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A Different Approach to Interfaith Marriage

The following sermon, given by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs to Congregation Beth Israel on February 18, 2005, announces a new policy regarding interfaith marriages.

In our changing world, we eagerly strive to make our sacred congregation friendlier and more welcoming--particularly to those who are born outside of our faith, but who are attracted to it by either personal curiosity or family ties. Welcoming the stranger is a fitting and proper goal, deeply rooted in our religious heritage. More than 2500 years ago, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed:

 

 

As for the foreigners Who attach themselves to the Lord… I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer… For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples! (Isaiah 56:6 7)

 

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples!" What a wonderful ideal. Truly, it should be no less our goal today than it was in the days of the Babylonian Exile that our doors and arms should be open to all who seek to make Beth Israel their spiritual home.

One way we do that, of course, is to eagerly assist those who are born outside of our faith and who wish to learn more about Judaism. We put significant time and energy into the conversion process of those who make the decision to formally adopt Judaism as their faith.

We also do our best to make the non-Jewish spouses in member families feel welcome and at home. Most notably, we invite them to participate actively and appropriately on the bimah during the naming and B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies of their children.

Sadly, though, non-Jews have often not felt our welcoming embrace at the time when they consecrate their marriage to a Jewish partner. Tonight, I want to announce an initiative that I hope will allow couples, where one of the partners is not Jewish, who want to establish a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, to feel the embrace of our community at the time of their wedding. It will by no means solve all problems or make all congregants happy, but our temple leaders and I feel that it is a positive step forward, and it is a step that I announce with joy and hope.

It is also a position at which I have arrived after much introspective thought, study, discussion, and prayer. My struggle with the rabbi's role in interfaith marriage started on the Sunday after I arrived in Los Angeles to begin my graduate rabbinical studies, in the fall of 1968. On that day, Temple Israel of Hollywood held an open forum in which three different Reform rabbis presented their approach to requests to them to officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. One felt that his conscience and understanding of his rabbinical role precluded him from officiating at any interfaith marriage. One outlined a number of criteria regarding the establishment of a Jewish home and a promise to raise Jewish children which, if met, would allow him to feel comfortable officiating. The third rabbi stated unequivocally that he would officiate at the marriage of any couple who asked him and would be glad to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy.

From that day to this, I have struggled with my own feelings about participating in the marriage ceremony of a Jew and a non-Jew. During my two years in Los Angeles, I read every book or article about intermarriage on which I could lay hands.

The next year, when I studied in Israel, the first oral presentation I ever made in Hebrew was for a graduate seminar in which I boldly enrolled--I say boldly because I only understood about half of what the students and the professor were saying!--at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My topic: Ha-Rav Ha-Reformi v' Nisuay Ta-ah-rovet--The Reform Rabbi and Interfaith Marriage.

My intensive struggles with this issue led me to a position, which I re-examine all the time, but which I still hold today. As I understand my rabbinical function, it does not allow me to officiate at a marriage ceremony other than one involving two Jews.

In my first pulpit in Columbia, Maryland, there were some congregants who objected to my stance. The leadership of the congregation, though, supported me completely during the thirteen years of my tenure as the congregation's first full-time rabbi.

My position on officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies came under stronger challenge when I contemplated moving from the congregation I had helped establish in Columbia, to the Reform Temple in Nashville, Tennessee, a congregation that had gotten along just fine for 143 years without me. The retiring rabbi had performed interfaith marriages in that congregation for more than twenty years. When it looked like the congregation might be serious about engaging me, he took me into his office and closed the door for what I have come to call "The Talk."

The rabbi shared with me his reasons for arriving at the position that he would officiate at interfaith marriages in cases when he felt that such a decision served the best interests of the Jewish people. I listened carefully and with great respect. By the end of "The Talk," though, I knew that even if my position on interfaith marriages meant that the congregation would not offer me the pulpit, I still believed with all my heart that it did not serve our people best for me to perform interfaith marriages.

The intermarriage issue was always close at hand during my eleven years in Nashville. The newspaper headline announcing my arrival set the tone: "New Rabbi at Temple Will Not Perform Interfaith Marriages." The frequent scrutiny of this issue by many in the congregation and the community at large prompted me to re-examine my own position many times.

I arrived, though, in Connecticut, and I stand before you today, still believing that the nature of the Jewish marriage ceremony precludes my officiating at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew. For me, the crucial moment in the ceremony is when the bride and the groom in turn say to each other in Hebrew and English, "With this ring be consecrated unto me as my wife (or as my husband), according to the religion of Moses and Israel." To me, it is simply not appropriate for one who is not a member of the religion of Moses and Israel--either through birth or through formal conversion--to say those words.

I also feel, even though I am permitted by the government to perform any marriage ceremony I wish, that the only marriage ceremony I legitimately can perform is the Jewish marriage ceremony. For that reason, I have regretfully declined requests by non-Jewish friends to officiate at their weddings.

From the standpoint of Jewish demographics, of course, our people has from the time of the Bible to this day actively encouraged Jews to marry other Jews. I believe that it is important that we continue to do so.

When two people grow to love one another, though, Jewish demographics are, understandably, far from their minds. When a person finds that individual with whom he or she feels God has destined them to spend their life, I share their joy and pray they find every happiness. I want to encourage them to be part of the Jewish community, I want to encourage them to find a comfortable place in our synagogue, and I want to support them in every way I can in their decision to raise Jewish children.

Throughout the years that I have wrestled with this question, I have searched for a meaningful way to reach out to interfaith couples at the time of their marriage without officiating at the ceremony. For more than a year, the congregation's leadership--including the Outreach and Ritual Committees--have discussed and analyzed with me the initiative that we announce with excitement tonight.

The idea is to train and empower Jewish judges and justices of the peace who are members of Congregation Beth Israel to officiate in the sanctuary at the weddings of couples that I counsel and then recommend to them. The couples I shall recommend will be those who wish to establish a Jewish household and if blessed with children, raise them as Jews.

The couple would meet with me at least once, but as many times as they desire. I want to be available to counsel an interested interfaith couple in the same way that I am available to a Jewish couple. Hopefully, these sessions will foster warm feelings between the couple and me and allow us to engage in open communication and feel mutual empathy.

To facilitate this process, the congregation will invite via our Bulletin those qualified individuals desirous of being designated judges and justices of the peace to perform marriages at Congregation Beth Israel to a two-session training course. In this course, the participants will discuss with me appropriate and meaningful ways to add Jewish content to the civil ceremony that the justice of the peace would ordinarily perform.

It is clear to me that even as we initiate this program, there will still be temple members--because they have told me so--who feel that we should not celebrate interfaith weddings in our sanctuary. It is also clear that there will be members--and they, too, have told me so--who feel that only the presence of an officiating rabbi sends the appropriate message of welcome to couples who come to us seeking to be married here.

The big question for me is: Why do I feel comfortable with a judge or justice of the peace performing a ceremony in the sanctuary that I will not do myself? My answer is that this solution allows me to preserve the two goals that have underlain my wrestling with this issue for these past 37 years.

By meeting with couples, working with them, attending their wedding ceremony as a guest (if invited!), and offering a blessing on their behalf at Shabbat services, I am doing things that I am most eager to do to say, "Welcome! We rejoice with you! We welcome you! And we very much want you to be part of our Beth Israel community!"

By not doing the ceremony myself, though, I am maintaining what is for me a vital part of my integrity and my understanding--that as a rabbi, I do not see it as my appropriate function to perform a wedding involving a non-Jew whose current choice--for whatever good reasons--is to remain a non-Jew.

Our plan is to see how this initiative works and evaluate it after 18 months. By that time, I hope, we shall have established to the broader community that the welcome mat is out to all who wish to make their spiritual home at Beth Israel.

I hope this initiative draws us a step closer to Isaiah's ideal and allows more people about whom we care deeply to feel that our house of prayer is their house of prayer. I also pray that this new step will bring blessings on many couples who now can feel the warmth and support of our community and our sanctuary as they begin their lives--we pray, with God's blessings--together.

Amen.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Another word for "rabbi."
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Connecticut. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, earned a Master's degree in Hebrew Letters and a graduate certificate in Jewish Communal Service, and in 1992 received a Doctor of Ministry degree in Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee. In March 1999 he received a Doctor of Divinity degree, Honoris Causa, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

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