A chuppah awaits a wedding couple. (Photo/JTA-Mendy Hechtman-Flash90)
A chuppah awaits a wedding couple. (Photo/JTA-Mendy Hechtman-Flash90)

I’m a Conservative rabbi, and I want to do interfaith weddings

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When I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2010, I naively thought that interfaith marriage would not play a significant role in my rabbinate. Conservative Judaism’s ban on rabbinic participation in interfaith marriages is well known. Who would ask me to officiate?

After I was ordained, though, a request came from a dear non-Jewish friend, who was engaged to a Jewish woman. It was important to her that a rabbi perform their marriage — could I help?

At about the same time, the Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism’s rabbinic association, initiated expulsion proceedings against a highly respected senior colleague in part for officiating at his stepdaughter’s interfaith marriage.

It was a distressing time. How could I cause pain to my friend? How could my professional organization punish a father for supporting his child?

When a couple asks a rabbi to officiate at their wedding, it is because they are seeking a connection with Judaism. When we reject them on their wedding day, we risk irreconcilably alienating them and their families from the Jewish community.

It was with sadness, then, that I learned in late August a special group convened by the Rabbinical Assembly officially recommended that, while Conservative rabbis should be welcoming to interfaith couples, the prohibition on Conservative rabbis officiating interfaith weddings should stand.

Beyond the hurt and shame the current policy causes, there are many compelling reasons why the Rabbinical Assembly might want to adopt a more inclusive approach.

Foremost among them is that the decadeslong effort by the organized Jewish community to invest in “continuity” represents nothing short of a moral failure. As professors Lila Corwin Berman, Kate Rosenblatt and Ronit Stahl, who is with UC Berkeley, have argued, the organized Jewish community’s multimillion-dollar preoccupation with intermarriage and birth rates among Jewish women is symptomatic of a broader opposition to second-wave feminism within the Jewish establishment.

Not only does such an approach place on women the undue burden of Judaism’s survival, but it also distracts our community from seeking creative solutions that would enrich Jewish life.

We must do teshuvah, or repentance, for the considerable damage our past approach caused.

Historically, this was certainly the case in the Conservative movement: One of our few official publications on sexuality, the pamphlet “This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend,” puts forth this argument:

“Those who can bear children or adopt them should see it as a mitzvah of the highest order to have more than the minimal number of two, for nothing less than the future of the Jewish community and of Judaism depends upon that.”

At the same time, denominational leaders often have used words like “war” and “battle” to describe their efforts to curb interfaith marriage.

What demands do these arguments place on women’s bodies? Where do they leave Jews in interfaith relationships, LGTBQ Jews, couples who cannot conceive, couples who choose not to conceive and Jews who, for whatever reason, never get married? And if we take these claims seriously, how do we address the massive financial burden of raising a Jewish family?

More than that, how do we make peace with the pain that arguments like these have caused and will continue to cause to generations of thoughtful Jews who have fallen in love and chosen to build a home with a non-Jewish partner?

The results of the Conservative movement’s efforts to promote continuity could not be more evident. As recent demographic studies show, a movement that once helped to lead American Jewish life is in decline, struggling to define itself and to find relevancy in a vastly changed landscape. Even if, today, we choose to maintain our current ban on rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages while softening our rhetoric on the issue, we must do teshuvah, or repentance, for the considerable damage our past approach caused.

In the communities where I have served — for the last seven years here at Congregation B’nai Shalom Walnut Creek and previously in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley — interfaith families that choose to affiliate with our community contribute in remarkable ways. Non-Jewish partners often bring their children to religious school. They volunteer at our events. They provide advice and guidance to our board in their fields of expertise.

In every way, their presence enriches our community. But for every family that chooses to join our congregation, there is another that chooses to belong to a community viewed as more welcoming.

How much richer would our Conservative Jewish communities be if rabbis like me could seriously engage with couples at the outset of their marriage?

Instead of defining ourselves by what we oppose, Conservative Jews should instead define ourselves by what we stand for.

At Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, we have completed a serious process of reflection to define what we see as the core values of Conservative Judaism in the 21st century. As a community, we strive to focus on loving the Jewish people, loving our neighbor, celebrating Shabbat and festivals, studying our sacred tradition and repairing a broken world.

The great strength of the Jewish people is that we have consistently remained true to these values, even as we redefine the meaning of Judaism to meet the needs of the moment. Today, our communities are blessed by the presence of many non-Jews who love Jews and attach their destiny to the fate of the Jewish people. They should be welcomed and loved as a vital part of a new Jewish future. Hopefully, the leadership of the Conservative movement will embrace the spirit of the moment before it is too late.

Rabbi Daniel Stein
Rabbi Daniel Stein

Rabbi Daniel Stein is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.