A Test for the Conservative Movement

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, has long been asking important questions of his movement on the issue of intermarriage, and does so again in the spring issue of Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. He writes:

North American Conservative Judaism is wrestling with demographic change (in other words, the graying of our movement) and several decades of intermarriage. We are challenged to re-examine our assumptions about intermarriage while testing the limits of pluralism. Specifically, how shall we relate to the supportive non-Jewish spouses in our communities and movement institutions?

He illustrates this with a scenario: The spouse of another religious background, the husband, is fully involved in the community. He comes to synagogue every Friday, and is actively raising Jewish children. He comes to the rabbi and asks if he could wear tallit (prayer shawl) in order to become closer to the congregation. “What should the rabbi do?” asks Rabbi Simon.

It’s a question that has no definitive answer because each rabbi, synagogue and congregation is going to come to different conclusions. And that’s fine, Rabbi Simon writes, but its “essential to our future, however, that we continue to be open to discussions about the issue of pluralism.”

The scenario he describes, and other questions of inclusion, is going to take place more and more, and the Conservative movement is going to be forced to confront these situations. Rabbi Simon ends by saying:

“Understanding what it means to be pluralistic and responding within that context strengthens Conservative Jews and Conservative Judaism. It takes more than a little thought and a certain amount of courage, but it is one of the keys to building a more vibrant future.”


  1. I am constantly asking myself what we - as a synagogue - can do to make the significant other feel more comfortable with Judaism. Whatever we come up with we have to be very mindful of that slippery slope. For example does the tallis go on without the bracha? Certainly it is being put on for the right reason - to feel closer to GD while praying, why else would someone want to wear it? Should a special ” blessing ” be written for them to say because they aren’t following a mitzvah since they are not Jewish. So what seems to be a simple act of inclusiveness can open so many other doors to question.


    Comment by Ell — April 6, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  2. At what point does Judaism stop being Judaism and become something else? If I were to watch the Japanese tea ceremony, for example, I would respect the integrity of the ritual as emblematic of a particular culture. I would understand and appreciate that there was a very precise form with particular meaning that makes it what it is. A sonnet that does not follow the form of a sonnet…is by definition no longer a sonnet, but another type of poetry altogether.

    During this Passover season, I find myself baffled by Reform Jews who clear their homes of chametz but don’t keep kosher according to Orthodox standards. I don’t understand. It seems you either believe halacha is binding and follow it to the letter - or you don’t, so why do it half-way? I can see how these issues become quite complicated.

    On the surface it is easy to say yes, let the non-Jewish spouse wear the tallit, allow him to feel comfortable and welcome - this is clearly a higher value than maintaining a strict observance. But it does raise the issue of what makes Judaism Jewish, and what those boundaries are.

    Comment by Sara — April 11, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  3. The Conservative movement is ‘graying’? Haven’t I been saying that for some time?

    Apparently Rabbi Simon is concerned with this greying but then goes on to talk about intermarriage. Why not do something about the graying itself?

    Amazingly enough there is part of the Jewish community that has no graying problem and has no intermarriage issues at all.

    Comment by Dave — April 12, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  4. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for your comments. I would challenge you to think a little less black-and-white about Judaism (or in general). Using your example about the Japanese tea ceremony, I would point out that what has become so emblematic of Japanese culture actually originated in China and still exists in Chinese culture today and therefore is not so purely Japanese, though the Japanese have certainly made it their own. And Wikipedia tells me that there are a lot more types of sonnets than just the Shakespearean sonnet. When it comes to art, culture, religion, or really any human endeavor, it’s nearly impossible to find a pure discipline.

    Likewise Judaism. What does it mean to keep kosher “according to Orthodox standards”? I bet I could fairly easily find two Orthodox individuals who keep kosher differently. That’s because there’s a wide gamut of practices even within Orthodox Judaism. Many Jews today (especially among the non-Orthodox) take on only those traditions that have meaning to them, rather than feel commanded to take on ALL the mitzvot. And even those that try to take them all on interpret them differently.

    Reform Jews who clear their homes of chametz do it because it has meaning to them. They have found a rationale behind the practice that speaks to them. In most cases, it’s not because “God said so.” Requiring that Jews take an “all or nothing” approach to maintaining the 613 mitzvot would basically rule out 90% of American Jews. It doesn’t “stop being Judaism and become something else.” In fact, this is how Judaism becomes…Judaism. (Jewish practice today—even Orthodoxy—would be unrecognizable to our ancestors at the mid-point of our history, say around 500 A.D., let alone during the Temple periods. Did it stop being Judaism?)

    As for non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual like putting on tallit, I agree that the issue is about boundaries. Different Jewish communities will come to those answers differently. But I am hard-pressed to think of a case where any of those answers will cause Judaism to stop being Judaism. In immediately elevating this conversation to be about the very survival of Judaism itself (which is a common reaction when synagogue communities begin these discussions), we do a disservice both to the resilience of the religion and the intentions of the non-Jewish explorers of Judaism among us (most of whom are already our own family members).

    Yes, let’s ask whether taking on a Jewish ritual will enhance the non-Jewish person’s life if he or she wants to, and let’s also ask if offering it might inadvertently have negative consequences for the Jewish individuals in the community. But in asking, let’s do it from a position of confidence that we can share what we find meaningful in our religion without fearing that by letting someone else try it, that’s somehow going to render our own practice of it unrecognizable. Judaism is not threatened by the non-Jews who are so involved in our community that they actually want to participate; the real existential threat is from the many more individuals who were born Jewish but have forever left our community, for a variety of reasons—reasons few synagogue ritual committees ever try to grapple with.


    Comment by Paul Golin — April 19, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  5. Paul:

    Thank you for your excellent and insightful comments. I am grappling with the issue of what it means to be Jewish and what those boundaries are. I try to listen to multiple perspectives and understand them. I try to wrap my brain around conflicting opinions.

    Can any one group claim to be the authority on what defines Judaism or Jewish identity? Some do. I want to respect proper forms and etiquette, but often my questions about why certain things are done are answered: because that’s what we do. I agree enhancing life, tikkun olam, and cultivating awareness of God should be the primary focus.


    If I ask six people whether I’m Jewish, I’ll get six different answers. Clearly, “Where Judaism Stops Being Judaism” ends in the vicinity of my birth. My mother was Jewish, but I wasn’t raised religiously. I have a WASP name. I have a non-Jewish husband. As a child I was told I was Jewish. Was it a lie? Did it mean anything? Have I experienced a life-time of anti-Jewish bigotry for absolutely no reason?

    As I see it, at the end of the day, every religious Jew is a “Jew by Choice.” But there is always going to be someone around to tell me I’m not legitimate and don’t belong. That I’m not acceptable and can’t fit in. That my very existence is offensive because I’m the child of intermarriage. Or, that I’m simply “not Jewish” because I wasn’t raised religiously, end of story. There are few questions more loaded than “Are you Jewish?”

    Who decides? Who decides what is Jewish? Does anyone get to decide this for me? Do I need permission? Will an angel come down from the clouds and present me with a Good Jewishness Seal of Approval?

    It is not always up to me. There are places where I’m not welcome. I’m beginning to see where and with whom that occurs most often. Israel might or might not accept me under whatever terms are in vogue at the moment. Even Orthodox conversions are challenged. There is an ongoing battle over Who is In and Who is Out and Where The Lines Are Drawn. It’s a real issue. It is not imaginary.

    And what is it good for? I think being forced to focus on the question of Who is a Jew is a distraction from what really matters - such as living a Jewish life. Unfortunately, no matter what I think, I still have to deal with what I see as the total and complete nonsense driving this question. Who cares who you are or who your parents were? If Judaism speaks to you and guides your life meaningfully, embrace it! If ritual is transformative for you, do it!

    When and where it’s up to me, yes I’m Jewish. If I’m the one who gets to dedide, that is my choice.

    Comment by Sara — April 20, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  6. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking who is a Jew or how to be Jewish, but rather WHY to be Jewish - assuming we have a choice. If it is an accident of birth like being born with a certain skin or eye color, we don’t have a choice, we’re part of a story larger than ourselves whether we like it or not. But if it IS a choice, how does it enrich our lives? What do we learn from and value about Jewish tradition? Why be observant? What do we most cherish about being Jewish or about Jewish values or beliefs? How does Jewish wisdom heal us or help us make a better world (if this is our driving motivation)? Why should Judaism be preserved? What is at the heart of why we care?

    Comment by Sara — April 20, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  7. No matter whether it is by choice or by accident, or whether you are in a relationship with someone who is not Jewish, the question of why be Jewish has to be asked–and answered by the communal jewish institutions, the organized Jewish community, by teachers and by parents.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 20, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  8. Good. What is your answer?

    Comment by Sara — April 21, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  9. It isnt a one-word or one-line answer. I write about it all the time. But asking the question and being willing to enter into dialogue about it is critical to discovering the answer.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  10. Thank you for your response.

    The Complete Handbook for Jewish Living is an excellent resource, one I wish I’d found years ago. I have not yet read Sacred Intentions.

    My frustration is that it is difficult to find places where such dialogue is possible. I see a spiritless going-through-the-motions-country-clubbish-joyless-bored-faux-community type of phenomenon.

    One rabbi I met asked a group: Why be Jewish? They were stumped. Someone said: Why save the tiger? The rabbi would not, himself, answer the original question. Not privately, not at all. Which left me wondering: Don’t you know?

    Someone has to pony up. If that’s me, I’ll write my own book.




    Comment by Sara — April 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  11. Thanks for your kind words about my writing. They all offer answers I think to why be jewish. I actually offered to write such a book but I havent been able to get anyone interested in publishing it. David Wolpe did write a small book with that title which is quite nice. The challenge — and I have some answers — is that it might come at the expense of others. that is a path that is difficult to navigate in a blog comment exchange

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

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