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Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŚ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŚ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŚ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
You have chosen the date, the place, the guest list. But who will officiate at your ceremony? A family member? Friend? Clergy person? Justice of the peace? A celebrant?
Asking friends or relatives to officiate at wedding ceremonies is a relatively recent phenomenon with numbers rising in just the last decade with the advent of online ordination. If you have a friend or relative whom you believe to be the right officiant for you, this can be a very meaningful option. But if you are still deciding, consider a clergy person or other trained celebrant to lead you through this sacred moment in your life.
When you are standing before your family and friends exchanging vows, your life changes. You take on a new status, a new legal category. A clergy person or celebrant is trained to usher you through this life-shifting moment. We strive to deepen your experienceânot only on the dayâbut throughout the process. By the time you take your places in front of your loved ones, you will hopefully see yourselves as participating in a timeless ritual, connected to couples who have taken this step throughout the ages.
Many couples shy away from inviting a religious leader to officiate at their ceremonies because they donât consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But regardless of your religiosity, a wedding ceremony is sacred, out of the ordinary. It marks one of the most significant choices you will ever makeâand that is not to be taken lightly. The person leading your ceremony needs to know how to create sacred space, a practice clergy people hone over many years. We set the mood through words and song, and explain rituals in a way that is steeped in tradition and relevant to you. We come prepared to lead you through a process that is individualized for you, yet we arenât starting from scratch. In fact, we have a storehouse of great material to work with.
As part of our seminary training, we learn about the essence of ritual and how rites like this one carry us safely through liminal, life-changing moments (regardless of how religious you are). We create meaningful ceremonies that flow seamlessly and get to the heart of why you are making this life choice.Â A friend or relative is often just figuring this out for the first time (they often call our offices seeking guidance, reassurance and outlines!). You might need someone who can put you and others at ease amidst wedding tensions rather than trying to keep their own nerves under wraps. We honor the generational nature of weddings, acknowledging the process of each family member as roles, relationships and names shift.
If you arenât sure how religion will play into your lives, this is precisely the time to figure that out. A clergy person can help you discern how religious or spiritual life can deepen your relationship and what is authentic to you both. With so many options today, choosing a clergy person is not the fallback that it once was. But if you come from a religious or cultural tradition, this is an opportunity to explore its meaning for you as an adult and avail yourself of the accumulated wisdom that tradition holds.
Many couples are concerned that a clergy person will not be respectful, accepting or inclusive of their non-traditional religious views.Â In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people may assume that there are no clergy people who understand and celebrate their relationships or identities.Â In both of these cases, there are clergy people who would be thrilled to work with you, many of whom might share your worldview and even your identities. Â It may not be the pastor of your youth, but taking the time to seek out someone who is aligned with your values and commitments could have a profound and even healing impact on your lives.
Interfaith couples often worry that they donât yet know what elements of their respective traditions they will bring into their homes, so how can they decide what kind of clergy person should officiate?Â Meeting with potential officiants can help you sort out what makes sense for you and it might even be a great way to introduce one another to some of the wisdom and depth each of your traditions hold.Â Your wedding ceremony should reflect the choices you are going to make in your home and for your family. Donât put off this important decision until the next major milestone. Officiants listed through InterfaithFamilyâs officiation service are sensitive to these issues and will honor both of your backgrounds.
If you are not at all connected to any religious group, find a secular celebrant. They are trained to make your day sacred and meaningful, but often not from a religious perspective. Many are experienced in leading you through the important counseling work as well. But if you have some inkling of a religious or cultural background, I urge you to interview some clergy people. You arenât the first couple to ask for a ceremony that is deeply meaningful without God language, or to want certain rituals while leaving out others. Many clergy people are prepared to engage with you about what matters most, and figure out how to create something that feels authentic to you.
Although the day of your ceremony is momentous, the most important part of your weddingâŚ is not actually the wedding. Itâs the work you do leading up to it. You are taking this step because you are marking that your lives will now be intertwined. Clergy people are trained in pastoral counseling and guide people through deep, spiritual work focusing on communication, finances, intimacy, religion, interfaith issues and end of life decisions. We lead you through the most profound spiritual questions so youâre prepared. Your friend probably canât do this for you. If you do choose someone who is not trained in this area, sign up for couples counseling before the wedding. In the words of one couple, âWe were both told on the wedding day that we seemed very calm. That is because we were completely ready.â
The expertise you get with a clergy person usually does come with a cost. But compared to what a typical wedding couple budgets for flowers and music at the party, itâs not much considering that it is most likely what you will most remember from the day. The officiant does not charge a fee merely for the time of the wedding ceremony but for the knowledge, time preparing a unique ceremony and counseling. For many, this is the core of their work and livelihood. If you are truly on a shoestring budget, be honest with potential officiants. Many clergy people are able to slide their scale for you or refer you to a colleague if you ask.
I often hear couples express that they donât want a stranger to marry them and that they want the ceremony to feel personal. Believe me, this person wonât be a stranger after you have talked through the deepest questions, concerns and joys in your life. No, they didnât know you when you were 5. But that isnât necessarily what you need to prepare yourselves for a lifelong commitment.
Have questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. InterfaithFamilyâs Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were âinterfaith weddings,â 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: âI officiate at weddings where one partner isnât Jewish, but theyâre really âJewish weddings.â 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 partnerâs religious tradition.â
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: âI think itâs really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isnât 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.â
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddingsâand most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is ârightâ or âwrongââbut 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 theyâre 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 theyâre searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right âfitâ to officiate their wedding?
1. Â First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about whatâs 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 isnât 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 Steinâs blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Â Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesnât 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 serviceâif they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Â Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, itâs 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 theyâre an interfaith couple): âThis is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If Iâm not OK with something thatâs important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you donât feel like Iâm the right âfitâ for you, it doesnât mean that Iâm not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.â
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what theyâre 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 shouldnât feel like they need to be an âexpertâ), and to be honest if there are some things theyâre 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. Â Partnership: Working with clergy of other faiths is extremely rewarding.Â 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.Â 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, âOh, about 12 minutesâ with a chuckle. He looked at me with a smile and said, âHindu weddings are 6 days long.â
2. Â 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. Â 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. Â Pastoral Care: I am able to help parentsâthe future grandparents (because, letâs face it, itâs the future babies on parentsâ 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. Â 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 isnât 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 otherâs traditions.
6. Â 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. Itâs 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.Â 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. Â Focus on Whatâs 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 Lordâs Prayer more and more and see its Jewish roots so clearly now. I find the number seven, our number of completion and perfectionâwhich is alluded to in the seven circles as well as in the seven blessingsâto 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 Iâd 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 itâs 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? Â
In the face of what we donât 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 âCelebrating interfaith weddingsâŚ [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.â I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forwardâs website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Haâaretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaismâs guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that âJewish leadersâ 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.â Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says âWhat 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?â Among his many refreshing comments are, âJudaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationshipâ and âpeople of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious waysâ and âtwo people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.â Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopfâs 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 Assemblyâs Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, âa ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friendsâŚ within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).â 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 coupleâs Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but itâs important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is âfor interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;â âif the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;â âThere should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the coupleâs home, such as a Christmas tree.â 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 â as Rabbi Lerner says, âsomeâ in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, âas we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.â
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 â something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly â 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 âdoor openerâ to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential âdoor closers.â 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 âdoor closingâ 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 Menâs Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movementâs previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a âfast trackâ 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 personâs 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 â which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary â 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 yesterdayâs 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 âCovenant to Raise Jewish Children.â Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed âCovenant,â so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would âexplore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.â
I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Menâs clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing âthe move by someone of Gardenswartzâs stature to review policy on interfaith unionsâ as a potential âgame changer for the movementâ and âthe beginning of a huge paradigm shift.â Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying âwe donât see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,â we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential âdoor openerâ and their existing policy as a potential âdoor closer,â we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartzâs toward a change in that approach.
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonahâs shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonahâs 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:
âShabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older.Â Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people.Â I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit.Â I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah.Â I can now be counted in a prayer group.Â I can now take on mitzvot.Â I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah.Â To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script.Â This took much time to study and practice.Â 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.Â Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.”Â 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.Â 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.Â It is about God saying to the people to never give up.Â Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it.Â Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet.Â 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.Â Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God.Â 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.â
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 otherâs 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 âfighting against intermarriageâ 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 âa potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.â
I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is â there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders â and I think itâs 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 itâs 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 IsraelâŚ people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.â But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbisâ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a âbalcony perspectiveâ 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 âbalcony perspective,â what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldnât help but make this connection when reading the Forwardâs profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader â and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahlâs essay originally in Shâma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to âreaffirm her Jewish legacy.â)
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 Greenbergâs 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 âlive discussionâ on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he wonât officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilmanâs perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I donât have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that âinvariably,â in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage âalmost alwaysâ 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 âdiminishmentâ would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpeâs rationale.
Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesnât officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isnât Jewish isnât subject to Jewish law. I canât argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that itâs âbad faithâ for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isnât representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true âat least for meâ 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 â 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. Iâm 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 â But Gay Marriage Doesnât. Itâs by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesnât 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 âuphill climbâ that will âdepend on a huge investmentâ 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 donât get me wrong, Iâm all in favor of including LGBT Jews â and their partners â 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 canât imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelmanâs 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.