(RNS) Whether Jews should only date and marry other Jews is not a new question, but it's one that has come into stark relief in recent weeks.
In two separate instances in December, groups within Conservative Judaism -- the second-largest movement of American Jews -- appeared to challenge some of their own rules that discourage interfaith dating and matrimony:
- A prominent Conservative rabbi asked his Massachusetts congregation to consider allowing him to preside at weddings between Jews and non-Jews, as long as the couples committed to raising Jewish children.
- The Conservative movement’s youth group adopted a policy that seemed to relax a ban prohibiting its leaders from dating non-Jews.
Unlike rabbis in Reform Judaism, the largest American stream of Judaism, Conservative rabbis may not preside at interfaith marriages. Conservative Judaism has stood fast on this, even as it has embraced female rabbis and same-sex weddings and welcomed the non-Jewish spouses of congregants into its synagogues.
But Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., said he floated the proposal because he wanted to keep families connected to his synagogue.
"This is about our children and our grandchildren, and making sure that in this glorious open society, that when our children fall in love -- with whomever they fall in love -- they know they can always come back to their spiritual home," he said.
In a religion whose adherents number fewer than 15 million worldwide, which lost 6 million souls during the Holocaust, and whose children feel increasingly free to choose whether or not they will produce a next generation of committed Jews, any changes regarding dating and marriage can be fraught with anxiety and emotion.
So is the door open to change on intermarriage in the Conservative movement?
"No," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
“Jewish tradition says Jewish marriage occurs between Jewish people," she said. "As rabbis, our role is to teach, inspire and promulgate that tradition.”
She and other leaders of the movement reject the idea that the recent events undermined this tenet of Conservative Judaism, which stands between the more progressive Reform and more traditional Orthodox movements in its interpretation of Jewish law.
Schonfeld notes that Gardenswartz and members of his congregation quickly deemed his intermarriage proposal unworkable. And she says that while the teen leaders of United Synagogue Youth changed the language they use to describe “healthy Jewish dating,” they did not alter their policy.
Ben Shapiro, 16, vice president for communications of USY's Far West region, said the firestorm of criticism after the teens' vote shocked him when some interpreted the move as "signaling the end of Conservative Judaism as we know it."
He said he can see why people might think USY's stance on dating outside the fold had softened. The original phrasing calls on USY leaders to "refrain" from dating non-Jews; the new wording speaks of "recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community."
The intention, though, Shapiro said, was to make the language more inclusive out of respect to USY leaders who have a non-Jewish parent -- not to make it more acceptable for USY leaders to date non-Jews.
But not everyone is so convinced that the teens' vote and the demise of Gardenswartz’s proposal simply reinforce the status quo. In various corners of the Conservative community, it appears as if some are mulling -- for better or worse -- a loosening of the rules that govern dating and marriage.
David Benkof, former international USY president , warned in The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday (Jan. 6) that the Conservative teens were taking their cues from their elders: "On issues relating to endogamy (marrying within the community,) the adult leaders of Conservative Judaism don’t always seem to know what they want -- and when they do, what they want is not always 'good for the Jews.'"
To Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement stands at the same crossroads where the Reform stood about a generation ago. As he put it, an increasing number of Jews are recognizing that "intermarriage is a fact of life, as gravity is."
In the 1970s, when large numbers of American Jews began choosing non-Jewish partners, the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis maintained its official opposition to intermarriage but decided to allow its rabbis to choose for themselves whether to preside at such weddings. That change did not sit well with many, even within Reform Judaism.
“Then it became just who we are,” Jacobs continued. “Our emphasis has always to be on opening those doors, not wagging our fingers but opening our arms.”
Not only in moral terms, but in practical terms, the Reform movement reasons that non-Jewish spouses must be embraced because they can be valued members of the community and partners with their spouses in raising Jewish children.
But there is an opposite line of reasoning: Make it easy for people to intermarry, and they will.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews, the more traditional the movement, the more likely its members to marry other Jews. Half of Reform Jews marry Jews, compared with nearly three-quarters of Conservative Jews and 98 percent of Orthodox Jews.
And here's the weightiest of Pew's statistics for those wary of intermarriage: While 96 percent of Jews married to Jews are raising their children in the Jewish faith, just 20 percent of Jews married to non-Jews are.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of traditional Orthodox Jews, said that beyond the prohibition against intermarriage in Jewish law, almost all Jews understand that the children of Jews and non-Jews are often not raised to have Jewish identities.
"It’s unfortunate -- no, tragic -- that in an attempt to remain relevant, various non-Orthodox Jewish groups have opted to either accept or even encourage intermarriage," Shafran said.
"It is a capitulation to unfortunate social realities, a demonstration not of leadership but, sadly, of followership."
For his part, Gardenswartz said he is glad he asked his congregants about presiding at intermarriages. And while they decided they didn't want to flout the Conservative movement, Temple Emanuel has changed its approach to interfaith couples connected to the synagogue, treating them like Jewish-Jewish couples in every respect except the marriage ceremony.
"I’m asking all of our sons and daughters and whomever they have chosen as their life partners: 'Please come back home,'" Gardenswartz said.
"We are in a completely different place than where we had been."
KRE/MG END MARKOE