Karen Kushner is a consultant to, and past Chief Education Officer for, InterfaithFamily. She is known for the workshops, trainings and booklets of the Jewish Welcome Network, which provided outreach consultation and resource to synagogues, Jewish schools and agencies of all denominations and affiliations.
Explaining Religious Boundaries to Interfaith Couples (and Their Parents)
This article is intended for rabbis and cantors who cannot officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple. It is intended as a model of respectful, neutral language that explains this decision to the couple. The goal is to demonstrate that the clergy is not judgmental and that the couple’s desire for Judaism to be a part of their wedding is acknowledged and celebrated. This allows for the building of a relationship based on respect.
Boundaries are what define a tradition. Some things are accepted and others are not. Problems occur when people want an exception to a boundary rule. They want to share something with their partner that has been part of the Jewish tradition, even though the partner has not chosen to become Jewish. This impulse to share Jewish rituals demonstrates the Jewish partner’s desire to maintain their connection to Judaism and to share their love of Judaism with their partner and future children. It is important to acknowledge this impulse.
You might explain your inability to accede to their desires with the analogy of citizenship. An American can have a French partner, live in France, be required to observe French laws, but not be able to vote without becoming a citizen. In just the same way, a partner who is not Jewish can enjoy Jewish music, food and customs and not be able to take part in some rituals. The American married to a French partner can live in France and rear children who will be French citizens just as this couple can raise Jewish children.
Whenever that American chooses to become a French citizen and fulfills the requirements, the privilege of voting becomes theirs. In the same way, if and when the partner chooses to become Jewish, there will no longer be any boundaries for them. In the meantime, we welcome them and encourage them to participate with their partner and respect them for their decision to not choose to be Jewish. Conversion is a big decision and not one to be rushed or taken lightly.
You only ask for respect for your decision to keep to the boundaries of Judaism as you (and your movement) see them.
This emphasis on their freedom of choice and your respect for their decision to not convert allows and encourages them to come back to you for a future life cycle event, to make a different choice in the future, to consider choosing to formally become an insider.
In order to have a respectful conversation, you need to know and clearly identify your boundaries to couples and families and be able to explain why these boundaries are important. Once you have language prepared you will be more comfortable meeting couples and their parents, more comfortable listening in a non-judgmental and respectful manner.
Even though couples may ask for a wedding ceremony without the use of Hebrew and/or without mention of God, a Saturday afternoon ceremony, co-officiation with clergy of another religion, or other requests that you (and your denomination) may not be able to permit, you will be able to explain your positions and teach them about Judaism both with your words and the respectful manner of your response. Remember they mostly make these requests in an attempt to please both families – not to undermine Judaism. They may be ignorant of Judaism and of the concept of holiness, of keeping things separate.
Confronting this dilemma creates strong emotions not only for the couple or family but for clergy as well. After all, you have made the continuity of Judaism your life’s work. When people ask you to do things that undermine your sense of that boundary, it challenges not only Judaism but who you are.
If you can keep yourself from seeing them as purposefully malicious, you will find it is easier to listen and to teach.