Act 5, scene 3 of “Romeo and Juliet” is the well-known death scene. Juliet is lying in the tomb under the influence of a sleeping potion that makes it appear she has died. Romeo finds her in the tomb. He mourns over her body, then drinks poison as he believes that Juliet is truly dead. Juliet wakes up moments later and overcome with grief, stabs herself in the heart. If the one she loves no longer lives, life is not worth living.
Read the scene again, this time focusing on your own response. Do you see two foolish teenagers hopelessly infatuated and blind to the world around them? Do you see yourself in them and ask what you would sacrifice for the one you love?
William Shakespeare is not the only author who has asked this difficult question. The Talmud tells us that there are three sins for which one is required to die: idolatry, sexual misconduct (incest, adultery, bestiality) and murder. Although ordinarily one is permitted to transgress halakha when a life is in danger, certain situations require one to give his or her life, for what they believe. The Talmud is comfortable equating belief and love, for it understands that to preserve the essence of our faith, our people, which we love and believe in, requires the ultimate sacrifice.
We are rarely placed in the position to make such difficult choices. Our lives are usually immune from such life and death situations. Yet there is one set of circumstances for which many of us are not simply uninterested bystanders: intermarriage.
Intermarriage occurs when a person of Jewish birth chooses to marry a person born into a non-Jewish family without prior conversion. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 44 per cent of married Jews in the United States have a non-Jewish partner. The numbers are somewhat smaller in Canada but in both countries the rates of intermarriage are rising exponentially.
We are well aware of how emotionally charged this topic is for our community. All members of the community have staked out positions on the spectrum: clergy who will officiate at ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews and those who will not; parents whose children marry non-Jews and want a rabbinic officiant; those who feel as if the sacrifices made to raise their children in a Jewish home have been for naught when the child brings home an unconverted spouse-to-be. In all these circumstances, the overwhelming intentionality has been to “save the Jewish people,” to “preserve the Jewish religion.” It is our love of Judaism that serves as the source of our emotional response.
Last June, 19 rabbis gathered in New York City for an urgent meeting. It wasn’t a secret meeting, but it was certainly not public. The rabbis, all members of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, gathered to decide what to do about intermarriage.
Since the 1970s, the Conservative Movement has banned its rabbis from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews. But over time, the number of rabbis challenging this stance has grown steadily.
Following the meeting, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, wrote: “We are committed to the principles of inclusiveness and welcoming and human dignity of all people. We’re also committed to the principles of the integrity of Jewish law and commanded-ness.” His words were part of a letter sent by the Rabbinical Assembly to its members in response to a declaration by a small but significant group of Conservative rabbis that they would begin officiating at intermarriages.
What a dilemma! If you love Judaism with all your heart and all your soul, what are you prepared to do to preserve it? On one hand, intermarriage is a reality; let’s reach out and hope that our efforts engage Jews. On the other hand, how can we desert the principles that we have lived and died for? It sounds like the words to a song from “Fiddler on the Roof.” In Anatevka, Tevye was confronted with the beginnings of modernity. Our community is confronted with post-modernity. We are no longer strangers in a strange land. We are citizens fully integrated into the societies in which we live. Unlike Tevye, we can’t run away seeking a fresh start.
The discussion taking place within the Conservative Movement is not relegated to one movement – it is the conversation of every person who loves Judaism, who wishes to preserve Judaism, and is willing to do more than just chat about it.