When one of the country's leading Conservative rabbis states publicly his discomfort with a major policy of the movement, it warrants attention and consideration.
In his Shabbat morning sermon last weekend, Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, offered up what he called "a trial balloon," sharing his thoughts about conversion, interfaith relationships and the status of non-Jewish family members in Jewish families, at times waxing eloquent, and at times speaking bluntly.
"The most significant reason I don't like our policy [on conversion] is that it doesn't make sense in my gut," he said, while first making clear that no policy change at the synagogue was planned and that he was, essentially, thinking aloud with his congregants.
Rabbi Cosgrove said he has seen during his rabbinate that love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.
At present, Park Avenue, like many Conservative synagogues, has an active conversion program where the non-Jewish partner completes a yearlong course of study before going to mikveh or having a modified brit milah, and then is permitted to wed as a Jew. But the rabbi feels couples see it as putting obstacles in their way.
He observed that while the Orthodox take a strong stand against intermarriage and set "a high bar for conversions," and the Reform, since 1983, say that the child of a non-Jewish father and Jewish mother is considered Jewish if raised in a Jewish home, the Conservative camp is, not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle. That means Conservative rabbis advocate in-marriage and do not officiate at intermarriages, but encourage conversion after the fact.
"I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating," the rabbi said. "The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn't know the mind of a young couple. … I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term."
He likened it to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
"First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches," Rabbi Cosgrove said. "First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it's all about."
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
He readily acknowledges that there are flaws, unanswered questions and risks with such a bold plan, not to mention halachic issues to resolve.
"It is fair to ask if Judaism as a whole is not cheapened by making conversion so easy." Still, he told The Jewish Week "there were no guarantees for Hillel, or for rabbis today.
"My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal," he said. When a congregant's adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other clergy to marry them.
"It weighs heavily on me," acknowledged the rabbi, who sees his suggestion as a way "to shift the conversation to one of muscular embrace."
What's clear is that the current system isn't working. A full discussion and debate on how best to ensure the continuity of Jewish life is in order, and Rabbi Cosgrove should be commended for broaching the difficult topic.