Jewish Clergy and Officiation at Interfaith Weddings: A Strong Take on Hypocrisy
November 9, 2012
I graduated from a liberal arts college and had decided to pursue becoming a cantor. As a liberal Jew who often lead the musical portion of services in college for the Jewish Alliance Group and who minored in music at Vassar, enrolling in a Reform Jewish cantorial school was the only seminary I considered. Between my strong Jewish background and knowledge and my vocal abilities, I was admitted to the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music from where I would be invested as a Cantor in 1990.
Upon entering the program, I was stunned that there was a bias against Jewish clergy officiating at interfaith weddings and that most of my new found colleagues would not perform interfaith weddings. How could this be? This is the most liberal movement in Judaism and, in my opinion, the most universal. I spoke with many of the professors and students at the school about this and why we, of all Jewish clergy, would oppose interfaith officiation. Here are some of the answers I got:
- A Jewish wedding is specifically Jewish. The language of it is particular to a Jewish-Jewish union given that the language, i.e. "according to the laws of Moses and Israel," is pertinent only to one Jew marrying another.
- Performing interfaith weddings only reinforces what we are trying to avoid. That is, the dissolution of the Jewish people, already small in number.
- By officiating at interfaith weddings, we are condoning a union that is contrary to the message we are sending about assimilation and the threat that poses.
- Interfaith weddings and Jewish clergy participation goes against traditional Jewish law.
The reasons above are the responses couples hear when they talk with Reform rabbis and cantors. Am I crazy, or is this just another instance of Jews finding a way to shoot ourselves in the foot? Let me address each of the above:
- So don't say, "according to the laws of Moses and Israel"; how about "according to the laws of God and humanity" or simply, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (from Song of Songs).
- Am I to believe that a couple won't marry because a rabbi won't perform their wedding? I meet with more couples who are incredulous that the rabbi who oversaw her bat mitzvah, whose family has been life-long members and supporters of this young woman's synagogue, will perform a wedding between two Jews who haven't even attended High Holy Day (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur) services in 20 years but will turn this young woman away. This is nothing more than another way to alienate Jews from Judaism, and alienate their non-Jewish partners as well. It seems additionally difficult to explain to our couples when so many Christian clergy are happy to officiate an interfaith union.
- If we want to curtail assimilation, let's go back to the ghetto. We need these liberal rabbis and cantors to stop eating treif (non-kosher food), get out of their cars on the Sabbath, and start wearing garb on the street (not just in synagogue) that is traditionally Jewish, i.e. kippot (yarmulkes - headcoverings) and tzitzit (undergarment with fringes representing the 613 commandments of the Torah).
- A Reform Jewish clergyperson is concerned with traditional Jewish law? Since when? Just open up a Reform prayer book. Where are the references to the coming of the Messiah who will lead us back to Israel where we will once again sacrifice rams at the altar? It's in the traditional prayer book, not in the Reform one. Just as the Reform movement has taken a different approach to Jewish law when it comes to prayer, so too can we when it comes to intermarriage and officiation.
There are more Reform clergy than ever before performing interfaith weddings. Some, like myself, out of conviction. Others due to pragmatism. When 75% of the offspring in your congregation are marrying non-Jews because your congregation is in a predominantly Christian community, at what point does the rabbi just decide to stop performing weddings altogether and simply say, "There's no one here to marry, so I'll stop with weddings altogether" or does she say, "I guess I better think differently about this." When I've been asked, "Why do you perform interfaith weddings," my answer has always been, "It's not why would I, but why wouldn't I." What if my sons were to fall in love with a non-Jewish woman? How ridiculous would it be for me to sit among the guests while they hired a colleague to officiating, someone who had a different philosophy to do the wedding? Amazing how many of my colleagues can go years explaining their position on not officiating at interfaith weddings and suddenly, when it's their own kid, they realize how wrong they were.
Then there are all those colleagues of mine who have "conditions".
- "I won't co-officiate weddings with clergy of other faiths but will perform an interfaith wedding so long as it's just me."
- "I won't perform weddings on Shabbat (the Sabbath) as it goes against Jewish law to marry before sundown on Saturdays."
- "I won't participate unless the couple agrees to raise their children as Jews."
Thumbs up for such convictions! At least they can justify their behavior by attaching conditions. My response:
- Marriage is about compromise. Marriage is hard enough, but without compromise and respect for the other's beliefs, feelings, respect for feelings of each family… well, that's a bad start right there. A co-officiated wedding doesn't mean that the Christian co-officiant is going to talk about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Language can be easily universal and, as with my non-Jewish clergy friends, respectful of the presence of a Jewish partner and their family. Just as I don't make references to keeping a Jewish home (unless the couple asks that I do), the minister steers away from particularistic language too.
- What is the law against weddings on the Sabbath day? Well, I understand that the Torah (and Talmud by extension) prohibits any form of business on Shabbat as this is the day of rest, the day that our God rested from the work of Creation. And one form of prohibited business is entering into a legal contract. How many liberal Jews don't work on Shabbat on account of their conviction? In the 19th century, the Reform movement actually moved their main Sabbath service to Friday evenings due to the fact that so many Jews worked on Saturdays. A wedding is undoubtedly a business transaction, since there is a signing of a marriage license and ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and, therefore, a "business transaction" takes place. Virtually all of my liberal colleagues who won't perform weddings on Shabbat during the day, will do so if the wedding takes place after 6:00pm during wedding season, when the sun might not set for another couple hours. 3:00pm is no good, but 6:00 is close enough? No, 6:00pm is still Shabbat in the spring and summer, no way around it. Either we follow the law or not. Perhaps we should stop bending the law so that couples are standing under the chuppah as late as 9:30 at night and the guests are having their glazed salmon at midnight, hoping the end of this celebration is coming soon so they can go to bed. Come on, if the Sabbath is a time to rejoice, then what better way to rejoice than to do so with a wedding?
- Who are we kidding with this one? Only the rabbi — the joke's on them. Either the couple sincerely wishes to raise their children as Jews (wonderful indeed), the couple honestly tells the rabbi that they cannot make that promise and proceed to find someone else to marry them, or the couple says they will do so, even if not sincere, allowing the rabbi to feel better about his participation in an interfaith wedding. The fact that the couple has sought Jewish clergy while so many don't even bother is reason to rejoice. To make them promise to raise their children a certain way as a precondition? Make a positive impression on what it is to be Jewish and delight in the fact that you have been asked to preside, in a Jewish fashion, over what it is the most important day in a couple's life and then, maybe, they will make the decision to raise Jewish children on their own accord.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term for that which is not kosher (in accordance with Jewish dietary law). Common treif foods include shellfish and pig products (ham, bacon, etc.). Also, food or meals that combine dairy and meat products are treif.