Monday, September 06, 2010

Rabbis' Attendance at Interfaith Weddings

My op-ed in the Forward last month has generated much debate. Many of the comments I've received, both personally and on the Web, have missed the point of my argument.

First and foremost, I was surprised by the number of heated comments by Orthodox Jews who were obviously critical of my position. (Note: I was surprised by the number of Orthodox Jews who took the time to comment, but not by the content of their comments.) Many of them erroneously referred to this as a Halakhic (Jewish legal) matter. I would agree that a rabbi officiating at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew is a Halakhic matter, but sitting in the audience as a guest is not. Yes, there are issues of mar'it ayin -- a rabbi seen at an interfaith ceremony raises questions of perceived acceptance, but attending the ceremony (or reception) alone is not a breach of Halakhah.

The issue I wrote about is an issue specifically within the Conservative Movement that only affects rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). My argument is simply that the RA should remove the policy prohibiting RA members from attending interfaith wedding ceremonies. Currently, the policy reads "Rabbis may not of´Čüciate at, participate in, or attend an intermarriage" (Rule III:d). I argue that officiation and participation are different from attendance and should therefore be separated.

Further, as every Conservative rabbi knows, the Vaad Hakavod (ethics committee) does not enforce the attendance at interfaith weddings restriction. In fact, there's a general understanding that it doesn't even apply when it's the wedding of a close family member. Further, the Vaad Hakavod does not go out looking for members violating the code. If they receive a report, they may or may not choose to look into it. From what I’ve been told (from a reliable source), no one reports on RA member rabbis attending interfaith wedding ceremonies. They do receive reports of RA rabbis officiating at said ceremonies. However, before they have the chance to sanction these rabbis, they resign their membership from the Rabbinical Assembly.

To clarify my point, I take exception with three facts.

1) The RA’s Code of Religious Practice lists attendance in the exact same ruling as officiation. Those are two separate matters and shouldn’t be in the same rule, let alone the same sentence.

2) I don’t believe that an unenforced rule should remain on the books simply to give its members an “excuse” when they don’t want to do something. A member of the RA who makes the decision (on principle) to not attend interfaith ceremonies should explain his/her principle when invited (or not explain the rationale and just decline the invitation). It takes backbone to uphold ones principles rather than using an unenforced ruling as an excuse.

3) While there are individuals who hold by the notion that rules are meant to be broken (especially rules that historically haven’t been enforced), there are individuals who strictly follow rules. Thus, there are Conservative rabbis who would refuse to go to their own child’s wedding (or sibling's, best friend's, etc.) because they are members of an organization that forbids such activity. This seems to compete with the concept of shalom bayit and common sense.

Overall, the feedback I've received from my colleagues in the RA has been positive -- especially among those colleagues under a certain age. Some colleagues in the RA agree with my argument, but wished I hadn't publicized the matter in the press. My belief is that issues such as this rarely change when handled internally. Already, discussions are underway to rescind this policy in the RA and this conversation is continuing on several blogs including Jewschool and Chopping Wood, the personal blog of Orthodox rabbi Reuven Spolter.

Chelsea Clinton's wedding has generated a whole new discourse on intermarriage for American Jewry, from Reform to Orthodox. It will be interesting to see what the future brings.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Miller,

It is essential to make clear distinctions between classes and categories to which restrictions may (or do not) apply. Ambiguity or unclarity left unaddressed renders the entire regulation meaningless and voidable, if not null and void ab initio.

The RA rule which you cite is certainly ambiguous and leads to unreasonable results in my view; by all logic, then, it must be amended or rescinded in order to comply with common sense, and to follow the intent of the 'framers'.

I applaud the approach you have taken here; you remain within the bounds of the rules and regulations of the RA, but your change would render the rest of the regulation clear and understandable to my view.

So long as you are not fearful that the issue of ma'arit ayin will be invoked by attendance, what you propose seems very appropriate to me (an outsider to this discussion). Consequently, my response to your blog entry and your proposal would be, 'Nicely done.'

Rabbi Joe Blair
Member CCAR, RRA

sabrayl said...

When a rabbi attends an interfaith marriage, he is sending a signal to the couple, i.e. the arms of the rabbi remain open to the couple. The attendance at the ceremony cannot be done in a vacuum, however. It should be part of an ongoing process of contact with the couple as it might be with any marrying or maried couple. This then becomes an act of keruv and should be recognized as such.

Rabbi Yaier Lehrer