The Next Jewish Challenge

They’ve tackled gay ordination. Now it’s time to address intermarriage.

Not even a month has passed since the Jewish Conservative movement decided that it is now permissible for its rabbinical schools to admit openly gay people—and a new initiative, no less momentous, is already in the making. The 76 Schechter day schools in the United States and Canada, which admit only children who are Jewish according to Jewish law—born to a mother who is Jewish or has converted to Judaism—will now be more “flexible”: They will soon begin to admit students with Jewish fathers.

Conservative Judaism is a movement torn between conservatism and liberalism, being squeezed between its two competitor branches of Judaism—Orthodoxy on the right and Reform on the left. Orthodox Jews adhere to ancient religious law in everyday life, and Reform long ago rid itself of those archaic constraints. Conservative Jews walk the middle ground: They follow halacha, or Jewish law, but try to make it more adaptable to the needs of current generations, a delicate and always complicated maneuver in these times of polarization. The great game of Jewish evolvement has a clear pattern. Take a look at Reform Judaism, and you’ll see where Conservatives might be tomorrow. Take a look at Conservative Jews, and you’ll see what the Orthodox will need to debate even later. For instance, the chief question facing many Orthodox scholars now concerns women’s participation and equality—something the Conservatives overcame back in 1955 with their ground-breaking decision to give Jewish women the right to Aliyah, the honor of making the blessings during Torah reading in the synagogue.

The decision on gay ordination—and on allowing gay commitment ceremonies—provides a perfect example for the way it is done. The rabbis debated the issue for a decade and a half, rejecting both gay ordination and commitment ceremonies for reasons of halacha first. Then, a couple of weeks ago, they reversed their decision in the most bizarre way imaginable. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—25 rabbis who constitute the movement’s supreme institution of halacha—approved a tshuva (responsum) that keeps homosexual anal sex illegal (according to Jewish law) while still permitting homosexual relations.

This decision was the culmination of quite a pandemic debate. Does the “lying with a male” that is proscribed for males in the Torah (Leviticus 18:22) refer only to the technical act of penetration, or is it a comprehensive prohibition on sexual contact between males (and, by implication, between women, too). Some rabbis were adamantly arguing that such distinction is no more than a hypocritical way to make the wrong right—but more thought it was a way out of a crippling discussion that was hanging over the movement, and making its members, most of them quite liberal, very uncomfortable.

For Conservatives, with the gay controversy over, the new issue might be the widespread phenomenon of mixed marriage. Hence the issue of accepting the sons and daughters of Jewish fathers (as opposed to Jewish mothers) to Schechter schools—a small step, signifying more to come. The Reform decided in 1983 to get rid of the matrilineal orthodoxy and emphasize the Jewish upbringing as the definitive element of Jewishness. Matrilineal descent was not the biblical practice and was probably adopted during the second Temple period. There is more than one theory explaining why: Some think it was the number of Jewish women raped by non-Jews, some believe it was borrowed from the Romans, and there are scholars who think it was a response to intermarriage.

The Reform movement’s decision was based on the rising number of intermarriages: They didn’t want to lose all those youngsters. The Conservatives, though, still adhere to the old tradition. But as they look for ways to boost declining membership, they will have no choice but to turn to the growing population of Jews who marry someone of a different faith.

Conservatives haven’t yet reached the point of hard decisions. For now, they are just making it easier for children of intermarriages to join, on the condition that they convert to Judaism before their bar mitzvah. But one should not envision this decision as an isolated case of better marketing. Whether the rabbis and leaders are ready to accept it or not, they are entering the treacherous fields of Jewish identity in the age of intermarriage.

And Conservatives, following the sister Reform movement, will probably get to the point of more acceptance. They need members, and the members marry, and the marriage isn’t always to someone whom the rabbis recommend. This trend, though, has its strange ways and conflicting results. As the Orthodox follow the Conservative, who follow the Reform—but the Reform are now trying to turn the train back. Mixed marriage, they realized, has become a custom too powerful and destructive to ignore.

Two weeks ago, in Ha’aretz, I wrote about a new study examining intermarriage and its implications on American Jewish society. “We are developing into two distinct populations,” according to professor Steven Cohen, a leading scholar on American Jewish life. “The identity chasm between in-married and intermarried is wide, which suggests the imagery of ‘Two Jewries.’ ” He concluded, “Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.”

Jews are a small minority in America, and their number around the world is insignificant—12 million to 13 million. If Jewish Americans will keep marrying non-Jews (and there’s no sign they are going to stop), future generations will see an even smaller percentage and a smaller number of Jews. And the fewer people you have, the less likely you are to find a spouse from the tribe. So, this is not only a train that’s going fast—but rather one that will be going ever faster.

And leaders of the Reform movement understand this. A year ago, in the biennial convention of the Reform movement, the head of the movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, delicately reminded his crowd that there’s a time to permit, but also a time to forbid: “By making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But that is not our message,” he preached, urging a more aggressive approach to conversion. “The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.”