Intermarriage, descent issues still on Reform rabbis agenda

NEW YORK — Some of the most controversial issues shaping Reform Judaism today — intermarriage, patrilineal descent and gay marriage — will be the focus of an upcoming conference of Reform rabbis.

Several hundred Reform rabbis from around the world are expected to attend the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, slated for March 24-28 in Philadelphia.

The theme of the gathering is Outreach and Intermarriage: Come Let Us Reason Together.

Two resolutions — one supporting civil marriage for gays and lesbians, and one to establish a task force to study the ramifications of patrilineal descent — are expected to pass.

Outreach, intermarriage and patrilineal descent are being studied by the rabbis because of the tensions these issues have caused within the movement during the past several years.

Such conflicts come at a time when the movement's longstanding emphasis on outreach has clashed with the search by many Reform Jews for spiritual authenticity, which has led to greater emphasis on traditional Jewish practices.

Many congregations have experienced a tension between trying to include interfaith families while ensuring that synagogue leadership and rituals are completely Jewish.

On the question of intermarriage, the Reform rabbinical organization passed a resolution formally discouraging officiation at these ceremonies in 1973.

But autonomy in decision-making is a central tenet of Reform Judaism and so the organization does not, and cannot, prohibit its rabbis from officiating.

A recent survey of CCAR members conducted by one Reform rabbi in New Jersey, Irwin Fishbein, found that 48 percent of Reform rabbis are willing to perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew.

Whatever the numbers, Reform rabbis are under considerable pressure from their congregations to perform intermarriages, several sources said.

According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, 62 percent of Reform Jews who married since 1985 married non-Jews.

And for many rabbis, a willingness to officiate at intermarriage ceremonies has become a litmus test for whether or not they will get jobs.

There have been several cases in which rabbis' contracts have not been renewed by their congregation because they refused to officiate at interfaith marriages, said Rabbi Elliot Stevens, executive secretary of the CCAR.

Coming to grips with these pressures, David Belin introduced a resolution on the subject at the Feb. 5 executive meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the movement.

The proposal urges that CCAR change its 1973 resolution opposing officiation "and instead adopt a neutral resolution neither favoring nor opposing rabbinic officiation."

The committee deferred consideration of the resolution until the UAHC's trustees' meeting in June.

"In many communities, people find it very difficult to get a Reform rabbi to do" intermarriages, said Belin, the founding chairman of the UAHC's Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.

"The rabbis who don't [officiate] use the CCAR resolution as a rationale," said Belin, who is also president of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is not affiliated with the Reform movement.

The UAHC has never before adopted a resolution to influence the policy of the CCAR, but Belin said it is appropriate to do so now.

"The movement has constantly reinterpreted Jewish tradition in large part as a result of the concerns of lay people, and met the needs of lay people," said Belin, an attorney in Des Moines, Iowa.

One of those reinterpretations, largely spurred by the realities of Reform life, was the 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent as Reform movement policy.

The policy accepted people as Jewish if either parent was Jewish, and if they had a Jewish education. That acceptance contradicts the traditional definition of Jewishness as being determined by the mother's ancestry.

Such acceptance had been the movement's longstanding practice. But even 13 years after becoming movement policy, it remains problematic for some Reform rabbis.

Reform rabbis in Canada, with the support of those in Europe, Israel and some in the United States, are introducing a resolution at the CCAR convention that, if passed, would create a task force to study the impact of patrilineal descent.

Questions that have emerged from the policy include whether the "public and timely acts" of identification included in the original wording are obligatory and whether someone whose mother is Jewish but who is not educated as a Jew is to be considered Jewish, said Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto.

"There's no solid standard across the movement for what's expected. It's more like a smorgasbord to choose from," said Goldstein, who runs an adult Reform education program in Toronto.

Although Canadian, Israeli and European Reform rabbis would like to rescind the policy, such an effort would be "futile," Goldstein said. "There is no chance of changing the reality of patrilineal descent."

More than 90 percent of Reform rabbis support the patrilineal descent policy, said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the CCAR.

On the issue of gay marriage, the Reform rabbinate is expected to adopt a resolution supporting civil marriage for gays and lesbians.

Much informal discussion is also expected at the conference on the related issue of religious sanctification of same-sex partnerships.

The group will likely take a position on gay religious weddings, or commitment ceremonies, at next year's convention, when the organization's ad hoc committee on human sexuality presents its final report.