Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Hot Button – Finale

Shalom. Sorry for the missed week. I’m retired. Actually, I was on my bike in NC all week, trying to avoid both the constant rain and the transgender bathroom situation, and couldn’t focus on the weighty issue of intermarriage and whether rabbis like me should officiate. I won’t repeat the arguments pro and con – look back at my wordpress site (itusedtobewednesday.wordpress.com) for those – but now is the time to answer the question, where do I fall on this issue? And what about retired people taking new positions?

Pragmatically, while it is not clear that performing intermarriages makes much difference in the level of affiliation of those couples – even though some of you have written to me with great stories about how it worked out well – there is little doubt that the Conservative movement would be better off at least in the short run if our rabbis said “yes” and removed the negativity that couples (and their families) must feel about our movement when we say “no.”  My sampling in recent weeks found a unanimity on this issue – in favor of officiating – among Beth El congregants. Those sampled didn’t even hesitate to say we should say “yes.”

That being said, the arguments against performing intermarriages are not easily dismissed. They go against Jewish tradition. Doing intermarriages removes possibly the only significant remaining “wall” between Conservative and Reform Judaism – practically speaking, there isn’t that much difference between the two as prayer services are becoming more similar and rates of Shabbat and Kashrut allegiance are not all that different overall.

Two more negatives that people brought up have even more weight: One, what message does changing give to those who did convert to Judaism at the time of their marriage? They went through a lot of study and even more soul-searching in the process of conversion, and now we would be saying it wasn’t that important? And, second, a decision like this is bound to be divisive. While most congregants seem fine with the change, some would not be. A rabbi up north announced this year that he was going to officiate at intermarriages, for all the reasons we have offered, his Board approved that, and then “all hell” broke loose in the membership; seeing that, he felt it necessary to reverse course.

My decision is not to change my practice. If I ever did, it would be because the movement allowed it and on the condition that there be mandatory study of Judaism for the couple and that any children born to them would be raised Jewish. I would not be surprised to see the movement making this change, in my lifetime. I am not sure if I would be disappointed, given that the arguments for officiating are valid too and the pain that would be removed and the doors that would be potentially opened are worthy of consideration.

Finally, what is the responsibility of rabbis/ professionals once they retire and can do/say pretty much whatever they please? That responsibility weighs in my decision. We need, I believe, to remain true to the principles and practices that guided our working careers. If we had doubts about them, then we should have acted while we were working and accepted the consequences. To wait to change our practices till we can’t get in trouble, or to write a “tell all” book about the people we “had” to work with (think politics), is just not responsible. That is my opinion, which is probably a minority view.

Best to you, and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

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More On The Hot Button

Has this been a suspenseful week, waiting to see what the rabbi will say about my colleagues’s plea for conservative rabbis to perform intermarriages? For me it has been that, not being sure what to say and knowing how difficult this issue is for so many including readers who wrote back (all supporting the position expressed. ) And wondering if maybe all the rain was ominous.

First off, I find Rabbi Rosenbloom’s piece to be cogent and heartfelt. I can’t really argue with anything he says – except about a Pew result – even if I may differ on the bottom line. WHEN he said it – after he retired – is a different issue, more mine than yours, with which I will deal next time.

I don’t think there is a single conservative rabbi who isn’t struggling with the intermarriage issue, all the time. It and Israel get the most energy on our worry beads. Most of our kids are not marrying Jews. Conversions of the non – Jewish – spouse- to- be to Judaism happen and are inspiring, but that is not typical and as the intermarriage rate has gone up the conversion rate – in my unscientific sample – seems to have gone down. Saying no to kids who we have watched grow up and who ask us to marry them is painful and likely not to produce the desired result, which would be “these people take their Judaism seriously, I should too.” So, what can I say? In brief, knowing that each point could be a whole blog:

I. Against Rabbi Rosenbloom’s position:

a. Philosophically and religiously, I still think the Rabbinical Assembly position is right – a Jewish wedding should be for a Jewish couple. Too much of the language, too many prayers, too many commitments implied or stated, would have to be jettisoned.

b. Pragmatically, intermarriages don’t produce many Jewish offspring. Though Rosenbloom quoted the Pew survey as indicating that more than half of the millennials who are children of intermarriage feel that they are Jewish, I have never heard that statistic and every study I have seen finds that more than half of the children of intermarriage (up to 80%) are not being raised as Jews. Some of these marriages were surely performed by rabbis, and there is no evidence that it matters.

c. Pragmatically again, is it fair to the non Jewish family to have a rabbi marry their child? They may not say it’s a problem, but imagine we were in their shoes, how would we feel? More fair would be their clergy co-officiating, but isn’t that just pushing the “problem” (what kind of home will this be?) down the road?

II. With Rabbi Rosenbloom’s position:

a. It IS probably “delusional” to think that a rabbi’s refusal to officiate will change any couple’s mind about whether to wed. By refusing to be part of their marriage ceremony, why would we think they would want to be part of our community later on? As he put it, those we push away on Saturday night are not so ready to come back on Sunday morning. In other words, if they will intermarry anyway, why help ensure that we will never see them again?

b. The Conservative movement is struggling overall and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Saying “yes” to an intermarrying couple could mean that “at the very least, a superfluous impediment to couples’ involvement in our Conservative Jewish houses of worship would be removed.” From a movement survival standpoint, then, it makes total sense to say yes.

III. Making it hard to decide:

a. As noted, most of the children of intermarriage are not being raised as Jews. Some of these marriages were surely performed by rabbis from other movements, and it doesn’t seem to matter. But maybe it did for those families who decide to raise the kids Jewishly.

b. I have taken to calling American Jewry an “endangered species.” We have to take strong measures to shore up our foundations, defining and doubling down on the values that we think really matter. At the same time we have to try to widen our reach, have as large an umbrella as possible. Looking down the road, which response to intermarriage is more appropriate?

Enough for now. Forgive the brevity of each point, and the lack of nuance (eg. what if the couple agrees to raise the kids Jewishly?) Your thoughts will be appreciated. I hope to publish the better shorter ones, with your permission of course. And I will answer the question where I fall on the issue, with nuance, and whether being retired should affect that. Best to you for a Shabbat Shalom, Bill Rudolph

A Hot Button

Last week I wrote about the Seder’s Four Sons/Children and not making snap judgments about people. I got some nice responses, agreeing with me even, but more people wrote about the earlier kitniyot (legumes) posting and I am still hearing about that. What is the obsession with legumes all about?

Now to the promised thoughts on intermarriage, occasioned by the Op-Ed of recently retired Conservative rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom (JTA, easily googled). I touch on this topic with trepidation, because almost no matter what a rabbi says on this topic it gets him/her into trouble. I wrote in an It’s Wednesday about 5 years ago that it is better for the Jewish community if our kids marry other Jews, because the odds of having Jewish continuity not to mention Jewish grandchildren are much higher when that happens, but even that simple statement caused a lot of pain. So most of us avoid talking about it.

Rosenbloom recently retired after 36 years as rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park PA. His first wife grew up in Beth El, part of one of our major founding families, so we used to see him at Beth El. He starts with “The Conservative movement’s leadership must drop its ban on Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings — before it’s too late.” After 42 years as an active rabbi, during which he abided by that prohibition, he now believes it is no longer in the best interests of Conservative Judaism or the Jewish community. “Reality has overtaken us,”he continues. “Sixty percent of Jews who wed marry someone from another faith. [It’s 70 percent when we take out the Orthodox.] The Conservative movement’s prohibition is ineffective as policy if our goal is to reduce intermarriage. It is counter-productive if we are trying to influence Jewish souls and bring them closer to the Jewish community. It needs to be modified if we are to serve our congregants faithfully.”

Here is more, along with the precipitating event for his decision. “For a decade or so before my retirement from the pulpit in 2014, I increasingly felt uncomfortable sending young people for whom I had been their lifelong rabbi and our congregation their lifelong place of worship to a rabbi they did not know to perform the most sacred ceremony of t using to involve ourselves in intermarriage ceremonies. If we extend ourselves with acceptance, if we affirm the legitimacy of the loving choices people make by agreeing to be part of their ceremonies, more couples would be inclined to seek the spiritual fulfillment that comes from Jewish commitment. At the very least, a superfluous impediment to couples’ involvement in our Conservative Jewish houses of worship would be removed.”

This posting is already overly long by my usual standards. The next posting (or two?) will be my response: first on the issue of officiating at intermarriages, and second on what retirement should allow us retirees to do/say that may be different from what it was before the retirement. I trust that you can wait. Best, Bill Rudolph