Rabbi Stephen Kahn serves as rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Calif.
For Officiating at Intermarriages: The Voice of Zipporah
Sermon on Yom Kippur Morning 5763, at Congregation Sherith Israel, in San Francisco, California.
The phone rings. It is the voice of the mother of one of our upcoming Bar Mitzvah boys. She tells me that he has been working with Cantor Feldman for four months, on chanting the prayers, Torah and Haftorah. She tells me that now is the time for her son to begin working with me on preparing his Bar Mitzvah message, which she properly refers to as a "d'var Torah."
She remembers the term from the B'nai Mitzvah family class I teach each year to our sixth grade students and parents. She reflects fondly on the class and tells me how much meaning she and her husband were able to derive from the lessons and discussions. We set up a meeting and a few days later she and her son come into my office.
We discuss the Torah portion from a literal perspective. I then ask our student what it means to him, to his family, to the Jewish people, and to the world around him. In the course of the conversation, his mother begins to play an active role in shaping his thoughts. She asks great questions. She relates the text to events and issues in his school life. She draws parallels to his characteristics. In essence she becomes my partner in teaching this child the meaning of Torah.
We finish the session and then I answer her questions. We speak about the aliyot (blessings over the Torah) for the day of the Bar Mitzvah. I ask her whom of her family members will be involved and she simply answers, "Well, my husband's parents, siblings, and cousins will be involved, but my family is not Jewish and I have never converted."
I sit back in my chair (a little embarrassed) and think to myself. Yet again I am confronted with the reality that this woman, who is sharing in the most meaningful way in raising her son to become a Jewish adult, is not Jewish herself. She tells me that she and her husband sit hour upon hour studying with him at home learning a language she had never been exposed to as a child herself. Taking on the commitment of v'shinatam l'vanecha, of teaching our children.
When the day of the Bar Mitzvah arrives and it is time for her to speak to her son, the congregation and I am overwhelmed by the power of her words. She teaches him what it means to be a Jewish person. She tells her son that he now has a responsibility to repair the world. She kvells (expresses her loving pride) and shows her appreciation and love for what he has become as part of the Household of Israel.
The story I have shared does not represent a single story in my seven years in the rabbinate. It is really a composite sketch of many stories and life-cycle events I have experienced with interfaith families. During the course of my career I have been constantly reminded of the very critical role interfaith families play in the ongoing life of our congregation and the Jewish community. During the past several months, I have become increasingly aware of the role of the non-Jewish partner in interfaith marriages.
Perhaps it is because I have become a father twice in the past four years. Or maybe it has been because I have officiated at so many life-cycle events in the past few years. It could be because I am becoming increasingly aware of the importance the Reform movement has placed on reaching out to interfaith families. No matter the reason, it has been through my experiences with the families here in San Francisco that I have decided to change my position on officiating at interfaith marriages.
For seven years I have chosen not to participate in the wedding ceremonies of couples where one partner is not Jewish. I have always felt confident that my position was a personal decision. My decision not to officiate at some weddings was due in large part to the idea that a Jewish rite of passage can only be accessible to a Jewish person.
In rethinking my position, I have looked to the story of Moses and his Midanite wife Zipporah from the Book of Exodus. Zipporah was a non-Hebrew woman--the daughter of Jethro, the Priest of Midian. In a perplexing encounter, it is Zipporah, not Moses who circumcises their second born son, Eleazar. The text states: "At a night encampment on the way (back to Egypt), Adonai encountered Moses and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and circumcised her son...(and then) the angel of God let Moses alone. (Exodus 4:24-26.)
According to the midrash (teaching story), the rabbis suggest that God was angry with Moses because he had not immediately circumcised his son. Therefore, God sought to kill him. The midrash claims that had it not been for Zipporah's dedication to the mitzvah (commandment) of circumcision, Moses would have died and the Jewish people would never have been saved.
On a very deep level this small editorial note on Moses' journey from Midian back to Egypt is filled with a very powerful message. That his non-Hebrew wife fulfills the mitzvah of circumcision is no small matter. After all, it is traditionally a commandment upon the father of a Jewish child. Studying this text has inspired me to make both the emotional and intellectual transition in my life.
This should come as no surprise as we relate our own lives to the story of Zipporah. Non-Jewish parents often look at Judaism through a different prism. They understand the complexities, the discipline, and the efforts involved in raising up a spiritual child in ways that we may not understand. Like Zipporah, they focus on issues concerning rites of passage, faith, and belief. And it is through the committed non-Jewish partner that we hear the voice of Zipporah. They have taken the responsibility of raising up the Household of Israel in ways that ensure a vibrant future for our children and grandchildren.
If many of our children and grandchildren are being raised in positive and energetic Jewish homes by interfaith couples, why shouldn't a Jewish wedding be part of the equation? If these same kids are being raised as committed and positively identified Jews primarily by their non-Jewish parents, why shouldn't they be entitled to a rite of passage that represents the spirit of their convictions? Finally, if interfaith families who are affiliated with Congregation Sherith Israel have been and will continue to be a vital part of our community, why not welcome them with open arms at the outset of their family life?
This decision has not been easy but has been necessary for me. I have been fortunate that Rabbi Weiner has been overwhelmingly supportive of me. He views the decision as a matter of conscience for each individual rabbi. For the past thirty years at Sherith Israel, he has completely left the decision of whether or not to officiate at interfaith marriage up to all of my rabbinic predecessors who have served this congregation under his leadership.
This morning we read words from the Al Cheyt, the public confessional of our sins. In the traditional reading of this confession, we find an interesting line. It reads: Al Chayt She Chatanu Lefanecha, B'yodim u'valo Yodim.For the sin we have committed against You in knowing and yet in not knowing. (With permission of Rabbi Raymond Zwerin.)
I have learned that part of rabbinic leadership means that we must sometimes acknowledge that which we did not allow ourselves to see. There is a great teaching in the Al Cheyt that I have thought about which has inspired my process. At times we feel strongly in our convictions; we know that we should move but we fail to act. Not for fear of the outcome, but because within the transition itself we are opening ourselves to a new direction that may seem permanent. Yet if we look at the course of our life's journey, we will understand that there is only good which can come from our decisions if we follow our hearts. We have the potential of doing great things when we make the best choice for our community and acknowledge that certain changes are inevitable.
I know that interfaith marriage exists in our community. I know that interfaith families raise up positively identified Jewish children. I know that there are many more interfaith couples out there that are looking for a process to engage them and integrate themselves into the Jewish community. Yet in the past seven years, I have not fully understood the impact I might have on these same couples by officiating at their weddings.
While it is a personal choice, there will be four very important requirements for the couples I work with from now on. These requirements are really responsibilities I would like couples to think about before they enter into a covenantal relationship with each other.
* All couples must commit to raising their children in Jewish households, where only Judaism will be practiced. This means that the non-Jewish partner must understand that if they are practicing another faith, I will not be able to officiate their Jewish wedding.
* All couples must commit to study in our community's Introduction to Judaism course and in the "Aleph Bet of Marriage" workshops which Rabbi Weiner has initiated throughout the country. This marriage preparation class will also become a prerequisite requirement for all weddings I perform.
* All couples must either be members of the congregation or the children of members of the congregation. If they are not members they must join the temple before their wedding ceremony.
* Finally, the couples must understand that if I am to perform a Jewish wedding, I cannot co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy.
It is my personal belief that if my action is going to be backed up with concrete evidence of the future creation of a Jewish home, these requirements will need to be fulfilled. While I will not insist that the non-Jewish partner in a marriage take a leap of faith, I must be assured that they are willing to take a leap of commitment.
Yom Kippur is a time of cheshbon hanefesh, of searching our souls. Teshuvah (turning) is the process of looking deep within ourselves in order to internalize the lessons we have learned and the ideas that we can create. Teshuvah requires an open mind so that we can make the changes that we feel are necessary to bring us closer to one another. For me, teshuvah has been an ongoing process, of searching my soul, of understanding what it is that I believe to be a new direction in my rabbinic service. There was a moment when this all came together for me. This past May during our Confirmation ceremony I was deeply touched by the speeches our nineteen confirmands delivered. They were sincere, displayed wisdom and wit, and gave each of us an opportunity to hear their ideas about Judaism.
In several of the speeches, the confirmands spoke of their interfaith parents and families. They talked about how one parent was Jewish and the other was not. They shared the process of how their parents had made the choice to raise them in Jewish homes. And then, in a moment when rabbis and parents kvell, they shared their deep connection with Sherith Israel, with their friends and mostly with Judaism. One student of an interfaith household exclaimed, "I am a proud Jewish adult."
I will never forget the moment during the ceremony soon after the speeches. I sat right there, and whispered to Rabbi Weiner, I think it's time for a change. Amen.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.