The Problem: Token Conversions for Interfaithless Marriages

Assimilation has created a profound disconnect between Jews and their religion that deeply disturbs the author and impels him to experiment with new solutions.

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While commentators on the American scene have been lamenting the decline in Jewish population for over a decade, Rabbi Schulweis claims that they regularly misidentify the culprit as intermarriage. The result, he claims, has been a misdirection of communal resources against intermarriage rather than targeting assimilation, the root cause. In this article, he sets out the problem, and in its sequel he proposes one possible solution. Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999, issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

While rhetorically we admit that intermarriage is a symptom not a cause, our institutional projects commit a fallacy of misplaced concreteness: De facto, we treat the symptom as a cause. That inversion misdirects our struggle against the erosion of assimilation.

The symptoms are external; the causes are internal, within. The internal problems of interfaith marriages call for a double-pronged inreach-outreach program. That approach must precede, not only chronologically but spiritually, the situation presented as interfaith marriage.

I write from the perspective of a congregational rabbi who has felt compelled to initiate and implement a pluralistic outreach-inreach program for unchurched gentiles and unsynagogued Jews who are joined by affiliated synagogue mentors, all of whom attend lectures and seminars. The mentors have pledged to open their doors and lives to the seekers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I will shortly explain my motivation and method but I would like first to confess my frustration with the conventional ways I have followed in dealing with the phenomenon of intermarriage.

An Interfaithless Couple

Jeff's mother calls me with a not-untypical request. Her Jeff has met Kathy who is "a lovely lady but a Catholic." Jeff's parents are members of my congregation. They are 9-1-1 Jews, who mainly call on the synagogue in emergencies. "Would I officiate at Jeff's wedding?"

For the sake of his parents, Jeff has come to see me. All Jeff wants is that I perform the marriage. From the initial conversations with both Jeff and Kathy it is clear that all they require from me is the performance of an interfaithless union. Their religious antecedents seem much the same. They are secular, privatistic, not particularly religious.

Jeff is part of our national statistics. According to the National Population Study of 1990, 1.2 million native-born Jews, when asked with what religion they identified, answered "None." Jeff is de facto a none-Jew, as Kathy is a none-Christian.

And who am I to them? In their eyes I am a facilitator, a customs-and-ceremony officiant, an accessory to a wedding event, placed high on the list along with the caterer, florist, and band leader. They prefer the benefits of clergy without the complication of conversion. Conversion is an instrumental matter, a temporary inconvenience, a means necessary for them to overcome the obstacle to matrimony, Still, Kathy is compliant, willing to undergo a ceremonial conversion because it will please Jeff and his parents.

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.