By Michelle Shain
Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) has released a new study, claiming that nearly 40 percent of Conservative rabbis are open to officiating at intermarriages. This statistic is supported by nothing more than a wing and a prayer. Although the impetus for conducting the study was good, the claims made about Conservative rabbis simply don’t follow from the study that was done.
The Big Tent Judaism study tried to document the attitudes and practices of Conservative rabbis regarding intermarriage, but its conclusions are based on the responses of 249 self-selected Conservative rabbis. These rabbis represent only 15 percent of the Rabbinical Assembly’s approximately 1,700 members, and there is no way to know if they are representative of the movement as a whole. Respondents were solicited through various listservs, and invitations were sent to rabbis in Big Tent Judaism’s database. Not only is likely that the rabbis who are most sympathetic to Big Tent Judaism’s mission were more apt to be invited to participate, but Big Tent Judaism’s prominent sponsorship of the study may also have discouraged more circumspect Conservative rabbis from responding. The report does not provide any data that would allow us to compare the survey respondents to the larger population of Conservative rabbis and, thus, assess the extent of the sample bias.
The Big Tent Judaism study does more than draw conclusions based on a poor sample, however; it also misinterprets the responses of those who were in the sample. The key question in the survey was, “In the hypothetical situation that the Rabbinical Assembly permitted officiating at interfaith marriages, could you see yourself ever officiating under any circumstances at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew?” This question contained a lot of qualifiers – “ever” officiating under “any” circumstances, in an unlikely hypothetical situation. This focus on the shadow of a possibility eclipses the more relevant question of under what conditions Conservative rabbis might be willing to officiate at intermarriages. Although the survey did ask an open-ended question about the conditions under which respondents could see themselves officiating at an intermarriage, this critical information was not reported.
More than half the Jews who married in the past decade married a non-Jew. The Big Tent Judaism study is likely correct that Conservative rabbis interact with intermarried Jews in their personal and professional lives. Systematic data on how these rabbis think about intermarriage would benefit the Conservative leadership and laity. Unfortunately, the Big Tent Judaism study draws conclusions that aren’t sustained by the facts of the study. Perhaps what’s needed is a study conducted in cooperation with the Rabbinical Assembly, which could yield both a better sample of Conservative rabbis (the 2011 survey of JTS ordained rabbis and students, which was commissioned by the JTS Chancellor, achieved a response rate of 52 percent) and a deeper understanding of the complexity and nuance with which Conservative rabbis approach the question of officiation.
Michelle Shain is a Research Associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.