A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

9 Responses to “A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage”

  1. Rabbi Cosgrove’s whole stance seems slightly strange to me with some big skips in logic.
    The logic seems to me to be:
    * It makes no sense in his gut to refuse to be part of an intermarriage ceremony and celebration, but then to welcome the intermarried couple into our congregations.
    * Therefore, the solution is to make conversion much easier so that there will be less intermarriage.
    Am I missing something?

    That stance doesn’t do anything about the strict Rabbinical Assembly ban on a member even attending an intermarriage so the initial problem in his gut remains. He’ll still refuse to be involved with intermarriages, but will try to welcome the families afterwards. Radically rethinking the conversion process to not actually address his original problem is weird. What will he do with someone who doesn’t want to through a pre-wedding conversion, no matter how easy it is, but may still be interested or willing to have a family active in a Jewish community afterwards?

    That said, it seems like the actual solution would be to relax the rules regarding attending intermarriage. The old logic, “If a rabbi attends an intermarriage it means he’s blessing the marriage as ok” is ridiculous when they then take the same couple and welcome them with open arms into a
    synagogue. Why not just remove the ban on attending intermarriages?

    The issue of officiating is more complex. One of my teachers told me that his issue with officiating is that there’s no need for a halachically knowledgable officiant. His job is to make sure the wedding is performed according to Jewish law and, if one partner doesn’t accept Jewish law as binding in any form, there’s nothing for him to supervise. What does it mean to sign a ketubah that is enforceable by a beit din if one person doesn’t hold by any beit din? There is still a lot of space for Conservative rabbis to attend intermarriages, share Jewish teachings there, talk about the couple, dance with the couple, sign secular marriage licenses, etc. All of this is currently forbidden, but would go much farther to address Rabbi Cosgrove’s initial concerns.

    Dan Ab · February 28th, 2013 at 12:07 pm
  2. New rule: Conservative rabbis may attend intermarriages, so long as they write on their response card “RTs do not imply endorsement.”

    dlevy · February 28th, 2013 at 12:09 pm
  3. I’m glad this is being discussed again. Here’s the link to my Jewish Daily Forward article: forward.com/articles/130676/rescind-the-ban-on-attending-interfaith-weddings/

    Rabbi Jason Miller · March 1st, 2013 at 10:56 am
  4. Rabbi Cosgrove, whom I really admire, makes a very astute observation. His approach to a solution supports what another rabbi at his former shul said recently in private: “In the future, the Conservative movement will become more like the Reform movement and the Reform movement will disappear.”

    Southside · March 2nd, 2013 at 9:13 pm
  5. Southside, that is laughable based on the relative strengths of the movements. If anything, the Conservative movement will become more like the Reform movement, which will then swallow it up.

    dlevy · March 4th, 2013 at 12:09 pm
  6. @southside Are you quoting Siegel? AES looks less like the reform movement than a microcosm on the conservative movement itself. Clergy who are more observant than 99% of their members, a small devoted coterie of 15%s who are highly engaged in Jewish ritual and institutional life, another 35% of members who support the aesthetics and construct of Conservative ritual even if they aren’t highly engaged, and then the balance, for whom it matters little beyond convenience and social context. From what I know, AES’ conversion program is fairly progressive and highly active.

    That all said, we’re leaving something out. Does the Jewish child maryrying out have a responsibility to their own cause (beyond their people) to educate their partner on the importance of joining our people? I feel any shift in attitude that overlooks this does the couple a disservice. Maybe this is a failure to educate at an earlier stage of the game, a lack of a clearer communication of the beauty of the process or a failure to express certain values in the home way earlier- who knows? Placing the onus on a shift among the Cerlgy seems tenuous.

    If the goal is, as Elliot says, to create more Jewish homes, how much more likely is that to ACTUALLY happen after the Chuppah? Very little, despite our hopes to the contrary, says the research. It may feel and look nicer, but there’s no teeth to it. It may matter little at the outset to couple and shul alike, but when the children come along, issues become even more uncomfortable and distressing.

    adam · March 4th, 2013 at 12:21 pm
  7. adam writes:
    That all said, we’re leaving something out. Does the Jewish child maryrying out have a responsibility to their own cause (beyond their people) to educate their partner on the importance of joining our people?

    Once you (and the organized Jewish community) frame it as “marrying out”, you’ve already called them a lost cause. This is self-fulfilling.

    BZ · March 4th, 2013 at 5:41 pm
  8. +1 BZ

    dlevy · March 5th, 2013 at 12:49 pm
  9. Rabbi Cosgrove’s proposal concerns me for a number of reasons. I converted to Judaism two years ago after a lot of study (both on my own and with a rabbi). It was an intensely personal decision that I made for myself, but the fact that I was dating (and eventually married) a Jew when I made the decision often makes people question my motives for converting. I can only imagine that this would get worse if, as Rabbi Cosgrove suggests, we just started converting non-Jews in interfaith marriages right away in the hope that this would bring them closer to Judaism. I have expounded on these fears here: goandlearnit.blogspot.com/2013/03/response-to-rabbi-cosgroves.html

    Erin Dreyfuss · October 15th, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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