Neither Fact nor Fallacy

By Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok

The Conservative movement is in the midst of an intense debate about whether its clergy should be allowed to officiate at the wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew. Are the rabbis who advocate participation in the wedding ceremonies of intermarried couples simply enabling assimilation or does their involvement encourage participation in Jewish life? We have studied this issue for nearly a decade, and last year reported the first systematic data about rabbinic officiation. We found that intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by a rabbi were more likely to be subsequently engaged in Jewish life.

Our colleague, Dr. Michelle Shain, Associate Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, recently argued that our study is being misinterpreted and is being used inappropriately by advocates for rabbinic officiation of intermarriages. She notes that our study does not provide “convincing evidence” that rabbinic officiation caused the greater engagement of couples whose wedding were officiated by Jewish clergy although some commentators have made that claim.

Shain argues that because we did not conduct a “true experiment” that randomly assigned couples to be married either by a rabbi or some other form of officiant, we cannot rule out other factors. We agree that experimental evidence provides the clearest support for assessing a policy intervention. (This is in essence what we have done in our research on Birthright Israel.) However, randomly assigning couples to an officiant is neither practical nor desirable. The couples who would agree would clearly be different than typical couples.

In lieu of conducting an experiment, we compared three groups of couples – intermarried with and without a Jewish clergy officiant and inmarried couples. We found that on multiple measures, including raising Jewish children and synagogue membership, intermarried couples married by a rabbi look more like inmarried couples than other intermarried couples. On some measures they were indistinguishable. There are strong correlations between Jewish clergy officiation and these indices of subsequent Jewish engagement. The findings refute the claim that having a Jewish ceremony is simply an accommodation to parents or grandparents and is unrelated to later decisions.

What about other factors? Indeed, those who seek out a rabbi to officiate at their wedding have stronger Jewish backgrounds than those who do not. We recognized this problem and applied statistical controls to create groups with similar backgrounds. As Shain notes, controlling for background characteristics makes the findings less dramatic. Our intermarried rabbinic officiation couples were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life, but only on eight of 12 measures.

Using controls for Jewish upbringing, intermarried couples who had a rabbi were not, for example, more likely to celebrate Shavuot or to regard keeping kosher as important as compared with intermarried couples who had a secular or non-Jewish clergy officiant. But these Jewish behaviors are not normative for most Jews, in particular, those who are part of the Reform movement. Because Reform rabbis predominantly now officiate at intermarriage ceremonies, it should not be surprising that you do not see much of an effect on these behaviors. Perhaps, if rabbis who were more traditionally focused worked with intermarried couples, there would be a different outcome.

We disagree that the consequences of giving a rabbinic imprimatur to intermarriage “may not be benign, but rather damaging.” Whatever the limits of our ability to make causal statements, we do not see evidence of the harmful effects of rabbinic officiation. The dilemma is that to develop reliable data about the impact of allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate, some Conservative rabbis would have to do so. It is beyond our, or any social scientists’, purview to make the policy change needed for that research.

There are substantial challenges facing the Conservative movement. Although numbers of adherents do not speak to their level of engagement, according to Pew, nearly two-thirds of those raised in the movement no longer identify as Conservative Jews. More recent data, from PPRI, indicates that among Jewish young adults, only 8% identify as Conservative. Although intermarriage has been cited as a major “cause” of the decline, policies to address the problem, including conversion of non-Jewish spouses, have not been particularly effective.

Intermarriage and the issues it presents to the Jewish community are more complex than the rhetoric about them suggests. The lived experiences of intermarried couples and their families are layered and their engagement with Jewish life is multiply determined. Not all intermarried couples are alike and the levers that move some toward greater Jewish engagement are unlikely to be effective with all.

Individual studies rarely provide a clear-cut “answer.” Instead, good studies provide grist for new ways to think about a problem and, over time, ideas and findings “creep” into how we understand the issue. As intermarriage has become even more prevalent, the urgency of moving beyond a search for simple portrayals to understanding the inherent complexity has increased. Rabbinic officiation by itself is unlikely to solely or directly cause the Jewish engagement of intermarried couples. Nonetheless, the association between the involvement of Jewish clergy and outcomes for intermarried couples suggests that rabbis have an important role to play and one that we need to better understand. Our hope is that our work, and the present discussion, have moved that understanding forward.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Fern Chertok is a Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and teaches in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.