Intermarriage takes center stage at forum

PHILADELPHIA — Nowhere are tensions within the Reform movement more apparent than in the current debate over intermarriage.

At the 107th annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held this week, the conflict occupied center stage, reflecting the centrality of the issue in the movement generally.

It quickly became clear that many other Reform policy positions, particularly patrilineal descent and the inclusion of interfaith families in synagogue life, have so changed Reform practice that there is no longer a clear sense of where the movement stands on intermarriage.

Patrilineal descent, adopted by the movement in 1983, accepts individuals as Jewish if either their mother or father is Jewish and they are given a Jewish education.

In an effort to clear away the confusion and to refocus Reform Jewry on the tenets central to Judaism, including Torah and mitzvot, the movement has begun debating the implications of intermarriage.

Rabbi Simeon Maslin, president of the CCAR, who opposes interfaith officiation, called on 500 colleagues to adopt and live by "community standards" and to diminish the "anarchy" in their practice "that is all too often based on ignorance and convenience."

For the first time Reform congregants and rabbis addressed the issue in a major session, which included two Reform temple members and two rabbis.

"Our people need boundaries," said Rabbi Debra Hachen, who does not, as a rule, officiate at interfaith weddings. She leads Congregation B'nai Shalom in Westborough, Mass.

But Rabbi Harry Danziger of Temple Israel in Memphis, Tenn., said "nonofficiation sends a confusing message."

"Intentional or not, in our context it says, `We welcome your marriage but not your wedding.'"

The movement intends to replicate the debate at the regional level, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, incoming president of the movement's congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Although the Reform rabbinical association passed a resolution in 1973 formally discouraging officiation at interfaith marriages, the Reform rabbinate remains deeply divided over the issue.

Nearly half, 48 percent, said in a recent survey they are willing to officiate at intermarriages in at least some circumstances. The other 52 percent said they would not be willing, though most would refer interfaith couples to a colleague who is.

In some cities, such as Boston, it is nearly impossible to find a Reform rabbi willing to officiate at an interfaith wedding. In others, mostly outside the Northeast, it is easy.

Although a number of Reform clergy hire themselves out solely to perform intermarriages, for which they charge as much as $1,500, the overwhelming majority of Reform rabbis have a more difficult time deciding where they stand on the issue.

Meanwhile, the issue is a source of tension within the Reform rabbinate and between Reform rabbis and their congregations, which often pressure their rabbis to perform the ceremonies.

It has become common for synagogue search committees to ask a candidate for the pulpit in the first interview whether he or she officiates at intermarriages, often using the issue as a litmus test, participants said.

George Markley, a Bridgeport, Conn., attorney and an executive committee member and trustee of the UAHC, married a non-Jewish woman, Chris, 27 years ago. They got nothing more than a lecture about the pitfalls of intermarriage from a Reform rabbi whom they approached to perform their wedding, he said.

In the end, they were married by a Unitarian-Universalist minister but never again set foot in that church. Chris has since converted to Judaism.

Today, Markley ardently opposes rabbinic officiation over intermarriages.

"It is the responsibility of Jewish clergy to be our spiritual leaders, not our followers," he said, receiving a standing ovation from about two-thirds of the rabbis present.

No matter what the intentions, "we know that the chances of there being a thoroughly Jewish household and multiple generations of Jewish children issuing forth from that marriage are seriously diminished," he said.

"It is not the rabbi's job to make us feel good all the time; it is to make us feel Jewish," he added.