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When I enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1988, I was opposed to officiating at interfaith marriages. At the time, I understood the sancta of Judaism to be applicable only to Jews. I was concerned that non-Jews would not value the spiritual context of Jewish rituals.
Two experiences in rabbinical school changed my mind. The first was the large number of Jewishly oriented and participating interfaith couples I met and served in my student pulpits. The second was a seminary-wide conversation among professors, students and administrators about interfaith marriages, during which we discussed our thoughts and feelings about whether, how and under what circumstances to officiate. A formerly black-and-white issue transformed into an evolving spectrum of practices, relationships, principles, experiments, conflicts and unsettled questions. My mind re-opened to an issue I thought I had settled. I noted with gratitude the heart-widening effect the possibility of officiating had on my sense of myself as a rabbi.
Of course, no one enters the rabbinate to say "no." We become rabbis because we want to say "yes" to the people who come to us. We become rabbis because we all deeply desire to open doors for people to say yes to Judaism and to the Jewish people.
Since 2004, I have been the rabbi for Judaism Your Way, a Denver-based Jewish outreach organization. One of the ways that I open doors to Jewish living is by working with and officiating at the weddings of interfaith couples.
Here are the reasons that I am committed to this work:
What follows is my current thinking about officiating at interfaith marriages. I've divided this article into two parts:
Humans get scared. Sometimes our fear is based on current reality and at other times our fear is based on a past experience that is no longer operative. Because of a collective experience of centuries of anti-Jewish oppression that culminated in the Holocaust, we Jews carry an understandable and easily triggered fear of annihilation. Today assimilation is a major threat to Jewish survival, one manifestation of which we tend to see as intermarriage.
Accordingly, in his recent study A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews, sociologist Steven Cohen asserts the "axiomatic truth" that intermarriage constitutes a "grave threat to Jewish continuity." Mr. Cohen is not alone in the use of this language or this stance. His is a widely held worldview--and word-choice--in the Jewish world.
There are three lenses through which we can look at how the Jewish community chooses to respond to intermarriage. One lens is psychological: How has fear about Jewish disappearance constrained the ways we approach the issue of intermarriage in the Jewish community and affected our ability even to see our possible options?
In my experience people are less apt to think clearly when survival fears are triggered. Given how easy it is for Jews to default to fear, I'm wondering about the effect of the "threat" discourse on our ability to think flexibly and creatively as Jewish leaders. Deep down, if we're supported to believe that the forces that work against Jewish survival are overpowering, how can we view our outreach work as anything more than the equivalent of putting a finger in a crack in the dike? It would be hard for me personally to sustain hope and creativity with this deadening and inaccurate view of my life's work.
A second lens is discursive: how we are talking about intermarriage within the Jewish community, and how intermarried couples and families and their adult and growing children are hearing us. What message is received when Jewish opinion leaders label intermarriage a grave threat? What do couples and families experience when a synagogue welcomes interfaith families to join but won't host the marriage ceremony that covenants that family together? What is the effect of marketing Jewish education on the grounds that it will reduce the chance that one's child will intermarry?
In effect, the current discourse can be characterized as "yes, but." Yes, you're welcome, but we can't help but see you as a symptom or a problem. Yes, you're welcome, but we wish you had married a Jew, or we wish that you would convert. Yes, you're welcome, but we wish you were different and more than you are. (1)
In other words, what is the effect of partially welcoming and not fully celebrating this growing constituency in our communities? What is the effect of speaking of interfaith families as a "them" and not as an "us?" Does it foster or undermine our sense of common peoplehood? Does it create the conditions for non-Jewish spouses to become effective and thoughtful allies or does it help marginalize and disempower them?
In my work, I'm asking what a "yes, and" approach would look like and how it would shape our choices. The understandable Jewish "no" is not the primary cause of low intermarried participation in the Jewish community. But over the years it has become a significant factor. Judaism Your Way offers a Jewish "yes" because we're seeing what can move forward for Jews and their beloveds when we do. We Jews have a generous, flexible tradition and we can afford to say "yes" far more than we had formerly imagined.
A third lens is midrashic. By midrashic I mean the way that the Jewish people understand what the sancta of Judaism–-liturgy, holidays and the Torah itself–-communicate about who the Jewish people are meant to be.
A few years ago, Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, Calif., called the non-Jewish spouses and parents in her congregation up to the bima on Yom Kippur to honor them for their role in supporting Jewish life. (2)
People wept as they were formally recognized for who they were: participants in and allies to the Jewish community. Since that time more communities are doing the same and I think this is a positive, healing and appropriate trend.
The Torah itself speaks about the potential contributions of interfaith marriage towards Jewish continuity. Here are two examples: Tzipporah, Moses' Midianite wife, recognized the necessity of circumcising their son. (3) Jacob blessed the children of his intermarried son Joseph, saying: "Through you may all Israel be blessed, saying--may God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (4)
I suggest that we approach intermarriage in the Jewish community by following Jacob's example. Jacob is the patriarch whose name, Israel, is given to the Jewish people. In other words, through his life, we get our first sense of who we are meant to be. Through Jacob's explicit blessing of his grandchildren, two products of an intermarriage, and his recognition of them as the conduits of blessing for all of the Jewish people, we are guided to the fundamental Torah perspective about intermarried Jews: not a source of dilution or discontinuity, but a blessing and resource open to cultivation.
How can we move ourselves to see intermarried Jews the way Jacob saw his grandchildren? We can examine our fears and their enormous if unintended effects. We can notice how we talk about each other. And we can turn again to our sacred sources which offer us surprising openings to help the Jewish people continue to evolve.
What follows are ways I work with interfaith couples who approach me to officiate at their wedding:
Whenever I respond to a couple's first inquiry, regardless of whether I'm available or not, the first thing I say or write is "Mazel tov." It's a simple and cost-free courtesy that many of our colleagues forget or withhold. A mazel tov is not an endorsement nor a commitment to perform the ceremony. It's an acknowledgement of the couple's joy. First impressions are powerful. By hearing mazel tov, the couple receives an affirmative first impression from a representative of the Jewish people.
Who gets a Jewish wedding?
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once described Judaism as "an exemplary way to be a human being." In other words, Judaism is a particular expression of the universal human condition. I interpret this to mean that Judaism is for anyone who is Jewishly connected and engaged. That's how I understand, for example, the Torah's inclusion of the erev rav in the Passover story–-the participation of non-Jews in the fundamental narrative of the birth of the Jewish people.
When I first meet with a mixed couple, I ask them two questions: 1) why they want a rabbi to officiate at their wedding; and 2) why they want Judaism to be the primary (5) spirituality language of the ceremony that sanctifies their covenanting with each other. Their answer determines how I approach my work with them.
What rituals get included?
L'hat-chilah, I withhold no traditional Jewish ritual from the ceremony. In the course of our work together, we may decide that some rituals or formulations are not appropriate or need to be reconstructed, but those decisions are always made with the input of the couple, in the context of our work together, and in the context of their relationship to Judaism.
After the wedding the couple will make further decisions about what to do Jewishly. With that in mind, my goal as a rabbi is to give the couple a positive and affirming Jewish experience: When the time comes to make other decisions (baby naming, pre-school, holiday celebration, affiliation), they won't have a "no" from a rabbi as their primary memory about their encounter as a couple with the Jewish community. Rather, they'll have the shared experience of a successfully worked-through Jewish wedding ceremony in which they were celebrated by their loved ones.
In addition, I give the couple as much decision-making power over the rituals as possible, so they understand that they can successfully make pro-Jewish decisions. I tell the couple it is their wedding and they are responsible to choose the rituals of their wedding ceremony. I work with the couple not as a gate-keeper but as a teacher. I see the pre-wedding work as an opportunity for the couple to get experience making Jewish choices as a couple. It's not just preparing for a ritual; it's also a rehearsal for a lifetime of decisions they will be making later on.
In my approach to Jewish ritual, I am guided less by the halachic boundaries and more by the mytho-poetic power of Jewish spirituality to speak to the human condition. I see Jewish wedding rituals as the Jewish ways of holding the sacred moment of two human beings covenanting with one another. From that perspective, there is virtually no ritual that is l'hat-chilah inappropriate for an interfaith wedding. I find that when couples are given permission to consider the Jewish wedding rituals, they are moved by them and see them as speaking to them and of them. Couples take the opportunity to explore the spiritual dimension of their relationship. The vocabulary for their conversations comes from Judaism. Judaism becomes the way they experience themselves.
Among the rituals in the wedding ceremony, there are two rituals where I guide couples away from the traditional formulation. The first is the harei aht. I explain to couples that the phrase k'dat moshe v'yisrael implies that the speaker is Jewish. In the interest of speaking from a place of personal truth and integrity, I invite the couple to create their own betrothal formulations, sometimes incorporating biblical passages as well as adapting phrases from their ketubah. Similarly, I guide couples away from traditionally worded ketubot. Happily there are many resources today for interfaith ketubot.
A favorite part of my work with any couple is our discussion of the sheva brachot. Using the section on the Seven Blessings in Anita Diamant's The Jewish Wedding, I invite them to choose the translation. This often leads the couple to their first serious discussion of what they believe about God. It also opens them up to the refreshing insight that there are many ways in Judaism to approach God.
Rituals and practices from outside of Judaism
It is of utmost importance to me that the non-Jewish member of the couple has a voice in the ceremony. It is also very important that we pay attention to the connection that non-Jews and others not familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony and Jewish spirituality are able to make.
I ask the non-Jew if he or she can describe wedding traditions and other rituals or practices from his/her faith/cultural background that are meaningful. I then try to find ways of including/incorporating some aspect of that into the ceremony. I also often include one or more of the following:
Birkat Cohanim (Numbers 6:24-26)
When the wedding ceremony involves a Christian, I offer the couple the opportunity to receive this blessing. Used in both Christian and Jewish settings, I have come to see this blessing as fully Jewish and Christian at the same time. Often I invite a member of the Christian family to offer the blessing in English alongside my Hebrew.
1st Corinthians 13
If the non-Jew wants a Biblical reading from the Christian Scriptures, I suggest this passage. It's both thematically appropriate to the occasion and, because it has no explicitly Christological reference, Jewish sensibilities are not offended.
Many couples wish to light a unity candle or some variant (such as sand) to symbolize the coming together of two families and two traditions. I often use the popular quotation attributed to the Baal Shem Tov. On Saturday evenings, I have used the havdalah candle for the dual purpose of symbolizing the transition from one state into another (single to married, Shabbat to week) as well as a Jewish version of the unity candle.
To facilitate the spiritual and emotional involvement of the non-Jewish family, I invite them to use a family heirloom, such as a quilt or tablecloth, for the huppah cover. They will have the experience of seeing their child standing under a fabric that has so many more family resonances for them.
Before the public ceremony, I invite parents to bless their children. The pre-wedding moments are often filled with anxiety and lots of last minute details. This ritual often gives parents an opportunity to have a final moment with their children and to let them go to the huppah with kavannah. A bonus for some religious non-Jewish parents is that they can provide the couple with a blessing from their faith tradition, without interfering with the Jewish integrity of the public ceremony.
Many mixed couples wish to have an officiant from both faiths. As a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, I am not permitted to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy. I do collaborate with non-Jewish clergy under the following conditions:
Conversion to Judaism should not be undertaken for any motive other than a sincere desire to adopt Judaism. Yet many non-Jews convert to Judaism in order to marry a Jew. Some of these conversions express the person's sincere commitment to being a Jew. But most are only undergone because they were told that was the only way to have a Jewish wedding and for a rabbi to officiate.
When the non-Jew in an interfaith couple asks me about conversion, I tell them that I'm happy to work with them towards this goal. I also tell them they don't need to convert for me to marry them. I tell them that marriage is an enormous transition, and that conversion to Judaism is an enormous transition, but that they aren't the same transition. Each is life-changing and each needs careful attention. I ask them, if they couldn't do both at the same time, what would they choose to do first. They invariably pick the wedding. I tell them that if they still want to convert after they are married, I'll be delighted to work with them.
Sometimes they insist that they do want to move towards conversion while they are preparing for their wedding, in which case I move ahead with them. Sometimes, they come back soon after the wedding for the conversion (though more often that happens when they're ready to start a family). And sometimes they don't come back or perhaps approach a congregational rabbi.
Over the last 15 years, I have officiated at the weddings of couples where both members are Jewish as well at the weddings of interfaith couples. I cannot know at the outset which of those couples will stay together, which will evolve into strong and resilient Jewish families, which of them will raise children who are Jewishly identified.
But what I count on is Judaism's legacy as a deeply generous, inclusive and flexible spiritual tradition. Knowing this keeps me at the threshold of the very door I'm holding open for a wedding couple. I can't imagine a more privileged and exciting place for a rabbi to stand.
1: This same dynamic plays out with born Jews, who often also feel that the Jewish community wishes they too were "more Jewish" or "knew more." Many of us hear Jews expressing guilt or shame that they are "not Jewish enough." This self-doubt makes it harder to feel good about being Jewish, and thus to affiliate. The same type of shift--from worry about insufficient Jewishness in an interfaith family to excitement about their Jewish possibilities--can also be applied to re-welcoming unaffiliated Jews.
3: Exodus 4:24-5. Brit milah is the premiere inter-generational covenantal act of Jewish continuity. Moses hadn't circumcised his son and until he did, or, as it turned out, until his non-Jewish wife did it in his place, Moses could not be the person through whom God would respond covenantally to the suffering of the Israelites by redeeming them from slavery.
4: Genesis 48.20. Joseph had married Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen 41:45)
5: There are cases where the couple does not intend Judaism to be their primary spiritual orientation, where Judaism will be part of who they are but not all of who they are. I discuss the inclusion and treatment of other faith traditions in the wedding ceremony in Tachlis of Officiation. The exploration of the couple's understanding of the relationship between their faith traditions, particularly how the children will be raised, is the subject of extensive counseling. I do not require the children to be raised solely as Jews for me to participate in the wedding ceremony.