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Why Do You Do This?: A Rabbi's Experience with Interfaith Marriage

It usually starts with a phone call. The voice on the line is very tentative, afraid of being rebuffed or giving offense: "Somebody gave me your name and....umm....do you officiate at interfaith marriages?"

My reply--"Sometimes. Can you tell me a little about your situation?"--elicits a sigh of relief, followed by a torrent of information, feelings and concerns. Once we've worked through the preliminaries on the phone--the rabbi will be the only officiant, I don't do weddings on Shabbat, and yes, that includes Saturday at 7:30 in June, the date and place are viable for me--we schedule an appointment so that I can meet face-to-face with both partners and talk.

We meet and have an excellent conversation. After an hour or so of careful questions and answers, and if it becomes clear to me that this is a relationship that will support a Jewish future, one I can say a blessing over, I will agree to do the wedding. Just as we're finishing up, that anxious tone reappears in one of their voices: "Do you mind if I ask you one more question?"

"Not at all."

"We've been turned down by a dozen rabbis all over the state. How come you're willing to do interfaith marriages and they're not?"

It's a fair question, one I've been asked repeatedly over twenty-eight years as a rabbi. Why do I officiate when so many of my colleagues do not? The answer comes in two parts. The first question is: Can I officiate at such a marriage? Only if that question is answered in the positive, does the second question arise: Should I?

Whether a rabbi feels that he or she can officiate has to do with halakha (traditional Jewish law) and the rabbi's relationship to it. Halakha simply does not recognize the possibility of marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew; there is no such category in Jewish law. You could line up seventy rabbis, perform all the required actions, and pronounce all the required words, and it would still not be a marriage, within the rules of this system. The couple are simply not eligible to marry each other.

Obviously, if one accepts the halakhic definitions, the conversation stops right there. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, who hold halakha to be binding, can't officiate. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have a more liberal approach to Jewish law, but that does not automatically mean that they believe they can officiate either. Some would say that a rabbi's authority to officiate at a marriage assumes a Jewish marriage and, following the traditional definition, a Jewish marriage requires two Jews. If so, again, the conversation is over. Others of us, however, would say that our mandate as rabbis in the contemporary world involves serving the needs of Jews and Jewish life in some ways that the tradition never envisaged. If so, then officiation at a marriage where only one partner is a Jew can become possible.

But even if one can, should one officiate? I believe--and this language will drive some of my more traditional colleagues crazy--that it is a mitzvah, a religiously mandated act, to do so under the proper circumstances. I base this position on several premises. The first is that a deeply rooted, mutually nurturing love relationship is a gift of God, deserving of acknowledgment and blessing. The second is that all marriages are mixed marriages.

Any two human beings who pair up will have some areas in which they are a perfect fit and others where, having grown up in different circumstances--whether economic, political, cultural, interpersonal, geographical or religious--their assumptions and internal maps will differ in ways that challenge them to find common approaches with which both partners can live. Any viable relationship must look these differences in the face and figure out how to deal constructively with them. I see this as a major agenda in premarital counseling. Religion, you will have noted, is simply one of these areas, and one which, like the others, can usually be addressed in ways that will strengthen the relationship. When a couple approaches a rabbi to officiate at their marriage, they are already making a statement about where they think viable common ground can be found. (I exclude here the "we don't care, and it will keep my mother from having a heart attack" argument, which is not very frequent and which does not, in my view, justify rabbinic officiation.)

Very often in my experience, non-Jewish partners who, for any of a number of very good reasons, do not see themselves converting to Judaism, at least in the foreseeable future, can be very comfortable about supporting the Jewish partner's religious identity, living in a home that identifies with a welcoming Jewish community and bringing up Jewish children. Such a couple, in my opinion, represents a positive contribution to the Jewish future, and I am glad to assist them with a ceremony which carries the resonances of Jewish tradition while making those changes in wording which permit it to reflect the couple's situation with integrity.

Thus, I would not use the traditional formula "according to the laws of Moses and Israel" for such a couple, as traditional Jewish law does not accord with this ceremony. On the other hand, to affirm, as I do, that the commitment is "according to Divine and human law" spreads a more universal and, I believe, accurate umbrella over the proceedings. Nearly three decades of experience have taught me to rejoice in the opportunity to offer blessings over such a relationship and the future it promises.

Thoughts:

  • The rabbi's mandate in the contemporary world may involve actions the tradition never envisaged.
  • A mutually nurturing love relationship is a gift of God.
  • All marriages are mixed marriages.
  • Some such couples represent a positive contribution to the Jewish future.
Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Neil Kominsky

Neil Kominsky serves Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Lowell, Mass., and is Jewish Chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He has chosen to officiate at mixed marriages under specific circumstances throughout his thirty-one years in the rabbinate.

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