Reform Rabbis Attempt to Ride the Intermarriage Wave

Yesterday, the largest body of American rabbis inched closer to acknowledging that they cannot stop interfaith marriages from happening. The Associated Press headline reads: “U.S. Reform rabbis suggest welcoming interfaith couples.” It is astonishing, in a way, to think that such a timid suggestion could still be news in 2010. Instead of wailing and gnashing their teeth before the tidal wave of interfaith families, Reform rabbis now propose to make the best of the situation by putting their efforts into outreach to interfaith families.

I am all for anything that makes Jewish communities more welcoming. I want interfaith children to have the opportunity to experience authentic Judaism, and become knowledgeable and passionate about their Jewish roots. Rabbis engaging with interfaith families is good for the Jews, and good for interfaith children. Especially if the alternative is ignorant children, or negative and bitter feelings about Judaism.

Unfortunately, the task force from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (representing over 2000 Reform rabbis), releasing their report at an annual convention in San Francisco, did not suggest overturning the Reform movement’s formal opposition to rabbis performing interfaith marriages, according to the Associated Press (the report is not yet up online). Instead, they continued to maintain that it is up to each rabbi to decide whether or not to perform such ceremonies. Instead, they proposed creating special rituals to bless interfaith couples.

Okay, I’m sorry, but there is so much irony in welcoming an interfaith family by offering them a separate but unequal ceremony. I suspect my gay and lesbian friends can relate here. I try not to get exasperated about the fact that there are rabbis who will perform gay or lesbian marriages but not interfaith marriages. There’s enough pain to go around here.

And yes, I am someone who has never forgotten that our family rabbi refused to perform my marriage. I realize I was a generation ahead of the trend, since I’m only “half-Jewish by blood,” and my husband is Jewish only in spirit. Some will say we had chutzpah to even ask a rabbi to perform such a union. Others will wonder why we wanted to even be members of this club. If our rabbi had offered us a “special blessing” that was not a legal marriage, as the panel now suggests, would we have had any interest in such a thing? Or would we have gone ahead, as we did, and found a rabbi and minister willing to co-officiate? It is clear to me that we would have done the latter.

And, having experienced the beauty, the affirmation, the resonance of a completely balanced and inclusive ceremony, we went on to seek out this balance for our children, by joining an interfaith families community.

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5 Replies to “Reform Rabbis Attempt to Ride the Intermarriage Wave”

  1. Sue, for what it’s worth, you can have a perfectly kosher Jewish wedding without a rabbi, even if it’s helpful to have a rabbi there is you want the marriage to hold up in a Jewish court, which would concern few Jews who marry non-Jews. That’s because in a Jewish wedding, the partners marry each other in front of acceptable witnesses. So I say, just dispense with the rabbi!

    I tried to do this when I got married, but my then-fiancee wouldn’t go along. She has a very good friend who’s an Episcopal priest who could have signed our marriage license without officiating religiously. I still wish we had done it that way.

  2. Seth, You always add an important angle to these discussions. Yes, I love the relatively democratic, DIY nature of Judaism. (It should have made it to my Top Ten Things I Love About Judaism post). You can also “have” a perfectly kosher Bar Mitzvah without a rabbi. And yet, Reform Jewish institutions looking for proof that interfaith children have been “raised Jewish” through “appropriate rituals” are certainly going to look askance at do-it-yourself weddings and B’nei Mitvah. We are caught at this bizarre moment in time when half-Jews have to be far more rigorous in their observance than “full Jews” in order to be accepted, with little regard to actual spiritual inclination or passion. I find myself in continuous rebellion against this hypocrisy.

  3. It seems like the Reform movement makes this declaration every few years! Then they change their mind and reverse their direction, and then they do it again! We participated in an “Interfaith Outreach” program at a Reform synagogue when we first moved to DC about 9 years ago, but we found it so heavy-handed in the push to raise the kids Jewish that we didn’t feel welcome. It was like the non-Jewish spouse was a phantom appendage! The big declaration by the movement at that time was that non-Jewish spouses would be welcome to join and not convert! Big concession! We felt very isolated when we tried to express our interest in discussing the possibility of raising our kids with both families’ religions (Jewish & Catholic). So glad there are others like us!

  4. As a child of intermarriage myself I am interested to see this report once it finally comes out. My parents had a similar problem when they tried to marry. The Reform movement seems to be tap dancing on quicksand when it comes to intermarriage. On the one hand their lax philosophy would seem to allow it… but at the same time they worry about Jewish continuity. So as Jews who want to retain what shreds of Judaism they have left they can’t say yes to intermarriage, but as a movement with no real rules, boundaries or obligations they can’t say no… it is an interesting predicament. I doubt that they will be able to offer a satisfying answer without either being overly vague or creating glaring hypocrisies. Either that or they will embrace it and Reform will be one step closer to becoming a separate religion all together.

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