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Thoughts on Officiating at Interfaith Marriages

Getting married is a time of discovery, excitement, and realignment as the couple tries to define themselves and the world they want to create.

A discussion regarding marriage between people of different faiths can be particularly challenging. There are many emotions, as well as spoken and unspoken expectations, that come into play when these conversations begin. Childhood memories, parental and family norms, all become a part of an already complex situation.  

The focus of the discussion when a Jew and a non-Jew plan to marry often becomes, "Who will do our wedding: a rabbi, a priest or minister, some combination of the two, or should it be a judge?"

At that point, religious definitions and personal prerogatives can collide with great force and emotion. Frequently, the planning of the ceremony becomes an issue of expectations that do not necessarily reflect the religious identities of the couple. To please family members, one partner may say, "I want a rabbi. I want a Jewish wedding."

However, personal desires cannot erase the religious differences of the couple. Here is where an honest and open conversation with a rabbi needs to take place. Although I can understand wanting to marry a person of a different religious background, there is no role for me, as rabbi, at the wedding ceremony. I will support the couple, counsel them, and welcome them to discuss these issues with me, but I can't marry two people who are not both Jewish.

The purpose and intention of the wedding ceremony needs to be clearly defined and honestly discussed. To assume that it would be appropriate to blend Judaism and Christianity into some hybrid service to meet the personal expectations of a couple, is unfair to both religious traditions.

I believe that a clear and understandable definition of a Jewish marriage is necessary. A Jewish marriage occurs when two people who are Jewish marry each other. This is why many rabbis will not perform interfaith weddings. When one person is Jewish and the other isn't, one can chant Hebrew, wear a tallit (prayer shawl), have a beautiful ketubah (wedding contract), stand under a chuppah (wedding canopy) and break a glass at a wedding ceremony, but what may look like a "Jewish wedding" is really just a civil marriage with window dressing.

Often intermarrying couples are not informed that ceremonies performed by rabbis are not valid in the Jewish community. It is confusing when rabbis who have personally chosen to change the historic definition of Jewish marriage make it appear as if their ceremony is as valid as any other within normative Jewish practice.

My role in a wedding is to represent Judaism, not to become a Justice of the Peace speaking Hebrew.

For me, the real distinction should not be between "rabbis who do" and "rabbis who don't" participate in the ceremony, but rather between religious and civil ceremonies. The Christian requirement for clergy participation in a marriage rests on one member of the couple having been baptized. Jewish marriage only occurs when both parties are Jewish. These differing definitions, I believe, set apart the Christian from the Jewish view of the wedding ceremony.

In the spirit of open communication, I strongly encourage couples to explore their own religious backgrounds. I ask them to investigate their partner's faith and perhaps even consider becoming part of their partner's religious community. I describe the process by which someone can choose to be Jewish, and I then work with couples who follow this path. I believe that having a shared faith helps strengthen a marriage and removes the possibility that different faith backgrounds could be a source of conflict in the marriage.

In my experience, who officiates the wedding is ultimately not as important as what kind of marriage the couple envisions. Marriage from the Jewish perspective is the creation of a new Jewish family, not an individual act.

It is also important, though sometimes very difficult, to consider how the couple will deal with their differing religious definitions after the wedding. How will they interact with their families, how will they behave in their own home, and how will they define the religious status of future children? I believe that avoiding a clear choice about religious upbringing until children arrive is unfair and often painful.

The challenges of interfaith marriage should not be minimized and require honesty and clarity in communication.

It is my hope that couples will work on who they will be and whether they want to express faith in their lives as a married couple. Finding a place where an open and honest conversation can begin will help all of us to move beyond the moment of a wedding ceremony into the promise of a marriage.

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 "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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.
Rabbi Laurence A. Kotok

Rabbi Laurence A. Kotok is Rabbi at Temple Brith Kodesh in Rochester, New York.

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