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Interesting, Spiritual and Sacred

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I am glad to officiate at an interfaith wedding when the couple has agreed that they will have a Jewish home and, if they have children, will raise the children as Jews. I made this decision easily as I was studying to become a rabbi. Saying no to interfaith couples who meet these criteria makes no sense to me: they are going to get married in any event, so it seems best for them and for the Jewish people to have their marriage sanctified by a Jewish ceremony. This first Jewish event in their married life sets a tone and expectation for a continued connection with Judaism. My experience with interfaith couples--easily more than 100 of them--has been consistently positive. The non-Jewish partner is often quite enthusiastic about the details of the service and the meanings of the rituals.

As the couple and I plan the wedding, I am open to special requests which usually involve friends or relatives offering a reading or performing some type of music. They have a choice of whether or not to do the ritual of circling. They also can choose to write their own version of what I call "the free will statement." That is, instead of me formally asking "Do you, Jacob, take Catherine to be your wife, to love, to honor and to cherish?" they each say words to the other that indicate they are entering the marriage of their own free will.

However, I gently discourage other symbolic objects such as a unity candle which are not a regular part of a Jewish wedding. Our traditional ceremony has enough symbolism and meaning to ensure that the participants and the witnesses clearly experience that a transformation has occurred. I prefer not to add extraneous objects to what is already a powerful ritual.

Wanting the ritual to be fully experienced and appreciated by the bride, the groom, their families, and all the guests (realizing that for many this is their first Jewish wedding), I endeavor to create a ceremony that is interesting, spiritual and sacred.

Interesting

By this I mean the ceremony should speak to the participants' and guests' intellect and should satisfy their curiosity. To this end, I begin with a short welcome and introduction that gives a sense of the flow and length of the ceremony. As we proceed through the ceremony, I explain briefly the significance of each major blessing (such as the Shehecheyanu and the Shevah Berachot) and object (the Kiddish cup, the huppah). If the couple has chosen to begin the ceremony with circling, I share with the guests the personal meanings the bride and groom have each ascribed to this ritual.

Spiritual

For both the Jewish and non-Jewish guests, creating the space for an individual emotional experience and a chance for quiet reflection are ways to bring a spiritual element to the ceremony. For example, following the exchange of rings, I invite everyone present to take a few moments of silence to send their personal blessings and prayers to the bride and groom. Another moment that offers the possibility of personal reflection occurs just before the breaking of the glass. I explain that this ritual has many interpretations, but the original intent was to acknowledge that even in our moments of greatest joy there is still some brokenness, and at this moment our joy is tempered by thoughts of those who did not live to celebrate with us, or were unable to be with us for other reasons. Then (having discussed this previously with the wedding couple, of course) I read the names and relationships of the closest relatives who have died, were unable to travel, etc. I learned this from Rabbi Stephen Pearce and have incorporated some form of it into every wedding at which I officiate, and more often than not it provides an important emotional and spiritual release.

Sacred

The third component of the wedding ceremony is the sacred, by which I mean the holiness that accompanies a community gathered to share this special, transforming moment. One of my goals during the wedding is to include the family and guests in the ceremony so that they do not feel they are merely onlookers. Although many of my remarks are addressed to the wedding couple, I also look over their shoulders and talk directly to the guests and to the wedding party standing at the sides of the huppah. I encourage everyone to participate in the Hebrew blessings if they know them, and if not to indicate they agree by saying "Amen!" If their "amen" is wimpy, we try it again until they make it clear they really mean it. If I had a decent singing voice I would teach them a short niggun that we could use as a theme during key times of the ceremony. In any event, I feel it is important to engage everyone as one community actively participating in the ritual.

My approach to an interfaith wedding ceremony is the same as a ceremony where both partners are Jewish (with the one exception that with an interfaith couple I use the Hosea quote rather than Harei Aht). My intention is to engage the couple, their family and friends intellectually, spiritually and through the sacred gathering of community. I hope my suggestions show how the ceremony can easily be used to welcome the non-Jews present and allow them to fully be a part of the celebration rather than a passive, unmoved observer.

Hebrew for "Who has given us life," part of a blessing thanking God for bringing us to a special or new moment. Hebrew for the plural of "blessing" (and "bounty"). A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn offers spiritual direction in Tucson, Ariz. She has worked extensively with interfaith couples and with people considering conversion to Judaism.

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