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Forbidden Marriages According to Jewish Law
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

 • Marrying a Non-Jew
 • Will a Rabbi Officiate a Mixed-Marriage?

 • Children of Intermarriage

Leviticus (20:11-21) fends for the health of the gene pool and the psyche by forbidding incestuous unions. Off limits pairs include relationships between mother and son, father and daughter, sister and brother, grandfather and granddaughter, grandmother and grandson, aunt and nephew. Though the verses see nothing out of place with a union between an uncle and his niece, American law does. An uncle may not marry the daughter of his brother or sister, but he may marry the daughter of his wife’s brother or sister. The Torah also forbids marriage between a man and his wife’s sister, if his wife is living. Marrying a son-in-law or daughter-in-law is taboo, as well.

Although ancient Jewish practice permitted a man to marry several wives, a woman could not marry several husbands. Before the age of DNA testing, paternity doubts were a major concern.

At the dawn of the eleventh century, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, a hugely influential force in Jewish law, banned the practice of marrying more than one wife. His edict was accepted by Ashkenazic Jews, the majority of whom lived in Eastern Europe, but Sephardic Jews in Middle Eastern countries continued marrying multiple wives. They lived in Islamic countries where this was the local custom.

For all these off-limits relationships, even if a marriage canopy is erected and rings are exchanged, the marriage is deemed invalid in the eyes of halacha. Complicated intricacies surround a relationship between relatives by blood or marriage. A rabbi who is well-versed in halacha is an invaluable guide in these areas.

Marrying a Non-Jew
Judaism celebrates a couple’s decision to marry as it promises new worlds, new explorations of Judaism, and holds the potential for continuing generations of Jews. When a Jew marries a non-Jew these hopes are called into question. Despite best intentions, a marriage between Jew and non-Jew does not usually result in an enthusiastically Jewish home. According to one study, as much as 70% of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews.

Conservative Judaism has formulated three approaches to intermarriage. At first, effort is directed at preventing intermarriage, because they are far from the optimal hope of the Jewish people. Judaism sees each person, Jew and non-Jew alike, as having a personal spiritual mission. To marry out of one’s own faith compromises the full expression of one’s own spiritual traditions.

If dissuading a couple from marrying is not possible, conversion is encouraged. While the non-Jewish partner learns about Judaism, the Jewish half of the couple is expected to participate. It is hoped the couple will find a place in Jewish life and tradition, so their marriage will not mean a loss to the Jewish People. An overt effort is made to welcome Jews by choice at the synagogue and in the community.

Some people are not ready to become Jewish. When conversion is not an option, Conservative Judaism welcomes non-Jewish spouses through keruv, the word means to bring close, to bring Jews and their non-Jewish significant others closer to Jewish values and community. One of the goals of opening services and classes to Jews and their non-Jewish partners is to encourage an eventual conversion and the establishment of a home where Judaism is practiced exclusively.

However, there are boundaries to the Conservative movement’s acceptance. The Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism’s 1995 “Statement on Intermarriage” stipulates synagogue membership may only be extended to Jews and Jews alone may be called up to the Torah. (Other honors and ways to participate in services have been developed for non-Jews.)

Rabbi Officiating at a Mixed Marriage
An Orthodox rabbi will not officiate at a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew.

Good intentions are behind a couple’s desire to have a rabbi’s participate in their marriage ceremony between Jew and non-Jew. They wish to honor their individual traditions, include all and avoid hurt feelings.

However, a Jewish ceremony is not a simple blessing, it creates a new entity – a married couple - in the eyes of Jewish law. Central to the ceremony is the statement Harei at mekudeshet li betaba'at zo kedat Mosheh veyisrael. Literally: "Behold you are consecrated unto me, with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel." This Hebrew nuptial formula, with its mention of Jewish law, is only of any use to those who are subject to these laws, Jews and not non-Jews.

Words of the ceremonial marriage statement can be changed, however they will not solve the problem. Intermarriage, many believe, threatens the survival of the Jewish people. Conversions of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism would solve this problem, but converting is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Only when the conversion to Judaism is embraced out of passion for the Jewish way of life and with a commitment to living the Torah way, does a marriage between two people of such diverse backgrounds has a possibility for success. The vast majority of mixed marriages do not result in a creation of a proud Jewish household. Though often, the Jewish spouse retains feelings for Judaism, statistics bare that the children do not.

Asking a rabbi to officiate at a mixed marriage ceremony creates a dilemma for the rabbi as a leader and role model for his or her congregation. A rabbi is supposed to support the viability of Judaism. To officiate at this ceremony is contrary to a rabbi’s role. Furthermore a rabbi, who officiates in a mixed ceremony, demonstrates to the congregation that intermarriage is not much of a concern.

It is the official stance of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly that “rabbis and cantors affiliated with the Conservative Movement may not officiate at the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew, may not co-officiate with any other clergy, and may not officiate or be present at a purely civil ceremony.”

An alternative way is to invite a friend of the family or acquaintance, who is not a rabbi but knowledgeable about Judaism, who may create a ceremony for the couple. This may give a marriage a Jewish flavor. And, of course, one may always search for a Rabbi willing to perform a mixed marriage on the internet.

Children of Intermarriage
Unlike the Reform movement, Conservative Judaism has not framed halacha to define children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews. The traditional halachic definition of a Jew is one who is born to a Jewish mother or one who has chosen Judaism through conversion. Illegitimacy, the Jewish concept of mamzer, does not apply to children born to an intermarried couple. 


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