Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel is the rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, DC, where he has served since 1983. He is originally from Chicago and is a self-described "devoted, passionate, lifelong fan of the Chicago White Sox."
A Letter to My Congregants
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January 27, 2009
This letter ranks among the most significant letters I have ever written to the Temple Micah community as the letter addresses one of the greatest personal and religious decisions I have made in my career as a rabbi: I have decided to change my long held position of not officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies. I will now, under certain circumstances spelled out later in this letter, officiate at these weddings. As some of you know, I have wrestled with this question for a very long time--for many years.
This "wrestling" has taken many forms: personal conversations with couples wherein I tried to explain my position, lengthy conversations with my family, deep explorations with rabbinic colleagues--both those who officiate and those who do not.
This letter can in no way begin to capture the full evolution of my thinking and feeling on this emotionally charged question. Long ago, I ceased thinking about interfaith marriage as something that rabbis have to speak out against and discourage. I have admired and loved far too many beautifully supportive interfaith families in Micah over many years now to even think about the question in those terms. Our practice, for several years, to offer the Yom Kippur blessing to our non-Jewish spouses and partners has been my heartfelt way of saying thank you to those individuals, who by being with us, and supporting us, have helped build a stronger, more meaningful Micah community. I have always wanted the doors of Micah to be open to all who seek what we offer.
Marriage is a precious gift. Life lived in partnership with someone whom you love, with whom you share values, aspirations and dreams is a life of blessing. Furthermore, I know that in America finding such a lifelong partner and growing with them is an enormous challenge. Long ago, my reasoning on the officiation question was primarily theological and religious: How can there be a Jewish marriage ceremony when one party is not Jewish? How does such a ceremony impact the integrity of the Jewish religious ritual? With the years passing, my beliefs changed to the point that my prior thinking began to seem irrelevant. My thinking evolved to where for many years now my reasons for saying "no" to officiating were primarily emotional, tied to my own upbringing and family, as well as professional, reflecting the contemporary structures and institutions of American Jewish life.
I could have gone on for many years wrestling with the question and for many years I have said privately, "I am this close to changing my position." What tipped the balance? Why now? I recently attended a seminar on the Jewish identities of young Jews in America today. The statistics are not pretty. By every measure of engagement, young Jews between the ages of 22 and 39 are less engaged in Jewish life than similarly aged Jews at any period in American Jewish history. This is a cause for enormous concern and needs to be the subject of another Temple Micah conversation.
Summarizing the challenges rabbis and all who care about Jewish life face, seminar speakers told us that young American Jews see the American synagogue as "A, B, C, D."
A - Alienating
B - Bland and Boring
C - Coercive
D - Divisive
I considered this--especially A, C, and D--within the context of interfaith marriage. I came to realize that in considering the Jewish future, we have to think of Jewish identity not only in terms of third, fourth or fifth generation American Jews (that is our own generation, our children and our grandchildren) but also in terms of Jewish flourishing in America (not survival--flourishing). That meant that we had to think in terms of 10th generation American Jews--Jews who would be living 100 years from now. I believe that means thinking in terms of an American Jewry that is fully rooted in America, not a Jewry living off the powerful resources and memories of European Jewish life--Yiddish culture, European images, Jewish neighborhoods and immigrant parents and grandparents.
In discussing interfaith marriage with a colleague, he suggested to me that we need to be asking ourselves what kind of grandparents our children will be one day. He suggested they will be very different from ours. I still remember the Yiddish-flavored Judaism of my grandfather, the stories about the old West Side of Chicago and the Yiddish signs in his Chicago neighborhood, Albany Park. This "Old World" generation brought with it, for their children and grandchildren, their world view that explained who they were and why. Among many of us, this nostalgia-driven Judaism yet lives (and the larger Jewish community mistakenly promotes it) today.
But what does a Jewish grandparent look like in 2068? Will our children have good Jewish lessons to teach, and stories to tell and rituals to lead? The answer to these questions does not lie in the ethnicity of the parents, but rather in the depth of Judaism lived in the home. I believe, because I have witnessed it, that a vibrant, new, American Judaism over the next 60 years can be constructed just as effectively with a non-Jewish parent in the home, as with two Jewish parents.
As we look to the future, a fully American Jewish community will have to be as open and attractive a community as it can possibly be, laden with wisdom, values and meaning so that our children, grandchildren and their spouses, Jewish or non-Jewish, will want to be nourished, educated and live their lives within its doors. I have come to understand that an interfaith marriage that begins with rejection by the rabbi may have difficulty building the kind of "open and attractive" community that we all hope for. And that is the phenomenon that I wish to end.
I know that traditionalists will say that in changing my position I am saying that Judaism stands for nothing eternal but bends with the winds of time. History will, of course, be the judge on both this belief and my decision. I am content to believe that just as the biblical prophets, the ancient rabbis and the medieval mystics each radically reinterpreted Judaism in their time, so we must be bold in our time.
In making this decision, I have asked myself what my new standards will be for performing interfaith marriages. I do not as yet know the full answer to this question. For now, I am comfortable with the decision that I will officiate at some, but not all, interfaith marriages. I will limit my officiating to marriages within the Temple Micah community and I will ask that any interfaith couple who seeks me out engage in a serious examination of what it means to live a Jewish life and for the Jewish partner to be an active participant in the Micah community or for those who live out of town, another Jewish congregation. Other practices or standards may unfold from this. I am entering new territory.
Before concluding, I would like to share two final thoughts. I want to truly thank the leadership of our community who over many years never once brought any pressure to bear on me regarding my personal stance on this always charged question. Micah has always been a model community in respecting the prerogatives of the rabbinate. The strong relationship I enjoy with the lay leadership is recognized nationally as one of the strengths of our community. The health and vitality of our congregation in large measure is testimony to this partnership.
Additionally, a word of acknowledgement to all of you to whom over the years I said "no." These were always painful moments for me. Please know that I always listened to your thoughts and opinions with the full integrity of my being and that I carried those conversations with me and continued to reflect on them long after you had left the room. This change in my thinking is, in some measure, owed to you. Please know that the future interfaith couples will enjoy the fruits of our time together.
Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel