Commentary Magazine

Jewish Family Values

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer’s “Family Values & the Jews” [January] includes a frontal assault against the rabbinate and the religious movements of American Judaism. He is critical of these two groups “who should be the natural leaders to shore up the crumbling Jewish family.” Mr. Wertheimer characterizes rabbis and lay leaders alike as feeling “powerless to influence Jews at large or . . . fearful of saying anything that might drive away the minority who actually join their synagogues.” It is surprising that a professor at the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary chastises the rabbinate, by asserting: “Today, as rabbis become therapists, the community has found itself largely bereft of the superego, in the form of religious leaders willing to articulate what it should and can do.” He is particularly uninformed when he distorts our response to issues of homosexuality and human sexuality in general, about which we have neither been silent nor “powerless.” Indeed, the Rabbinical Assembly has appointed a blue-ribbon committee which is studying human sexuality and will render a report to our law committee. Given the limitations of space, I will focus upon only one aspect of Mr. Wertheimer’s subsequent illustrations of his thesis, e.g., the response of the Conservative movement to interfaith marriage, the core family-value issue within the Jewish-continuity deliberations.

Contrary to Mr. Wertheimer’s accusation of silence and/or appeasement with regard to intermarriage, the Conservative movement, in spite of voices urging us to accede to “demographic reality,” has regularly reaffirmed and strengthened its long record of opposition to “out-marriage.” For example, two years ago the biennial convention of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism highlighted a major address by Steven Bayme, director of the Department of Jewish Communal Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, and of its William Petschek National Jewish Family Center, urging Conservative Judaism to fortify its record of promoting in-marriage. In response, the United Synagogue launched an aggressive venture of publications and programs to increase endogamy. The United Synagogue Commission on Promoting Marriage Within the Faith clearly articulates “prevention as its goal.”

Booklets produced by this recent initiative include The Mitzvah of Endogamy, by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue; Ground for Concern: 14 Questions and Answers Regarding Intermarriage, by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, as well his forthcoming It All Begins With a Date: Parent Young-Adult Dialogues Regarding Interdating; and Guidelines With Regard to Intermarriage for the Congregational School, by Rabbi Shelley Melzer.

In similar fashion, the Rabbinical Assembly has formally prohibited its members from officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies or recognizing patrilineal descent, and has endorsed the United Synagogue’s refusal to allow non-Jewish spouses of Jews to be eligible for membership in Conservative congregations. Most striking has been the decision of the National Executive Committee of United Synagogue Youth to exclude from its leadership ranks any Jewish teenager who engages in interdating. At every official level, the Conservative movement has been clear and forceful in reinforcing traditional Jewish values concerning in-marriage. The record clearly contradicts Mr. Wertheimer’s allegations.

So why do some Conservative Jews nonetheless intermarry? The reason is not to be found in Mr. Wertheimer’s simplistic diatribe against rabbinic and lay leaders, but rather in the social perils offered by America’s increasingly open society. In a masterful essay published by the Petschek Center, Professor Jonathan D. Sarna has demonstrated that, in contrast to 1960, when Asian and white-ethnic as well as religious groups by and large married people of similar backgrounds, in the 1990’s each sector of the American population has been acceding to assimilatory pressures to blend into a contemporary “melting pot.” Conservative Judaism joins the other branches of organized Jewish religious life in seeking to swim against this social tidal wave. It is the rabbinate which is in the forefront of this effort. We will continue to fight this critical battle on behalf of Jewish continuity, despite the daunting degree to which some Jews will ignore our teachings, and despite the harsh attacks of misleading voices like Jack Wertheimer, alleging to speak “in the name of traditional values.”

[Rabbi] Gerald L. Zelizer
President, Rabbinical Assembly
New York City



Jack Wertheimer writes:

His protestations notwithstanding, Gerald L. Zelizer knows full well that not all sectors of the American rabbinate, including constituents of his organization, have spoken forcefully or clearly on the issues that I raise in my article, but have either vacillated or entirely ducked some of them. The blue-ribbon committee to which he refers, for example, was established because there is a great deal of confusion and conflict over matters that should have been resolved. The Rabbinical Assembly has indeed hosted Steven Bayme, but it has also invited keynote addresses from sociologists, as well as its own members, which have advocated “realistic” responses to intermarriage, the religious status of homosexual Jews, and even patrilineality.

Although I could have done without some of the invective, I am pleased that my article elicited so forthright a response from Rabbi Zelizer. The Jewish community will benefit from the unequivocal positions he has enunciated in his letter.

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