Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is outreach director for Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom. His works includes establishing new communities, creating new models of community with a focus on young adult groups, and working with mixed-faith and mixed-culture households.
Blessing Mixed-Faith Couples in the United Kingdom
I first came across interfaith weddings in 1999, when I transferred a year of my rabbinical training to Hebrew Union College-NYC. In the United Kingdom, such ceremonies were not permissible within any of the synagogue movements. To an extent that is still true, as our society is generally more conservative than that in the United States and our civil legislation is also more restrictive. However, I am glad to say that Liberal Judaism (UK), which I serve as outreach director, has now permitted what we call "mixed-faith blessings" or "acts of prayer for a mixed marriage."
Liberal Judaism is the only synagogue body in the UK that will perform mixed-faith blessings. Whilst Liberal Judaism and its rabbis maintain their priority to encourage Jewish marriage and therefore conversion, we acknowledge that Jewish people do not fall in love with non-Jewish people out of a desire to ditch Judaism and that non-Jewish people fall may in love with a Jewish person but not always the religion. This is significant, as we have no organized Humanistic Judaism offering cultural conversions (which are available through Humanistic Judaism in the U.S.). Anglo-Jewry only offers religious conversions.
We want to encourage the continuing Jewish practice of the Jewish partner and the establishment of a Jewish household by offering a meaningful Jewish ritual that acknowledges a couple's marriage. I should add that Liberal Judaism is the only UK synagogue body to accept patrilineality (when a child is considered Jewish if either its father or mother is Jewish), a further motivation for our rabbis to consider a full set of life-cycle rituals for mixed-faith and mixed-culture households.
Liberal Judaism wishes to promote continuity of Judaism and the Jewish concept of "community." Much has been written in our media about the phenomena of the breakdown of "communities" and Anglo-Jewry has not been immune from it. For these two reasons, we will only perform mixed-faith blessings for members of our synagogues and those couples who commit to creating a Jewish household.
Since we do perform this blessing, many more mixed couples have entered into a process and relationship with a rabbi and a community that would be standard for two Jewish partners. The process often includes pre-marital support and explaining Jewish values relating to relationships, family and the home. We can also provide the resources to support the creation of a Jewish household and integration into our synagogue communities to all who wish to engage with us. The relationship with our rabbis means that a couple can create a personal and spiritually meaningful ceremony where the rabbi speaks with integrity about and to the couple. Without exception, I have an ongoing relationship with the couples for whom I have conducted an act of prayer for their marriage. One or two couples have balked at joining one of our synagogues, and that is their choice, but the vast majority have joined and remain members.
By English law, our rabbis can only "marry" a Jewish man and woman. Therefore, in the case of a mixed couple, the couple must first be "married" in the eyes of English law with a civil ceremony performed by a government registrar before our rabbis can legally perform a blessing. This civil ceremony can be in advance of or on the day preceding the Jewish blessing. All our synagogues are autonomous and therefore some will not permit such blessings to occur in their sanctuaries. Whether or not a rabbi participates in such an act of prayer is to be determined by his or her individual conscience. Nearly all of our rabbis do participate and have fashioned some wonderfully creative ceremonies.
Even if English law were different, we would not currently move our position. A mixed-faith blessing is not a Jewish wedding and we are not marrying the couple. Therefore we do not permit the use of its primary rituals, symbols or liturgy, most notably, chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy), ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) and the sheva berachot (Jewish marriage blessings). We believe that it would be disingenuous to all parties concerned to do so and that it would not hold positive long-term benefits for the couple, their families or Judaism. However, we do believe that our rabbis can ask God, with integrity, to bless the marriage of a mixed-faith couple, their future and their commitment to a Jewish life together.
Liberal Judaism has always welcomed mixed-faith households, in particular by being the only synagogue body in the UK to recognize the Jewish status of children of patrilineal descent. We have categories of membership for non-Jewish partners and "friends," and they often play an important role within our synagogue communities and movement. The act of prayer for mixed-faith marriages is a logical extension to our policy of inclusion--to fully embrace mixed-faith households into our synagogues.