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Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California
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 officiateat 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 experience—not only on the day—but 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 don’t 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 make—and 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 aren’t 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. 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.
Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the California Redwoods
If you aren’t 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. In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people may assume that there are no clergy people who understand and celebrate their relationships or identities. 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. 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 don’t 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? 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. Your wedding ceremony should reflect the choices you are going to make in your home and for your family. Don’t put off this important decision until the next major milestone. Officiants listed through InterfaithFamily’s 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 aren’t 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 wedding… is not actually the wedding. It’s 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 you’re prepared. Your friend probably can’t 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, “We were both told on the wedding day that we seemed very calm. That is because we were completely ready.”
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, it’s 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 don’t want a stranger to marry them and that they want the ceremony to feel personal. Believe me, this person won’t be a stranger after you have talked through the deepest questions, concerns and joys in your life. No, they didn’t know you when you were 5. But that isn’t necessarily what you need to prepare yourselves for a lifelong commitment.
Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
Matthew and Stacie were married by a rabbi* in a ceremony that was very similar to the ceremony the rabbi would have performed if both of them were Jewish. A few small liturgical changes were made due to the fact that Matthew is Christian.
Sam and Beth were married by a cantor* in a service involving Jewish wedding liturgy. Friends of the couple read from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament. At Beth’s mother’s request, a Unity Candle was included in the ceremony, which was lit by Sam and Beth’s mothers.
Christopher and Ellie were married by a rabbi and near the end of the ceremony Christopher’s uncle, a Lutheran minister, offered a blessing.
Mark and Adrienne were married at a ceremony co-officiated by a rabbi and a Catholic priest.
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.