Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?

The experience that an interfaith couple has with Judaism and the Jewish community at the nodal moment of their wedding is critical.

interfaith-weddingBy Edmund Case

The Cohen Center’s new study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, is a game-changer. The dominant narrative about intermarriage for twenty-five years has been that interfaith couples are not Jewishly engaged and don’t raise their children as Jews. The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples for that reason no longer have that leg to stand on. The new research shows that interfaith couples who have a rabbi officiate at their weddings do raise their children Jewish – and they join synagogues, too.

I have been focused on the officiation issue since starting InterfaithFamily fifteen years ago. Early on, we published first-person accounts of the hurt and rejection couples experienced; an important article from 2002 is titled “Why I Am a Unitarian,” and you can guess the reason why. No one seemed to pay much attention.

In 2008, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, in Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, confirmed the negative experience many interfaith couples had seeking Jewish clergy to officiate was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, I thought, people would respond to research by a respected academic – but not much happened.

In March 2010, the CCAR, after three years of study, released a report that said that encouraging in-marriage was important because of continuity, and left standing the CCAR’s 1973 resolution that officially disapproves of officiation because intermarriage “should be discouraged.” Yes, the report acknowledged the opportunity to engage interfaith families through rabbinic outreach, and said that a range of practices, including officiation under certain circumstances, was “respected.” But most published comments still say only about half of Reform rabbis officiate.

InterfaithFamily never argued with rabbis who said their position was based on Jewish law. But the opposition of many is based not on theology but on demographics: the belief that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.” I met early on with a Reform rabbi in Chicago who said she didn’t officiate because of Steven Cohen’s research showing that intermarried couples were not Jewishly engaged. When prominent Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe explained in 2013 why he didn’t officiate for interfaith couples, the first reason he gave was that “invariably” in an intermarriage the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less.

That’s why the new research on the impact of officiation is so important. When Len Saxe revealed the new study at the recent Interfaith Opportunity Summit, one of his slides generated an audible gasp: 85% of intermarried couples who had only Jewish clergy officiate at their wedding are raising their children Jewish, compared to 94% of in-married couples who have Jewish clergy officiate, and 23% of intermarried couples who have other officiants. Moreover, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants are synagogue members, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other officiants.

As careful researchers, Saxe and his team don’t claim causation, but the association between officiation and later Jewish engagement is striking. “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

After this research, it simply is no longer tenable for rabbis who are permitted to officiate to refuse to do something that leads to interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. It’s time for the CCAR to change its official position.

This isn’t just a Reform and Reconstructionist issue, either. At the Summit, several Conservative rabbis expressed deep concern; one said, “we massage the message, but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A prominent Conservative rabbi earlier this year said it’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. The new research should spur renewed efforts to change the RA’s policy.

Something very important is happening. The foundation of the dominant narrative that intermarriage is a negative for Jewish continuity – a narrative that underlies widespread ambivalence about intermarriage and the legitimacy of the intermarried – is cracking. The Cohen Center’s Millennial Children of Intermarriage study a year ago showed that the Jewish attitudes and behaviors of children of intermarriage can be shaped by interventions, in particular by Jewish activities in college, but also by exposure to Jewish education in childhood. Now the new study shows that interfaith couples will raise their children Jewish – presumably in part by exposing them to Jewish education – when rabbis officiate at their weddings.

This research compels all Jewish leaders, not just rabbis, to adopt a new dominant narrative of the positive potential for Jewish outcomes in interfaith families. That attitude shift would underlie massive efforts to genuinely welcome interfaith couples with actions designed to engage them Jewishly – something that is essential, with 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying today.

But Judaism’s religious leaders have a special role. The experience that an interfaith couple has with Judaism and the Jewish community at the nodal moment of their wedding is so critical – something I learned years ago and the new study now unmistakably confirms. Rabbis making interfaith couples feel that their relationships are disapproved by Judaism is destructive of future engagement. But what could be more welcoming and set interfaith couples on a path to later engagement, than for rabbis to officiate at their weddings as willingly and joyfully as they do for in-married couples?

Edmund Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily, is an independent writer, speaker and consultant.