Rabbi Steven Foster is senior rabbi at Congregation Emanuel in Denver, Colo.
It's Not about You, It's About Me: Why I Don't Perform Interfaith Weddings
No issue for modern American rabbis has been more perplexing than the one that deals with the performance of interfaith weddings. I refer to them as "interfaith weddings" and not "interfaith marriages" because all of the rabbis I know that serve congregations spend an enormous amount of time working with interfaith couples, even if they do not perform interfaith weddings. And so the purpose of this article is to share why it is that I, as a congregational rabbi, do not perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews, even though I, too, spend an enormous amount of time working with those couples and have found a great deal of satisfaction in that process.
First, and very important to me, is that I try never to speak with couples over the phone about whether or not marriages will be performed by me. It is one of those difficult decisions, and yet I do not want couples that have a hope and an expectation that I will perform a marriage for them to be told that I cannot do so through a cold and impersonal phone call. When I meet with couples I tell them the following.
It seems to me that there are three reasons that people come to a rabbi to get married. First, is to have legal sanction for their marriage; second, to have a religious ceremony; and third, to have a Jewish ceremony.
When it comes to legal sanction, our signatures certainly provide that for marriages in most states. While we pride ourselves in America about separation issues, we have collapsed religion and state when it comes to this very important life-cycle event. People come to rabbis because they want some kind of a religious ceremony. Otherwise, I believe that they would ask a judge or justice of the peace to perform their ceremony for them. Lastly, they ask for a Jewish ceremony because they realize that rabbis do not do ceremonies that are not Jewish by definition.
And so when the couple and I talk about the Jewish ceremony I point out that the only required element is that a groom shall recite to his bride, "With this ring you are consecrated unto me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel." I inform them that the laws of Moses and Israel refer to the entirety of Jewish legal expressions found in the Torah, in the Talmud and in the Codes. I also point out that nowhere in Jewish law is it permissible "Jewishly" to have an interwedding take place. I say that the issue is not about them, it is about me--that I feel that it is not possible for me as a rabbi to perform a marriage that is so contrary to Jewish law and Jewish tradition.
Many of those couples will say to me, "Rabbi, we understand that you cannot use that expression because of the laws of Moses and Israel, and so we ask you to still marry us but leave that expression out." I try to explain to them that as a rabbi I find it impossible to perform a marriage ceremony that does not include, "Harai ot" because it then is no longer a Jewish wedding ceremony. It becomes a Catch-22 for me.
While most couples do understand the dilemma that faces a rabbi who is trying on the one hand to be sensitive to couples, and on the other hand to Jewish tradition, they generally ask me how best to deal with the situation given the fact that I will not perform the wedding for them. I tell them that they certainly are free to seek out a rabbi who does perform marriages between Jews and gentiles, but I ask them to keep in mind that each time a rabbi says he will perform such a marriage, he generally has some conditions that are subjective by nature that may preclude his participation. For example, some rabbis will only perform interweddings if the Jewish partner is a member of his or her synagogue; others will only perform these weddings in the area, perhaps within an hour's drive. Still others will perform interweddings with Christian clergy if no references are made to any religion other than Judaism. There are many reasons, and combinations of reasons, why some rabbis will do interweddings but only under specified conditions.
It is always a difficult and painful experience for couples as well as rabbis. After all, many of us spend many, many years cultivating relationships with families and it is not that we are insensitive to their needs; it is simply a fact that for many of us, Jewish law in regard to wedding practices trumps anyone's desire to have a rabbi marry them. I will, however, offer any couple the opportunity to have a blessing after the wedding as long as that wedding is performed by a judge and not a clergy from a different tradition. When I do this, I ask that there be a separation in time between the blessing and the wedding ceremony--for example having a cocktail hour inbetween the wedding and the blessing. Then, perhaps before the meal and with a motzi, I share with the couple the fact that from a Jewish perspective they are married and indeed are entitled to have God's blessing upon their union.
Although some members have left the temple when I said no, the number is fewer than might have been expected.