To Attend or Not?

Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the worldwide network of Conservative rabbis, made a decision that was not really a decision. The group clarified a standard of rabbinic practice for its members which states that they are not allowed to officiate at an interfaith wedding but they may attend one.

For decades the perceived policy of the RA was that the mere attendance at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew was grounds for removal from the organization. Some rabbis were forced to choose between attending a family wedding and their job.

In reality, no one was ever disciplined for attending an interfaith wedding. Most of us knew this was the real policy, no matter what the rules were. I personally have attended such family weddings without fear of repercussions.

The recent RA decision merely codified the unwritten policy, although there was at least one rabbi who was unaware that the prohibition on attending interfaith weddings was never enforced. He was angry to learn that he had risked damaging familial relationships for a non-existent rule.

The New Jersey Jewish News recently ran an article surveying the thoughts of local rabbis on this new (non)change. Most, including me, were supportive. No one seemed to be against the idea that rabbis should attend the weddings of family and friends who married non-Jews.

The one question that does divide Conservative rabbis is whether to allow RA members to go a step further and officiate at intermarriages. There is a significant group of members who believe we should move in that direction. As I mentioned in a sermon I gave on the High Holy Days, I believe we should continue to maintain the ban and not perform such weddings.

Does this move by the RA to allow rabbinic attendance signal that in the future it will also allow officiation? It’s hard to say. On the one hand the history of the Conservative movement has been one of progressive liberalization: first we allowed men and women to sit together, then we allowed women to read Torah, then we ordained women as rabbis and cantors.

Similarly with LGBT Jews, first the movement encouraged their inclusion in our communities and only later allowed them to be ordained. In fact, I distinctly remember being in rabbinical school and someone who was against the ordination of LGBT Jews arguing that the next step was permitting interfaith weddings. The comment struck me then as odd since the two topics have nothing to do with each other.

In rabbinical school I thought the Conservative movement would not change its policy on intermarriage any time soon, but 12 years later I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is only a matter of a few years before we allow rabbinic officiation of intermarriages. While I may disagree with such a decision, I hope it would be one reached through a halakhic process that takes into account the tradition as well as contemporary realities.

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