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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.
I had a dream last night that I was officiating a wedding of an interfaith couple. It wasn’t a particularly strange situation: A lovely couple stood in front of their family and friends. The bride was in a gorgeous white gown, the groom in a nice black tuxedo. The three of us stood there, under the chuppah about to consecrate their marriage and begin their life as a married couple. And a priest showed up to officiate alongside me. I didn’t know him but the groom seemed to be expecting him and the ceremony proceeded. A little while later the groom shared that he’d like to read a poem that was important to him, I again wasn’t expecting this but he was standing there, under the chuppah, with a piece of paper in his hands ready to read. Once he started I realized it was a series of bible verses from the New Testament asking that all attendees pray in Jesus’ name as their marriage was blessed in the church. I looked over at the bride and saw that she was as shocked as I was, never having discussed this with her groom, I saw the questioning and blindsided look in her eyes.
I call this a dream, although as a rabbi I would more likely call this a nightmare. The couple had clearly never talked to one another about their religious preferences, and had not communicated their wishes with me—their rabbi and wedding officiant. This nightmare is unlikely to occur to this extreme, but in real life it has me thinking a lot about the issues couples have in planning weddings and marriages. The flowers and catering and dress seem like tangible, albeit not necessarily easy, decisions to make when planning a wedding. Even talking about how to plan for finances and a wedding budget are expected parts of forging ahead in a marriage. But how does talking about religion and beliefs factor into the planning process?
My husband and I went on our first date on a Friday night to Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue. I knew he was raised attending Chabad and other Orthodox synagogues, and he knew I was studying to be a rabbi. We both tried to impress each other by suggesting Shabbat for our first date. In a lot of ways this was the best way to start our relationship, and in a lot of ways it was a hysterical failure.
I could tell that he was really uncomfortable in this liberal religious setting, and I was worried that he would never want to see me again! After services we went for sushi and beers and had our first conversation about religion. I’m sure religion isn’t on the Cosmopolitan “things to talk about on a first date” list, but we broke that rule. It was clear that religion was an important part of both of our stories, and it was essential that we talked about it right away. Our case may be extreme when compared with other relationships, but talking about religion and/or personal beliefs is important in all relationships BEFORE planning for marriage or children.
Why is it important? Imagine this scenario: You or your partner encounters a difficult situation and one says to the other, “God meant for this to happen because you’re being tested.” Or, “There is no God so it’s not like any higher power can help you through this.” Does what your partner said help you, or raise even more questions for you while offending you? Would your partner be better equipped to support you if he or she knew something about your beliefs in order to be more sensitive?
Imagine another scenario: You are engaged, you’ve chosen a date for your wedding, the deposit has been paid, the florist and caterer already have their plans and it’s time to choose the officiant. You want a rabbi, your partner wants a priest. What do you do?
It’s important to talk about it, but HOW do you talk about it? Do you say while you’re out shopping, “Oh I really like the fabric on this sofa, and do you believe in God?” That’s probably not the most productive way, although if the fabric makes you think of it and your partner is open to it, by all means take a seat in Pier One and talk about God!
There are so many resources to help you have this conversation: InterfaithFamily has articles and discussion guides, and in some InterfaithFamily/Your Communities, including LA, we offer a workshop for interfaith couples to talk about religious issues in their relationships.
Here’s a quick primer:
Watch a movie or read a book that might bring up the question for you. My personal favorites are Keeping the Faith and The Frisco Kid but there are so many others. Most recently the movie This is Where I Leave You addresses so many interfaith and Jewish questions in a funny and heartwarming way.
Play a game of what do you think about….? For example, use this prompt to start an open and non-judgmental conversation about beliefs. Ask your partner, “What do you think about going to church/synagogue?”; “What do you think about the afterlife?”; “What do you think about how we’ll do holidays once we’re married?”; “What do you think about God or a higher power?”
Don’t get intimidated by the tough religious questions—you can also ask things like “What are your top five guiding values?” Or, “What should we do together as a couple or family that is meaningful?”
The specific questions you ask aren’t as important as the fact that you are talking about it. More communication is great for relationship building, and it helps your wedding officiant create with you the most beautiful and meaningful wedding. Not to mention, your marriage will be so much stronger for it.
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.