“Next Year in Jerusalem” or could it be “New Hampshire”?

I officiated at two interfaith weddings this past Thanksgiving weekend. One wedding I co-officiated with a Catholic priest; the other was a Jewish wedding for an interfaith couple that I officiated by myself. Both weddings included many of the rituals of Jewish tradition as well as the words and presence of Christianity. Doing this is important enough to me that I gave up having Thanksgiving with my own family–it’s very rewarding Jewish work.

New Hampshire White MountainsI wish my rabbinic colleagues who frown on interfaith officiation could witness these weddings as the families and guests do. After most interfaith weddings where I officiate or co-officiate, guests approach me to tell me how much the ceremony touched them. I am uncomfortable with the personal compliments–that’s my problem–but my spirits always get a lift from the expressions of the positive feelings that congregations have for Jewish ritual and blessing.

Our rabbinic fears of losing something in the mix of Jewish ritual and interfaith congregations, both those assembled only for life cycle events and those who share a whole life together, is “holy” (intentional homonym) unfounded. My experience has been that Jewish ritual, done right, offers something of value to everyone of this world … not just Jews. What I mean by “done right” is that it is offered with clear, meaningful, and universal interpretations that draw people to its usefulness and great value. A ritual or blessing does not have value intrinsically to people who don’t know its depth and beauty. Sharing some of those meanings in a way that isn’t exclusive or superficial enables people to engage with Jewish ritual and hold it as their own. In a time when we worry about how our congregations are shrinking and how little our congregants know about Judaism, weddings are one of the most efficient teaching moments we have. Better not to waste this opportunity to teach and engage.

Many Jewish grandparents come up to me at their grandchildren’s weddings and acknowledge, sheepishly, their lack of knowledge about Jewish ritual and their thankfulness for this opportunity to learn. Jewish 20-, 30- and 40-something wedding guests feel supported in the gift of their religious heritage when we treat non-Jews and their traditions with respect and include them, rather than holding them as outsiders to their friends’ and family’s life cycle ceremonies. The parents of interfaith couples find a connection to their own Jewishness when their children’s spouses are brought in rather than held at arm’s length. Though it’s true that not every family reacts this way, they do more often than not.

I am looking forward to the day when the Jewish community leadership recognizes that “fear of the other” only isolates us and our religious heritage. Our fear isolates us not only from the non-Jewish world, but also from our own people. I am also looking forward to the day when there are so many congregational rabbis who officiate and co-officiate at interfaith weddings that I will have enough colleagues to refer people to and I won’t feel guilty saying no to couples who want to marry on holiday weekends.

I love officiating and co-officiating weddings. I also miss spending weekends with my own people. Some traditional Jewish pilgrimage holidays are often ended with the hope of “next year in Jerusalem” or an ingathering of our people. I say “next year in New Hampshire or Virginia or California” where my people live.

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One thought on ““Next Year in Jerusalem” or could it be “New Hampshire”?

  1. Dear Lev,
    I just read your article, and it really resonated for me. I tracked back to this article, but just in case, I wanted to add my 2 cents to your thoughts. My blog entry is below:

    The beauty of Jewish – “done right”

    December 4, 2008 by cantorballard | Edit

    I just read Rabbi Lev Ba’esh’s post over on http://www.Interfaithfamily.com, one of my most favorite Interfaith relationship resources, and was touched by how similar our experiences and positions are on performing Interfaith ceremonies.

    Anyone who reads my story on my website, http://www.mypersonalcantor.com, knows that when I married Wayne, my Christian ex-husband, the list of available Rabbis to perform our wedding was a very short one, at best. I can’t remember his name, nor do I have a good memory of him at all. Looking back, he struck me as someone who would marry a cat to a dog, for a check. Uninspiring, to say the least, but he certainly did not help the Jewish factor in my marriage, as my husband formed a strong impression about him, and related that impression to the faith, overall. Bad mistake.

    I can’t even begin to recount the numerous run-ins we had about how judgmental, critical, conditional, and exclusionary the Jewish faith was, which couldn’t be farther from the truth – but you know as well as I do, that perception IS 100% of our reality. Sad.

    Today, I, like Rabbi Lev, feel I have a completely different impact on the families I touch by my ceremonies. Also, like him, I am more frequently approached by the Jewish guests than the Non-Jews, with comments about how much I taught them about their own faith. As Jews, we learn to do and say very certain things, but never learn why. We don’t learn the meaning in our lives, we don’t learn why. Our traditions are beautiful. The fundamental message of our religion is “Do the right thing”. Read the words to the V’Ahavta – the prayer that follows the Shema, the most important prayer a Jew can utter. The words tell us to love God, to speak of Him, remember Him, and take him with us in our hearts every day. If we do that, we will surely make decisions that prove that we were made in his image. We are beautiful people, with a rich, touching history, and being Jewish is a magnificent thing. Unfortunately, too many people aren’t shown the beauty of being Jewish.

    My ceremonies include lessons about why we do what we do, and what the meaning is in our lives. I always try to relate a Torah portion or lesson from the Torah in my ceremonies, so everyone can take a piece of God home with them. In this way, nobody feels excluded, nobody feels alienated, and even the Jews learn just a little more about our beautiful faith than they knew before.

    The end result, hopefully, is that everyone who attended that wedding, or even Bar or Bat Mitzvah feels the beauty that eminates from Jewish lessons. When a couple has decided to marry, it is not up to the officiant to judge that decision, but it is our responsibility to strongly and proudly represent our faith. It is up to us to hold our heads up and take a stand for why this Interfaith family should NOT turn their backs on Judaism. It is up to us to put being Jewish in their hands, however we can make that happen. We should NOT try to force anything on anyone, but I just don’t see how strongly representing something so beautiful could possibly be looked down upon. If we believe that God brings man and woman together, what gives Rabbis the right to second-guess his decision?

    Jewish, done right, is a magnificent thing. Judaism is the cornerstone of my life. It is my road map to God. It is my light that guides me, teaches me right from wrong, and holds me up when all else fails me. Why wouldn’t I help someone else have that feeling? We cannot be afraid as Jews. We cannot run away. We couldn’t run away in the past, and we must not run away today. We must stand up proudly, and teach our Interfaith couples that Judaism is beautiful, and can be the light that guides us all. Thanks, Lev. You reminded me again how amazing it is that we have the opportunity to do what we do. I am so grateful.
    Cantor Debbi Ballard
    http://www.mypersonalcantor.com

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