Intermarriage is perceived by many to be a grave threat to the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. I prefer to view it as an opportunity: an opportunity to bring a couple from different religious backgrounds into the Jewish community. Indeed, our congregations are fortunate to have many such couples as active participants and dedicated members.
I have, throughout the almost twenty-four years of my rabbinate, been willing to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies if the couple is committed to having a Jewish home and, if they are planning on having children, on raising them as Jews. These are the primary requirements for a couple to meet if I am to officiate. I also strongly encourage the couple to take an Introduction to Judaism class either before or after the wedding and to become actively involved in a synagogue.
Reaching out to such couples at this important time in their lives can be crucial for their affiliation with the Jewish community. Indeed, we should be thrilled that these couples are coming to us rather than going to a minister or priest, or choosing a non-religious ceremony. I am pleased that I am able to help them, not only by officiating at their wedding, but by discussing some of the challenges that they will face as an intermarried couple.
Of course, I am not able to officiate for all couples. Some are looking for a rabbi to co-officiate with a minister or a priest. Some are planning on having two ceremonies, one Jewish, the other (usually) Christian. Some couples want a rabbi to officiate to please the Jewish parents. While honoring one's parents is a mitzvah (commandment), unless the couple themselves wants a rabbi to officiate I am not willing to participate.
And sometimes the couple has already scheduled the ceremony for Shabbat (the Sabbath), unaware that Jewish tradition does not allow weddings on Shabbat. It may seem strange to some that a rabbi who is willing to flout tradition to perform an interfaith marriage will not do so on Shabbat. A couple making a commitment to Judaism should understand the importance of Shabbat. In addition, I am not willing to give up my time on Shabbat.
Often, couples have avoided addressing the issues of the religious practice of their home and of their children. I try to help them understand the importance of dealing with these critical issues and encourage them to ask the necessary questions and explore the answers. Often this will lead to my performing the ceremony, but even when it does not, the couple is usually grateful to have addressed these issues.
When I officiate at an interfaith marriage, I use a modified version of the Jewish wedding ceremony. For example, rather than the traditional words that are said in conjunction with the giving and receiving of the rings, I have the couple say to each other, "As I place this ring upon your hand, may our separate lives become one, as we commit our everlasting love to each other." This differs from the traditional "Behold you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel," which I don't feel it is appropriate to say unless both bride and groom are Jewish.
If a couple is interested in having a ketubah, a Jewish wedding document, I suggest that they either find one that was written for interfaith marriages or create their own. As I do at every wedding ceremony, I translate all of the Hebrew prayers and texts and incorporate an explanation of the Jewish rituals and traditions into the ceremony.
In my personal remarks to the couple, I often refer to the fact that they are coming from different religious backgrounds and acknowledge the challenge that this presents, while pointing out how the wedding ceremony reflects the decision they have made to have a Jewish home.
I am not so naïve as to believe that my decision to officiate at interfaith marriages will make a significant difference in the future of the Jewish people. But I do know that it has played an important role in welcoming many couples into the Jewish community.
It has been especially gratifying to officiate at a brit milah (covenant of circumcision), naming ceremony, or Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a child of a couple who I have married, and to see many of their children become active in Jewish youth groups.
These celebrations affirm that intermarriage can be a great opportunity if we sensitively reach out to these couples and welcome them into our communities.