Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Some say God is love. Even after years of rabbinical study I still can't give such a clear-cut definition of the Divine Being, but I do know God loves love. Love is God's major gift to us. We are blessed when we are so much in love that we wish to spend the rest of our lives together.
As a rabbi I feel blessed when I am invited by a couple to share in the confirmation of their love, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Generally when a Jew and gentile fall in love, they have a hard time finding a rabbi willing to participate in their wedding. While there can be many good reasons for a rabbi not to officiate at interfaith weddings (which is not for me to dispute), to me such a position doesn't encourage future choices in favor of Judaism by the couple. In my nine years as a rabbi no couple has ever asked my point of view on interfaith marriage--rather they ask for my help. My choice, therefore, lies in whether or not I help them at a pivotal moment in their lives.
I have come to realize that the non-Jewish partner (and his or her family) is as entitled to having a member of the clergy they feel comfortable with as is the Jewish partner. So, I will co-officiate at a service that, while true to both traditions, does not have elements that could be perceived as offensive by either party. What is sacrificed in religious "integrity" by crafting a non-denominational service is little compared with the harmony that is created at this defining moment of the couple's life.
Rather than talk about issues that divide the couple, such as belief in Jesus, I and the other officiant talk about God and love. At the same time, elements and rituals from both traditions are a wonderful addition to any wedding, so we may use the traditional Jewish seven blessings, breaking of the glass, and chuppah (wedding canopy), the Christian unity candle, biblical readings, exchange of vows and rings, etc. When selecting readings from the Bible, I ask the couple to use texts from the New Testament that are appropriate and neutral, such as Paul's letter to the Corinthians that talks about love, rather than sections that refer to Jesus. A very nice touch I like to add is doing the priestly benediction at the end of the ceremony jointly with the other officiant. We recite it line by line, I in Hebrew and the other officiant in English. That is a positive sign of unity at the end of the ceremony.
Although the ceremony itself is non-denominational when I co-officiate, I do stress a very important Jewish concept known as shalom bayit, peace in the home. The Jewish emphasis on family life is a topic on which I tend to counsel couples in great length, and we discuss their life together and specially issues of raising children in an interfaith family. I don't believe that interfaith couples have more problems than others, it's just that their problems have extra dimensions. I like to remind all couples that the key to marital success is communication. I believe certain issues are better discussed ahead of time, such as children and religious practices in the home. Clearly, as a rabbi I would prefer that the couple will decide to raise their children Jewish. However, that does not mean I wouldn't officiate at a wedding for a couple that is still trying to decide what to do. I am a strong believer that children should be raised with one clearly defined religion, but that does not prevent the parents from exposing their child to the other religion, maybe at the home of the other set of grandparents.
I will co-officiate with any clergy who are as open minded as I am, always focusing on the couple's wants and needs. I believe that as clergy we must be there to support the couple and to show them that religion can have a place in their joint lives, even if they come from different faiths. Couples and their families tend to be very happy with the ceremonies I participate in, mainly because I attempt to make the wedding a reflection of who the couple is and what they want their ceremony to be and convey. I make sure that each wedding is unique, as no two couples are alike. I respect each couple's right to make a choice that works for them, and if they choose to claim a place in the Jewish community, I am delighted to welcome them at the moment they officially establish their future together.
Serving my congregation, The New Reform Temple in Kansas City, is my primary obligation, but I am very grateful to them for being understanding and allowing me to officiate at weddings for non-members in town. When my agenda allows, I also officiate at weddings in other parts of the Midwest, throughout the United States and even abroad. The fact that people are willing to fly a rabbi from far away is to me a testimony of the great value they place on Judaism and the great efforts they are willing to go through in order to have a Jewish element in their lives. How could I not respond positively to such an affirmation of Yiddishkeit (love of Judaism)?