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
No one enters the rabbinate to say "no." We become rabbis because we want to say yes to the people who come to us. We become rabbis because we all deeply desire to open doors for people to say yes to Judaism and to the Jewish people.
Each of us on our own can open only so many doors. Rabbis all have different gifts and contributions to make. One of the ways that I open doors to Jewish living is by officiating at the weddings of interfaith couples.
I'm moved by the Torah's two positive examples of such interfaith couples. When Joseph is appointed prime minister of Egypt, he marries Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. (Genesis 41:45) When Joseph brings their two sons to his father Jacob to be blessed, Jacob says, "By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20) The children of an interfaith marriage are recognized by Jacob as the source of blessings to the Jewish people, a recognition we continue to this day when we bless our children at the beginning of Shabbat.
In Midian, Moses marries Tzipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. (Exodus 2:21) During their journey back to Egypt, God seeks to kill Moses until Tzipporah circumcises their son Gershom. (Exodus 4:24-26) A non-Jewish intermarried woman saves the life of her Jewish husband by performing the mitzvah of circumcision and ultimately preserves the possibility of the Exodus.
Here are some of the reasons for my embracing this work:
1. I'm offering an affirming rabbinic response to couples seeking a way to engage Jewishly at a very vulnerable time in their lives. Frequently the couples with whom I work have already been told by rabbis that they won't officiate at their wedding. The couples experience the boundary these rabbis are setting as a personal rejection.
2. I'm providing couples a powerful entry point into Jewish life. Our work together helps them begin their married life with a public and shared Jewish experience. This experience empowers the couple to take full pride in their Jewish identities and connections, and sets the stage for their enthusiastic participation in Jewish life.
3. I work with the couple as a counselor and teacher. Together we address the specific issues they will face as an interfaith couple and explore some of the riches of Jewish spiritual practice. The couple gets to engage directly with Jewish tradition to co-create their ceremony with me. No two weddings that I perform are exactly the same, but all partake deeply of Jewish values, teachings and practices. In case after case couples with whom I work experience Judaism as being of them, responding to who they are and wish to become.
4. After attending the wedding, guests leave the ceremony with a positive personal awareness of Judaism. Non-Jews have an experience of a Judaism that is accessible and inclusive. Jews see our rituals lovingly supported and enthusiastically embraced by non-Jews. People experience Judaism as a generous host and a ground where Jews and non-Jews can connect.
During my years as a rabbi, I have officiated at the weddings of couples where both members are Jewish as well as at the weddings of interfaith couples. I cannot know at the outset which of those couples will stay together, which will evolve into strong and resilient Jewish families, and which of them will raise children who are Jewishly identified.
But what I count on is Judaism's legacy as a generous, inclusive, and amazingly flexible spiritual tradition. Knowing this keeps me well planted at the threshold of the very door I'm holding open for a wedding couple. I can't imagine a more privileged and exciting place for a rabbi to stand.