Michael Knopf, a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Va., recently said that Conservative rabbis should be allowed to officiate interfaith weddings, provided they are the sole officiant, the wedding ceremony is exclusively Jewish and the couple promises to keep a Jewish home and raise Jewish children.
Rabbi Knopf will not officiate such weddings, however, until the Conservative movement lifts its restriction on doing so. By making a bold public statement, he hopes to push the Conservative movement in a more inclusive direction.
Beth-El is my shul and Rabbi Knopf is my friend. I also happen to think he’s right. He’s right that it’s better to be welcoming than exclusionary. He’s right that when interfaith couples have a Jewish wedding, it often fosters greater Jewish engagement. He’s right that denying people the option to have their preferred rabbi officiate at their wedding pushes people away, not just from the Conservative movement, but from Judaism altogether.
Rabbi Knopf is writing from a place of love, as a devout, learned rabbi who’s deeply committed to the Conservative movement, but also as a modern, liberal Jew with intermarried relatives. He hopes the move will strengthen the stagnant Conservative movement.
Ironically, however, I wonder if this change in interfaith wedding policy will hasten Conservative Judaism’s decline, while strengthening the non-Orthodox Jewish community as a whole.
Jewish denominational integrity in the Diaspora is breaking down. The non-Orthodox Jewish world is en route to achieving a consensus on intermarriage and interfaith weddings. Whereas intermarriage used to be the enemy – “finishing Hitler’s work,” in the words of its staunchest opponents – today, the more likely response is acceptance and accommodation. What was once deemed a challenge is now acknowledged to be a reality, even an opportunity.
Though Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, conversion to Judaism is more widespread and important today than in any time in history. One reason for this is interfaith marriage. For non-Jewish spouses of Jews, having a fully Jewish wedding ceremony is often a form of “soft” conversion, an embrace of Judaism as part of family life, if not personal life.
Sometimes, that soft conversion will lead to “full” conversion – the acceptance of Jewish beliefs, performance of Jewish rituals and a formal conversion ceremony. Sometimes not. Either way, it frequently results in an expansion, rather than a dilution, of the Jewish world, so long as the non-Jewish spouse is fully accepted by the community. All the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations now recognize this.
With this consensus on intermarriage, very little separates the denominations now. Conservative synagogues already employ Reconstructionist rabbis, and vice versa. Reform temples once felt like churches; today, their services are recognizable to members of Conservative synagogues. They may not serve glatt kosher food at their events, but we’re unlikely to see a repeat of Hebrew Union College’s infamous Trefa Banquet of 1883, where the Reform seminary’s graduating class was infamously served a dinner that combined meat and dairy, along with a healthy portion of shellfish. A hundred years ago, there were serious efforts to move Shabbat to Sunday. That would be unthinkable today. When Reform made its primary service on Friday night, many Conservative synagogues added Friday night services, as well. The differences blur.
There will always be disagreements among Jews, but how we approach those disagreements matters. In 2015, the Reconstructionist movement allowed its rabbis to marry non-Jews. I was raised Reconstructionist, and I supported that decision. Reconstructionism exists to push boundaries. However, the Conservative movement is meant to uphold halakhah within a modern, egalitarian framework. As Conservative Judaism follows the other denominations on interfaith marriage, may it continue to revere halakhah, not as an anchor, but as a rudder, guiding us forward in tumultuous times.