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June 16, 2011
Originally published in the Monthly Bulletin of Temple Isaiah, The Ruach, and followed by an open forum for Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, California members in 2003.
This article was co-written by the clergy team of Temple Isaiah: Rabbi Judy Shanks, Rabbi Roberto Graetz and Cantor Chanin Becker. Our individual remarks are indicated by the use of blockquotes following our names in the midst of the article.
The issue of whether rabbis and cantors officiate at marriage ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews is an important and emotionally-charged one for many in our community. Until now, each of us has individually held to the personal decision not to officiate at these marriages. Be assured, we each revisit the decision periodically and study its implications both for ourselves and our community. This year, after much thought, study and reflection on the accumulated experiences of her twenty years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Shanks decided to change her position and officiate at marriages between Jews and non-Jews under the specific circumstances described below. As a clergy team and as individuals, we want to collectively and personally share our thoughts with you. We hope this article will be the beginning of many conversations.
Since its inception, Reform Judaism has differentiated itself from other streams of Jewish life by allowing individuals an enormous amount of individual choice. Using as guidelines an education in Jewish texts, a sense of the history of our people, a knowledge of Jewish tradition, thoughtful reflection and the learning accrued with potent life experience, Reform Jews are given the freedom to choose how they will live the best and most authentically Jewish lives they can. Of course, no choice ought to be based in ignorance, laziness or apathy, but Reform Jewish ideology offers each individual the opportunity use his/her own sensibilities in making decisions about how to practice Judaism.
Within the Reform synagogue, the same sensibility applies to the setting of policies regarding communal and individual religious practices. On a regular basis, the clergy and members of the congregation meet to decide how our community as a whole will engage in worship, set and uphold standards of religious practice, and/or decide to change any long-held policies based on our study of Jewish principles and our best judgment for the welfare of the community. While the Religious Practices Committee makes decisions for communal religious practice, it does not dictate or judge individual decisions made by our clergy or our congregants as to their personal practices.
Please know that your rabbis and cantor have enormous respect for each other's decisions, whether or not we agree on an issue. Our tradition teaches us that disagreements l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven) make our world a stronger and more tolerant one. The three of us work together with a basis of mutual respect and we cherish the integrity of our team approach to leading this congregation. We hope you will look at each other's choices with an equal amount of respect and that you will always assume the decisions made by the leadership of this congregation are crafted with care and thoughtfulness.
From Rabbi Shanks:
Day in and day out in our Temple Isaiah community, I watch in awe as non-Jewish parents study and celebrate with us to ensure that their children will receive a Jewish education, grow up in a Jewish home and identify for a lifetime with the values and ideals of our people's faith and history. Truth be told, it is often the non-Jewish parent to whom many of these responsibilities fall and they assume them with remarkable thoughtfulness, good will and integrity. Over my twenty years in the rabbinate I have also often been privileged to experience the joy of bringing a Jew by Choice (convert) to the mikvah (ritual bath) to officially mark the entrance into the Jewish covenant of someone who has lived a Jewish life for many years. While these people were not ready to make this decision at the moment of marriage, they nonetheless committed themselves to creating a Jewish home, and some of them decided — years, even decades later — to convert. I welcome and honor the many, many non-Jews within our community who embrace our synagogue's mission of strengthening Jewish life. I encourage them to consider conversion.
I believe that I can best extend my heartfelt welcome to those non-Jews who wish to create Jewish homes with their Jewish partners by officiating at their marriages. I look forward to extending this welcome to Temple Isaiah members and their children, and will ask that both partners take an Introduction to Judaism class or its equivalent reading and study. Since the couple has decided to create a Jewish home together, it would be inappropriate to include clergy of another faith in the ceremony. I will fully embrace those who want to embrace us, the Jewish people, at the time of their marriage and in the years to come.
From Rabbi Graetz:
Periodically in our work, we re-think how and why we do the things we do. To officiate or not at interfaith marriages is one of those questions. On the one hand are the feelings of members of our community with whom we have developed deep bonds, on the other is our understanding of what our ordination or investiture allows us to do, how we read the tradition and how we can live with integrity in a world of choice. I feel the anguish that my "no" brings to some, but I also feel how deep within me is the voice that says, "you cannot do this." I need to follow my conscience on this issue even as I respect my colleagues who read the tradition differently. Together we can continue to build a harmonious community. When rabbis and cantors declare that they are not able to officiate at interfaith marriages, they are not making a value judgment on the couple seeking their help. The choice they make says, "I cannot do this," not, "I don't want to do it," or "I don't value your relationship." In a culture of individual autonomy, we profoundly respect the choices Jews will make in love and marriage. We ask in return that our personal choices — made after serious study and prayerful contemplation — will also be respected. Whether we stood with you under the chuppah or not, if you wish to raise a Jewish family we want to be there for you.
From Cantor Becker:
I have always felt that both sides of this issue can be espoused with honesty and dignity. I believe there are powerful reasons to choose to preside or not preside over weddings that involve a Jew and a non-Jew. I have been swayed by the pull of each side at different times in my life. At this point, however, my understanding of what Jewish tradition empowers me to do does not include officiation at an intermarriage. I cherish all loving partnerships, but I do not feel I can create a Jewish wedding ceremony for a couple whose partners are not both Jewish. I am, however, open to speaking with interfaith couples about how to create a wedding ceremony that suits their needs. Still, when I officiate at a wedding ceremony, I am not simply a representative of one's Jewish heritage or upbringing. My function is to enact a specific set of Jewish rituals intended for a specific purpose (i.e. uniting two Jews). Moreover, I do not believe that anyone should become Jewish to satisfy another person in his/her life — be it spouse, clergy member or future in-law — but I do believe that the study and ritual that constitute conversion in our community hold deep meaning and reflect a significant status change for any individual who participates in them. With all this in mind, know that I also value the presence of intermarried families in our community. I am seriously committed to welcoming them and supporting them as they build a Jewish life together.
We hope this article gives you greater insight into our decisions. We want Temple Isaiah to continue to welcome into our midst a wonderful mix of people from different backgrounds coming together in community. Your rabbis and cantor want to grow with you, sing, pray and study with you, console you in times of mourning and celebrate at times of great joy. May we go together from strength to strength!
The following statements are written by current members of our clergy team. Cantor Becker now serves a congregation in Scarsdale, NY.
Cantor Leigh Korn:
My decision to perform interfaith marriages came after a lot of careful thought and introspection. I knew that when I was invested as cantor, I was being granted the rights and responsibilities to perform clerical duties for the Jewish people. I also realized that I had a degree of autonomy in deciding specifically how I would carry out these duties. When it came to making decisions about intermarriage, I used the following question as my barometer: "Will my actions benefit and/or better the Jewish people?" I also recognized the challenges in finding loving partnership with anyone regardless of religion today. As a single man myself, I am all too aware that finding one's b'shert can be, and often is, tricky and downright difficult. These ideas led me to my decision to perform interfaith marriages under the following conditions:
1: Any ceremony that I would perform would be a Jewish ceremony exclusively.
2: The couple must agree, that if they should be blessed with children, that they will raise them as Jews, to the exclusion of all other religious traditions.
3: The couple must agree to keep a Jewish home, celebrating the holy days together, and participating in the life of the greater Jewish community.
When a person finds the one with whom he or she feels God has destined them to spend their life, I share their joy and pray that they find every happiness. I want them to be part of the Jewish community, and to find a warm and welcoming place in our synagogue. I want to support them in every way I can in their decision to raise Jewish children. I feel that performing their ceremony is part of my vote of confidence that this couple will become an active, vital part of the Jewish community, and that their children will grow up to become the future of our people and, perhaps, even leaders in the Jewish community.
More recently, with the passing of Proposition 8 on the California ballot, I have come to struggle anew with my decisions to perform wedding ceremonies. I was, in particular, inspired by Rabbi Margaret Holub. She writes, "I have been increasingly uncomfortable for many years now with my involvement in [the civil and legal portion of marriages], as it clearly favors heterosexual couples with the State's recognition and privileges. With the recent passage of Proposition 8, which alters the State Constitution to make it clear that this privilege is exclusively reserved for heterosexual couples, it no longer seems ethical to me to sign marriage licenses."
I have chosen to adopt Rabbi Holub's policy for myself. While I am more than happy to perform a sacred ceremony under a chuppah, until the laws change granting equal rights to all, I will no longer be signing marriage licenses. I know, that as a cantor, I bring a unique contribution to the wedding ceremony, and I am more than happy to co-officiate with a rabbinic colleague as we welcome a couple to the chuppah and to a Jewish life together. However, I will not be solely officiating at ceremonies that involve me signing a marriage license until same-gender couples who choose to marry will be granted the same rights and honor as heterosexual couples.
Rabbi Alissa Forrest:
The personal decision of whether or not to officiate at a wedding of an interfaith couple was challenging. As an ordained rabbi, I have taken on the responsibility of passing on Jewish tradition and strengthening our community for the generations to come. I needed to ask myself, is officiating at the wedding of an interfaith couple, in concert with these responsibilities? For me, the answer is yes. Growing up, and now serving as a rabbi, I have interacted with many types of Jewish families. I have seen families with either two Jewish parents or one, committed to creating a Jewish home, participating in Jewish life and providing their children with a Jewish education.
I will be honored to officiate at a Jewish wedding ceremony of a couple committed to creating a Jewish home. In preparation for the wedding and their life as a married couple, I will ask the couple to engage in Jewish learning and explore what it means to create a Jewish home together. I look forward to working with couples to make their wedding ceremony the first of many meaningful Jewish experiences.
Rabbi Nicki Greninger:
I believe that marriage is important, that two people coming together in love, friendship, partnership and commitment is a beautiful and holy act. I strongly believe that any two people who want to marry should be allowed and encouraged to do so, and that wedding rituals can be very meaningful — personally, legally, intellectually and spiritually.
As a rabbi, I am committed to the creation of Jewish homes and Jewish families. It is my great pleasure and responsibility to help people create meaningful Jewish lives for themselves — as individuals, as couples and as families. I affirm that it is possible to create a Jewish home and a Jewish family when one partner is Jewish and one partner is not, although it may be somewhat more challenging than when both partners are Jewish. In that vein, I am happy to officiate at weddings of couples who dedicate themselves to the creation of a Jewish home and a Jewish family. If, as a couple, you want to be connected to the Jewish community, do some Jewish learning together and begin the process of creating a Jewish family life for yourselves, I would be honored and delighted to help you along that path.