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If You Don't Stand for Something, You'll Fall for Anything

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June 27, 2011

While in rabbinical school, my class was advised that if we were asked to officiate at an interfaith wedding while we were students we were to say "no."  Therefore, we would be able to delay our decision about whether or not we would officiate at an interfaith wedding at least until after ordination.

So, during the end of my second year in rabbinical school, when I was asked to officiate along with a rabbi at an interfaith wedding (as a student rabbi, I couldn't officiate alone), I politely said, "I'm sorry, I'm not allowed."  It was great that, at the time, the decision had been made for me.  (As a side note, the non-Jewish partner of that couple decided to convert before the wedding, so I was actually able to officiate at the wedding along with another rabbi.)

I spent much of my time in rabbinical school unsure as to what my decision would be regarding officiating for an interfaith couple, and I just hoped I'd have some time to think about it before I needed to give a final answer.  Within only months of my ordination, I was asked by close family friends to officiate for their wedding in which the groom was not Jewish (at the time had no intention to convert).  After only a little hesitation, I felt that I had made my decision and I was ready to commit to officiating a Jewish wedding for an interfaith couple according to the following guidelines.

I would officiate if...

  • it was going to be a completely Jewish ceremony and there would be no clergy of another faith;
  • if the couple committed to keeping a Jewish home, and, if their desire was to have children, the couple committed to raising their children exclusively as Jewish; and
  • the non-Jewish partner committed to some form of Jewish education (so as to uphold the second guideline of a Jewish family and understand the first guideline of a Jewish wedding).

That first interfaith wedding was wonderful.  In fact, the father of the non-Jewish husband even told me it was the most beautiful wedding he'd ever attended, and not just because his son was the groom!

My decision to officiate at a wedding of an interfaith couple was actually an easier decision to make than I thought.  It is my experience that, in this day and age, the vast majority of Jewish parents are not telling their children they must date only Jews.  (And if they did say that, would their kids even listen?)  Therefore, we must assume that if "our" Jewish kids are dating non-Jews, then it might eventually lead to marriage.  While I believe we can't insist on "our" kids marrying Jews, we can instill within them a love and appreciation of Judaism so that they will want to raise their kids as Jews. This is the way we insure a future for Judaism.

If there is going to be a future for Judaism, we must make sure there will be Jews.  Someone who grows up taught to believe in both Judaism and the tenets of another faith is not Jewish.  And someone who is not taught about Judaism because their parents are of two different faiths also cannot ensure the future of Judaism.

It is because of my desire to ensure a Jewish future that I will officiate at the wedding of an "interfaith" couple, but I will not officiate at an "interfaith wedding."  I believe that for a couple to have a healthy marriage, sometimes they are going to have to make decisions, even hard ones.  Any married person can tell you that all marriages take work and sometimes that means making decisions even before the marriage begins.  And while two people can clearly love one another and practice different religions, I believe it's worth it to stand up for  Judaism.  And while not every interfaith couple will be able to commit to having a Jewish home and creating a Jewish future, if I'm going to sanctify their marriage as a rabbi, I need to know that I am helping Judaism grow, not shrink.

Not that long ago, my philosophy was tested.  A congregant (and member of the synagogue board) came to me and joyfully told me her son was engaged.  Of course my response was, "Mazel tov."  She then said, "Sso you'll officiate at the wedding, right?"  When I asked about the couple's intentions for the wedding, the congregant told me that her son and future daughter-in-law had already been meeting with the bride's pastor.  The congregant just assumed that I would "co-officiate" with the minister.  I politely told her that I don't co-officiate, but I'd still love to be involved with the couple and help in any way.

My initial reaction was guilt.  I felt guilty for not being able to officiate at the wedding because of my own philosophy and not because of some rule that I had to follow.  I had a philosophy and thought maybe I was wrong, maybe I could bend my own rules.  So, I planned to meet with the couple and we spoke about an auf-ruf (marriage blessing at the synagogue) for them the week before the wedding.  We also spoke about their intentions for the wedding and life as a married couple.  Hoping to hear the answers I wanted to hear, I asked the couple about their plans for creating a family.  When I heard that they intended to raise the children within both Christianity and Judaism, I knew that I could not officiate at this wedding.  As I previously stated, I do not believe you can be both Jewish and Christian.  If I were to marry them, I would not only go against my own rule, but against my entire belief system.

I still felt a little guilty.  On the evening of the auf-ruf, we had a wonderful blessing for the bride and groom in our synagogue.  While the mother understood why I couldn't (or wouldn't) officiate, the grandmother was rather put-off and said, "I don't understand, you're a Reform rabbi and a woman."  Her comment only made my decision about drawing some lines more concrete.  Neither my religious affiliation nor my gender had anything to do with why I wouldn't co-officiate.  I was unable to co-officiate because of my beliefs and my faith.  In the end, we found a cantorial soloist to take part in the ceremony so there would be some Jewish presence (even if it wasn't me) during the ceremony.  I met with the couple before the ceremony and signed an egalitarian ketubah with them and even said a special blessing for the couple during the reception immediately following the ceremony.

After all was said and done, I felt that I was able to help the couple celebrate their wedding and particularly help represent the groom's Jewish identity and heritage without violating my beliefs.  With careful thought, I am proud to have made a decision to stand up for a Jewish future.  I am honored to have the opportunity to officiate at Jewish ceremonies (whether between two Jews or an interfaith couple), and while I sometimes have guilt over having to politely decline the request to co-officiate with clergy of another faith, I am grateful that I am able to stand up for my beliefs.  In doing so, I believe I stand for a Jewish future and I pray that I will have many more opportunities to do so.

Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place.
Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves as the rabbi and educational director at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, Long Island. A graduate of Hebrew Union College (ordination, Masters in Hebrew Letters), Xavier University (Masters in Education Administration) and Albright College, she has been a regular instructor for the URJ's "Introduction to Judaism" class. With her husband Ruben, they founded "Meshuga Bands," a company which creates fun and whimsical Jewish products for all age groups.

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