Identity, Religion

Rescind the Ban?

Alright, I know I’m kinda behind, as this is last week’s (month’s really) news, but it’s the season of forgiveness, okay?
Over the past month, there’s a been a lot of discussion of intermarriage in the wake (Is that a pun? Sorta) of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. One article that caught my eye is the piece in the Forward last week by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller,urging the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind the ban on Conservative rabbis participating in or attending intermarriages (of Jews to non-Jews anyhow. I don’t think other pairings are found disturbing).
In theory, violating this ban can have a rabbi expelled from the RA, although in practice, as Miller points out, attendance at interfaith weddings has not – as far as I or he or anyone I’ve queried, knows- actually resulted in said expulsion. I can’t say that I agree with Rabbi Miller, although I have mixed feelings about it: since in fact, there is no consequence for for violating the attendance part of the ban, rabbis who need to go because it is their child or a close family member, can actually attend, while preserving other rabbis’ ability to say that ultimately, intermarriage is not something that they are able to celebrate, if that is their bent, and having the movement stand behind them, which given the ostensible principles of the movement, seems reasonable to expect.
Rabbi Miller seems to view the refusal to attend interfaith weddings as tribalism, rather than as a more complex problem. I suppose in the case where the Jewish member of the couple is Jewish in name only, and doens’t view Judaism as important at all, then tribalism might be a fair description, but for a rabbi in the Conservative movement, who at least in theory views Judaism as having a divine component, and Jews (as a people) as having a particular and holy mission, that strikes me as an unfair description.
In some respects, I view this as a variant of the same discussion that happens about the driving tshuvah. Jews on the more observant end may point out that it was a mistake to allow it, as those who were going to drive would drive anyhow, while the tshuvah givies the appearance that driving is okay to everyone else, halachicly speaking (the problem with the tshuvah appears most especially to be two things: 1. the people who wrote it had only the sketchiest idea of the inner workings of an engine, and 2. there was a deliberate stretching of the way halachah works , in honesty, beyond the breaking point: claiming that the spark of the spark plug is a sort of unintended side effect of the driving is sort of like claiming that the heat on a stove is an unintended side effect of cooking the food) while in fact, it isn’t really, and even the tshuvah sort of admits it. Instead the better solution might have been to simply not address the issue, nor castigate those who chose to drive, and welcome them as one would anyone else, simply not taking note of the matter. However, once the tshuvah is published, it’s very difficult – I would say impossible- to reverse it to that situation, since any change away from a complete acceptance then appears to be a rejection of the people who drive.
Am I advocating hypocrisy? I suppose so. I think that in this case Miss Manners would approve (Miss Martin, if you should happen to read Jewschool please feel free to weigh in). Perhaps I can argue that mipnei darkei shalom, hypocrisy might be our best alternative?
Interested in other peoples’ thoughts on this.

41 thoughts on “Rescind the Ban?

  1. Does the RA not consider it a problem that if they have policies stating “If you do X, we’ll do Y”, and then they never do Y, the result is simply that people take the RA less seriously?

  2. I’m replying to BZ and not to KR”G (I wish people would use their real names on the Web!).
    The Rabbinical Assembly has a Vaad HaKavod (ethics committee), but they do not go out looking for members violating the code. If they receive a report they may or may not choose to look into it. From what I’ve been told (from a reliable source), no one reports on RA member rabbis *attending* interfaith wedding ceremonies. They do receive reports of RA rabbis *officiating* at said ceremonies. However, before they have the chance to sanction these rabbis, they resign their membership from the Rabbinical Assembly.
    To clarify my point, I take exception with three facts.
    1) The RA’s Code of Religious Practice lists attendance in the exact same ruling as officiation. Those are two separate matters and shouldn’t be in the same rule, let alone the same sentence.
    2) I don’t believe that an unenforced rule should remain on the books simply to give its members an “excuse” when they don’t want to do something. A member of the RA who makes the decision (on principle) to not attend interfaith ceremonies should explain his/her principle when invited (or not explain and just decline the invitation).
    3) While there are individuals who hold by the notion that rules are meant to be broken (especially rules that historically haven’t been enforced), there are individuals who follow rules. Thus, there are members of the RA who would refuse to go to their own child’s wedding (or sibling, best friend, etc.) because they are members of an organization that forbids such activity. This seems to compete with the concept of shalom bayit.

  3. HI Jason,
    I admit that your third point is the most pressing one (although in Jewish law, I take the example of kilaim as the parallel/relevant one -if you see what I mean).
    I think that the biggest problem with changing the rule would actually be the fact of changing it. Since halachicly speaking, rabbis really can’t be in the place of celebrating intermarriage,it would be rather awkward to do so. Perhaps a better solution might be to make a specific exception for shalom bayit for family members.

  4. Rabbi Jason Miller writes:
    I’m replying to BZ and not to KR”G (I wish people would use their real names on the Web!)
    In this context, “BZ” is in some ways more real and less anonymous than my real name, because this identity can be cross-referenced with all my other statements here and on my own blog, and because many people have heard of BZ and have never heard of my real name.
    Regarding your reply to me, I think we’re agreeing, and I think I understood you the first time. Keeping unenforced rules on the books (particularly rules that have strict penalties on paper) leads to contempt for the rulemaking body.

  5. KRG writes:
    Since halachicly speaking, rabbis really can’t be in the place of celebrating intermarriage,it would be rather awkward to do so.
    Do you mean “celebrate” in the sense of “officiate”, or in the sense of “rejoice at”? If the former, RJM is saying that officiating and attendance should be two separate matters. If the latter, what is the halachic problem?

  6. Does not the notion that C-rabs shouldn’t attend interfaith weddings also mean that that the RA is attempting to restrict its members’ ability to rejoice with bride a groom, a beautiful mitzvah?
    Jason, are you implying that BZ is the user’s real name? And do you not realize that many of the people in a position to issue controversial, salient arguments about Jewish life are people who might be doing harm to themselves in doing so? That is the reason some of us go anonymous. I’m a dumb college student with no career to ruin yet, so I go whole hog, but not all of us have that privilege.

  7. @ David – One could argue that the mitzvah of rejoicing with the bride and the groom (as a mitzvah) only applies to a Jewish wedding.
    More generally, one argument for keeping the ban is that there is a lot of pressure on Conservative rabbis to attend, at least, the wedding of children of their congregants (and sometimes even congregants) marrying non-Jews. The ban gives then a stronger basis to say “no.”
    Of course, the desire for them to attend such weddings is precisely because they are “the rabbi,” which means giving it a certain level of hechsher. This is by its nature different from attending the wedding of a relative, where the desire for you to be there has little or nothing to do with the fact that you are a rabbi. This is a real difference, though not easy to explain to the parents of the bride or groom in your congregation. (Speaking as a rabbi who has no congregation, so does not have this problem)

    1. Jeff Marker writes:
      More generally, one argument for keeping the ban is that there is a lot of pressure on Conservative rabbis to attend, at least, the wedding of children of their congregants (and sometimes even congregants) marrying non-Jews. The ban gives then a stronger basis to say “no.”
      One would think that this could still be achieved by including this ban in a list of general expectations without maintaining its toothless teeth (i.e. including this on paper in the set of Unforgivable Curses that get someone expelled from the RA, then never enforcing it).
      Furthermore, I’m sure there is also pressure on Conservative (and any other) rabbis to attend weddings between two Jews that they don’t really want to attend for whatever reason, and they manage to find ways to handle this situation without having a movement-wide ban to back them up.

  8. or they can approve of it and let someone else officiate over it. disapproving of two people who love each other getting married accomplishes nothing but creating resentment.

  9. The discussion about attendance seems to imply that there’s a clear halachic rule that rabbis should not even officiate at marriages between Jews and non-Jews. By whose halachah? Why so certain about this? I can see that it’s clear that rabbis shouldn’t be officiating at unions between Jews and idolaters, but between Jews and people who observe the 7 mitzvot of b’nei noach, I’m not so sure.

    1. The discussion isn’t about halachic rules, but about Rabbinical Assembly rules. And yes, there is a clear RA rule against officiating at intermarriages. Regarding halachah, I agree that it’s not so clear, especially since “rabbis” aren’t a halachic category.

  10. Well, let’s put it this way: Jewish marriages halachicly take place “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”
    In an intermarriage, one of those people isn’t bound by the laws of Moses and Israel, thus the marriage isn’t valid, so it’s not even that a rabbi halachicly is forbidden to officiate, a rabbi has no license to officiate.

  11. Rabbis aren’t appropriate to do civil marriages – they’re religious figures. Civil marriages should be done by civil authorities – as to the second, well, halachicly speaking, the law is still binding upon them as Jews even if they don’t accept it, so it’s not a problem for the rabbi (Although it might be for the people).

  12. Rabbis aren’t appropriate to do civil marriages
    if they are empowered by the state to perform marriages and sign a marriage contract then they are very appropriate if it’s what the couple desires. According to US law, a clergy person IS a civil authority empowered to perform marriages.
    It is, in fact, illegal for a couple to present themselves as married if they do not have civil documentation proving that marriage and it is therefore illegal for a clergy person to officiate at a marriage that does not have such civil documentation (IF the couple presents themselves as married without such documentation) So, KRG, should a rabbi not sign the civil document at all?

  13. Clergy are empowered by the state to notify the state that a marriage has taken place according to the rules of the church or synagogue which they represent. Personally, I think that rabbis (or priests or ministers or any other clergy) should NOT be involved in civil documentation. I think that civil partnerships should be a matter of one person choosing another to receive benefits and inheritances (such as the right to visit one another in the hospital, receive partnerships for insurance and the like) and it should have nothing to do with religious wedding ceremonies. In fact, if one person chooses that their cousin will receive those benefits and inherit them, and another their mother and a third someone they met yesterday out walking their dog, I don’t really see why anyone should naysay them. I say divorce the whole partnership and benefits thing from weddings and sexuality entirely.
    It would solve a whole host of problems in other arenas to do so.
    Nevertheless as the law currently is, the rabbi serves as a representative to the state of their religious body. In most states, for a rabbi (or other clergy person) to do a wedding ceremony, they have to offer proof to the state or municipality (or show that they have offered proof to another state or municipality) that they do indeed represent a particular religious body, in some states including requiring a letter or diploma from the ordaining body and/or a notarized letter from another, already certified, clergyperson of the same denomination of that religious body that they are a member in good standing (there are a few notable exceptions to this, such as New York, where anyone can just register with the state for a day to do a wedding. I approve of that, but it still ought not to make any difference as to whether a rabbi performs the ceremony between persons who are not both Jewish).
    A rabbi ought not to be in the business of performing weddings for persons who are not religiously represented by them. Rabbis serve the state as essentially what they do in a Jewish wedding: show proof that the wedding has taken place according to the regulations of that religious body properly. Thus a rabbi should also not formalize a wedding say, between two Buddhists, even though there is no RA requirement of a rabbi not to do so – it simply isn’t within the purview of rabbinic training, nor is the rabbi a representative to the state of Buddhist religious practice. For the same reason a rabbi should not officiate at any purely civil wedding. Rabbis can say that a wedding took place properly according to the laws of Moses and Israel – that’s their expertise. If the laws of Moses and Israel don’t apply to one or more of the parties, the rabbi can’t say that a wedding took place according to those laws.

  14. Conservative Rabbis aren’t even supposed to attend interfaith weddings? What if the Christian partner happens to be a good friend?
    As a non-orthodox, non-conservative, but still very observant Jew who is also married to a Christian — I think this sets a very, very bad message.
    I think it’s up to each denomination to set their own rules and then each Rabbi, Cantor, or other who may perform a ceremony to follow their own conscious. None of us ever 100% agree with everything our denomination/religion states is a must.
    There’s also reality. By refusing to have any options for interfaith couples you push people further from Judaism. After my grandmother passed away (she was Jewish), my grandfather remarried. I was 6 years old. Our family rabbi (reform) refused to perform the ceremony. That rabbi had Bar Mitzvahed my father, uncle and then me and my sister years later. I don’t think my grandfather set foot in a synagogue ever again.
    I was married by an interfaith minister who is a good friend of the family. Had rabbis actually turned me down and reject my husband and my marriage, I doubt that I would have as fully embraced my Judaism as I have since I got married. I also highly doubt that my husband would have supported my growing commitment to living a Jewish life.
    Yes, there must be standards. Use an alternative ceremony, there are many out there. Embrace and welcome both partners to the best of their abilities. Make it possible for them to embrace a Jewish life. If you just reject them then they’ll never come home!

  15. The points Ketzirah brings up are very real and very problematic. I heard a similar anecdote to that of her Grandfather’s. A man asked his life-long rabbi to officiate at his wedding, the rabbi agreed before investigating the religious affiliation of the bride. Well into the wedding planning, and nearing the date of the wedding, the rabbi removed himself from his duties as officiant. The man spent his whole life looking outside of Judaism for his faith-needs–never returned to the synagogue ever. He realized he had been harboring a grudge for many years so he sought the rabbi out, years later, to come to terms. This was a trauma this particular man carried with him for decades, when he called the rabbi to talk about the incident which transpired years ago, the rabbi had no recollection. What, for the rabbi, was so easy to walk away and forget scarred this man and prevented him from ever having a meaningful relationship with his faith tradition he was born into and raised in.
    Movement rules and “halakhah” (as if the conservative movement actually abides by it) are all good and well in theory, but when real life comes into play there are real people involved. And real people have real feelings which cannot and should not be ignored.
    So, KRG, you can pick and choose for YOURSELF what is appropriate for a rabbi to do and what is not, but so will each individual do so for themselves, and all of us should strive to accept people where they are at without judgment.
    @KRG-your ideas and opinions are all good and well for you, and they’re all good and well, in theory, for someone who agrees with you. But if a couple who is in love and desires to get marries WANTS a rabbi to officiate their wedding, who are you to say they shouldn’t be able to have that? That’s not to say that any given rabbi should officiate against their own will.

  16. Justin- you’re so morally relativist this should be easy for you: the couple may be “right” in what they want, but who are you to say that the RA/rabbi isn’t “right” in what they/he/she wants? You argue against everyone for judging others, but how isn’t it completely obvious that you are judging BZ and KRG for what they think- maybe in a different way, but still?
    Also, you seem to be bowled over by the fact that Halachah overrides emotional content, as if this isn’t the very point. If emotion was the only thing that mattered, Halachah would be one line- ‘do whatever your heart tells you is right’.
    I’m also not at at all sure that there is “no” halachah saying a rabbi can’t officiate at or attend an interfaith service. I have a feeling that if I ask any rabbi I know they’ll have some reason- within my community, it is basically (though there are limited exceptions) forbidden to attend an interfaith wedding (or really any celebration associated with it), whether you’re a rabbi or not. And my rabbi isn’t one to just blindly quote halachah.

  17. @Josh-
    I appreciate that. I don’t necessarily mean to judge, simply to point out that real people are actually harmed by these rulings. I’m not saying the RA is wrong, per se, to have their ruling. It is what it is and they have their reasoning for it.
    I’m not “bowled over” by the fact that halakhah overrides emotion. I’m simply pointing out, again, that these halakhot harm individuals, most of whom do not live halakhic lives anyways. Not just that, but the Conservative Movement, despite what they say, is not actually a halakhic movement.
    I’m not claiming there are no halakhot forbidding a Jew from an interfaith wedding (I’m not sure there are though). Halakhah does not allow for a non-Jew and a Jew to marry. It’s as simple as that.

  18. Hi Justin.
    I agree with you that Halachah can absolutely harm individuals. I just don’t think it’s relevant to Halachah that that these individuals don’t lead Halachic lives. Does this mean that they understand less of what’s being done in their religion’s name? Yes. Could this drive them further from Judaism? Sure. But it’s not like people who follow Halachah don’t know this- and frankly, it’s not like Halachah itself doesn’t recognize this.
    So who or what exactly are you leveling your complaint at? The RA for espousing beliefs that (theoretically) are the underpinnings of its movement?

  19. Josh writes:
    You argue against everyone for judging others, but how isn’t it completely obvious that you are judging BZ and KRG for what they think- maybe in a different way, but still?
    Whoa, whoa, whoa, how did I get roped into this? All I said was that the RA has a policy that their rabbis can’t officiate at intermarriages. That’s stating a fact. I certainly never said I agreed with this policy. I don’t feel like Justin was judging me.

  20. Josh writes:
    I’m also not at at all sure that there is “no” halachah saying a rabbi can’t officiate at or attend an interfaith service. I have a feeling that if I ask any rabbi I know they’ll have some reason
    Da’as torah?

  21. @Josh-
    For the “movement” to have these “policies” which exclude people and push them away in a very real way to then turn around and wonder “why aren’t people coming and getting invested?” it’s silly. I am not lodging a complaint at anything or anyone. I think it’s disingenuous for a rabbi to say “we’re welcoming, we’re loving… but we don’t accept you for who you are.” And to hide behind halakhah is laughable for the conservative movement which is in no way halakhic at all when push comes to shove.
    Like BZ said, it is simply a fact that RA rabbis are instructed to not officiate or attend interfaith marriages. This rule is the rule. For any individual rabbi to have their own beliefs has absolutely no bearing on the lives of most Jews in the US who will do what they want when they want (as they should do). Therefore, my beef with KRG was simply that to make such claims as were made, all I was saying is that those understandings and beliefs are all good and fine for KRG, but they shouldn’t be applied to others who don’t hold the same understandings or beliefs. And that when we make blanket rulings like x is allowed but y is forbidden, or whatever, it has the possibility of seriously harming real people. Presumably, religious traditions seek to heal people and help them live more whole lives, not harm them.

  22. HI Josh,
    I’m okay with Justin disagreeing with me – we disagree on lots of stuff, but it’s all leshem shamayim.
    OK, to the point: Perhaps I should have been clearer that what I’m saying only applies to rabbis who consider themselves halachic. It’s all well and good for someone to claim that the Conservative movement isn’t halachic, but there are rabbis in the movement who take halachah very seriously, and who don’t really have the option of going elsewhere.
    Second, I think we should be clear that we are talking about two separate problems: *officiating* at an intermarriage and *attending* an intermarriage.
    I think that in fact, halachicly speaking, attending an intermarriage is NOT a violation of Jewish law. The question that I’m thinking about is twofold: whether the movement, by changing the current rule, sends a particular message, and secondly, whether individuals by attending send a particular message, and whether either of those messages are likely to cause difficulties.
    The second question is whether or not it’s possible for a rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage. Which I explain above. I also think that there are messages associated with officiating or not, but I also think that they’re somewhat secondary to the questions of whether it’s *possible.*
    It probably makes a difference what movement one is in as to what one thinks about the halachic matters in one’s choices. But the question of the stories of people driven out by rabbis who refused to officiate strike me as stories more of people whose rabbis didn’t have time to sit down and listen to them, then rabbis who refused to officiate – especially if it happens to be in a movement where it is known and clear that rabbis aren’t permitted to officiate at intermarriages. But Justin’s story of the man whose rabbi didn’t even remember how he had driven him away strikes me as the telling point here.
    I may be an unreconstructed bitch online, but it’s important to talk to the couple first and find out what you can and can’t do for them, and not dump them in the middle of the process, which does strike me as nasty.

  23. Ok, my actual views on rabbis officiating at intermarriages (I’m not saying “interfaith marriages”, because the people involved don’t necessarily belong to any faith) if anyone cares:
    Both sides need to get over themselves. Both sides seem to agree that rabbis are very important, and therefore I disagree with both sides.
    Are you a rabbi who won’t officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew? If the reason is that your denominational organization doesn’t allow it, or that (as KRG has explained) you don’t think that you have jurisdiction to effect a marriage between two people who aren’t both Jewish, then that’s certainly a reasonable position. But if the reason is that you don’t think that Jews should marry non-Jews (not in the technical sense that KRG described, in which such a marriage isn’t even possible, but in the real-world sense, in which such marriages are possible and happen all the time), and you want to make a statement that you don’t approve of these marriages, then get over yourself. Rabbis just aren’t that important. No one is going to change their plans about who they’re going to marry based on what some rabbi said or did. Your statement of disapproval won’t prevent intermarriage, but (as Justin said) might alienate people from the Jewish community.
    Are you a Jew and a non-Jew who are getting married? Mazal tov! Are you interested in having a Jewish religious wedding? Ok, that’s cool; personally, I don’t see why someone who isn’t Jewish would want that, but whatever floats your boat. Are you having difficulty finding a rabbi to officiate? Well, you’re in luck: a Jewish wedding doesn’t require a rabbi. All you need is two witnesses. So get some of your friends together, and make your own Jewish wedding, and then get the civil license signed at City Hall. But wait, you want a rabbi not because it’s a technical requirement but because you want legitimacy and approval from someone who appears to represent Official Judaism? Then get over yourself. If you believe that your marriage is legitimate, then you shouldn’t need approval from anyone else. Rabbis just aren’t that important. Judaism doesn’t have a pope or an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and no one is more authorized than anyone else to give the official Jewish seal of approval.

  24. SO, BZ, I basically agree with you (well some parts yes and some parts no, but about rabbis not being all that important, yes; I mean hell, rabbis are not ministers, we just have to act like them because that’s the dominant paradigm here), but the thing about the Jewish wedding not requiring a rabbi but only two witnesses – uh, that’s just weird. If you care about halachah then you can have all the witnesses in the world, even Jewish ones, you can’t have a Jewish wedding with one or more parties not Jewish (as you comment in your comment – re:technicality), and if you don’t care about halachah, then just have whatever damn wedding you like- why call it Jewish, just say you’re getting married already; whatever you do after that is your call.
    And for heaven’s sake, don’t have a rabbi at the wedding because your father wants hir there.

  25. Here’s a personal message I received from an older colleague (member of the Rabbinical Assembly) in response to my recent blog post on the RA’s policy regarding attendance at interfaith weddings (
    Too bad I didn’t know how this rule was treated by the RA when my son got married. It would have saved a great deal of agmat nefesh and hard feelings in our family. In my opinion those leaders of the RA who drafted the rule should do an awful lot of al chet’s for the grief they have caused.
    Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention.
    **Name removed**

  26. Kol Raash Gadol writes: “Clergy are empowered by the state to notify the state that a marriage has taken place according to the rules of the church or synagogue which they represent. Personally, I think that rabbis (or priests or ministers or any other clergy) should NOT be involved in civil documentation.”

  27. BZ, KRG- like the things you’ve been saying lately on this post. i shouldn’t have been so quick to ‘defend’ you 😉

  28. @Josh: It’s all l’shem shamayim.
    @Justin: It’s bound to happen now and then. I’m all over the map religiously. I think consistency should be in arguments, but not between them.
    To all a sweet new year filled with blessing and argument for the sake of heaven

  29. Are you having difficulty finding a rabbi to officiate? Well, you’re in luck: a Jewish wedding doesn’t require a rabbi. All you need is two witnesses. So get some of your friends together, and make your own Jewish wedding, and then get the civil license signed at City Hall.
    I think this statement should be posted in big letters wherever Jews congregate. I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t realize this.
    I also wonder (just out of curiosity) if there are any rabbis who, after refusing to perform an intermarriage, tell the couple that a rabbi isn’t required anyway. That would be friendly, yes? But probably disadvantageous to the rabbis in question.

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