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
There are many stories about rabbis who refuse to solemnize interfaith marriages and the reasons they give for not doing so. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are not permitted by their respective movements to even consider performing such weddings. Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis often refuse, citing tradition or the dangers of assimilation. Their reasons are honorable and, probably more often than not, their refusals are delivered in a humane manner.
Nevertheless, nobody likes the feeling of being turned down, and the process of trying to find an officiant who will say yes must often seem mysterious and unnerving.
I am a Reform rabbi who does perform interfaith weddings in many circumstances. Without dwelling on the times I have said no--or perhaps should have--I would like to explain why I often say yes. More important, I wish to convey to the reader how I come by the information that makes it possible for me to make the decision to happily perform the wedding of a Jewish and a non-Jewish person. Since my reasons for performing many interfaith marriages are typical for rabbis who say yes, understanding them should make it easier for a couple to understand the decision they may be asking a potential officiant to make.
First, it is important to understand that a rabbi is not a justice of the peace or other secular marriage officiant. We do not perform weddings for their own sake. Instead, we must keep in mind what those marriages mean in the context of the Jewish community at large, and of Jewish history and tradition. Even when I say yes to a wedding request, I always have such broader Jewish questions in mind. However much I may personally like two people sitting before me, it is my responsibility to imagine how they as a new family (even if only a family of two) might affect the meaning of Jewishness itself.
That said, there is a circumstance in which I feel that the union of a Jew and a non-Jew will have a positive effect in the Jewish community. At the risk of oversimplifying, I can summarize this situation in one phrase: the non-Jew as a "fellow traveler." Permit me to explain through a bit of autobiography.
When I started out as a rabbi in a small congregation, I was one of those officiants who always refused to perform interfaith weddings. However, about a third of the married couples in my temple were interfaith couples, and I could not help but observe that many of them were very active in temple events. Sometimes, in fact, it was the non-Jewish member who was the mover and shaker in the family regarding attending services, Jewish education for the children and similar matters. Every Yom Kippur during the memorial service, it was the non-Jewish mother of an interfaith family who was the one to burst into tears. As often as not, it seemed to me that it was the non-Jewish member of an interfaith couple who was more knowledgeable about Judaism. Most often, the non-Jewish member of an interfaith couple was not quite so visible, but he or she was there as a quiet supportive presence.
My experiences since that time have only confirmed these observations, and no doubt many readers share them. What, I wondered, would explain why a non-Jewish person would feel comfortable in a Jewish family and community, possibly wish to participate in Jewish services and events, and yet not wish to become officially Jewish him- or herself? What was going on inside the mind and heart of a "fellow traveler" among Jews?
The answers varied somewhat, but followed a basic pattern. The fellow traveler does not feel a strong tie with his or her faith of origin and feels no great personal need to sign on with any faith. Nevertheless, he or she enjoys Judaism and, more important, his or her spouse's enjoyment. This individual feels that being raised in a faith tradition is good for children and that Judaism, with its emphasis on family, fits the bill nicely. In sum, the fellow traveler is happy and relaxed to have an informal personal relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community, but for whatever reason does not feel motivated to take the further step of becoming a Jew.
Take the case of Rosalinda and Ray. Rosalinda is a feisty Jewish woman who, though she does not formally affiliate with a given temple, celebrates the major holidays and is very clear about her strong Jewish identity. Ray is an affable Englishman from a nominally Anglican but very non-religious family. As he will cheerfully explain to anyone who wants to listen, he personally does not care more about religion than a good ale, but very much respects the fact that his partner does. I married them years ago and, though they have no children, they are what I would have to describe as a contented Jewish family. Since they are personal friends I see them around my seder table every Passover, and the look of enjoyment on Ray's face as he watches his wife sing the Hallel only confirms for me how very right I was to perform their wedding.
Then there are Carole and Paul, she the Jew and he the fellow traveler. When they were young, this pair rejected the idea of formal marriage and went through many successful years of co-habitation and raising children together. It was long clear that Paul did not care about his faith of origin, but supported his wife in hers and her membership in a temple. They at last decided to solemnize their marriage in a Jewish ceremony and asked me to do it. It was not hard for me to say yes. But not long after that, Paul decided to convert after all. Apparently, making his partnership official caused him to want to make his religious alliance official as well.
Toward the end of this coming summer I expect to marry Lindsey and Jeff, then Mark and Jamie. Jeff is the non-Jewish supporter of Lindsey's Jewish affiliation. Jamie, a doctoral student, has extensive intellectual knowledge of Judaism but prefers to support her future husband's Jewish identity rather than take on that identity herself.
This leads me to the question of how I usually discover whether or not a non-Jewish wedding partner is a fellow traveler. These days I am a "freelance," rather than a congregational, rabbi. The couples that come to me, such as the two I just mentioned, consist of people I did not know before. How, then, can I be so sure that such individuals as Jeff and Jamie are fellow travelers? How do I know, for instance, they are not only requesting a Jewish wedding to placate their future spouse's Jewish parents?
The short answer is that I cannot be sure, any more than I can be certain that the marriages of these young people will last throughout their lifetimes. But I can take an educated guess about any "mixed" couple that comes before me, and I do so first and foremost by speaking to both of them. I never say yes to a wedding request without an interview. In a face-to-face interaction with a couple I can usually sense, though tone as well as specific words, when the non-Jewish partner is not comfortable with the idea of founding a Jewish home. I always ask this partner the obvious question: Do you feel attached to the faith in which you grew up? I follow up this question with more specific ones such as: How would you feel if your child is not baptized? What might it be like for you to have a home in which Jewish, not Christian, holidays are observed? How does your family feel about your marrying a Jewish person, and if the feelings are negative, does this have a large impact upon you (I offer the question in reverse to the Jewish partner)?
Can people lie? Certainly. But they are usually honest regarding such an intensely personal issue as their own wedding. Even when they are not forthcoming, it is not hard for me to sense discomfort and evasiveness. If that unease seems very significant, I feel that it is my responsibility to say no. It is my task, I always explain, to avoid creating discord. It is also my job to make sure that a given Jewish wedding represents a happy and appropriate Jewish act.
By the way, it is worth mentioning that there is one case in which, sight unseen, I will always say no. This is the case of a couple that requests that I co-officiate alongside a priest or minister. This is because I cannot imagine a clearer indication that the non-Jewish partner is not a fellow traveler than that person's desire for an officiant of his or her faith of origin on this important day. If the wedding itself is split in two, then won't the home be, as well?
So, you're looking for a rabbi to do your wedding? One of you is not Jewish? If the non-Jewish one of you is a fellow traveler with the Jewish community, I, for one, would say yes to you. Many of my colleagues also would. Even if you have already received a no or two, do not give up. There is a rabbi out there for you, ready to guide you as you make your vows under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy).