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Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
[* Note that either a rabbi or cantor can officiate a Jewish or interfaith wedding ceremony. InterfaithFamily’s Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were “interfaith weddings,” yet they were all very different. And each rabbi and cantor has different comfort levels and boundaries as to what they will do as part of an interfaith wedding.
One rabbi said to me recently: “I officiate at weddings where one partner isn’t Jewish, but they’re really ‘Jewish weddings.’ Essentially I do everything the same as I would do for two Jewish partners, with a few minor changes. I never let clergy or relatives from other faith traditions have any role in the ceremony, and I would never include a New Testament reading or any kind or any reference to or ritual from the other partner’s religious tradition.”
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: “I think it’s really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isn’t Jewish if they have a clergy person or other representative from their religion that they want to invite to take part in the ceremony. If not, I encourage them to think about including readings or rituals from their religious tradition that they find meaningful.”
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddings—and most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is “right” or “wrong”—but it can be frustrating and uncomfortable for a couple to meet with a rabbi or cantor who falls toward one end of the spectrum when they’re really looking for someone who falls toward the other end. Needless to say, this can be uncomfortable for the clergy as well.
So what should a couple do when they’re searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right “fit” to officiate their wedding?
1. First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about what’s important to them in their wedding ceremony. How does each partner feel about having Jewish clergy? Assuming that they want to have a Jewish officiant, they should decide: Do we want clergy of another faith to participate as well, and if so in what way? Are there rituals from the religious tradition of the partner who isn’t Jewish that they want to include? Are there elements of Judaism (e.g., use of Hebrew, mention of God) that they are not comfortable with? Do they want their ceremony to take place before sundown on a Saturday? (Rabbi Keara Stein’s blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesn’t already have a relationship with a rabbi or cantor, they can go to interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi and fill out a brief form with some basic information, and we will email them a list of rabbis and cantors in their area who officiate at interfaith weddings. Among other questions, the online form asks if the couple plans to have clergy of another faith participate in the service—if they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, it’s time for the couple to reach out and talk to them. The couple and the rabbi or cantor need to be very clear up front about what their expectations and comfort levels are when deciding if they are going to work together. As I often say when I met with couples (whether both partners are Jewish or they’re an interfaith couple): “This is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If I’m not OK with something that’s important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you don’t feel like I’m the right ‘fit’ for you, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.”
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what they’re expecting their wedding ceremony to look like. They should also feel free to ask any questions (after all, for most people this is their first time having a wedding, so they shouldn’t feel like they need to be an “expert”), and to be honest if there are some things they’re not yet sure about. Similarly, the rabbi or cantor should be clear about what they are and are not comfortable with.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, the couple will be very excited about the person they choose to officiate their wedding. Ideally, it will be just the beginning of a relationship that continues not only through the wedding, but for many years into the future.
There are many reasons I enjoy co-officiating weddings. Here are some of the important ones.
1. Partnership: Working with clergy of other faiths is extremely rewarding. Through planning the wedding, I have the opportunity to build a relationship with a clergy person of another faith and this enables me to teach about Judaism and to learn the tenets and practices of Catholicism and Hinduism, for example, from a true teacher. I also have the privilege of growing a community of liberal, progressive, open-minded clergy who support each other. I have enjoyed talking with them about families who want both faiths in their lives, how they deal with membership, and other spiritual and community building ideas that we share. The last Jewish-Hindu wedding I lead, the pundit asked me about the length of a Jewish wedding. I said, “Oh, about 12 minutes” with a chuckle. He looked at me with a smile and said, “Hindu weddings are 6 days long.”
2. Teaching: I’m able to think about Jewish rituals, symbolism and meaning in different ways when I’m required to explain it to half or more of the wedding attendees who are of a different faith. I think about how I can fit, as a rabbi, within a multi-cultural celebration. Through conveying warmth and joy and through sharing timeless blessings with universal themes, I am able to show that Judaism can be appreciated and experienced by a diverse community. I am able to share the ever-new Jewish messages of continual creation, partnership, commitment, appreciation and thanksgiving and so many other themes which are relevant and inspiring.
3. Respect: I am able to work with couples who care deeply about their religious upbringing, current beliefs and connections to their family. Neither one of them can give up their religious and cultural identities and want them present at this most sacred moment in their lives. These are couples who are eager to talk about process, meaning and symbolism. They have a depth of respect for each other and a sense of compromise that is inspiring.
4. Pastoral Care: I am able to help parents—the future grandparents (because, let’s face it, it’s the future babies on parents’ minds at the time of the wedding). I am able to engage in meaningful pastoral care with parents of the couple to sort out what it means that their child is marrying someone who is an active participant in a different religion. This is a time parents think about the role they will play with grandchildren one day in terms of passing on Judaism and Jewish values.
5. Inclusivity: I am able to be a representative of liberal Judaism at an interfaith wedding where hundreds of people may be in attendance. I can show that the people Israel is a diverse people and this gives us strength and adds beauty to our expression. I can show that the Jewish community is made up of people who have grown up with Judaism, people who have come to Judaism as adults and those who are not Jewish but who love, partner and support members of their family who are Jewish. I can show that Judaism can be experienced and practiced by those who are not Jewish. This is seen when a bride or groom who isn’t Jewish signs a ketubah, breaks the glass or shares in Kiddush (the blessing over wine) for example. It is with pride, love and respect that the two partners share in each other’s traditions.
6. Continuity: I make sure that in my pre-wedding meetings with a couple who will have a co-officiated wedding, that we talk through what their religious and spiritual lives look like as a couple. We talk about continued learning opportunities. We talk about where they struggle with their own faith traditions. We talk through questions they have about Judaism. We also talk about how they will pass on religious literacy and experiences to their children. It’s such a privilege to talk to a couple just getting married about how to enhance their own religious lives now, what practices they may want to take on and to be a positive, supportive presence as they tell me about how they want to pass on cultural and religious aspects of Judaism and possibly other religions to the next generation. This is a truly fascinating and profound conversation to have with a couple who is serious about observance, about how this will look and feel.
7. Focus on What’s Shared: When I started officiating with Catholic priests I would write out the English to the Priestly Benediction for them so that I could say it in Hebrew at the end of a wedding and the Priest could translate it into English. Finally one priest told me that they say it at weddings too and know it! I have studied the Lord’s Prayer more and more and see its Jewish roots so clearly now. I find the number seven, our number of completion and perfection—which is alluded to in the seven circles as well as in the seven blessings—to also be woven throughout Hindu wedding ceremonies.
Co-officiating weddings has been a highlight of my rabbinate. I am honored each wedding to be able to support the Jewish family who is proud and fulfilled to have a rabbi with them on this sacred occasion. We form a bond that is solidified under the chuppah and continues in the years ahead when I am often invited to help bless their babies or to help them affix a mezuzah at their new home. Together, we continue to learn, brainstorm and mark time with meaning.
When I became a rabbi, my own rabbi at home told me that the most important thing I had as a rabbi was my integrity and I’d have little left to offer if I ever let that go. I think about that almost daily and certainly when tough decisions come up. Yet what I find the most difficult about maintaining integrity is not knowing what my boundaries are, what I believe in, stand for and represent but rather how to express and enact all those things. Sometimes it’s easy and the choices are obvious but more often than not, the nuance and shades of gray make integrity anything but easy to maintain. Moreover, while integrity can and should be a constant, it does not preclude evolution of practice, thought and boundaries nor does it give us the right to be judgmental or unkind.
I meet with a wide variety of interfaith couples on a regular basis, whether through a simple email exchange or a series of in-person counseling sessions. By far, the most common story I am told breaks my heart every time. It usually starts with the joy of an engagement and ends with the sting of rejection and judgement, whether from family members, community members or more often than not, clergy.
I have the utmost respect for those rabbis and cantors whose integrity, ideology and sense of purpose precludes them from officiating at interfaith ceremonies. I have seen the struggle amongst my colleagues and the true thoughtfulness with which so many make their decision. But I also see the struggle of so many interfaith couples who are less likely to engage in Judaism not simply because a rabbi said no to marrying them but because of the way in which a rabbi said no.
In an effort to practice what I preach and acknowledge the gray, I of course recognize that there will always be a certain number of couples who will only hear the no, no matter how kindly it is given, and will feel rejected. This is our reality. But I think we can do better for those who come to us, wanting a connection, no matter how tenuous. We owe it to ourselves, to our integrity and to the greater Jewish community, to express first the joy, purpose and possibility of Judaism rather than just the boundaries. We know Judaism has so much to offer: Why else would we want to protect it and cultivate it? Why else would we have spent years learning in order to make it our lives work?
Why not start with words of yes even when we have to say no?
In the face of what we don’t understand, practice kindness.
Toward that which makes us uncomfortable or worried, practice kindness.
To those who make different choices than we do, practice kindness.
To those who yearn to belong, practice kindness.
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that “Celebrating interfaith weddings… [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.” I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forward’s website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Ha’aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaism’s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that “Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.” Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says “What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?” Among his many refreshing comments are, “Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship” and “people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways” and “two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.” Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopf’s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, “a ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friends… within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).” The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the couple’s Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but it’s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is “for interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;” “if the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;” “There should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the couple’s home, such as a Christmas tree.” Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition – as Rabbi Lerner says, “some” in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, “as we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.”
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly – and then reportedly reversed course.
Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential “door opener” to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential “door closers.” We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the “door closing” effect.
Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movement’s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a “fast track” conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that person’s wedding.
Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion – which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary – continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.
A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.
According to yesterday’s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed “Covenant,” so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would “explore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.”
I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing “the move by someone of Gardenswartz’s stature to review policy on interfaith unions” as a potential “game changer for the movement” and “the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.” Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying “we don’t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,” we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential “door opener” and their existing policy as a potential “door closer,” we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartz’s toward a change in that approach.
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.
Here is what Jonah had to say:
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.” No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.
My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”
There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.
I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.
Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.
First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”
I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.
Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.
I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)
The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says
Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:
The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.
Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples
The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.
Now back to vacation.
There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life – But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. It’s by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesn’t understand liberal Jewish life and community in the US.
Finkelman says that liberal American Jewry has a lot to gain from embracing LGBT married Jews, but that embracing intermarried Jews is an “uphill climb” that will “depend on a huge investment” that he clearly thinks is not worth making.
This analysis is misguided on many levels, but what immediately comes to mind is the very small numbers of people who would be impacted by embracing LGBT married Jews. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of including LGBT Jews – and their partners – in Jewish life and community. But it is well known (perhaps not to Finkelman) that the rate of interfaith relationships is much higher among LGBT Jews than among straight Jews. The 2011 New York community study, for example, found (at 249) that while 22% of married Jews there were intermarried, 44% of LGBT married Jews were intermarried.
These wedge-driving arguments are really troublesome; many lay Jews are already upset with rabbis who will not officiate for interfaith couples but will officiate for LGBT couples if both partners are Jewish. I can’t imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelman’s analysis and encourage more attention to the LGBT community at the expense of efforts to engage the intermarried. There has to be room in our communal efforts to do both.
Recently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that I’d be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.
The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. “I’m so excited!” she exclaimed. “The rabbi of the bride’s congregation wouldn’t marry them because her fiancé isn’t Jewish. They were going to hire a ‘rent-a-rabbi.’ I’m so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!” While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term “rent-a-rabbi.” I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to “make a quick buck” and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.
For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events – what some would refer to as a “rent-a-rabbi.” I’ve continued to do so over the past five years even as I’ve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal “fit” for many of the young couples and families with whom I’ve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)
The fact is that I’ve gotten to know the wedding couples I’ve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and I’ve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that I’ve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred B’nai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of B’nai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with B’nai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student – and usually the parents and any siblings – very well.
This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each B’nai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not “regulars” at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.
Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and B’nai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi – or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.
Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level – yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.
I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called “rent-a-rabbis.” The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isn’t for everyone – at least not at every moment of their lives.
There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will “work with” potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.
When a wedding couple comes to me – either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation – I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.
I feel the same way about the baby naming and B’nai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?
Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate – for compensation – at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbis’ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as “rent-a-rabbis.” I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.
There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, don’t call them “rent-a-rabbis.” Just call them “rabbis.”
What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?
Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?
Have you ever used the term “rent-a-rabbi?” How do you feel about this term?
When I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.
When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”
For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.
I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.
Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.
For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.
About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!
In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.
In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.
My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”
I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.