‘This is the issue of our time’

‘This is the issue of our time’

Conservative rabbis re-examine their roles when Jews marry non-Jews

Rabbi Roly Matalon
Rabbi Roly Matalon

What is a boundary? When is it protective and when is it constrictive? When should it have windows and when should those window sashes be thrown up? When should it raise the portcullis to keep out invaders, when should boiling oil be poured from its slits, and when should that bridge be let down? What passports should visitors need? What documentation should residents need? When should it be remodeled?

There have been boundaries protecting the Jewish people from outsiders from the beginning, from before we were Jews, back to when we still were Israelites. Much of that protection was aimed at the most intimate of all kinds of protection or invasion — intermarriage and the children that might result from that union.

Right now, the Conservative movement, with its carefully drawn balance between tradition and modernity, between hewing to its interpretation of halacha and its understanding of the truths and realities of the outside world, is confronting the huge question of what to do about the increasing number of Jews who want to marry non-Jews but still retain their connection to the Jewish community.

Can its rabbis possibly perform intermarriages? What will happen if they do? What will happen if they don’t? And is the decision necessarily binary and stark? What is the best path forward?

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has brought the question forward in a way that has affected the discussion around the country.

To begin, it is necessary to situate Rabbi Matalon and his shul in the Conservative movement. Although the synagogue left the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue association, decades ago, it still remains a Conservative institution — it uses the movement’s siddur and chumash, takes guidance from the movement’s Joint Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, and Rabbi Matalon is a member of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Although the movements to the Conservative’s left and right already have or someday will have to deal with the question of Jews marrying non-Jews, right now it is the centrist movement’s turn in this unwelcome spotlight.

Rabbi Matalon and his colleagues have decided that beginning in 2018, they will perform intermarriages, under certain specific conditions, as a still-unwritten ceremony that will incorporate Jewish ritual, symbols, and texts.  “It will not be the traditional kiddushin ceremony but will be fully religious and Jewish,” Rabbi Matalon said. At the same time, he added, it will “acknowledge that the couple consists of a Jew and a person who is not Jewish.” He and the other rabbis on staff at BJ made that decision as part of a yearlong project with the community, and as an outgrowth of a partnership with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute and a group of Conservative rabbis and Jewish scholars.

Rabbi Matalon began to think about intermarriage when the congregation undertook its strategic plan in 2014. “One of the people I interviewed for it was Donniel Hartman,” he said. “I wanted his perspective on some of the big issues he was seeing from where he sits.” That’s in Jerusalem, where he lives, but also in the United States, where he was born, and where he still spends a great deal of time. Rabbi Hartman is an Orthodox rabbi, which adds yet another perspective to the mix.

“Intermarriage came up as a major issue, and he said to me that if the Conservative movement doesn’t deal with it in a serious way, it is going to be in trouble,” Rabbi Matalon said. “It will be further and further diminished. So I asked him if he would work with me in looking into this issue. Would he partner with us? And he said he would be happy to.

“So we agreed that the two of us would put together a group. I would get about a dozen congregational rabbis and he would put together a group of scholars.” The rabbis, Rabbi Matalon continued, “are from across the country, younger and older, men and women. And Donniel put together a group of scholars. The scholars” — who included Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer and other Hartman scholars and Dr. Christine Hayes from Yale — “got together for about four or five months on a weekly basis to discuss the Jewish lenses through which to look at this — theological, historical, sociological, textual. Then we had a two-day retreat where the rabbis and scholars studied together, and the Hartman scholars presented.” That was in February 2016, he added.

“Out of this emerged the curriculum for BJ,” Rabbi Matalon continued.

From last year’s High Holy Days until last month, the shul had a series of talks from scholars, parlor meetings, and other meetings and discussions about intermarriage.

“I think that maybe the most salient takeaways from the scholars’ talks is that Jewish identity historically has lived within a spectrum,” Rabbi Matalon said. “It was not always binary, in or out, Jew or non-Jew. There were citizens, there were foreigners, there were resident aliens — the ger toshav — and within that spectrum people had different rights and responsibilities but lived within the Jewish community.” That was early on, through the rabbinic and even post-rabbinic period. “And then things became more complicated and more binary.” But throughout Jewish history, he said, there frequently was an effort to keep apostates or heretics, or Karaites, or people who otherwise were somehow deviant, somehow “outside of the norm,” connected to the community. “There was an attempt by Rambam and other authorities to create bridges, to create interactions, to stress what they had in common more than what divided them,” he said. Of course, that effort to build bridges did not extend to those Jews who had married outside the community.

“Those bridges were an attempt not to give up, not to read out,” Rabbi Matalon said. “Even though those people’s behavior was not acceptable or accepted. So it established that there is a tradition.”

Jewish life became far more constrained, narrow, and dangerous during the Middle Ages and even through the more generally expansive times that followed. Still, “it never has been as stark or as binary as we have been led to believe,” Rabbi Matalon said. “It was those things that rose to the surface in terms of shaping our understanding of our present situation. The present is not identical to anything that happened in the past, but it gave us a way to think about the present.

“The present is quite unprecedented, but we can use Jewish texts and a Jewish lens to figure out solutions for the challenges we face today.”

As Rabbi Matalon began to talk about his plans, he said that there are some points that must be made as a preface. First, he said, “the situation we deal with today is ‘bediavad’” — ex post facto. “We are trying to address something that already has happened, a posteriori.

“We are not out to promote marriages between Jews and non-Jews. We are not saying to Jews, go out and marry anyone you want! We are addressing a situation that already exists, and is increasing in number. Couples do not change their minds about who to marry when we express our disapproval. They are going ahead despite our disapproval.

“Number two, we have to realize that these people who are marrying non-Jews do not intend to leave the Jewish community. At other times, marrying a non-Jew was a passport out of the Jewish community.” That is no longer the case.

“Number three, a Jewish person who is marrying a non-Jew is not doing it as an indication of a weakness of Jewish identity. We live in an open society, and people look for people just like themselves. And since Jewish values are the larger community’s values, since the larger community has to a large extent accepted Jewish values — justice, compassion, decency, responsibility, hard work — so people say, ‘Look, we share values. We don’t share Shabbat or chaggim or a Jewish identity, but we share values.’”

One thing that used to keep Jews safe from marrying non-Jews is that the non-Jewish world rejected Jews. Who would want to marry an outcast? A big-nosed, tribal, smelly, cheap creep? That’s no longer the stereotype of Jews. To put it more sedately, as Rabbi Matalon did, “The barriers are going down in both directions.”

So he ends up seeing Jews who want to marry non-Jews but also want their rabbi to perform the ceremony. He never used to hear such requests, he said; until not very many years ago, his assistants would turn them away before they reached him and his rabbinic colleagues at BJ.

“If we push them away, if they come to seek our blessing and we push them away, they basically wander out,” he said. “They carry a great deal of shame already, that’s built into the situation, and we augment it, and they’re out. As rabbis, we have a sense of responsibility to them and to future generations to bring these people in, to give them the tools they need to build Jewish homes and raise Jewish children, for their sake and for the sake of the Jewish community and the Jewish future.”

So he and his colleagues will come up with an “alternative ceremony, that will not be kiddushin, that will unite these couples as long as they commit themselves to having a Jewish home and if they have children to raising Jewish children, and to converting the children if their mothers are not Jewish.

“In order to do so, we will put a program in place that asks all couples to discuss all these issues. What does it mean to have a Jewish home? To be Jewish? We will work with mixed couples and Jewish couples on a document of tena’im — of conditions for the marriage — which include the commitments to a Jewish home, and if necessary, to convert the children.

“And at BJ we are going to create a hopefully very interesting core project called the Jewish Home Project, with resources, guidance, and classes for all members of BJ. We are going to invite everyone to strengthen the Jewish content and meaning of their homes.

“We often see Jewish/Jewish couples who have very little idea of how to create a Jewish home. Often their commitment to the Jewish community is not strong or meaningful.”

What about conversion? “It will now be held to a much higher and more visible level,” Rabbi Matalon said. “We will give much more prominence to the conversion program at BJ.” On the one hand, he will ask the non-Jewish partner if he or she is interested. On the other, “we want people to do it as a real thing, not for administrative reasons. Not to make other people happy.

“Conversion,” he continued, “is such a transformative spiritual experience that it has to be taken on with thought and meaning. It is a deep spiritual shift and has to be taken with a deep desire to change.

“It might not happen before the marriage, but maybe five, 10, 20 years down the line. It can take time for the non-Jewish person to be able to come to that place.” Sometimes they have parents or grandparents they don’t want to hurt; sometimes they just don’t feel it. “But we hope that after a number of years of living within the Jewish community, they will come to see the depth and beauty of the Jewish community, and say that they want to be fully part of it.”

BJ will not sanction marriages between Jews and people who hold other faiths, and of course that means they will never co-officiate with clergy members of other faiths. “And we uphold maternality,” Rabbi Matalon said. “That is because it is a question of Jewish status and identity, and changing it is not something we could or would do independently.

“That is a question of klal Israel.”

This is a remarkably important issue, Rabbi Matalon concluded. “I don’t know if this solution would work for everyone, but it is our solution. Not trying to figure it out is not an option.

“This is the issue of our time. It is an issue not of pikuach nefesh but of pikuach neshama” — not of saving a life, but of saving a soul. “A Jewish soul. This is not a physical life but a spiritual life.

“Some people are afraid of moving the boundaries, of opening a door in their boundaries. We are not removing boundaries. We are opening a door.”

Rabbi Adina Lewittes
Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter is the founder of Sha’ar Communities, a new look at Jewish life in community. Like Rabbi Matalon, she was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but she left the Rabbinical Assembly when she decided to perform some intermarriages a few years ago. (The RA does not permit its members to perform intermarriages, and Rabbi Matalon is fairly sure that he too will have to leave it.)

Rabbi Lewittes was part of the group that Rabbi Matalon convened. “This is an urgent issue because it is a reality of contemporary Jewish life,” she said. “Drawing the lines where we have drawn them is not understanding the profound impact that we could have by somehow being present to couples on this journey.” And as she pointed out, “saying no has not yielded us the results that we imagined that they would have yielded us.

“It worked very comfortably when society was organized around very segmented communities,” she said. It doesn’t work so well anymore.

“The work we are doing now is focusing on a deep mining of the tradition to understand if there are any halachic paradigms into which negotiating this issue may make sense,” she continued. “What inspiration, if any, may we find in our own tradition to frame these efforts in a way that is continuous? To not rupture it in the way that most people anticipate that it will be ruptured?”

Like Rabbi Matalon, Rabbi Lewittes said that she has not and will not perform a traditional Jewish wedding for an interfaith couple. It will be a civil ceremony “that cannot use the traditional tools of sanctification that are reserved for when two Jews are marrying. But a rabbi can offer a blessing to people who have found love, and offer teachings, and extend a very passionate welcome, and an expectation that they will live their lives within the Jewish community.

“There might not be a halachic paradigm, but it might not need a halachic paradigm because it is not a halachic moment.”

It is even less wise to turn away couples who ask a rabbi to officiate at their wedding because “if you read the pages of the New York Times wedding section, you’ll notice that fewer and fewer of wedding officiants are clergy,” she said.

Rabbi Lewittes will work at BJ this year; as a part-time rabbi, she will teach and do pastoral work. Also, “I hope it will afford me the opportunity to help them think through the model and evolve some programs about how to implement it in ways that will allow them to embrace these couples and these families,” she said.

Last November, Rabbi Lewittes and her colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the influential founder of Storahtelling and Lab/Shuls who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary just the year before, wrote a widely read piece discussing their doubts about just saying no to intermarriage. She said that under certain circumstances she’d perform them, and he said that until he decided what he would do about intermarriage, he would perform no weddings at all. A few weeks ago, he made public his decision to perform intermarriages.

“The stakes here are really high,” Rabbi Lewittes concluded. “No one should dismiss or naively assume that those who are studying and struggling to come up with a re-framework of this reality are in any way ignorant or dismissive of those stakes. I cannot stress enough how the group of rabbis with whom we are working are people who are approaching it with a great sense of humility and of understanding of the great responsibility we carry with us.”

Local Conservative rabbis understand the problems — they too face them — but they do not embrace the solution Rabbis Matalon and Lewittes are exploring.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

“The difference in this situation is between a butcher and a surgeon,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter said. “I respect Roly immensely, but I don’t think this decision is in the best interests of Judaism. Saying no at times defines our boundaries, and it is in our best interest to say no sometimes.

“In this case, it is not just saying no, but saying no with empathy, with understanding, and with compassion. We let people know that this will be their journey, and this is just one stop on their journey. We are here for that journey.

“It is important to note that we are the victims of our own success,” Rabbi Kirshner continued. “We no longer live in the shtetl. No matter who had won the election, they would have had a Jewish son-in-law. We do not want to go back to the shtetl. This is new for us, and we have to figure out how to deal with it.”

Nonetheless, “inherently, when you say no to one thing, you are saying yes to something else,” he concluded. “When you say no to intermarriage, you are saying yes to a commitment to our people and to our tradition.”

Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine
Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine

Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood is more blunt.

First, he said, “any intermarriage that is officiated by a rabbi is going to be nonhalachic.” It’s a civil marriage, and he does not perform civil marriages. “If I am asked to do a wedding, I say, I’m sorry, but I can only do a Jewish wedding. That’s a wedding between two people who accept the same covenant. I am working in a covenantal system, and I am working with two partners and God and the tradition, and both partners have to accept the system. I can still say mazal tov, but I represent the covenant system of only one of the partners.

“I think that the Conservative movement has chosen the wrong path in turning their back on intermarried couples and trying to limit acknowledging them in the synagogue,” Rabbi Fine continued. “I think that the result of that is that often intermarried couples feel that they have to affiliate with Reform synagogues. That is fine if that is what they want, but I am bothered that they do not feel that they have a place in a Conservative synagogue.

“And there is always the possibility that they will raise Jewish children,” he added. “I do think that we need some way of getting the message across to intermarried Jews that they are welcome in our community.”

Rabbi Fine acknowledges that the status of non-Jewish partners in the Conservative world is both fraught and changing, and he is a bit puzzled by how the movement is handling it. “Last February, the United Synagogue voted to eliminate the standard that you had to be Jewish to be a member of a synagogue,” he said. “That was a big change, and I don’t think it was taken as seriously as it should have been.

“I think that it will take some time for the results to be felt. I feel that the movement needs to recenter itself. I think that there is a healthy discussion to come, and we will see where it goes.”

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