‘We’re Headed Toward One of the Greatest Divisions in the History of the Jewish People’

A small, vocal group of Conservative rabbis is pushing the movement to accept marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The fight is really about the future of the religion.

Kelley DeBettencourt / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In late June, 19 rabbis gathered in New York City for an urgent meeting. It wasn’t secret, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t public. The Jewish leaders—all members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, except for two—were there to decide what to do about intermarriage.

Since the 1970s, the Conservative movement has banned its rabbis from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews. The denomination is more traditional than the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which both allow their rabbis to decide the intermarriage question for themselves. But over time, Conservative Judaism has also been more willing to make concessions to modern life than Orthodoxy, leaving it distinctly vulnerable to challenges from within on one of its most sensitive policies.

A small, vocal resistance to the Conservative movement’s stance on intermarriage has been building in recent years. Some rabbis left: Adina Lewittes—once an assistant dean at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary—decided she couldn’t tolerate the lack of welcome for non-Jews anymore. Or they were kicked out: Seymour Rosenbloom, the recently retired rabbi of Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, wrote an op-ed about marrying his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish husband last spring. Months later, the executive leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly expelled him unanimously after more than four decades in the organization.

This summer, the dissent has gotten much louder. In June, the rabbis at a large Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, announced they would begin officiating at intermarriage ceremonies. Although the congregation isn’t technically associated with the Conservative movement, its longtime senior rabbi, Roly Matalon, is part of the Rabbinical Assembly. Another prominent rabbi, Amichai Lau-Lavie, released a 58-page study detailing why he had decided to start marrying interfaith couples at his “artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop-up, experimental” congregation, Lab/Shul. “These are two very important institutions,” said Rosenbloom. “They’re very avant garde. They are the models that many Conservative synagogues look to as a vision for the future.” These rabbis’ decision to break with their denomination about intermarriage is “going to give other people encouragement to follow their conscience,” he added. “It seems like we’re coming to a tipping point. … Everyone is talking about this right now.”

The question of whether Jews should be able to marry non-Jews has been a barely contained crisis for roughly as long as there have been Jews in America. The issue picks at the religion’s most sensitive scabs: Fears of assimilation mix with anxiety that Judaism is becoming irrelevant. The American traditions of self-determination and acceptance clash with Judaism’s ancient legal code. And calls for fidelity to Jewish tradition can seem hollow in the face of a young couple hoping to stand together under the chuppah, or Jewish marriage canopy.

This time, the fight seems different. The rabbis have bigger names and flashier pulpits. Meanwhile, the chasm between liberal American Judaism and Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. and Israel is growing; wider affirmation of intermarriage would expand that chasm even further. Even the liberal edges of American Orthodoxy are feeling the pressures of this question.

Perhaps a few prominent rabbis will resign from the Rabbinical Assembly, and that will be it. Conservative Judaism, which is shrinking faster than any other American denomination, will forge ahead with the status quo. But the challenge of intermarriage—which symbolizes so many of the tensions of American Judaism—is not going away. The question has been called, and rabbis know it.

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Intermarriage is already a common feature of American Jewish life. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of married Jews in the U.S. have a non-Jewish spouse. That number is smaller within Conservative Judaism, which accounts for roughly one-fifth of American Jews: 27 percent of the denomination’s married members have a spouse who isn’t Jewish. But the ranks of intermarried Jews have been rising steadily since the 1970s, and are only likely to grow. Pew found that 83 percent of married Jews with one Jewish parent have a spouse who is not Jewish.

The rise of intermarriage over the past few decades directly mirrors a decline in American Jews’ engagement with their religion. Of American Jews born between 1914 and 1927, Pew found, 93 percent identify as “Jews by religion.” Among people born after 1980 who have Jewish ancestry or upbringing, however, only 68 percent identify as “Jews by religion.” The rest identify as “Jews of no religion,” meaning they see Judaism only as a facet of heritage, ethnicity, or culture. Of all the American Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism appears to be shrinking the fastest: As of 2013, only 11 percent of Jews under 30 identified as Conservative, compared to 24 percent of Jews over 65, according to Pew.

Millennials are “by far the most Jewishly illiterate Jewish community that has ever existed.”

While evidence suggests that intermarriage is linked to less Jewish engagement, people tell different stories about the causes. “There’s a huge sociological elephant in the room,” said Daniel Gordis, an American Conservative rabbi who helps run Shalem College, a liberal-arts college in Israel. “Jewish identity is not clearly that sustainable in the absence of two parents who are Jewish.”

Gordis holds a view that is common in Conservative and Orthodox circles: When a young Jew marries a non-Jew, it is often a sign that they’re not very committed to Judaism and won’t be that engaged once they’re married. Most American Jewish Millennials have become integrated into the communities around them—they “are the most financially successful, the people with the most political access, the most culturally integrated,” Gordis said. “But they are also by far the most Jewishly illiterate Jewish community that has ever existed.”

Some rabbis hold the opposite fear, though: that refusing to oversee interfaith marriages and penalizing diverse families in ritual participation drives people away. “The rabbinate has these internal discussions that are almost in a vacuum,” Rosenbloom said. “They don’t want to hear what the laity has to say … but the laity are voting by their unhappiness when we refuse to marry their children, and their children are voting by not coming back to our synagogues after we’ve rejected them.”

As intermarried Jewish families have proliferated, Lewittes said, it has become more common for committed Jews to “[fall] in love with people of other religious or cultural backgrounds.” It might be more common for them to stick with Judaism, too: According to a 2017 study by researchers at Brandeis University, Millennials born to intermarried parents were much more likely to have been raised Jewish than the children of intermarriages in previous generations.

“The general stance has been that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen … That’s not true.”

“There was a time where it was very clear that if somebody chose to marry somebody who wasn’t Jewish,” they understood the consequence was to “be pretty much marginalized, if not exiled, from their Jewish community,” Lewittes said. Now, marrying someone who is not Jewish is “not an expression of their diminishing desire to stay rooted in their Jewish lives and values,” she added. “It’s something they’ve experienced as being entirely consistent with … who they understand themselves to be as Jews.”

The rise of intermarried Jewish couples has prompted some rabbis, like Lewittes, to reimagine their roles as religious leaders—with job descriptions that aren’t primarily focused on the observance of Jewish law. “My success as a rabbi will be measured to the extent that I can help people access their own authentic understanding of themselves as Jews,” Lewittes said.

Those demographic changes were part of the reason why the rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun decided to start performing intermarriages. “The general stance has been that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen,” said Felicia Sol, one of the rabbis at the synagogue. “What the statistics show, and the reality on the ground, is that’s not true ... We could lose a generation, if not the future of Jewish life.”

Ultimately, though, the debate over intermarriage is not just a question of how best to get Jewish bodies into sanctuaries. It’s also about theology and law. While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements see intermarriage as theologically permissible, if discouraged, Orthodox and Conservative interpretations of Halacha, or Jewish law, see marriage between Jews and non-Jews as forbidden. Rabbis in those movements will typically only officiate if the non-Jewish spouse converts.

“To bless an intermarried union is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition,” said David Wolpe, the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “It may be beautiful, it may be loving, it may be worth celebrating on a human level. But on a Jewish level, it’s not fine, and it can’t be made fine.” Although rabbis would have to “have a heart of granite” not to feel sympathy toward young people who are in love and want to get married, “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation,” he said. “Someone else may need a rabbi to bless that union, or may want a rabbi to bless that union. It doesn’t mean that I have to do it.”

“Not figuring it out is not an option if we want to have a Jewish future in America.”

While the Conservative movement strives to welcome mixed families into congregations, schools, and summer camps, it has to do so “within the bounds of Jewish law,” said Julie Schonfeld, the head of the Rabbinical Assembly. “Judaism is fundamentally countercultural in that it’s all about boundaries.” While Conservative rabbis oversee a great number of “halachic, intensive conversions,” she said, there are limits to what the movement will do. “While emphasizing the openness of our communities to all who wish to come and worship with us, in regard to your question of whether the [Rabbinical Assembly] will consider permitting our members to perform intermarriages, the answer is no,” she wrote in a follow-up email after our interview.

The notion of legal boundaries is more complicated in Conservative Judaism than it is in Orthodoxy. The movement’s rabbis have generally argued that Jewish law can be reinterpreted and adapted in response to the challenges of modern life. Over the years, this has included approving same-sex marriage, popularizing mixed-gender prayer services, and letting women lead worship services and read from the Torah—Judaism’s sacred scrolls—on Shabbat and other holidays.

Sometimes the concessions have been small, but their consequences have been big. For example: The movement started allowing Jews to drive on Shabbat in the 1950s in response to America’s suburban shift, a practice that is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. “At this point in the history of the Conservative movement, to start making an argument on the basis of what Jewish law mandates feels to me a bit hollow,” said Gordis. “That’s not intellectually honest. The horse has left the barn. The train has left the station. For decades already, the Conservative movement has been issuing rulings that are not in keeping with Jewish law. So you can’t use Jewish law as your last stand at this particular moment.”

“There are elements of the tradition that feel tribalistic, and this is one of them.”

Some rabbis, like Matalon, don’t see any conflict between performing intermarriages and following Jewish law. “We have a view of Halacha that considers not just precedent and sources as the only way in which Halacha is decided,” he said. “It considers narratives and stories and life.” Rosenbloom agreed: “Halacha doesn’t deal with a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew,” he argued. “There certainly are statements within the tradition that seem to discourage marriage between Jews and non-Jews. On the other hand, there’s ample evidence—certainly, biblically—that the leaders of our people married people who weren’t Jewish.”

But even though a growing number of Conservative rabbis appear to hold this view, many of them may feel stuck. Unlike Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism is largely centralized and controlled through the Rabbinical Assembly, which sets the movement’s policies on rabbinical conduct and interpretations of law. The organization also controls pulpit placements and benefits like health insurance and pension plans. So far, the rabbis who have openly challenged the Rabbinical Assembly have been the leaders of prominent, independent congregations, or else close to retirement like Rosenbloom. Even Lewittes, who set out into the intermarriage wilderness before the others, is going to start an interim position at B’nai Jeshurun in August. Several of the rabbis I spoke with observed that the Rabbinical Assembly exerts less control and influence over rabbis in the Conservative movement than it once did. But the prospect of getting kicked out may still be intimidating.

“For some people, this is really a matter of their livelihood, so people are hesitating for very good reasons to say, ‘I’m in,’” said Lau-Lavie. That’s why he hasn’t yet resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly: He wants to push a conversation. “It’s not to our best advantage to keep on delaying serious consideration of this,” he said. But “I’m aware of the level of sadness and animosity … Change ain’t simple.”

Matalon agreed. “If everyone is going to be asked to resign, or will volunteer their resignation, or will be expelled, it’s going to create unnecessary turmoil,” he said. “There’s no option but to figure it out. Not figuring it out is not an option if we want to have a Jewish future in America, and if we want to have a Conservative movement that remains relevant to the majority of American Jews.”

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The fight over intermarriage might seem like a rabbinical squabble confined to one small corner of American Judaism. But what’s at stake is actually the future of Jewish identity and pluralism. This fight matters not just in the Conservative movement, but across denominations; not just in the U.S., but across global Jewry. Rabbis in America must reckon with the country’s tradition of openness and inclusivity—along with the ambient notion that faith and identity are chosen and easily multiple. And that means the tensions between liberal and traditional Judaism will only grow. What some people fear—on both sides of the intermarriage debate—is that Jews will no longer be one people, but rather two peoples recognized according to radically different standards.

This is evident in the way the intermarriage debate has spread beyond the bounds of Conservative Judaism to the liberal edges of Orthodoxy. Avram Mlotek, a progressive Orthodox rabbi in New York City, wrote a Jewish Week article in June calling for traditional communities “to rethink our resistance to intermarriage”—not pushing for Orthodox rabbis to perform interfaith-marriage ceremonies, but proposing a warmer welcome for Jews who intermarry. He saw immediate pushback from the seminary where he was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, re-asserting the Orthodox position against intermarriage. “Once you have clear boundaries, then what it shows is that the other stuff, within those boundaries, is open for discussion,” said Asher Lopatin, the Orthodox rabbi who serves as president of the yeshiva, in an interview. “It puts people at ease.”

Mlotek holds a traditional interpretation of intermarriage: “My understanding of Jewish law at this point prohibits my performance of weddings in a halachic way,” he said. But he has struggled to reconcile this position with his efforts to reach Jews who are trying to find a home in Judaism. He describes his work with the Jewish organization Hillel as somewhere between Chabad—the influential ultra-Orthodox group known for its extensive hospitality—and Moishe House, a network of houses that host Jewish social events. “I see intermarriage along a certain type of landscape of issues that traditional communities need to be engaging with,” he said, including LGBT inclusion and the role of women. (Orthodox Judaism prohibits same-sex marriage or relationships and generally forbids women from leading services.) “The most honest answer is that I’m still figuring it out,” he said. “There are elements of the tradition that feel tribalistic, and this is one of them.”

This is the tension of trying to maintain simultaneous commitments to the rigid laws of Judaism and inclusive, open American values. Some Orthodox communities solve this problem by remaining cordoned off from the rest of American society, but for Orthodox rabbis who are interested in engaging with the culture around them, the dissonance can be challenging.

“Ultimately, we’re headed toward one of the greatest divisions in the history of the Jewish people.”

“What if it’s someone who is totally unaffiliated but identifies as Jewish and falls in love with a non-Jewish person, and neither are particularly religious,” Mlotek said. “The Jewish partner knows she has a Jewish parent or grandparent, and they’ve been going to the rabbi’s house for Shabbat.” When they decided to get married, “Why not ask the rabbi?” he said. “For that couple, it’s even harder to answer from a morally sound or religiously honest place as to why I couldn’t officiate for them.” Ultimately, Mlotek said, he won’t do it, “and it’s really heart-breaking to say.”

Mlotek’s solution is to do everything but the ceremony. “I’m going to be at that wedding, and I’m going to dance with you and lift you up in that chair, and I’ll help you prepare for that day as much as I can,” he said. He will also connect couples “with a colleague whose understanding of Jewish law can celebrate that in a more affirming way than mine might.”

This kind of solution—a shift in tone and posture, if not policy—is exactly where the Conservative movement ended up on intermarriage years ago. And the mental gymnastics of that position—performing everything but the ceremony, telegraphing approval while formally disapproving—is exactly what led some rabbis to embrace intermarriage. “If we’re trying to tell people that intermarriage is something we don’t approve of—well, many congregations, before the wedding, have a blessing for the couple,” said Rosenbloom. “After the couple is married, they say, ‘Now that you’re married, come and be part of our synagogue.’ Either we’re being hypocritical in inviting them to be part of the congregation, or we’re being obstructionist in saying we won’t officiate.”

People like Mlotek are rare in the Orthodox world. In most communities, the boundary around Jews marrying Jews is strictly enforced—even more so, perhaps, because the American Jewish population is changing so radically. “What’s going on in the Conservative movement has sensitized the Orthodox that we have to have a more serious conversation about welcoming intermarrieds,” said Lopatin.

This is a big question lurking beneath the surface of the intermarriage debate: Jewish pluralism. Will liberal parts of the Jewish community accept that their traditional cousins maintain a policy they may find discriminatory and unwelcoming? Will the Orthodox affirm other movements’ decision to embrace multi-faith couples?

Schonfeld hopes so. “It is extremely important for the Jewish community, especially in open American society, that there are different paths to take that are right for different people,” she said. “Other movements make their unique contributions. The Reform movement is also making a very positive and profound contribution, but it’s a different contribution.”

But some rabbis feel another, equally powerful impulse: “There is a continuing fear within Conservative Judaism, that has been there since the outset, of incurring the opprobrium of the Orthodox,” said Rosenbloom. People like Rosenbloom might see the Conservative movement’s resistance to intermarriage as a form of running to the right—an attempt to prove their halachic bona fides and avoid feeling delegitimized. But the fear may also be about something deeper: the potential loss of continuity across Jewish communities.

“Ultimately, we’re headed toward one of the greatest divisions in the history of the Jewish people,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi who leads a Jewish study center in Phoenix. He himself grew up in an interfaith household, and still has one non-Jewish parent. “We’ve weathered the storm of many different hits, but the divide between ultra-Orthodoxy and liberal, pluralistic American Judaism is maybe irreparable,” he said. “Not only irreparable—it may actually mean that we’re no longer one people.”

“There is a midwifery happening in the American Jewish community.”

Even synagogues like B’nai Jeshurun have to struggle with this question. According to Conservative and Orthodox traditions, Judaism is exclusively inherited through the mother, meaning that children with only a Jewish father aren’t Jewish according to their understanding of the law. Even though B’nai Jeshurun will hold intermarriage ceremonies, the rabbis still won’t accept such children, often referred to as patrilineal Jews, as Jewish, and would require them to convert if they wished to be accepted as Jews according to Halacha. Sol and Matalon said they are maintaining this standard because they don’t want to put children in the position of not being recognized as Jews by part of their community.

The question of Jewish pluralism becomes even more complicated in a global context. Increasingly, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders do not recognize the validity of liberal, American forms of Judaism, including some aspects of Conservative Judaism. In the last month alone, the Knesset, or parliament, has signaled plans to move ahead with a bill which would give the Orthodox rabbinate sole authority over conversions in Israel. The rabbinate helped quash a long-standing plan to create a gender-mixed worship space at the Western Wall, a sacred site in Jerusalem which is currently divided into men’s and women’s sections. And it recently released a list of rabbis who performed conversions that were later challenged, which included several dozen American rabbis and prominent Orthodox clergy. Outraged critics in America have referred to it as a blacklist.

While intermarriage is a challenge in Israel, the issue there centers on the emigration of Russian Jews, many of whom would not be considered Jewish by the Orthodox. Otherwise, Israeli society is largely split into two worlds: secular and religious. The gradations in between—which cause all this angst and tension and debate in the U.S.—are barely there. The inflexible standards of Israeli Judaism exacerbate the situation in the United States and contribute to the sense among some rabbis that traditional and liberal Judaism may be irreconcilable.

The Conservative movement’s debates over intermarriage are not just about which rabbis will or won’t bless couples or dance the hora or welcome unconverted Jews into their communities. It’s about who counts in the broader Jewish community, and how Jews choose to wrestle with ancient traditions in a post-modern world. As Sol put it, “There is a midwifery happening in the American Jewish community.” It’s not clear that one, united Judaism will come out at the other end.