Rabbi Michael Weisser is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, Nebraska. As the spiritual leader of that community for the past fifteen years, he has been active in social action, outreach and interfaith activities.
Interfaith Marriage: Why I Officiate
Many years ago I visited a planetarium and heard the narrator say these words: "This is the Milky Way Galaxy. It is one among hundreds of billions of such galaxies in the known universe. A beam of light traveling at the speed of one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second would take more than one hundred and twenty thousand years to cross the Milky Way Galaxy at its narrowest point." The narrator was bored. I was blown away!
"If I believe in a Creator God," I thought, "who created the universe that led to that beyond-my-understanding description, how can I also believe in the idea that the Creator God is very interested in the various denominational labels we humans have created for ourselves? And to take it further along, how can I believe the Creator God is overly concerned that persons who have adopted different labels might want to marry each other. I knew I had some thinking to do because at that time in my life I was one who would never participate in an interfaith marriage ceremony. Now, twenty some years later, not only do I perform interfaith marriage ceremonies, but I believe that such marriages have a positive rather than a negative impact on the Jewish people and the Jewish community.
When I meet with an interfaith couple to discuss a potential marriage ceremony, I always ask why it is that they are seeking out a Jewish clergyperson to officiate at their wedding. More often than not the non-Jewish person cites spiritual reasons and the Jewish person talks of concern for the feelings of family members. After we have met several times, the roles often reverse, with the Jewish person becoming concerned about the spiritual aspects of the ceremony and the non-Jewish person discussing the feelings of family members. By the time the wedding takes place, the concerns have usually so blended that it has become a spiritual matter to be concerned about the feelings of both families.
The discussions, the prayers, and the planning of a ceremony that will be harmonious with Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring the religious traditions of the non-Jewish side of the family can be a very Jewishly affirming experience. I can recall numerous times when the fact that I have been willing to include a reading from the Christian tradition, such as the beautiful reading on love from I Corithians 13 (New Testament text), has evoked the response that Judaism is so wonderful, open and loving. Many times a small thing such as this has led a non-Jewish person to seek a relationship of some kind with the synagogue, if not the adoption of Judaism itself. Also, it has been my experience that interfaith couples who are accepted, welcomed and nurtured by the synagogue are much more likely to become active participants in the Jewish community (with or without conversion to Judaism), to decide upon a Jewish life for themselves and their children, and to become Jewish community assets.
On the other side of the same coin, interfaith couples who are rejected by the synagogue are likely to opt out altogether, feeling that no connection is possible or even worthwhile to pursue. Over the years I have watched with dismay how crushed people are when, after a lifetime connection with a synagogue, they are told by their rabbi that they must go elsewhere to be married since the prospective bride or groom is not Jewish. It is as if the rabbi has told a person that the person s/he loves is somehow defective. Sometimes, often I think, people come away from such an experience feeling that at best the rabbi is a mean-spirited person or at worst the rabbi is a bigot. They surely come away from it with negative feelings about the synagogue and Judaism despite the fact that the rabbi has told them they will always be welcome as an interfaith couple once they are married elsewhere. Rabbis who assume this to be a kind and compassionate attitude are sorely mistaken. It is an attitude virtually guaranteed to engender ill will.
I encourage rabbis who won't officiate at interfaith weddings to reconsider. The Torah, after all, contains at least thirty-six injunctions to "welcome the stranger." If we take the spirit of Torah to heart, I believe we are compelled to welcome even the strangers who are half of every interfaith couple that approaches us seeking our help, love, concern and compassion at what may be the most important time in their lives.