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June 16, 2011
Many Jewish leaders have long claimed that interfaith marriage heralds the death of American Judaism. In many of these couples, however, the non-Jewish partner is committed to creating a Jewish home. In seeking out a rabbinic officiant, these couples are beginning to contemplate the ways in which they will bring Judaism into the life they build together. Assisting them in doing so should be viewed as a unique opportunity: not only to retain the Jewish partner, but to gain a non-Jewish ally and children who may well grow up to have a strong Jewish identity.
It often seems that the Jewish community appears to take an interest in interfaith couples only when there are children in the equation, thus sending the message that only families with young children are desirable for communal participation. Why should non-Jews who wish to assist their partners in creating Jewish homes be denied an opportunity to publically affirm this commendable decision? Most importantly, why are Jewish communal leaders turning away so many interfaith couples who — by seeking rabbinic guidance — are clearly attempting to establish their relationship and family life in a Jewish context?
Jewish leaders should embrace, from the outset, interfaith couples who indicate that they intend to create a Jewish home. Often, we wait until there are already children to educate (and potentially covert). Embracing interfaith families, however, needs to begin before the chuppah. Non-Jewish partners who pledge to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children should be understood to be part of the Jewish communal enterprise articulated in the sheva brachot, and therefore should be eligible for kiddushin. As I will show, there is already contemporary halakhic precedent for allowing rabbinic actions to be based on the guarantees of the non-Jewish partner. Furthermore, couples should be given an opportunity to formally assert their commitment to Judaism as one of the many steps of beginning their married life together.
Although it has long been assumed that Jews who intermarry will be less Jewishly involved, many Jews in interfaith relationships have asserted that being married to a non-Jew has actually had the opposite effect: it may (and, I might argue, often does) cause the Jewish partner to work harder to assert her Jewish identity, and to engage in Jewish rituals in order to familiarize her non-Jewish partner with these activities. Normally, a non-Jew does not participate in the Jewish communal endeavor. As is evidenced by the extremely high number of interfaith families in American synagogues today, however, it is clear that there are many non-Jews who are, in fact, active participants in today's Jewish community.
Non-Jews who choose to situate their married life in a Jewish context and who work to advance Judaism should be seen as engaging in the efforts of the Jewish collective in which all adult Jews participate. This collective is referenced in the sheva brachot, and it is understood through these blessings that each couple (through procreating, raising and educating the next generation of the Jewish community) embodies a message of redemptive hope for the future of klal yisrael. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow has pointed out, there have been periods of fluidity throughout Jewish history, when marrying a Jew meant one automatically became part of the Jewish community (Waskow, Under the Rainbow: God Meets Intermarriage, 1999). Kiddushin may be understood as a mechanism by which participants in the Jewish endeavor articulate their intent to further the Jewish collective. The many non-Jews who also articulate this intent should be equally considered by Jewish authorities as eligible for kiddushin.
In recent years, the Conservative Movement has normalized a situation in which (contrary to convention) a non-Jew is permitted to submit to rabbinic authority: when a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother formally convert their child. Although the halakhic principal which permits this conversion is supposedly al da'at beit din (i.e., it is the beit din, and not the parents, under whose purview the child is immersed), "...the court may not convert a child in a patrilineal home without the consent of the non-Jewish mother" (Reisner, On the Conversion of Adopted and Patrilineal Children, 1988 p.162).
Thus, one could argue that a beit din's willingness to convert a child to Judaism is primarily based on its reliance on a gentile's commitment to Judaism, and her guarantee to raise the child in accordance with the Jewish faith, including synagogue affiliation, ensuring that the child receives a formal Jewish education, establishing a ritually observant home, as well as affirming that she will not involve the child "in any rituals or life-cycle events, such as baptism or communion, that are associated with another religion" (Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi's Manual p. J-28).
Why should an interfaith couple's commitment to Judaism begin only when they bring children to the mikvah? If rabbinic authorities are willing to accept the word of a non-Jew who promises to raise Jewish children, so, too, should they accept the word of one who wishes to submit to rabbinic purview in establishing, not only her wedding, but her entire marriage, within a Jewish framework. For couples dedicated to building a Jewish household and raising Jewish children, having a Jewish wedding ceremony is an expression of their desire to situate their lives within a Jewish context.
A ritual which enables an interfaith couple to affirm their commitment to Judaism (not unlike that which the couple may later use to formally convert their children) could be a meaningful way for couples to begin their married life together. This formal commitment should begin in pre-marital counseling sessions, and might include pledging to join a synagogue, observe holidays, maintain a certain level of home ritual observance, engage in regular learning or possibly to formally convert their children. As Jewish leaders, we should encourage and celebrate the desire of every couple who wishes to establish a bayit ne'eman b'yisrael.