Reform leaders nix resolution on intermarriage by 8-1 margin

Reform movement lay leaders have avoided a confrontation with their rabbis by rejecting a resolution that supported rabbinic participation in interfaith weddings.

The crunch came in a vote Saturday night in Los Angeles by some 200 national board trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

By an 8-to-1 margin, they overwhelmingly defeated a crucial resolution that would have urged the Reform rabbinical association to drop its longstanding though nonbinding opposition to rabbis' officiating over "any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage."

Dennis Bates, one of the trustees and president of the UAHC's Northern California Council, joined the majority and voted against the measure — but not because he rejects rabbinic officiation at intermarriages.

"It's really an issue in which it's the province of rabbis to determine what their position is, based on their own understanding of halachah and their own experiences and study of this issue," he said Monday.

The power of lay leaders on the issue of intermarriage should lie at the congregational level when they hire a rabbi, he added.

"That's where one makes the choice," said Bates, who represents 40 congregations in Northern California and belongs to Carmel's Congregation Beth Israel.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, interim director of UAHC's Pacific Northwest region, agreed.

"It's not in the purview of the congregational arm of the movement to tell rabbis how to live their conscience with integrity," she said.

The vote on the resolution, introduced by UAHC honorary vice chair David Belin, was taken in a show of hands after a closed 90-minute debate.

The outcome did nothing to change the right of individual Reform rabbis to officiate, or refuse to officiate, at interfaith weddings. It had even less bearing on the underlying phenomenon of large-scale intermarriage by American Jews.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El was surprised but pleased to hear of the vote's result.

Though he performs intermarriages, Pearce said he didn't want colleagues who refuse to do so as a matter of conscience to feel pressured by the vote.

"I'm not in favor of forcing people to do something that is religiously or ritually repugnant to them," said Pearce, who leads one of Northern California's largest congregations.

Still, Pearce said, the Reform movement needs to find ways to welcome Jews who have chosen to marry non-Jews. Many rabbis will tell an interfaith couple to return to the synagogue after they find someone else to marry them.

"You can't have it both ways," Pearce said of such rabbis.

It is a basic tenet of the Reform movement — and of its rabbinic arm, known as the Central Conference of American Rabbis — that each rabbi has considerable latitude in interpreting Jewish tradition. Thus, it is up to the rabbi to choose whether to solemnize an interfaith marriage, depending on the circumstances and the dictates of conscience.

Bates, in fact, said he wished the resolution had been withdrawn because he doesn't want anyone to think the trustees were rejecting rabbis' officiation at intermarriages.

"Even voting on it sends the wrong message," said Bates, who was one of six Northern Californians at the meeting.

Karlin-Neumann, who does not perform intermarriages, said she believed the vote didn't reflect the opinions of lay leaders on rabbis' officiation over interfaith weddings.

"I think there are two issues: One is how the congregational leaders feel about rabbinic officiation and one is about the respect congregants have for rabbis," she said.

In the absence of a definitive survey, it is estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of the 1,400 active Reform rabbis in the United States and Canada are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings.

While a few Reform rabbis will marry any couple and charge up to $1,500 for the service, the vast majority will insist on the couple's pledge to maintain a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews.

The issue is deeply troubling to most Reform rabbis, for theological as well as economic reasons. In a presentation by two rabbis who are on opposite sides of the question, it was noted that an increasing number of congregations will not hire a rabbi who refuses to perform mixed marriage ceremonies.

In the actual debate preceding the vote, it quickly became clear that the issue had little to do with wedding ceremonies but a great deal to do with the structure, balance of power and tensions within the Reform movement.

"In terms of economics and power, the laypeople are already in control, and this would be the last straw," said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the new president of the four-campus Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which trains Reform rabbis.

"Even rabbis who officiate at mixed marriages are opposed, because they don't want laypeople telling them what to think."

Similarly, he said, passage of the resolution would have had a severe impact on the morale of future rabbis studying at the Hebrew Union College.

On an even more basic level, the debate touched on the structure and direction of the Reform movement as it charts its course under new leadership.

"It is a sensitive situation," said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the new UAHC president. "The tension between our major branches has impeded our work. Had this passed, it would have been a blow to our fragile unity."