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Reflections on Marrying Interfaith Couples

How vividly I recall the first time I was asked to officiate at an interfaith wedding. A young man from New Jersey who was to be married in Maine called to inquire whether I might consider officiating at his wedding. "My fiance is Chinese, and we cannot find a rabbi to perform the ceremony. I'm not a religious Jew, but I had a Bar Mitzvah and I do celebrate the Jewish holidays. We have discussed the issue at great length, and both of us agree that we would like our wedding to include several of the Jewish traditions."

At that moment I recognized the need to come to terms with my own beliefs on this very important issue. Where did I stand? Should I say no on the basis of theological underpinnings and on the supposition that such marriages dilute the Jewish community? Indeed, I spent many sleepless nights pondering this dilemma before reconciling my conflicting feelings, wondering whether I should appease my colleagues who would disapprove if I performed an interfaith wedding or subject myself to their harsh criticism? But neither of these issues was of primary concern to me. Rather, what was foremost in my mind, and still is, was to remain true to my convictions and to act in accordance with what I believe is best for the Jewish people.

With the high number of interfaith marriages in our society today, it is important that we not alienate those intermarrying. In many situations, Jewish partners seeking my assistance express feelings of rejection over not having been able to find a rabbi to officiate at their ceremony. It is my personal belief that interfaith marriages can provide new insights and inject new strength into the Jewish community. Often the Jewish partner in an interfaith couple tells me, "My partner has helped me to become more involved in my Judaism and caused me to think about the traditions in a new and more positive fashion."

Before agreeing to officiate as a rabbi in an interfaith marriage, I do, however, set certain conditions. While treating each couple's situation as unique, I do express my wish that some form of Jewish practice will take place within the home. While conversion is not a prerequisite, I do candidly share my wishes that such a consideration be given serious thought for the future. I will not officiate if the ceremony includes references to the name of Christ.

With my background in social work, I find couples greatly appreciate the time we spend together. We often explore ways interfaith families may choose to worship. I help them sort out the issues involved in choosing a single faith for the family unit. We sometimes ponder how to handle the religious observance of life-cycle events, especially death. Because I view the entire experience as a lifetime journey, I encourage couples to keep in touch with me after their wedding day. Although certainly not a requirement, I also have had in-depth conversations with other members of the couple's families.

Size and location of the weddings at which I officiate have been most diverse, ranging from small intimate ceremonies in my home with only members of the immediate family present, to those with two hundred and fifty guests at hotels, country inns, mansions, and museum sites. Whenever I officiate at an interfaith wedding, I try to convey a message of universal harmony and balance. Within the ceremony, I usually include the Jewish traditions of the chuppah or wedding canopy, the sanctification of the wine and symbolic drinking from the same cup, and the breaking of the glass. The traditional seven blessings and wedding vows may also be incorporated in original or modified form. In accordance with Christian custom, I am comfortable including, if requested, a unity candle and special prayer for a world filled with love, compassion, and moral values. Couples are welcome to add original passages and to write their own vows. At all weddings, I make certain to explain all that I do so that everyone present feels part of the occasion.

What is far more important in my mind than the physical characteristics of the wedding site is the message I impart. While I am concerned about the nature of the couple's religious and cultural differences, I am equally concerned about how they work them out. I have helped partners respond to each other with sensitivity and understanding as they deal with such issues as the underlying tensions of child-rearing choices and extended family relationships in the face of pressures from all directions.

My experience has taught me that in many instances the non-Jewish member of the couple is receptive to having a rabbi officiate at the ceremony. This often ignites a spark of curiosity that may lead to conversion at a later date. The conversion, however, usually results from an interest in Judaism that is not something totally new, but rather the result of an evolutionary process. I do not mean to suggest, however, that the non-Jewish partner always pursues the teachings of Judaism in great depth.

An issue of great concern raised in my conversations with interfaith couples is the anticipation of children. While I certainly do not hide my preference that they be raised as Jews, I find that many want their offspring to be exposed to both parents' religions. This can be often achieved through holiday celebrations with extended family while the couple still chooses one religious tradition for their children to be raised in. Ethnic foods and physical symbols take on heightened significance in these situations.

In following several couples after their marriage, I have learned that many join with other interfaith couples for support and to discuss dilemmas that arise when two people come from different traditions. Seeking a sense of community, the group may celebrate holidays and religious observances together. Furthermore, they often brainstorm about creative activities to do both as individual families and as a group. Examples range from cooking classes and art projects to field trips and speakers. It is not unusual for them to attend an occasional workshop or service together as a way of gaining heightened understanding of each other's worship rituals.

What is clearly apparent to me from experiences counseling interfaith couples and officiating at their marriages is the need for openness and understanding. If two partners are in love and mindful of each other's traditions, their life together can succeed. It is critical that the Jewish community welcome people of different faiths. If we do, we may find that as a people our strength and vibrancy will intensify.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. 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 Leslie Keiter Tannenwald

Rabbi Leslie Keiter Tannenwald, a resident of Newton, Mass., is the rabbi at Congregation Agudat Achim in Medway. A licensed social worker and certified pastoral counselor, she is the founder and president of Jewish Life Services, an organization that provides officiants for all life-cycle events. She is a Justice of the Peace of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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