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Why Are Conservative Jews Ignoring Our Own Intermarriage Rate?

Most non-profits try to avoid contested elections and just push through a nominating committee report. But sometimes there’s an issue that can’t be shoved aside, a philosophical dispute with the potential to clarify the institution’s mission and meaning. That seems to be the case this year at my professional association, the Rabbinical Assembly — the organization for Conservative Rabbis.

The issue is intermarriage, specifically, rabbinic officiation and attendance of mixed-faith weddings. At some point in the last few years, we started talking about it among ourselves, chatting about in online groups, publishing articles and blog posts. How seriously do we take the injunction — punishable by expulsion — not to attend an intermarriage? What if it’s a close family member, a child, a sibling? Even rabbinic officiation at intermarriages — the ultimate taboo for more than a generation — is suddenly up for grabs, at least among a few of us. Last year the Rabbinical Assembly appointed a blue ribbon commission to reexamine the issue, and now our executive officers have to decide what to do with its recommendations. But not everyone agrees, and so — elections.

But most rabbis understand that this isn’t just about policies and standards: it is also about whether and how much to sanction these unions, how we can attend and in what capacity and what the penalties for non-compliance will be. Beneath the policy questions lie deep and meaningful values which may define the Conservative Movement for the next generation. Last October, the Rabbinical Assembly released a pastoral letter on the topic which attempted to identify the issues at stake in the debate. The document focused on the concept of “covenantal loyalty.” “Traditional Judaism affirms that Jewish identity… thrives as a manifestation of covenantal belonging and loyalty, when every member of a household personally identifies with the history and destiny of the Jewish people.” Wedding ceremonies, according to the letter, are manifestations of covenantal loyalty, aimed at those who decisively identify as Jews. “The integrity of the Gentile is not trivial to us,” says the document. If you haven’t thrown in your lot with the Jewish people through conversion, you’re a gentile, and therefore not eligible for a ceremony which celebrates and affirms covenantal loyalty.

It’s an intriguing concept, and certainly worth further study, more than a short pastoral letter could provide. But for me, it’s shocking how removed the letter is from the reality of how American Judaism is lived today. Why, after all, are we even talking about this? The current intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews is over 70 percent. If it was 10 percent or 20 percent or 30 percent, or even maybe 40 percent, I’d be willing to dive deeply into the term “covenantal loyalty” and figure out what it means for me and my responsibilities, and how to explain it to the congregants I’m rejecting when I refuse to honor the most important day of their lives. But when the intermarriage rate is 70 percent? Covenant implies a collection of people acting together. But what happens when the great majority aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave? Can there be a covenant without a congregation?

For me, the clarifying issue is where we find God. The pastoral letter states that Conservative Judaism “has long taken a stand among those who continue to hear the commanding voice of the Divine reverberate in our sacred texts.” It would have been interesting for the authors of the letter to cite which sacred text highlights covenantal loyalty, and how does that particular text command against officiating at intermarriages. But there are other places where we hear the “commanding voice of the Divine” — namely within the people themselves. Where exactly is that Divine voice when the people ignore the text?

It’s the classic tension of Conservative Judaism, but it’s not new. In a brilliant Midrash, Moses faces the same tension when sees the Golden Calf. The Torah has him smash the tablets out of anger. But in the Midrash, he at first decides to return them, and then shatters them on purpose because he understand that if he gives the people the Ten Commandments, God will have to destroy them. In other words, faced with the choice between the text and the people, he chooses the people.

Conservative Judaism faces a dilemma similar to the Labor Party in Israel. Once, we defined the spiritual agenda of American Judaism. We were the moderate, centrist voices so popular in the post-war period, the voice of the people, of the covenant. But times changed, the people moved away, and it’s not clear we can turn things around. Clarifying and then articulating our deepest values is probably the only hope. That’s the blessing hidden in the current debate.

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