An Old/new Paradigm for Integrating Interfaith Families Into Jewish Life

Our goal is to create as many Jewish families as possible, and we do that by helping people – be they Jews or non-Jews who have become connected to the our people – find meaning and purpose in living a Jewish life.

Last week, I received a call from a member of my congregation, telling me her daughter had gotten engaged. Before I could get out my “mazel tov,” the mother quickly added: “She is engaged to a non-Jew. Are you allowed to do those weddings yet?”

The answer to her question was “no.” As a Conservative Rabbi, I do not perform intermarriages. But I did explain to her that we do have intermarried families in our congregation, and that we do our best to involve the non-Jewish spouse to the extent that we believe is acceptable. Disappointed, she thanked me and we hung up.

This schizophrenic message on intermarriage - that we won’t do the wedding but will welcome the couple into the synagogue - is a common yet frustrating one for American Conservative rabbis. As a movement that seeks to live in the elusive center between tradition and modernity, intermarriage is one of the most difficult issues we face. With the rate of intermarriage increasing among U.S. Jews, the stakes are rising.

There has been much discussion around this issue, especially since last October, when the Pew survey found the intermarriage rate for Jews who had married since 2005 to be 58 percent. Specifically, when looking at the entire Jewish married population, only 2 percent of Jews who identify as Orthodox are intermarried, 27 percent of Conservative, 50 percent of Reform, and 69 percent of Jews who say they do not identify as any denomination.

It is difficult to compare the intermarriage numbers from Orthodox Jews, some of whom live in cloistered communities, with non-Orthodox Jews, but it is hard to deny that the more traditional strain of Judaism a person identifies with, the less likely s/he will intermarry. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but it seems to me that the more engaged a Jew is with his/her tradition, the more likely s/he will in-marry and raise a Jewish family.

While in-marriage is generally considered ideal among Jews, we must recognize that intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life, and having a coherent strategy for dealing with it is essential. Our goal is to create as many Jewish families as possible, and we do that by helping people - both Jews and non-Jews who have become connected to the Jewish people - find meaning and purpose in living a Jewish life. But what are the limits to attaining this goal? Performing interfaith weddings? Listing a mazel tov in the newsletter? Pretending it never happens? Each option comes with its drawbacks.

Perhaps we can find guidance to this modern problem in a traditional source. In the book of Leviticus, which we are currently reading in synagogue on Shabbat, the Torah says, “Each and every man of the house of Israel or of the converts in Israel who will bring his offering…” The Hebrew here is “ish ish” – a repetition of the word for “man.” The Talmud (Hullin 13b) takes this repetition to a startling conclusion: “What does [the Torah] mean to teach by stating ‘A man, a man?’ It comes to include non-Jews, and teaches that they can come to give vow offerings and gift offerings just as Jews can.” In other words, non-Jews are allowed to bring voluntary offerings to God in the Jewish temple.

This is quite surprising. One would think that, of all places, the Temple sacrifices would have been restricted only to Jews. But this was not the case. Non-Jews were allowed to enter and worship in a particular way. They couldn’t offer obligatory sacrifices, such as sin-offerings or holiday-offerings, but they could offer voluntary sacrifices, such as a vow or free-will offering. Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that a vow offering was brought upon successful fulfillment of a vow, and a free-will offering was brought for rejoicing. In Milgrom’s commentary to Leviticus, he writes that the free-will offering “is the spontaneous by-product of one’s happiness whatever its cause.” Jews and non-Jews both were free to bring these offerings to the Temple.

Thinking about this today provides us with guidance as to how to welcome interfaith families into our Jewish communities. It can begin with a vow. Not a wedding vow, as performing interfaith weddings would not fall under the “voluntary” category, but a commitment to raise a Jewish child. Vows have a complicated legal history, but the concept of discussing with the interfaith couple their expectations for their child’s religious upbringing is an important first step.

As life goes on, the non-Jewish spouse could participate in joyous ceremonies in the synagogue, such as a baby naming or a bar/bat mitzvah, that serve as a fulfillment of his/her “vow,” and the happiness that comes with these occasions – which s/he decides to share in with his/her own free-will. Like in the ancient Temple, non-Jews should be welcome to participate in the “voluntary” parts of these and other Jewish ceremonies, but not the “obligatory” parts. For example, s/he could stand with the Jewish spouse at the Torah for an aliyah, but could not recite the words of that blessing.

Would this approach pacify the next mother who calls me about doing her daughter’s interfaith wedding? Probably not. I recognize that my suggestions here will fall short of the full inclusion that many seek, and that they still retain a level of schizophrenia in their implementation. However, to maintain in-marriage as an ideal, and to stay true to our tradition, non-Jews should not participate in Jewish rituals in the same way Jews can.

That being said, we still need to find pathways of meaning for those who choose not to convert but still have connected themselves to the Jewish people. They too have a role to play in the Jewish future, and we need to help them realize this role. The Talmud’s assertion that a non-Jew was allowed to bring specific sacrifices to the Temple is helpful in framing this important, and ongoing, conversation. It sets a vision of limited inclusion for non-Jews who would like to approach God with the rest of the Jewish people. Figuring out what exactly those limits are is our task, and we are not free to desist from it.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Daniel Bar-On / Baubau