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Should Rabbis Say "I Do" To Intermarriage?

Reprinted from The (New York) Jewish Week with permission of the author.

June 20, 2007

Ten years ago, shortly after Joe and I got engaged, my office hosted an Orthodox wedding.

A rabbi who taught a "lunch and learn" in The Detroit Jewish News conference room married two students who had met through the class. We reporters flocked from the newsroom to watch, peeking in at the ketubah signing where only men could be official witnesses.

Rabbi Lev Baesh, who InterfaithFamily.com recently hired to oversee its rabbinic officiation referral service, is shown here officiating at the interfaith wedding of Elliott and Barbara Targum on Sept. 5, 2004.

My feminist sensibilities rankled, I stupidly whispered to a more traditional co-worker, "Ugh. I would never have a ketubah that only men were allowed to sign."

"Well, you won't be able to have a real ketubah anyway," she haughtily whispered back.

"A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, and a Jewish marriage is only between two Jews."

It was hardly news to me that many regard under-the-chuppah Jew-gentile weddings as "Jewish style" at best, if not an all-out mockery of Judaism. Nonetheless, my colleague's comment haunted me in the months Joe and I planned our nuptials, even as we lined up a rabbi, ordered vegetarian food from a Jewish deli known for its far-from-kosher Reubens, arranged for a klezmer band--and got a "fake" ketubah.

Joe immediately bonded with Bob Levy, the Reform rabbi we booked for the ceremony. He liked the New York-born rabbi's down-to-earth manner and collection of "Star Trek" figurines. I liked him as well, but worried we had gotten off too easy. No lecture about the perils of intermarriage? No insistence that we take a basic Judaism class? (I made Joe come with me to a six-week mini-course at the University of Michigan Hillel anyway.) Was Rabbi Levy some kind of rabbinic mercenary, I worried?

But my respect for him--and for other rabbis who perform intermarriages--has grown over the years, and I'm glad we had a liberal Jewish ceremony, one that reflected the type of home we were creating, rather than a wholly secular affair with a justice of the peace. When I contact him as I'm writing this column, Rabbi Levy tells me he did not officiate at interfaith weddings when he was first ordained in 1979, but that he quickly grew to suspect that refusing to do so was prompting "fake conversions" and was "bad for the Jewish people."

"I decided it would be a smaller sin to do intermarriages, if that was wrong, than what I was doing then, which was five to six times a year people were converting [so that he would perform their wedding] and not believing in it. I was lowering the bar for conversion."

He started doing interfaith weddings in 1984, when he became spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, and has "never regretted it."

"You have to treat people as if they are on journey, and that journey will be good for them, and not get consumed with the idea that you define where they're going, not be so egotitistical that you're the gatekeeper to Judaism," he says.

Although Rabbi Levy made his decision more than 20 years ago, interfaith weddings have increasingly become a defining--and divisive--matter for Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. (Orthodox and Conservative ones are not allowed to perform such weddings.) Those who don't officiate complain they are being pressured by congregants, and that the issue has become a litmus test determining whether or not they get hired for pulpit jobs. And those who do the weddings say they often feel their more traditional peers are judging them.

Lately, the officiators are finding their voices.

Several members of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis are pushing the group to change its official wording on intermarriage. The most recent statement on record allows rabbis to make their own decisions, but asserts that mixed marriage "should be discouraged."

Rabbi Erica Greenbaum recently completed her senior thesis at Hebrew Union College on intermarriage. Hebrew Union College is home to the Reform movement's rabbinical school.

Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New York, would like wording that is more affirming. Rabbi Davidson began officiating at Jewish-gentile weddings only seven years ago, relatively late in his almost 50-year career, and he does so only if the gentile does not practice another religion and the couple agrees to raise potential children as Jews.

"There are those who say a Jewish wedding requires two Jews," he says. "I say, no, it can be performed ... when there is a commitment to accept Judaism. Like patrilineal descent, like women in the rabbinate, like [acceptance of] same-sex orientation, these things don't happen overnight and have got to be worked through. ... But this is the way it's got to go, at least in the liberal community of Jews."

Meanwhile InterfaithFamily.com, a "grass-roots advocate for a welcoming Jewish community," recently hired a rabbi to help the approximately 60 couples who contact the organization each month for help finding Jewish clergy for their interfaith weddings. Rabbi Lev Baesh will make referrals, encourage couples to connect to their local Jewish community and follow up with the bride and groom after the wedding. InterfaithFamily also recently set up a "rabbinic circle" on its Web site, where clergy post articles about their reasons for performing (or not performing) intermarriages and share information about the liturgy and rituals they use.

But many rabbis and rabbinical students remain deeply conflicted. Rabbi Erica Greenbaum, who recently completed her senior thesis at HUC about intermarriage, says the issue is "a hot topic at our college right now and with rabbis out in the field."

A resource of sorts for those struggling with the decision, Rabbi Greenbaum's thesis pulls together a wide variety of biblical and Talmudic texts about intermarriage--as well as Reform responsa on the topic--and also includes interviews with numerous Reform rabbis explaining their policies.

Rabbi Greenbaum, who is director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown in Lower Manhattan, says the research for her thesis was heartening overall.

"There continues to be a perception in some parts of the non-Reform community that any rabbi officiating at intermarriages is a shady character just doing it for the money," she continues. "That's not a fair characterization. Certainly there are those people, but lots of rabbis on both sides are doing what they're doing with a lot of integrity."

To be continued. Next month: Does it make a difference whether or not rabbis officiate, or is outreach later in the marriage more important?

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 "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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