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June 19, 1973
Irwin H. Fishbein, Rabbi, D.Min
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We live today in an age of options. We cannot compel Jews to marry Jews, any more than we can compel Jews to be Jews. We live in a mobile urban society where contact with the extended family is minimal and does not significantly influence the lives of our children. We live in an open society where Jew and non-Jew work together, study together, socialize together and come to share common goals and aspirations. Our children grow up in a world where their Jewishness is marginal and where most of the social, religious, and family taboos against marrying a non-Jew have fallen away.

Even if all of us were henceforth to cease performing mixed marriages, Jew would still meet non-Jew, fall in love and marry -- with or without our blessings, with or without our presence at the ceremony. And they will bring up their children with or without our help and support. Indeed, there is more than adequate evidence to suggest that if no Rabbis were to officiate our situation would be incomparably worse and more desperate, for the total sense of rejection that would then be transmitted to about one out of every three Jews who marry today would do irreparable damage to the cause of Jewish survival. As the psychological and sociological consultants stated in the Lenn Report, a Rabbi's refusal to officiate is looked upon by the couple as rejection.

The phenomenon of mixed marriage will not cease through our pronouncements. The incidence of mixed marriage will not significantly increase through our officiating. A recent paper by our colleague, Henry Cohen, based upon the opinions of twenty-eight eminent sociologists and clinicians, suggests that we Rabbis tend to exaggerate the effect our officiating policies have on the incidence of mixed marriage and on Jewish survival. Let us stop fantasizing about influence we do not possess and power we do not have. Regardless of what decisions we make this evening on the question of officiating, we shall not significantly alter the behavior of the Jewish community.

If it is true that mixed marriage will continue at least at its present rate, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we afford to reject one out of three of our young people? Can we who remember the holocaust and the loss of six million of our people turn our backs when they reach out to us? Can we who have labored so zealously on behalf of Zion keep pushing them away? From a Jewish point of view, such behavior is irresponsible; from a human point of view indefensible; from a moral point of view intolerable.

How do we meet the challenge posed by the increasing number of mixed marriages? By refusing to officiate we slam a door that may be only slightly ajar. Let us keep this door open. Let us trust enough in the value of our Jewish heritage to believe that when couples are given support and encouragement they will choose to identify with our people and become an active part of the Jewish community. Let us provide couples who come to us with the opportunity for Jewish study, for participation in Jewish home celebrations, and, where possible, for conversion. Let us make our heritage so attractive and so meaningful that Judaism will earn the individual allegiance of Jew and non-Jew as well.

Our goal as Rabbis is to be effective in influencing the lives of our people where we can. Our powers are persuasive, not coercive. We inform a couple that Jewish identity is worthwhile by showing them that we are not desperate, that we do not have to build walls around us, that we are secure, that we are willing to test the mettle of our faith in the marketplace of ideas.

Let us tell a couple that we care by keeping in touch with them after marriage -- for just as a Rabbinic presence is vital for the wedding ceremony, it is even more vital after the marriage has taken place.

I therefore endorse the positive approach of paragraph three as the direction in which we as a Conference must go. In stating an obligation to serve intermarried couples, it recognizes that marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew does not mean the end of Jewish commitment or Jewish loyalty either for the Jewish partner or for the children -- that many mixed marriages result in a desire for greater Jewish learning and an intensification of Jewish loyalties.

In our committee deliberations we often spoke . . . of the stake that all of us felt in preserving the right of dissent. Any infringement of this right must be regarded as an unwarranted and dangerous incursion on Rabbinic autonomy.

In my judgment, the second paragraph of the proposed resolution is such an infringement because the right of dissent is tied to the acceptance of restraints. The right of dissent in this Conference has always been, and, God willing, will continue to be, unconditional. Any attempt to limit dissent and to command conformity by placing restraints upon some of us or even upon all of us is not characteristic of our procedures. In seeking to regulate Rabbinic interpretation of Jewish tradition and actions resulting from such interpretation, the Conference would be taking a dangerous and unprecedented step. This year we speak of "self-disciplining restraints." Next year the word "self-disciplining" may be removed. The imposition of sanctions or the threat of imposing sanctions in matters of conscience is in violation of Rabbinic integrity and of the very essence of Rabbinic ordination. To require Rabbis to adhere to certain conditions is to require them to violate their conscience. There is grave danger, if the second paragraph of this resolution is adopted, that the liberal stance of the CCAR will be seriously eroded.

Whatever its limitations, the 1909 resolution has permitted diversity of Rabbinic interpretation and practice. While the proposed new resolution ostensibly re-enforces the right of dissent, its tone clearly divides Reform Rabbis into two classes; those who, guided by Jewish loyalties, act in accordance with traditional norms, and those who do not. Once this distinction has been made, it is then a simple process to pillory the dissenters and impose special restrictions upon them.

I also wish to express my opposition to paragraph one of the proposed resolution, which would transform this Conference from a deliberative into a legislative body. The CCAR is a fellowship bound together not only by a concern for the preservation of the Jewish people and the perpetuation of Jewish values, but also by the conviction that every Rabbi has the right as well as the obligation to interpret Judaism in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, the needs of his people, the spirit of his times, and the quality of his understanding of Jewish tradition. These rights and obligations are conferred upon him by his ordination. The conditions under which a Reform Rabbi officiates at a circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage or conversion have always been left up to the individual Rabbi's discretion. The alternative is the abandonment of our egalitarian Rabbinic tradition and the establishment of an authoritarian system which eventually will attempt to control not only what marriages a Reform Rabbi shall or shall not perform but every other facet of Rabbinic function. The centralization of doctrinal authority in a Rabbinic body is contrary to the essential spirit of Judaism and, particularly, to the liberal philosophy of Reform Judaism.

The CCAR has the right and the obligation to address itself to the issue of mixed marriage, as it has the right and the obligation to take a stand on civil rights, separation of church and state, and many other issues affecting the welfare of our society as a whole and of our Jewish community. But the Conference has no right to determine how we as individual Rabbis shall interpret our tradition, and it has no right to require us to adhere to certain conditions before we may act upon our convictions. It has an obligation to express opinions. It has no right to legislate conscience.

The proposed resolution submitted by a majority of the Committee on Mixed Marriage represents a reversal of the historic forward thrust of Jewish tradition and, in particular, of Reform Jewish philosophy. I dissent from the spirit and content of the first two paragraphs. I ask that the proposed resolution be defeated, and that the Committee on Mixed Marriage be charged with studying all aspects of this complicated problem. This committee shall recommend to the Conference procedures to be followed that will maximize the Jewish potential of couples who have intermarried or who plan to intermarry and shall suggest programs that will help us intensify the Jewish loyalty of our children. It is time that we stop discussing officiating or not officiating, and that we begin to meet in a more realistic way the needs and concerns our young people bring to us.

* * * * * * * *

Resolution Proposed by the Committee on Mixed Marriage

I. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalling its stand adopted in 1909, "that mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged," now declares its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.

II. Recognizing that historically the CCAR encompasses members holding divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition, the Conference calls upon these members who dissent from this declaration:

1. to refrain from officiating at a mixed marriage unless the couple agrees to undertake, prior to marriage, a course of study in Judaism equivalent to that required for conversion;

2. to refrain from officiating at a mixed marriage for a member of a congregation served by a Conference member unless there has been prior consultation with that Rabbi;

3. to refrain from co-officiating or sharing with non-Jewish clergy in the solemnization of a mixed marriage;

4. to refrain from officiating at a mixed marriage on Shabbat or Yom Tov.

III. In order to keep open every channel to Judaism and K'lal Yisrael for those who have already entered into mixed marriage, the CCAR calls upon its members:

1. to assist fully in educating children of such mixed marriage as Jews;

2. to provide the opportunity for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse; and

3. to encourage a creative and consistent cultivation of involvement in the Jewish community and the synagogue.

On June 19, 1973 by a vote of 321 to 196, the CCAR adopted paragraphs I and III of the above resolution and substituted the following for paragraph II: The Central Conference of American Rabbis recognizes that historically its members have held and continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition.

Resolutions of the CCAR are advisory, not binding. According to the most recent surveys by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, approximately half of the membership now officiate at intermarriages.

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The Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling 
Telephone:  908-233-0419
A private, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research on intermarriage, counseling intermarried couples and serving as a mental health facility for area residents. 

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Email the Rabbinic Center: Rabbi Irwin H. Fishbein, D.Min, Director, at ihf@rcrconline.org

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Last modified: November 3, 2009