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Naming the Stranger: A Defining Interfaith Moment

January 30, 2013

Working with couples on their weddings for the past 20 years, I have had the privilege to enter their hearts at a very special time when they are filled with love and hope for the future. My willingness and intention to officiate at interfaith weddings has always been to become a "loving portal" of connection to Judaism. I believe that a friendly rabbi goes a long way to serve the "yet to be affiliated" interfaith family.

I have met many different kinds of couples over the years. Those with one strongly-identified Jew, or two "we're not so religious" types, or perhaps the Jewish partner is the ambivalent one and the other partner has strong faith in a spiritual force. It has been fascinating to witness what becomes important and meaningful as the wedding planning unfolds. When I explain the Jewish wedding customs and offer contemporary meanings for them, it is often the partner who isn't Jewish who insists on breaking the glass or wearing a kippah!

Example of a bilingual ketubah (Hebrew and English) from eytonz on flickr.

One of my favorite conversations to have during in the planning is in regard to the ketubah, the wedding document. To me this is the defining moment of what direction a couple's lives will take, and can determine whether they will raise a Jewish family. The ketubah has come a long way; earliest versions guaranteed that the groom would provide food, clothing, and sex to his wife, and in exchange she became the property of her husband. The then black and white printed ketubah was put away somewhere in a drawer — it wasn't seen as anything more than a contract. Although the traditional ketubah, using this guaranteed exchange and printed out simply, is still used in Orthodox circles, most of my interfaith couples select a gorgeous flowery text in Hebrew and English, beautifully calligraphic, and embellished with other design features to hang on their wall.

The ketubah is not generic: both partners' names are included in the text. While most Jews are given a Hebrew name at or shortly after their birth, interfaith marriages provide a challenge. How do we fill out this ketubah using Hebrew names when one partner does not have a Hebrew name?

I have always found it odd to transliterate "Chris" or "Christine" in Hebrew for a ketubah. I have used this moment in discussion with my couples to raise the issue of Ger Toshav (Hebrew for "resident stranger"). I explain that there were two kinds of converts in ancient Israel: the righteous convert (ger tzedek) and the one who dwells among us (ger toshav). I explain, "It's like having your 'green card' with the Jewish people." The Ger Toshav agrees to raise their children with Jewish customs, to be an ally of the Jewish people. To be a Ger Toshav can also but not always begin a journey towards conversion.

One couple, an ambivalent Israeli bride and a lapsed Catholic groom, grappled with what to do with the future children. "A little of both," they agreed. However when we got to the moment of deciding what Chris should be called in Hebrew in the ketubah, he immediately said, "'Shlomo' — I've always loved that name." The bride was shocked; he had never said that before. At that moment I knew that taking a Hebrew name would change his destiny forever.

Jews believe that names carry power. We don't even mention the name of our God it is so powerful. (Instead, the names used in prayer are nicknames.) We have a tradition of changing a sick child's name to Chayim (life) or Alter (old) to fool the angel of death. So when Chris became Shlomo, I knew that this moment would define him and his spiritual journey for years to come — even if his bride was ambivalent about her tradition.

Using the category of Ger Toshav also clarifies a murky status. I had a counseling session with an interfaith couple who were stuck on how to raise the children. The groom, grandson of Holocaust survivors, was adamant that his children be Jewish. The young Catholic bride burst into tears saying, "Give me the rationale for why I should put aside my faith to raise these children Jewish. I'm not Jewish!" I replied, "Perhaps your own efforts to raise these children Jewishly will go a long way on some cosmic level toward the healing of the Christian history towards the Jews." "But I won't be Jewish or Catholic, I'll be nothing," she countered. My response was to tell her that as a Ger Toshav, you align yourself with the mixed multitudes who left Israel creating the paradigm of freedom. The Jewish people have a deep and rich history; by your willingness you help pass on ancient wisdom and meaning you further this history. This satisfied her angst and she agreed to bring the children up Jewish. She's now in search of her Hebrew name for the ketubah.

I use the ketubah moment to begin the discussion of children, allegiance and affiliation with the Jewish people, taking new names, and spiritual journeys. It opens many avenues to discussion and is clearly a defining moment of transformation.

For more information about ger toshav, check out the following resources:

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.
Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. 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.
Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael is a rabbi in private practice in the Philadelphia area. She has a specialty in interfaith weddings and welcomes couples to her home on Shabbat. In addition, Rabbi Rayzel is an award winning singer/songwriter. You can visit her at Shechinah.com.

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