An Open Letter to New Rabbis About Interfaith Officiation
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June 16, 2011
I recently suggested to the third year rabbinical school students at Hebrew College that some of them ought to officiate at interfaith weddings, including co-officiation. And that all of them ought to greet Jewish people who ask them to officiate at such weddings with some very warm words. I am offering you the same message.
I think that all rabbis should greet a Jewish person who wants to marry a non-Jewish person with welcome. Sentences like the following are welcoming:
"Mazel Tov. I'm glad you found love. This is an important time in your life. I'm glad you came to me. And I honor your decision to use Judaism in your marriage by having a rabbi participate. Here is how I can help..."
Rabbi Laura Geller said years ago: we ought to be mezuzot on the doorways to Judaism; not gate keepers.
I understand my advice flies in the face of a lot of recent — and not so recent — Jewish history, when intermarriage was frowned upon. In Europe, a few generations ago, a Jewish person marrying a non-Jewish person was leaving Judaism. But our modern situation has changed, particularly in the United States.
"Rabbi, will you officiate at my wedding?" is an opening for the rabbi to help a couple use Judaism at the very start of their marriage. Many Jewish people want to maintain some Jewish connection in their new home with their non-Jewish spouse. The wedding planning period offers the best opportunity for helping both members of the couple learn how to use Judaism together in a way that suits them. The creation of the wedding ceremony is a learning experience for the couple in the creation of a joint vision for their families about the role of their backgrounds in their lives.
Of course, doing this kind of work takes a great commitment on the part of the rabbi. I meet with couples 5-8 times over the course of six months or more. We study the Jewish symbols of the ceremony together. They get practice in talking about ritual. They have a chance to share how their families feel towards the other?s religion. I help them talk to each other about these issues.
The preparation for the wedding is preparation for their marriage. And I am the Jewish resource, helping them bring Judaism into their new home. In doing so, their marriage is strengthened — a good thing in and of itself — and their understanding and ability to use Judaism in the future is enhanced.
As you can see, this is very special work. While I would like you to learn to do this work, there might be many reasons why you would not do these weddings yourself. You may not have the time. You may not be comfortable entering into the complex system of the couple?s emotional and spiritual lives. But you can always welcome them. And you can always acknowledge that this work is specialized so they ought to call up so and so — or go to InterfaithFamily.com. And don?t forget to tell them that you would like to stay in touch with them during their process if they are members of your community. You can write a message for them to be said at the wedding. You have many options for enhancing your welcome, even if you do not officiate their wedding.
I must admit that in doing this work, I am participating in changing Judaism. I use Judaism in new ways in the ceremony. An interfaith ketubah is still a ketubah in my eyes. But I understand that some rabbis will think that an interfaith ketubah is an oxymoron. Such rabbis and I part (respectful) company here.
In co-officiation, I am certainly standing in a new theological place. Knowing that God is the Ein Sof and unknowable, I am willing to literally stand under the chuppah with someone whose partial knowing of God is different from my own. I bring my way of knowing to that place and share it in the moment of creation of that couple?s new family.
As Larry Hoffman says: the immigration of non-Jews living in the orbit of Judaism is one of the great immigration stories of our new century. We are enriched by all who come to be with us.
Remember: when the non-Jewish spouse sits with you, the rabbi, that person is making a positive statement about Judaism. That person is accepting you as his or her rabbi. As a new rabbi, you may find this awkward. Unfortunately you may not have been trained to think of the non-Jewish members of our community in this way. But you are their rabbi. Have faith in yourself and learn to know them and open your heart to what they think. It is out of that loving and collaborative stance that their own Jewish story will be created.
It is a holy relationship you create with the Jewish partner and the non-Jewish partner. Treat it with and open heart and gratitude that they have come to you, asking you to help them at this very special moment in their life together.