USCJ CEO Rabbi Steve Wernick Talks Intermarriage

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, about his views on intermarriage. A pressing and dividing issue in the Conservative Movement today, USCJ’s official stance has matched that of the Rabbinical Assembly: Conservative rabbis will not officiate intermarriages.

However, now that Wernick has announced he will be stepping down from his position and the stance on intermarriage has left Conservative Jews alienated from the institutions they grew up with is it only a matter of time that the Conservative Movement caves on the issue?

Daniel Gordis wrote “The problem, though, is that the history of the [conservative movement] has long undermined that argument. The movement paved the way to sanctioning intermarriage decades ago, long before anyone even contemplated doing so” speaking about the rulings on driving to Shabbat and eating fish in non-kosher restaurants, saying “in neither case was there a serious halakhic argument to be made; instead, there was social pressure. Conservative Judaism bet that by moving the line, it could keep its members within the boundaries. That bet has proved dead wrong.”

What is your response? Doesn’t Conservative Judaism inevitably have to accept intermarriage based on its trajectory?

So eating fish leads to intermarriage, okay. I don’t care what Daniel Gordis says. And it may be inevitable that it accepts it, but I think that there’s something larger going on in this world…there’s a major paradigm shift that’s happening. I think identity, in general, is much more fluid than that black and white argument that allowing driving on Shabbos and eating fish is what leads to intermarriage. Or at least to the acceptance of intermarriage. I think that’s pediatric.

Gordis’ focus is particularly on there not being a serious halakhic argument and instead there being social pressure.

Yeah, and my response is that all of Halakha is a response to social pressure and it comes to justify the decisions that people in the community have already made. And when it goes the other way it becomes coercive and becomes about protecting itself and not about moving people towards a purposeful Jewish life. Danny Gordis has been howling this horn for a long time but he’s really not connected in any meaningful way to the Conservative Movement. I’m really not moved by his analysis.

Some have the view that you can’t be kind-of accepting of interfaith marriages, tolerating interfaith families in the Conservative movement but not officiating interfaith marriages. You are either fully accepting, by officiating and having them fully in the Conservative movement framework, or you are not accepting. What is your response?

“I understand the argument and I understand that it is a very difficult line to traverse, but I think it’s honest…I can’t ignore the reality that endogamy [in-marrying] is the absolute best way to assure Jewish future. That when two Jews marry each other, there is a higher probability of their raising their children and creating a household that is exclusively Jewish. Providing Jewish education, Jewish experiences, Jewish youth group, Jewish summer camp, so forth and so on. Not the only way, right? But all the data for lots of years shows that that’s the best way, not the only way.

At the same time, intermarriage is a fact of life. If I reject people that are searching for Judaism that my community might be able to provide, even if it’s after the fact of marriage, then I’m pushing you away completely. And there are thousands of intermarried families that belong to Conservative synagogues because Conservative Judaism is meeting the religious need they have, even though an intermarriage has occurred.

Conservative Rabbis are not officiating in intermarriages for a couple reasons. One is because they believe that they can’t. Marriage is kiddushin, and you can’t say “harei mekudeshet li kedat moshe ve Israel” [behold you are betrothed to me in the religion of Moshe and Israel] if both parties are not obligated to “dat moshe ve Israel” the religion of Judaism. So you can’t actually officiate a wedding as we understand it today, and because we have a concern about Jewish households, Jewish families, and the Jewish future.

I don’t know if that’s gonna change. Is it inevitable? I think there’s a good argument to be said that it may be. And that we’re already seeing some of the fraying of it. But there’s another good argument to say that the movement might not go that way. In the end of the day, I’m actually more interested in how we can help more people that see Jewish wisdom as relevant guidance for living a meaningful life, to engage that. I wish we would spend as much time talking about Shabbos dinner as we do about intermarriage.

Intermarriage is important, it’s a big issue, it’s not going away. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done with it…Four generations from now, in 100 years, history will determine which approach was the right one. Or which approach is gonna happen that we haven’t even considered yet.

What I’m interested in as a leader and as the CEO of USCJ is: I don’t want to ignore the issue. I don’t want to put our head in the sand and just think if we hide from it, everything is gonna be okay. I am more than comfortable living in that tension of not officiating, but yet welcoming.

And even more so I think it’s important that we embrace the tension, and we have thoughtful conversations about it. Let’s have a thoughtful, meaningful discussion, and whatever solutions emerge from that will be the right ones, whichever way it goes. And if they’re not the right ones, then history will determine whether or not it was or wasn’t.”

“The fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a Halakhic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love….As a movement, Conservative Judaism remains obsessed with boundaries. It is fearful of the opprobrium of the Orthodox and afraid of being confused with Reform. As a result, it is deaf to the cry of its members.” – Seymour Rosenbloom, removed from the Rabbinic Assembly for officiating interfaith marriages.

I come from the Minnesota Jewish community, which is largely conservative. And yet, many Jews are being turned away, alienated from their synagogues, and having to get married somewhere else because of the Conservative movement’s stance on intermarriage. What do you have to say to them and in response to Rosenbloom’s criticism?

I answered the question about the larger policy issues. For the people, I think we need to figure out more ways that we can be involved and concerned about a person’s marriage. My father said this to me when I was getting married, he said ‘look the wedding lasts a moment, the marriage lasts a lifetime.’

The problem that we have right now is being able to officiate at the wedding. So we need to do more…Because people don’t come to rabbis to ask them to officiate at their intermarriage. They come to rabbis asking them to officiate their wedding because they have some sort of relationship with that rabbi….and then the question of as to whether or not rabbis will be allowed to officiate is one for the Rabbinical Assembly.

Right now the momentum seems to be on affirming the prohibition from officiating, but doing everything that is humanly possible to be welcoming, to be engaged in the marriage. I don’t know where it’s gonna end up. But that’s where we’re at at the moment.

And the other thing I would say about this is, for people that are intermarrying, there are other solutions for them. There are rabbis that will officiate. There are other movements that will officiate. It is possible to create your own wedding ceremony and to have your wedding be recognized by the law. Right, so I mean, it’s, you know…the hard thing here is we think that everybody’s gotta say yes all the time. And so I struggle with this. As you can hear even over the course of this conversation, this is a struggle.

Ultimately it’s the balance between what a rabbi understands as his or her obligation to Jewish continuity, to Halakha, to Kiddushin and so forth against the reality of real people who you have a real relationship with. Who you care really about, who want you to be their Rabbi at their wedding and yet…your heart is telling you to say yes, but your head is telling you that this really isn’t something that I should do. At the moment, we have to hold both of that, heart and head, at the same time, and we’re gonna continue to struggle with it.

And not everyone is going to be satisfied with the struggle and if and when it does get resolved, and not everybody is going to be satisfied with the resolution, but that’s…you know, getting the Jews to agree on what day is Yom Kippur, that’s enough.

We are Israel, right, ‘he who wrestles with God and humanity.’ The [source] of Jewish continuity and thriving has been the mahkloket [dispute] and the preservation of the minority opinion, which has been rejected as Halakha but preserved as valid.”