Conservative Pittsburgh rabbis open up
Local rabbis disagree on prohibition against officiating at interfaith weddings
When Rabbi Alex Greenbaum stood under the chuppah with a young congregant and the non-Jewish man who was becoming her husband earlier this summer, he was not “officiating” the ceremony.
He couldn’t be. As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, is prohibited from officiating at interfaith weddings pursuant to an R.A. standard that has been on the books since the early 1970s. The consequence of violating that prohibition is expulsion from the R.A.
So, when Greenbaum was asked by his congregant to participate at her wedding, the rabbi found a way to do so without overtly violating the R.A.’s mandate: while under the chuppah he delivered the “wedding talk,” he said, while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony.
“I came up to the chuppah, and I talked to the couple, because this was a child I raised since her bat mitzvah,” explained Greenbaum, who has been at Beth El for 15 years. “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children. They come to you and they say, ‘Rabbi, I’m getting married, and [the fiancé] is not Jewish.’ And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.”
Many Conservative rabbis around the country are wrestling with the R.A.’s prohibition against performing intermarriages. Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, retired since 2014 from Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., after 36 years, was expelled from the R.A. last spring for officiating at the marriage of an interfaith couple. Last month, a large pluralistic congregation in New York, B’nai Jeshurun, declared that its rabbis would begin performing interfaith marriages. The congregation is not officially affiliated with the Conservative movement, but its senior rabbi, José Rolando Matalon, was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Another Conservative rabbi, Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul, announced earlier this summer that he would be resigning his membership from the R.A. because of its prohibition against its clergy officiating at interfaith marriages.
The stances of Pittsburgh rabbis who are either formally affiliated with Conservative movement or who self-identify as Conservative, run the gamut on whether it is best to hold firm to the R.A.’s rule in a world where the intermarriage rate is skyrocketing.
Beth El, which is still affiliated with the Conservative umbrella group the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has taken a proactive position on welcoming the intermarried. Its ritual committee recently voted unanimously to allow interfaith couples to be called to the bima for an aliya prior to a wedding ceremony at an aufruf, and Greenbaum said that if the R.A. retracted its prohibition against clergy officiating at interfaith ceremonies, he would be willing to do so.
“If we look at our new members, demographics, we know [intermarriage] is high,” he said. “We are
s no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement.
“I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism,” he continued. “I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away. Therefore, I do think we need to re-examine the standard.”
Rabbi Chuck Diamond, who was ordained at JTS but who is no longer a member of the R.A., has been officiating at interfaith weddings for the last four years. Diamond, who served as spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha until last month, has performed about a dozen interfaith ceremonies so far and said he has “no regrets.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that having a rabbi officiate has kept people involved,” he said, adding that when he counsels interfaith couples, they must agree to raise their children in a Jewish home and to study with him before he will commit to officiating at their ceremonies.
“It’s worked out very well,” he said, noting that of the couples he has married who have had children, one has had a formal Jewish baby-naming for a newborn daughter, and another’s son has had a bris.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Cheswick, so far has
not officiated at an interfaith marriage, but said he was open to the idea “depending on the circumstances.”
Although Adat Shalom self-identifies as a Conservative congregation it is not formally affiliated with the movement, and Lehrer is not a member of the R.A.
There is a difference, he cautioned, between “officiating just to officiate and officiating at a wedding where the couple will be making a Jewish family.”
“If I were to do that type of thing, I would still follow Jewish tradition,” he said. “It still needs to be a Jewish service, with no co-officiating [with clergy from different faiths]. Co-officiating would be a line not to cross.”
The couple would have to commit to raising their children Jewish, he said, and there would have to “be a discussion about what that means, for the Jewish partner as well as the non-Jewish partner. This is the type of conversation you have with any couple.”
To Lehrer, the crux of the matter is securing the Jewish future.
“The world has moved in certain directions,” Lehrer said. “We have to recognize we are losing people. If we can hold onto them, that has to be a positive. That’s just the reality of the world. The key is not the officiating part, but all that leads up to it. We have to have open arms.”
Maintaining the status quo
Rabbi Seth Adelson, the senior rabbi at Beth Shalom, the largest Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh, has not officiated at an interfaith ceremony; neither has he attended one as a guest.
He does believe, he said, that his congregation “should be reaching out to all Jews regardless of who they are married to. And everybody should understand they are welcome here, and we will do as much as we can at Beth Shalom within the framework of halacha, Jewish law, to do so.”
Adelson pointed to his large conversion classes, which include people who were already married to Jews and decided to convert after being warmly welcomed by the congregation.
But Adelson does not think the R.A. rule prohibiting officiation at interfaith weddings should be overturned unless “there is an adequate halachic basis for doing so,” he said.
“I am not aware of the appropriate framework at this time; however, I know that there are people in the movement who are thinking about it, and I’m waiting to see what their rationale is. I don’t have that answer. Somebody else might.”
Ultimately, Adelson said, it is important for the movement to consider what is the most appropriate course “to maintain a good Jewish connection for subsequent generations,” he said. “I want us to have Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And so, we should do everything in our disposal to make sure that is the case.
“I know that there are statistics out there that show that when a rabbi performs an intermarriage, there is a much greater likelihood that the family will have a Jewish connection,” he continued. “There is research to that effect, there are measures for that, demographic data. But I am not convinced that that’s the only item. My sense is that—and I’ve heard stories of this—that when a rabbi says ‘no,’ then the couple is hurt and may not walk back into a synagogue. But I think there are other ways to reach out.”
Noted Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen has examined a recent study purportedly showing greater interfaith synagogue involvement following a ceremony performed by a rabbi, conducted by researchers at Brandeis University. Cohen concluded that the study provided “no evidence relating to the impact of rabbinic officiation on subsequent Jewish involvement,” but rather just showed that “people who seek a rabbi to officiate are more engaged in Jewish life than those who did not seek out a rabbi.”
The Conservative movement, Cohen said in an email, has in fact had success in perpetuating Jewish life while maintaining its longtime standards.
“The rate of intermarriage among Conservative-raised Jews is 39% as compared with 82 percent among Reform-raised Jews,” said Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College.
“In addition, intermarried Jews who are Conservative congregation members are far more active in Jewish life than their counterparts in Reform temples. One can indeed reason that the Conservative movement has been pursuing a relatively successful policy in dealing with the challenge of intermarriage to Jewish continuity in post-modern times.”
The Reform movement’s rabbinical association, in 1973, passed a resolution discouraging officiation at interfaith marriages, but allows each rabbi to decide his or her own practice. While the movement does not have precise data on how many of its rabbis will officiate at interfaith ceremonies, a spokesperson from its rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis told JTA in 2012 that it was about half.
The practice of officiating at interfaith weddings can, in fact discourage conversion, opined Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the R.A.’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and co-chair of a Blue Ribbon Commission recently convened to clarify standards in the movement, including the prohibition against its rabbis performing intermarriages.
“That certainly has been the experience of the Reform movement,” Dorff said. “Not that conversions don’t take place in the Reform movement—but if you don’t have to…the Reform movement also accepted patrilineal descent. If you’re part of an interfaith couple, whether you’re the man or the woman, and your children are going to be Jewish no matter what, then why bother even encouraging the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism?
“There are some very good studies that show that where you have two Jewish people raising children, 98 or 99 percent of them are raising their children as Jews,” he noted. “But where you have a Jew and a non-Jew raising children, then somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of the children are raised as Jews. So, there are some very important reasons for encouraging the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism. There are some Reform rabbis who really press that. But, you can understand that if it’s not going to make any difference in your status in the community, an interfaith couple may just say, ‘why bother?’”
Rabbis in the Conservative movement are encouraged by its umbrella organizations to welcome interfaith families to their congregations, but maintaining boundaries is critical, according to Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the R.A.
“The reason a Conservative rabbi cannot officiate at the wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew is not because she doesn’t love and care about them enough,” Schonfeld wrote in The Forward last month. “Rather it is because her commitment to the halakhic framework makes this impossible and her understanding of what are the limits of her authority as a rabbi do not include the facilitation and participation in Jewish rituals where one of the actual performers of the ritual is not Jewish.
“Jews are meant to find the spiritual growth and meaning we seek in … ‘bounded’ spaces. Those boundaries include the reservation of Jewish rituals that are the explicit performance of Jewish commitments to Jews.”
Because Jewish rituals are meant to be the purview of Jews, Rabbi Aaron Mackler, an associate professor of theology at Duquesne University who has been a member of the R.A.’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, said that a Conservative rabbi officiating at an intermarriage would be a violation of Jewish law.
“My own sense is that those rabbis who want to perform intermarriages—and I’m sure many of them are very good people and have really good reasons—but my understanding is it makes no sense for a rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage because that goes against Jewish law and practice,” Mackler said.
A Conservative rabbi standing under the chuppah of an interfaith couple and doing an English reading “is a less clear cut violation of performing an intermarriage,” Mackler said. “But I certainly would not do it, and I think that would be against the spirit of Jewish law.”
Mackler said that although he understands the concerns some rabbis have that declining a couple’s request to perform their wedding ceremony could turn them away from the Conservative movement, he nonetheless believes that is a requirement that should remain firm.
“I can understand that is a real concern, and that leads some rabbis to find good reason to say [an interfaith marriage] is a marriage, even though it is not Jewishly a marriage,” Mackler said. “But I myself think that is misleading at best and weakens the commitment to marriage to other Jews. I think conversion is wonderful if that partner decides to become a Jew, but being part of a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew which is not officially recognized by Judaism is misleading.”
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light, a Squirrel Hill congregation that identifies as Conservative but is not affiliated with the USCJ, is a member of the R.A., and as such, he does not officiate at wedding ceremonies between interfaith couples.
But even if the R.A. lifted its prohibition against such officiation, Perlman would continue to decline to perform those ceremonies.
“It’s something I personally believe in,” Perlman said.
Neither will Perlman attend a ceremony or a reception celebrating an interfaith marriage; but that doesn’t mean that he is not welcoming to the non-Jewish partners of those unions.
“A couple of times, people come back to me and say, ‘I want to learn about Judaism because my children will be raised Jewish,’” he explained. “I have created classes for them. Sometimes, even after 30 years of marriage, people will decide to convert.”
Perlman recently signed a petition circulated by Texas-based Rabbi Danny Horwitz, that reaffirms the R.A.’s longstanding prohibition against its clergy officiating at interfaith weddings.
“The question comes down to whether you want a Jewish blessing at your wedding,”
Perlman said. “Jewish blessings are all over the Jewish ceremony. It seems to be counter-cultural to say, ‘I’m going to take my non-Jewish fiancé and bring him or her into the culture and force these words upon him or her.’ You might as well create your own ceremony and go to a justice of the peace. Once you bring a rabbi into it, there are [Jewish] legal problems that come up, because of the blessings that are said. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to include a rabbi in that kind of thing.”
The petition circulated by Horwitz, who formerly served as president of the Mid-Continent Region of the Rabbinical Assembly, will be presented to the R.A.’s Blue Ribbon Commission that is examining the boundaries of the prohibition. It reaffirms its signatories’ commitment to the standard that “prohibits any member of the Assembly from performing intermarriages.”
Horwitz has more than 380 signatures from all over the world, “and there are a lot of people in favor of maintaining the standard who did not sign the petition,” he said.
Horwitz is not persuaded by those colleagues who argue that refusing to officiate at an interfaith marriage will turn couples away from Judaism.
“It may be true that some people will make their Jewish participation contingent on a ceremony conducted by a rabbi,” he said. “But that’s not beneficial to the Jewish community at large. I’m a rabbi with group responsibility. I don’t think these people have the right to be angry because I won’t officiate at their wedding and put my hechsher on that choice. My first obligation is to God, and my second is to do what I understand is best for the Jewish people.”
Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and a past president of the R.A., said that while he “feels the pain” of those interfaith couples who want a
Conservative rabbi to officiate at their weddings, “under the chuppah, I can only officiate at a marriage under the laws of Moses and Israel if all the parties are subject to Jewish law.”
“I’ve held onto this position throughout my rabbinical career, and before it became a policy of the R.A.,” he said. “It’s an important principle in our movement to maintain endogamy, and encourage conversion.”
The R.A. should maintain its standard, Berkun said. Not only would overturning it “without question discourage people from converting,” he said, but “my congregation has been understanding because the movement stands behind me. When I lose the backing of the movement, it becomes more difficult [to decline to perform interfaith weddings].”
Cantor Henry Shapiro, spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville, is a member of the Conservative Cantor’s Assembly, although his congregation is not formally affiliated with the movement. As a member of the C.A., Shapiro is also bound by the prohibition against officiating at intermarriages.
“No, I don’t officiate at interfaith weddings,” he said. “I haven’t been asked to do so, but I would decline.”
Shapiro sees the merit in maintaining the boundaries of Conservative Judaism.
“Where does the line end?” he asked. “At what point do you say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Are you giving up your values in order to keep your community together? It’s a slippery slope, and once you start down there, you can justify anything.
“It’s not an easy thing,” he continued. “It’s easy to say, ‘if you’re more inclusive, you get more people,’ but the other side is, if we are compromising our values, what do we stand for? Personally, it’s still something I’m not comfortable with.”
Clarifying the standard
The Blue Ribbon Commission convened last month to clarify its prohibition against officiating at intermarriages and will reveal its findings — after executive review — in the weeks to come, Dorff said.
“We will be making some recommendations about Keruv — bringing [interfaith] couples close to our communities and Judaism,” he said.
The commission does not have a mandate to consider removing the prohibition from the books, he stressed, but to examine its margins.
“One of the things we’re talking about is making the whole conversion process more welcoming and to define exactly what that should include and how to give best practices to rabbis on how to involve interfaith couples in our communities.
“One of the issues we have to clarify is what does ‘officiate’ mean,” he said. “On the one hand it does not include attendance [at an interfaith ceremony], but what does it include? One of our tasks is to try to determine what ‘officiate’ means and what it does not mean in terms of the standard.”
Lines must be “very clearly drawn, or it’s just not fair,” Dorff said, because a violation of the standard is grounds for expulsion from the R.A.
Dorff does not know how many of the R.A.’s more than 1600 members would in fact favor overturning the prohibition if polled.
“What is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that interfaith marriage is an increasing phenomenon in the Jewish community, and because the Conservative rabbis of today will continue not to be allowed to officiate at wedding ceremonies for these couples, the question becomes, how can we nevertheless involve them in our communities?” he said. “That’s the reason why this commission is not only trying to clarify the standards, but also recommend a number of things to respond to what a rabbi — short of officiating at the wedding of an interfaith couple — can do to involve them in the Conservative synagogue.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at