Marking the Boundaries

Maverick Rabbi Breaks Ranks Over Intermarriage” shouts a Times of Israel title. “The Problem With Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Intermarriage Proposal,” teases the op-ed in the Forward. “On Marriage and Covenant” comes forth from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Yet again, the Conservative movement thrashes about, trying to figure out what to do about…well, any number of things.

Its decline from more than 40% of synagogue-affiliated American Jews in the late 1970s to less than 20% today? That’s always in the background. Its inability to figure out exactly what to do about the fact that several decades of intermarriage prevention and Jewish continuity programming sees intermarriage continuing to rise, intermarried families continuing to join synagogues, and interfaith couples leaving Conservative and even many Reform synagogues because the rabbi won’t perform an interfaith marriage ceremony? That, too.

All of this is responding to a proposal by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of Lab/Shul, who suggests in his “Joy: A Proposal,” that it is incumbent upon Conservative Judaism to find a way to allow its clergy to perform intermarriage ceremonies. Rabbi Lau-Lavie seeks to take the ger toshav–the resident alien–and apply that label to the non-Jewish spouses of Jews who choose to opt into Jewish life without necessarily becoming Jewish per se through conversion.

Push-back from within the Conservative movement has taken a few different forms. But two critiques come to the fore. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the author of the op-ed cited above from the Forward, points out that the Conservative movement’s commitments–and, presumably, its rabbis’ commitments–to halakhah preclude intermarriage. The statement from JTS (also linked above) makes a similar argument, but with a bit more lip service to ideas like meaning. But the import of the JTS statement is undeniable: both spouses must be Jewish for Conservative rabbis to officiate at their wedding:

For JTS and its partners in the Conservative Movement, the wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.

The JTS statement also doubles down on the long-running rhetoric concerning the idea that only two Jews married to one another can really produce Jewish children:

However, we believe—and the data confirm—that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command.

So far, so good–really, this is all standard stuff in the intermarriage debate. There’s no surprise in any of this–not even in Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s suggestion that the ger toshav category be reworked into something quite different, a kind of quasi-officially Jewish, though really Jewish-adjacent status. (I promise this isn’t a surprise: Shaye J.D. Cohen’s work twenty years ago explored what ger and “god-fearer” status might have meant in Late Antiquity, and his work, in part, primed the pump for the idea that this could be somehow brought into the intermarriage discussion. Don’t believe me? Go to Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s document and check for citations to Cohen. I’ll wait. You’re back? Found them? Okay.)

But the JTS statement takes a turn. And boy, is it ever a turn:

This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful  practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning for hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and beyond.

Got that? If you want to officiate at an intermarriage, you are “abandon[ing]” Conservative Judaism, and maybe even Judaism writ large, because Conservative Judaism has often thought of itself as the “big tent” Judaism (before there was a formal “Big Tent Judaism” organization). (I’m not making that up. Read Rabbi Bradley Artson’s history of the Conservative movement, Conservative Judaism.)

What this is all about, I suspect, is boundary policing.

Photograph of a long wall, at least three times as tall as the people walking next to it, trailing as far as the eye can see, with Jerusalem on one side and the Palestinian town of Abu Dis on the other.

The Green Line wall that separates Jerusalem from the Palestinian town of Abu Dis.

Look, let’s face it: reworking the ger toshav or “god-fearer” thing was never going to be a “real” halakhic solution. It’s not as though it’s easy to drop about 2000 years of decisional law out the window in order to rework a category based on somewhat tendentious scholarly research, though the Conservative movement does regularly try to do that with a straight face. (I tend to agree with the kind of broad reading of the ger that Cohen and other scholars bring, but I’m also very aware that we really have extremely limited sets of texts and data to work with, little of it is definite in a “thou shalt/shalt not” way, and rabbinic jurisprudence quickly went a different direction.)

But Rabbi Schonfeld and the JTS statement both are very explicit about what is or is not in-bounds for a Conservative rabbi (and, presumably, a committed Conservative Jew). And it is this line.


Not halakhah–not really. A Conservative rabbi presumably keeps kosher and is aware that her or his general religious practice is up for public scrutiny. But not keeping kosher, or not following the halakhah on Shabbat or the holidays or “family purity” or…whatever? These are also not boundaries to keep the Conservative rabbi from officiating at your wedding.

But intermarriage? That’s the line. That’s what gets rabbis ejected from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Of all the varied halakhic obligations the Conservative movement recognizes, whom you love is the one that draws the line, because, it is assumed, we need Jews to make more Jews. (Assumed–not proven. Yeah, I know there are studies, and they’re done by the same people who said thirty years ago that Orthodoxy will be the only version of Judaism left standing today, and who have conducted their studies looking to prove that intermarriage is bad. Has anyone looked behind the studies to see how many of those intermarried families would have maintained Jewish connection had they not been rebuffed by the Jewish community? No, I didn’t suppose so. And even if one in ten of those families would have stay engaged, it’s a higher number than would be the case otherwise.)

What does intermarriage policing tell us about the institutional Jewish world? JTS gives it away again:

Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community, and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. Throughout our history many individuals from other backgrounds have been welcomed into the Jewish people. That remains true, even in the greatly altered circumstances of life today. For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, understanding that their religious identity is no less significant than is our own.

Let’s break this down: Judaism comes from a family, from which grew a community and a people. You can join that community and people by becoming a member of that faith. And we’re not judging you for preferring not to join. BUT–you’re out if that’s the case, and the circle doesn’t widen to include you if you don’t want to go through the process of adopting a different faith.

Jewishness is, on this account, at once tribal–people, family, community–and religious. One can be a member of the tribe in a familial way but not keep the faith, or one can become a member of the family by adopting the religion that the family observes in the breach.

All of this, then, is motivated by boundary-policing on the age-old question, “Who is a Jew?” All of this intermarriage discussion is arguing this question by proxy. “You can’t intermarry and effectively raise Jewish kids. That’s not because you just can’t as a factual matter as the result of a commitment within the marriage, but because ______.” The blank is filled with: halakhah, or the result of studies that are looking for the answer they “find,” or whatever.

But let’s be clear: it’s not about that “because ______.” It’s about the boundary, because that boundary is uncomfortable in a world where you can’t always really articulate “why be Jewish,” but you’re sure you want to preserve “Jewish identity.”

It’s all about the boundary, and you know it’s an identity boundary–a tribal boundary–because the non-practicing but born-in Jew is part of the group, but the “god-fearer” non-Jewish spouse who is practicing “the faith” and raising the children as though they are in-group Jewish isn’t part of the group without a formalized conversion.

It’s not about halakhah or who can raise the kids better. It’s about The Tribe. It’s about boundaries.

We like to think of modern liberal Judaism as, well, modern and liberal–pluralistic and open and all that. But there are plenty of border guards, and intermarriage continues to be a boundary enforced in many Jewish communities–even in liberal ones. There are plenty of Reform and even some Reconstructionist rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriage ceremonies. (Humanistic Jewish rabbis will officiate intermarriages with no problem, by the way.) At least a few Reconstructionist-affiliated congregations decided to disaffiliate with the denomination when Reconstructionist Rabbinical College decided to admit students with non-Jewish partners. (This has never been an issue in Humanistic Judaism.) Almost every “Jewish continuity” effort is aimed at promoting in-marriage–even Birthright, which has a comparatively flexible view of “Who is a Jew?” when it comes to access to its programming, is heavily focused on creating Jewish couples.

Part of me wants to say that the problem Conservative Judaism has been facing for years is that it’s so committed to maintaining some odd sense of the authority of halakhah (and yeah, it’s odd–in what world is driving on Shabbat to get to shul something that could ever be within the scope of halakhah? Only in the Conservative movement–unless you think an internal combustion engine doesn’t involve fire) that it’s driven people away because of that commitment. But on reflection, I don’t think that’s really it at all. Few rank-and-file members ever really dug into halakhah in the Conservative movement; the average member of a Conservative shul is likely to be just as badly Jewishly educated as anyone else. It’s always been about cultural markers: just enough Hebrew, just enough veneer. And as intermarriage grew, Conservative Judaism declined as a share of the liberal Jewish world, because it was the liberal Jewish denomination that maintained the highest barriers to intermarried couples.

It’s about halakhah, but not: the movement has always staked a claim to halakhah but never really expected observance of it from its members. Except on this one thing, which is the make-or-break for membership and for rabbis. And this one thing is about identity.

That’s quite an irony for people whose identity kept them out in the cold for almost 2000 years.

What does Humanistic Judaism say about Jewish identity? Read more here. Will Humanistic Jewish rabbis perform intermarriage ceremonies? “We affirm the value of marriage between any two committed adults with the sense of obligations, responsibilities, and consequences thereof.” (Yes, it’s from the statement on same-sex marriage, but it carries through for intermarriage, too.)