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"Rabbi," the familiar voice at the other end of the line says, "my daughter is getting married. Her fiancé isn't Jewish. Will you still officiate at the ceremony?"
A young couple enters the rabbi's study to discuss their upcoming marriage. "It is very important to my parents," says the groom, "that I be married by a rabbi under a chuppah (marital canopy). Is that possible?"
Another young bride is beside herself as she wipes her tears. "We want a small, simple wedding, but my parents insist on inviting all their friends," she laments. "What should we do?"
Each of these not so uncommon scenarios raises the questions: Whose wedding is it anyway? Who has the right and responsibility to make the important decisions about the wedding? How can a bride and groom create the ceremony of their dreams while respecting the wishes of a parent or parents who may be paying for all or part of the celebration?
While such questions face most perspective brides and grooms, the emotions surrounding intermarriage often make such issues particularly sensitive for a couple from different religious backgrounds. Some parents are outspoken about their expectations for the ceremony and reception, as if it were as much their ceremony as their son's or daughter's. Even well-meaning and otherwise supportive parents sometimes make unreasonable demands and show deep resentment when their expectations are not met. How can a couple fulfill the biblical commandment to honor one's father and mother, while at the same time make decisions that may potentially undermine the relationship between the couple and one or both parents?
A bride and groom should look at the wedding as their ceremony, the opportunity to express to each other and to their friends and family what love and marriage means to them. Religiously, it should be the time that a couple begins to affirm the role religion plays in their lives. For a couple who share one faith, it is an opportunity to utilize the marriage rituals of that tradition to create a moving, spiritual experience for the couple and wedding guests.
For a couple of different religious backgrounds, the wedding provides the opportunity to explore each other's heritage and make crucial decisions about the practice of religion in their lives. If a couple has decided to embrace one religion in their home, than the wedding ceremony should reflect this decision. If a couple has decided that each partner will observe his or her religious traditions in the home, then it is appropriate that the ceremony reflect this reality. In any case, it should be the joint decisions of the couple that determine the type of ceremony and who will be asked to officiate.*
It is helpful if the couple can convey their decisions sensitively, but clearly, to their parents, explaining their basis, and assuring the parents that their choices are not meant as a rejection of the parents or their religious traditions. The couple should also take the responsibility to contact the appropriate clergy or officiant to determine his or her willingness and availability to perform the ceremony.
While determining the type of ceremony they want and choosing an officiant may be the most important decisions with regard to the wedding, they are likely not to be the only difficult ones. Who will be invited to the reception, the color of bridesmaids' dresses, and who will walk the bride down the aisle are just a few areas for potential conflict. By affirming, at the beginning of the process, that the ultimate decisions about the wedding will be made by the bride and groom, they send a clear message to everyone that it is their wedding.
This approach need not be painful or difficult. It is possible to convey this information clearly, yet lovingly. And while there is no guarantee that it will be accepted cheerfully, it should be accepted respectfully. Couples who are willing to risk initial resistance, and sometimes continued animosity, are often rewarded with a relationship with parents characterized by understanding and acceptance.
But the risks are real, and sometimes significant. Parents who are paying for all or part of the wedding may make their financial support contingent upon being able to dictate certain aspects of the ceremony or reception. In such instances, the bride and groom must decide whether asserting their right to make decisions about the wedding is worth risking this financial support and, more importantly, a positive long-term relationship with one's parents. Being flexible and willing to compromise on details of secondary importance, may help ease hurt feelings over other disagreements.
The bride and groom have the responsibility to clearly and sensitively communicate their decisions about the wedding, ask for their parents' input where appropriate, and listen to their parents' ideas and feelings. Parents have the responsibility to listen to and accept their children's decisions about the wedding (even when they may not agree with them), offer advice and suggestions when asked to do so, and share their thoughts and feelings with love and sensitivity. Every bride and groom should be blessed with parents who offer financial, practical, and emotional support without any strings attached. But realistically most parents have preferences and expectations about their child's wedding. Being able to openly communicate with one another and remain supportive even when one may not agree is important to maintaining a loving relationship.
*Note: If an interfaith couple chooses to have a rabbi marry them, it is important that they know in advance what they may encounter. Many rabbis will not officiate an interfaith marriage under any circumstances. (This is true of all Orthodox and Conservative rabbis and a majority of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.) But even rabbis who will not officiate may refer you to rabbis who do officiate or they may counsel you with regard to planning you wedding.
Rabbis who do officiate interfaith ceremonies will usually have certain requirements such as that the couple agrees to create a Jewish home; agrees to raise children in the Jewish religion; takes an Introduction to Judaism class; undergoes pre-marital counseling (most rabbis require this of all couples they marry); and/or agrees to join a synagogue.
Most rabbis will want to meet with both of you in person before agreeing to officiate. This meeting provides you with the opportunity to get to know the rabbi and ask him or her questions about the ceremony. Some rabbis use the Jewish ceremony with a few changes for interfaith couples, while others use a ceremony especially designed for interfaith couples. Some rabbis are willing to work with you to design your own ceremony.
Finally, keep in mind that most rabbis will not officiate on Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) or Jewish holidays and most will not co-officiate with other clergy. The Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling keeps a list of rabbis who do officiate in intermarriages. Their Web site is www.rcrconline.org.
If you are a member of a congregation, then there is normally no charge for the services of a rabbi to officiate at your wedding. Most rabbis who officiate for non-members (or non-Congregational rabbis who officiate weddings) will have a set honorarium for their services. When making initial contact, it is appropriate to ask about this fee. It is usually payable at the time of the ceremony.