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What Is The Debate Over Intermarriage Really About?

About twenty five years ago, I attended my sister-in-law’s marriage to a non-Jew. In other words, I broke a rule of the Rabbinical Assembly, the governing body of Conservative Judaism, thus risking expulsion from the group and professional suicide. A few nights ago, I asked my wife, “Did I know back then that I was breaking a cardinal rule? Did I know what was at stake?”

The fact that I can’t quite remember — I think I knew, but I’m really not sure — tells you where my mind was back then. This was my wife’s sister. My wife is very close to her sisters; I’m close to them. Not attending the wedding would have created a disastrous breach in the family. There was no question; I was going. Any sense of professional responsibility evaporated at the thought of wounding the family. This wasn’t a brave statement protesting an unjust and unwise policy. This wasn’t caving in to societal pressures. This wasn’t bravery or cowardice or rebellion. This was me, and my family, and nothing more.

I thought of my sister-in-law’s wedding recently because the issue of Conservative rabbis attending intermarriages has been in the news lately. It’s fairly well-known that if we officiate at these marriages, we’re expelled from our union. But most of us also know that the same rule applies to merely showing up, even if it’s a family member’s wedding. Last month a Rabbinical Assembly task force released a statement that surprised some of us (but not me). It turns out the prohibition against attending an intermarriage was never really enforced.

According to an article in Forward, some of my colleagues felt shocked, saddened, even betrayed. They’d followed the rules, risked the ire of their families, courted pain and rejection. And now it turns out it wasn’t necessary. They could have attended these weddings, stood with their now-estranged cousins, siblings, friends. Without consequence.

I read the article with some sympathy. I understood the frustration of many of my fellow rabbis. But the article itself touched on a larger challenge for Conservative Judaism, something that seems to be missing in the current debate. One rabbi, disillusioned at the movement’s retreat on attending intermarriages said, “As Conservative rabbis, law means something to us. Rules matter. I honor Halacha. I accept Halacha. And as a result I’m a rule follower.”

But, I wonder, is the debate over intermarriage really about rules? Or laws or standards (these decisions in our movement are made by the Committee on Law and Standards)? Aren’t there other values at play — family, romance, intimacy, respect, kindness, tolerance, pluralism, freedom? Of course these questions lead me to similar inquiries about Conservative Judaism. Can a great religious movement really be reduced to a set of behaviors, or even a range of behaviors within a prescribed path? Isn’t there more to Conservative Judaism — more to Judaism — than Halacha?

The problem with a rules-based spirituality is that it becomes so much easier to designate certain behaviors as deviant, and therefore beyond the pale. Expelling the rule breaker means we lose the possibility of learning from that colleague, of understanding the deep basis for his or her decisions. If we can salvage anything from this increasingly divisive debate it can be shifting the conversation from rules to values — so we can learn from and about each other.

I don’t have to point out that we live in polarized times. Politically, this is the era of litmus tests and charges of heresy. It’s already very difficult for many of us rabbis even to talk about Israel in our congregations. As a result, we’ve stopped growing together. Our intellectual curiosity withers. Our Torah suffers. My hope is that we can take expulsion off the table entirely when discussing intermarriage. Otherwise, it’s only about the rules, and nothing else.


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