Big Tent Judaism’s Study About Conservative Rabbis Deserves More Credit

By Dr. Keren R. McGinity and Dr. Shawn Landres

The dismissive response (“Do Conservative Rabbis Really Want to Officiate at Intermarriages?”) to the recently released study by Big Tent Judaism (BTJ) misses the point of the research. (Full disclosure: we served on the academic advisory board, offering counsel to BTJ in its preparation of the questionnaire and report.) The goal was to take the pulse of Conservative rabbis to determine whether informal rumblings that some Conservative rabbis are leaning the way of their Reform colleagues toward officiating at intermarriages had any broader basis in fact. BTJ hoped to spark productive dialogue about where congregations and the Conservative Movement go from here.

The response to the BTJ study, however, highlights the continuing need for better understanding of the purpose and methods of information-gathering policy research projects such as this one.

First, the study’s findings are intended as illustrative, not definitive. They substantiate a discrepancy between the official party line and how some rabbis see things. Consider it a quantitative form of qualitative research: indeed, well-received books about American Jewish life have been written based on fewer respondents.

Second, methodological debate should not distract from the substantive issues that this study legitimately raises. Contrary to the criticism, the study’s sampling method constrains but by no means invalidates its findings. We believe that with respect to the purpose of the BTJ study and the extremely small population involved (Conservative rabbis in the U.S.), the approach was an appropriate one, and indeed broadly responsive to the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s concerns about non-probability samples’ fitness for use.

To be sure, the analysis could have benefited from a more formal demographic comparison between the study participants and the whole population of Conservative rabbis. The absence of such comparison, however, hardly justifies dismissing BTJ’s research out of hand. And the assertion that by sponsoring the study, Big Tent Judaism “discouraged more circumspect Conservative rabbis from responding” is specious.

The sample of 249 Conservative rabbis offers important insights about what the respondents are thinking and doing “on the ground” and legitimate findings about differences among subgroups, whether by gender, age, or position (in a pulpit or not).

Third, as academic researchers well know, what one finds and what makes news are not always identical. We do agree that speculative questions, such as what might happen if the Rabbinical Assembly changed its rules, are not ideally addressed through quantitative research. But given that all Conservative rabbis have spent at least five years, if not more, in deep textual study of speculative situations, we are reasonably confident that the study’s respondents understood the question! More to the point, we believe that BTJ’s finding that 38% of respondents would conduct intermarriages merits further inquiry, not dismissal out of hand.

Perhaps the flaw is less in the research itself and more in how findings were presented and reported. Admittedly, the word “many” on BTJ’s website announcing the study is accurate only if understood to mean relative to all participants. Still, the fact that hundreds of rabbis spent their precious time answering the survey questions indicates that “intermarriage is part of the daily reality addressed by Conservative rabbis and Conservative congregations,” in the words of former BTJ researcher Dr. Zohar Rotem.

While not surprising given the rate of Jewish intermarriage, participation in the study substantiates the need for congregational conversations. Why is it that among respondents who are pulpit rabbis, more women than men say they have attended an interfaith wedding and were more open to the prospect of officiating if the RA’s policy changed? How does personally having an intermarried family member influence a rabbi’s professional views and practices? There is also much more to consider, including nuanced ideas about the difference between Jewish identity and halachic status, that deserve open and thoughtful discussion. How might Conservative rabbis include intermarried families in their congregations? What might the Rabbinical Association and United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism do to support them in this endeavor? We hope that BTJ’s study will help inspire more of these deliberate, full-hearted, progressive conversations.

By way of a closing example, we offer the discussion that took place at the largest Conservative synagogue in New England about a year ago. Pioneering Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, initially proposed a new synagogue policy that would allow him to officiate if the couple committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children” (JTA, December 18, 2014). Listening to his congregants’ feedback about this idea, he realized that there was no way to make the promise stick and it unfairly singled out interfaith couples (since in-marrying couples were not being asked to make the same promise). Rabbi Gardenswartz ultimately determined that his temple would “treat an interfaith couple as a Jewish-Jewish couple except that its clergy cannot officiate at the interfaith wedding.” The outcome of this discussion included a list of ten actions that Temple Emanuel is committed to doing – including subsidizing a honeymoon in Israel – each of which nurtures a non-judgmental, inclusive relationship with the interfaith couple and abides by Conservative movement standards. This is what progress looks like.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is the founding director of the Love & Tradition Institute.
Dr. Shawn Landres is the co-founder of Jumpstart Labs.