develop, review and change standards.
While we are engaged in this process, based on our conversations with colleagues who hold very diverse opinions and perspectives, for now, we recommend no change in standards:
- They are relied upon by a significant portion of our colleagues.
- They represent a commitment to relationships among our global regions.
- For some colleagues they are connected to their sense of identity as Conservative rabbis.