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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
It’s not about caving on interfaith marriage.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter. People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
I just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.
Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.
So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.
Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.
There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.
So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?
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.