Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall is the Hillel rabbi at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She was ordained from HUC in 2008, and her criteria for officiating at interfaith weddings are flexible and evolving.
Rethinking My Conditions
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As a newly ordained rabbi, I emerged from rabbinical school with my own set of preconditions for officiating at interfaith weddings: I would not officiate at weddings with a clergy member of another faith; the couple needed to commit to having a Jewish home and create a brit outlining their shared vision; and they needed to take an "Introduction to Judaism" class.
However, relationships never fit into these nice little boxes. As calls started coming in from couples seeking a rabbi to officiate at their weddings, I was compelled to rethink my criteria.
One call came from a woman who grew up in an observant Conservative home. She’d always assumed she would marry a Jew--and then fell in love with a man who was raised Southern Baptist and came to oppose organized religion. The two celebrate Shabbat and major holidays together, and I have no doubt that their future children will grow up in a Jewish home, with a strong sense of Jewish identity.
I felt secure with my standards--until I mentioned taking an "Intro to Judaism" class. The woman’s fiancée was uncomfortable; being forced to take an organized class was probably something he associated with a more fundamentalist religious upbringing. And so I was again forced to re-examine one of my "rules." I knew I didn’t want to force something upon the husband when he had already made significant commitments to living a Jewish life. I knew that I wanted him to engage Jewishly in ways that felt most meaningful to him. And I knew that he was immersing himself in Jewish learning in his own way. I decided not to impose that "rule"--and I haven't regretted it.
In terms of other ritual aspects of Jewish weddings, I am still finding my way. One couple I am currently counseling wants a unity candle incorporated into their ceremony, and while this makes me a bit uncomfortable, there are certainly Jewish connections. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that from every human being a light rises straight to heaven. When two souls are destined for each other and find each other, their streams of light converge and a single, brighter light issues forth from their united being. (1) Lighting a candle is one of Judaism’s most common symbols. So for the time being, I will light the unity candle, and if it feels inauthentic, I will know for next time.
As present, I do not presently feel comfortable officiating at non-Jewish wedding ceremonies. I am not a Justice of the Peace. I sanctify Jewish weddings, although, like my Reform forbearers, I do feel comfortable altering the liturgy from k'da'at Moshe to b'maksheva Yisrael.
While I believe it is important to have general guidelines, my strongest conviction is that I want Judaism to say yes. I want Judaism to say: we will welcome you as you are as long as you are on this path of learning and exploration. When most rabbis marry two Jews, they do not scrutinize them as they do for interfaith couples. I find this double standard hypocritical.
I am still very much at the beginning of my journey, and I know that my convictions will continue to evolve. But what I feel most strongly is that warmth, welcoming and acceptance is the message I want Judaism to express.