Intermarriage & Conservative Judaism

The WORD – 7/12/12.  So, what’s the deal with Conservative Judaism and intermarriage? Are we mean to two-faith families?  Do we shut the door on intermarried couples when we see them coming?  Do we make them pay additional fees to join the synagogue?  Of course not!

While I have not always been 100% satisfied with the way that the Conservative Movement has handled the issue of intermarriage, I think that movement has always had the noble goal of preserving Judaism and Jews.  We just haven’t always gone about it in the best possible way.  However, in the past ten years or so, I believe that we have made tremendous progress as a movement.

As we consider this important, contemporary issue, it’s important to remember the very beginnings of our tradition – that is to say, the Torah.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion and continuing into this week’s Torah portion, we read about the man for whom our parashah is named – Pinhas.

In last week’s Torah portion, a group of Israelite men became involved with Moabite women and began offering sacrifices to the Moabites’ god.  They did this within close range of the Tabernacle, which was an insult to God.  When God and Moses were planning to punish those who insulted God, one of the Israelites brought a Moabite woman to the entrance of the Tabernacle.  Pinhas – the grandson of Aaron the first High Priest – took a spear and killed them both.  In this week’s portion, Pinhas was named the High Priest (See Numbers 25:1-13).

Now, it is certainly possible to read this story and think that a man who killed an interfaith couple was rewarded with the High Priesthood.  However, I think that would be a poor reading.

The real transgression of these Israelite men was the abandonment of God’s covenant and insulting God in God’s own Tabernacle.  And, it was quite possible to do those things while married to a fellow Israelite.

Fast forward to today.  Some Jewish people marry outside of Judaism because they truly reject their Judaism and it is not important to them.  They do not wish to pass it down to their children.  They are happy to adopt the faith of their spouses.  I believe that is a small minority of intermarried Jews.  However, they are not asking for a place at our table and we are not saving one for them.

On the other hand, most intermarried Jews happened to fall in love with someone who was not Jewish.  Now, they wrestle with how to preserve their own Judaism and pass it down to their children while still being respectful of their spouses and their in-laws.  It took a long while for Conservative Judaism to make this distinction, but we have definitely made it.  For these Jews, our doors are open to them, their spouses and their children.  We want to help them learn more Torah so that they can make their lives more Jewish.  While we would love for the non-Jewish spouses to convert, it is certainly not required.  We merely want to immerse the next generation in Judaism as fully as possible.

Now, it is easy to say that the Reform Movement is friendly to intermarried families and the Conservative Movement is not.  There is no question that the Reform Movement makes it easier for intermarried families to participate, but easier is not always better.  When we choose schools or careers, we do not necessarily choose the easiest.  We hopefully choose the most meaningful and rewarding.  The same should be true in our spiritual lives.

There is a satisfaction that comes with wrestling over faith, morality and tradition.  There is a complicated beauty to Judaism that is not always apparent from the easy path.

So, whether you were born Jewish or not, whether you are married to a Jew or not, come to Services, come to classes and come to other synagogue programs.  There’s no one waiting at the doorway with a spear – I promise!





About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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