Rabbis Shift To Say 'I Do' to Intermarriage

No Regrets for Those Who Agree To Officiate at Weddings

Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York.
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Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 03, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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But in Conservative Judaism, American Jewry’s other major liberal religious stream, rabbis struggling with this issue face a more complicated situation. The movement maintains an absolute prohibition against rabbis conducting interfaith ceremonies — or even attending such a ceremony. Violators of this ban are subject to being thrown out of the Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism’s rabbinic organization.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation parted ways with the R.A. several years ago, and therefore was not obliged to follow the movement’s ban on officiating interfaith weddings. But it was only a trip to Ukraine last year that convinced him to take the plunge. After visiting Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and observing the small Jewish community left in Ukraine, one of the fellow rabbis participating in the tour quoted Israeli president Shimon Peres saying: “It’s not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.”

“I thought about it long and hard,” Diamond said, and after “throwing out feelers” to gauge his congregation’s response, Diamond announced in his Yom Kippur sermon that he would agree to perform some interfaith weddings. He is now working with two couples planning their upcoming weddings. The only condition the Conservative rabbi has is that “they should commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.”

His denomination, Diamond argued, is trying to welcome interfaith families before the wedding and after it, “but to me it seems doomed to failure, because they are not there on the day of the wedding.” Diamond said he was “trying to save the next generation of Jews in my small corner of the universe.”

But Rabbi Brad Artson, dean’s chair of the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, argued that this approach has been proved wrong. Ironically, he cited the same Pew data that Rosove cited as his justification for performing interfaith marriages — that only 25% of children of intermarried families identify as Jewish.

“The results [of interfaith marriage] are the end of Jewish continuity,” said Artson.

The Conservative educator also noted that the notion of “leaving the door open” to interfaith couples in order to promote subsequent affiliation with Judaism has also been shown to be insignificant in its impact. “I don’t dispute the fact that most Jews are doing it,” he said of the recent finding that 58% of Jews marry outside the faith, “but the consequence of intermarriage is a disaster. “ Couples of different faiths, he suggested, should have a civil marriage and should be welcomed into the Jewish community, even in the case of Conservative communities. But rabbis that choose to marry them “are taking the easy way out.”

Since there are no clear guidelines for performing interfaith weddings, rabbis are on their own in deciding the nature of the ceremony. Most require the couple to express interest in raising their children Jewish, though the level of commitment may vary. Many rabbis refuse to officiate weddings taking place on Saturday, and most will not agree to co-officiate with a clergy member of a different faith.

Diamond described the wedding he plans to officiate as a “civil ceremony with a Jewish flavor.” Ponet married Clinton and Mezvinsky alongside a Methodist minister. Zemel performs a fully Jewish ceremony, with a chuppah and the seven blessings, though he makes one change: Instead of blessing the newlywed couple “in the religion of Moses and Israel,” he says he does it “in the custom of Moses and Israel.”

All the rabbis interviewed said that they were pleased with their decision to perform interfaith weddings. None has heard from others who regretted the move. For some rabbis, the only question is why they hadn’t taken the plunge earlier.

“Maybe I could have done it a year or two earlier, but I wasn’t ready,” Diamond said.

Zemel, in his 2009 letter, addressed the interfaith couples he had turned down in the past. “These were always painful moments for me,” he wrote, adding, “Please know that the future interfaith couples will enjoy the fruits of our time together.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

A headline for an earlier version of this story wrongly indicated that Conservative rabbis were officiating at interfaith marriages. This story does not include currently affiliated Conservative rabbis who perform marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish partners.

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