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The problem with ‘renegade rabbis’ and intermarriage

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The Conservative movement’s stance against sanctioning interfaith marriages has recently been challenged by a number of its affiliated rabbis, who have chosen to dispute, ignore or defy this policy. Some have resigned their affiliation before making their decision. Others wished to make a louder statement by taunting the movement’s organizational bodies and awaiting their response.

While intriguing, the premise that these “renegade rabbis” are the heroes of the Jewish future is false.

Understanding the current controversy requires some context. Today, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community is intermarrying at shocking rates of upwards of 80 per cent.

The decision to intermarry does not necessarily imply a disinterest in Jewish life. Indeed, many communities have made commendable efforts to engage mixed-faith households. Sometimes it works, but synagogues like my own have faced obstacles trying to maintain a welcoming approach, while at the same time affirming traditional beliefs on the nature of Jewish marriage.

This context informs the difficult predicament of non-Orthodox rabbis. With rates of intermarriage so high, nothing less than the future viability of our communities is at stake.

READ: NEW RECONSTRUCTIONIST RABBI EXPECTS DEBATE ON INTERMARRIAGE

A welcoming approach solves some problems, but creates others. What does it mean to be a congregational rabbi, when you can no longer perform the most basic lifecycle ceremonies for your congregants?

Many rabbis have resolved this dilemma by agreeing to perform those lifecycle ceremonies, including officiating interfaith marriages. This too solves some problems and creates others.

Norms of observance, identity and commitment can shift dramatically. I attended a Reform synagogue when I was growing up and I saw these changes with my own eyes. To leave these very real implications out of the conversation is irresponsible.

While these are important discussions over the development of Judaism, there is a difference between careful progress and ill-considered change. On the issue of intermarriage, we have legal precedent that goes back thousands of years and firm data showing that marriage within the community is the most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.

Those on the other side of the debate make the case for change based on “strong feelings” and some limited short-term studies. But we know that removing this standard comes with devastating consequences for the unity of the Jewish People.

‘We have firm data showing that marriage within the community is the most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.’

While we are commanded to love every Jew, we cannot always love and bless their choices. Rabbinic organizations help to delineate those boundaries and facilitate conversations around them. They sustain adherence to a common mission and provide leadership that trickles down and strengthens our congregations.

I deeply respect my friends and colleagues in the more liberal movements, who have their own understanding of Judaism and how it should confront modernity. They have permitted their rabbis to bless interfaith marriages at their discretion.

Rabbis and synagogues whose practice of Judaism aligns with these understandings have wonderful denominations with which to affiliate. Making that decision out of theological differences is surely a more honest approach than the public defiance of the standards of Conservative Judaism.

That is why we should think twice about giving “renegade rabbis” admiration and praise. They got on the wrong ship and now they want it to change course without consulting the captain.

Yes, they have spoken their truth, but they have abdicated their positions of leadership in so doing. Worse, in exchange for their moment in the spotlight, they have made it more difficult for colleagues like me to have a sensible and mature conversation on this most challenging issue.


Rabbi Jarrod Grover is the senior rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto and incoming president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Ontario.