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Mixed-Marriage and the Rabbi: A Rational Alternative to Company Policy

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Reprinted with permission of the author from Meditations of a Maverick Rabbi, by Rabbi Albert S. Axelrad (Rossel Books, 1985).

There was never any doubt about it during those years at rabbinical school. After all, Judaism prohibited it. On the battlefield of Jewish survival, it was a threat, an enemy to be combated. Along with assimilation and the dreadful state of Jewish education, mixed marriage (1) was clearly deleterious and dangerous to the health of the Jewish people. As one of my classmates insisted, we (future) rabbis were "in the Jewish business," not "in the marriage business." It was a cut and dried textbook case--never should a rabbi participate in a mixed marriage. With this categorical imperative, I fully concurred.

Ordination was followed by the experiences and realities of the front lines. Real life. At first, I held firmly to my principled, abstract conviction, turning away all calls on mixed marriage. Within my first two years in the rabbinate, however, the human dimensions and Jewish ramifications of the mixed-marriage predicament impressed themselves increasingly on my mind. The clarity of the textbook blurred.

One day, two undergraduate seniors came by, intent upon mixed marriage. She, the daughter of a pillar of New York's Jewish community, was majoring in Judaica, preparing for what has become a distinguished academic career as a Jewish historian and author. He, a New England Yankee and humanist, was committed to participating actively in a full pattern of Jewish home life and child-rearing. What to do? After much soul-searching and pondering, I decided to break with my rigidity and join with them in a marriage ceremony, albeit not the normative Jewish one.

Subsequently, many more mixed-marrying couples have come my way. Many of them had been turned away rudely and crudely by other rabbis, with alienating effects. To this day, I, too, turn most mixed-marrying couples down. Not infrequently, however, it is clear that some mixed-marrying couples will produce Jewish families. Sometimes, in fact, the bride or groom boasts a parent who is a rabbi, or a famous Judaica scholar, or a prominent Jewish communal leader. It finally dawned on me that sometimes a given mixed marriage may actually serve the interests of Jewish continuity. A recent case in point is that of a renowned rabbi's daughter, intensely devoted to Judaism and the Jewish people, and her husband-to-be, a lapsed, unbelieving Catholic, who already bakes hallah every Friday, but who was reluctant to convert formally before the marriage. His reluctance was mostly a function of the pressure he was receiving from her family. I have encountered numerous such cases. In one situation the bride's father, an elderly, European Judaica scholar, with an international reputation and with well over 25 Judaica books under his authorship, took the initiative himself and asked me to conduct a mixed marriage ceremony for his daughter and her husband-to-be, who had long ago dropped all of his connection to Protestantism.

Within the last decade, I have received abundant referrals, not only from Reform rabbis, but from numerous Conservative rabbis too, and even from several Orthodox colleagues. Some of these referrals come from rabbis who agree with my position, but who will not or cannot conduct the ceremony, while others come from rabbis who disagree but respect my view. One such Conservative rabbi has told me that "It's good for the Jewish people that there are rabbis like you," who conduct mixed-marriage ceremonies discriminately, selectively, and in a principled way. To my mind, the common denominator in all of the situations in which I agree to conduct the ceremony is that this particular marriage, and, consequently, this particular ceremony, is in the interest of Jewish continuity.

It is perfectly understandable that Orthodox rabbis refuse to participate in a mixed-marriage ceremony. According to their self-definition, they are governed by the letter of Jewish law, which they consider to be binding and immutable. For them, mixed marriage is proscribed by law handed to Moses on Sinai. However much I may differ from it, and even reject it, I can certainly understand and respect such an overarching ideology.

Non-Orthodox rabbis, however, are not necessarily governed by the binding authority of halacha. More often than not, the basis on which liberal or non-Orthodox rabbis refuse to participate in mixed-marriage ceremonies is that, in their view, mixed marriage tends to weaken the fabric of Jewish life and to threaten the continuity and survival of the Jewish people.

Gradually, I have come to question the accuracy of this generalization, and have concluded that though it often applies, it often simply breaks down. There are clearly situations in which mixed marriage will result in Jewish continuity and will strengthen the fabric of Jewish life. In such situations I would argue that rabbis should be present for these couples, playing the role of mekarev, drawing them near to Judaism and the Jewish people, not estranging or rejecting them. The unfortunate aspect of this posture is that it means that we need to assess each relationship on its Jewish merits. The role of assessor is downright uncomfortable. For the sake of Judaism and the Jewish people, however, it surpasses the more categorical position.

Sophisticated sociological analysis tends to buttress the position I advance. In my view, much of the sociological and statistical data that have been brought to bear against the trend of mixed marriage have been one-sided, incomplete, propagandistic, hysterical. Only within the last 12 years or so have we become privy to more reasonable studies on the subject. These constitute a breath of fresh air, though they have yet to exert the influence they deserve. "Must" reading for all independently-minded people who want to appraise the issue for themselves and reach their own conclusions, are such studies as Leonard J. Fein's "Some Consequences of Jewish Intermarriage" (Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 1971) and Fred Massarik's "Rethinking the Intermarriage Crisis" (Moment, Vol. 3, No. 7, June 1978). The essays point out that mixed marriage is not the threat to Jewish survival that we have been led to believe it is. They suggest that the phenomenon could well yield a net gain for the Jewish people. Far from losing Jews, mixed marriages that result in offspring (particularly from Jewish mothers) being raised as Jews, end up multiplying the number of Jews. (2) Common sense clearly affirms the likelihood of such a prospect.

In any event, it is plainly apparent that the phenomenon of mixed marriage is here to stay, however much we would wish it away. If anything, its prevalence will continue to escalate with time. It is for us rabbis not only to accept this state of affairs but to convert it from a potential liability into an asset. Through its "Outreach" program, the Reform movement has begun to do so. If it is the survival of Judaism and of the Jewish people that is uppermost in our priorities, then we must go beyond Reform's "Outreach" program.

We must question our old assumptions on the phenomenon of mixed marriage. We must bring ourselves to realize that what really matters are these issues and question: What kind of (Jewish) household does the couple aim to establish? What will be their patterns of (Jewish) child-rearing? If in the course of our pre-marital counseling, interviewing and conversation, the answers to these questions are positive from the Jewish standpoint, then we should be conducting the marriage ceremonies of these couples. (3)

As a rabbi my prime commitment is to the creative continuity of Jewish culture and religious life and to the survival and development of the Jewish people. Such perpetuation, as I see it, is predicated basically on the strength and quality of the Jewish home, as ours is a family and home-centered tradition. In deciding whether to participate in a mixed-marriage ceremony, therefore, I need to know two things about each couple--that the partners are uniting in a compatible, warm, loving and sharing relationship, in which the individuality of each is fully and mutually respected, and that in their home, Jewish continuity will be strengthened, not weakened or ended. My aim as a rabbi is to foster and facilitate the links necessary for Jewish continuity. To be party to the severing of such links, or to encourage what one colleague calls "terminal Jews," would be internally inconsistent with my commitment as a rabbi.

When a couple shares this commitment to Jewish continuity through the home, I am prepared to participate in their marriage ceremony. The situation to which I am most receptive occurs when the Jewish partner is seriously and actively a Jew, and the non-Jewish partner is altogether removed, both by practice and belief, from any other tradition; when both partners are committed to the intellectual and experiential learning of Judaism in a systematic way (through either a course or an open-ended, individualized tutorial); when the couple is intent upon establishing a Jewish home and family life, and upon raising their children actively, conscientiously and exclusively as Jewish human beings.

By "exclusively" I mean to exclude the syncretistic approach, i.e. practicing and/or merging both Judaism and some other tradition. My experience is that such an approach often confuses the children, leaves them rootless, and fragmentizes the home, as well as failing to enhance the continuity of Judaism. I also mean to exclude the adoption of what some consider to be a neutral compromise, e.g. ethical culture, Unitarianism, the society of humanists, etc., or the absence of religion altogether, on the assumption that eventually the children will choose for themselves. This solution too jeopardizes Jewish continuity at home and deprives the children of our rich heritage. Children, it seems to me, will be encouraged to opt for Judaism themselves on the basis of a warm, reasoned and active Jewish experience at home, with their parents serving as meaningful models.

As I earnestly disagree with these other approaches, I conscientiously refrain from conducting such a ceremony and from referring to another colleague who may officiate in such a situation. Instead, I recommend a civil ceremony, coupled with a creative, spiritual component for couples who are so inclined. Be that as it may, whatever direction the decision takes, I urge that couples probe deeply the issues of childrearing and religion, and that they resolve them prior to the marriage, rather than postponing them.

In some such mixed-marriage situations, the non-Jewish partner may choose to stop short of formally becoming a Jew prior to the ceremony for one or more of several reasons. Among these may be the desire to be involved at the time of "conversion" (4) in one's own family life, away from or entirely independent of one's parents' household; the need to make certain that the "conversion" is separate from the marriage and not an accommodation under pressure to the Jewish mate and/or his/her family; the desire to become still more knowledgeable first and to feel more a part of the Jewish people in spirit (thinking more naturally and instinctively of the Jewish people as a "We" rather than a "They"). Although I believe that "conversion" would be preferable before the marriage, for the sake of maximal unity and harmony, I nonetheless respect these reasons for delaying it. It is such a couple that I wish to encourage and whose hands I wish to strengthen. If this couple is unprepared to marry in what seems to them to be an antiseptic or unmeaningful civil ceremony, with a justice of the peace, but wants a Jewish ceremony so as to reflect their Jewish commitment, I am prepared to join with them in such a marriage ceremony. It follows, of course, that the ceremony not occur in a church setting and that the rabbi be the sole officiant, conducting the ceremony alone and not "ecumenically", i.e., with a priest or minister.

The ceremony which I conduct is a religious one. It is prayerful, reflective, and includes religious poetry. It is also eclectic and welcomes contributions from the couple. It borrows considerable Jewish elements and sources, including Biblical and post-Biblical selections, the sharing of wine, the shattering of a glass. However, it is not itself nor does it pose as THE normative Jewish ceremony, and it does not include the major elements which would imply that it is, especially, the legally binding declaration recited to the bride by the groom as he presents the wedding band ("With this ring, be thou consecrated unto me, according to the laws of Moses and the people Israel"). Usually there is no huppah (traditional marriage canopy) either. Although, for obvious reason, I also refrain from presenting a ketubah (the traditional Jewish marriage contract), I have developed a substitute marriage contract, designed expressly for the kind of mixed-marriage ceremonies at which I officiate.

Usually toward the beginning of the ceremony, in order to avoid deluding anyone present, I include the following statement, by way of explaining the nature and purpose of the ceremony:

We celebrate your marriage, your commitment to one another, and your desire for permanence together, by hallowing this moment with a singular religious ceremony… one which, on the one hand, borrows some Jewish elements and sources, but at the same time is not itself the recognized, Jewish ceremony. We share in this particular kind of ceremony in support of your decision to have a unified and coherent Jewish religious tradition and identification in your home. Our purpose here is to strengthen your resolve to continue together your study and experience of Judaism and your determination to participate together in establishing a warm and loving Jewish family life. We affirm on this occasion your commitment as a family to become part of the Jewish community, one which not only shares the Jewish experience in its festivals and traditions, its valleys and peaks in history, but also strives to translate its concern for a wholesome spiritual life into the struggle for a decent life for all people. (5)

For to you, ___________________, as you have expressed, Judaism is a significant part of your life, a positive and serious part of your identity; while for you, __________________, it is as you have said, a people to whom you are an ally, a world to which you are open, and into which, with your family, you are prepared to grow.

Describing the ceremony straightforwardly in terms of what it is not, I would again emphasize that it is not the standard, normative Jewish ceremony. Since any marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew lacks all standing in Jewish law (although it is recognized legally and civilly), I would feel compromised in reading the normative Jewish ceremony. That would imply that in the eyes of the Jewish tradition the marriage is indeed a Jewish one, an implication that is contrary to reality, as I have said. I would not want to mislead anyone in attendance, least of all the couple. In fact, when it is the woman who is non-Jewish, it deserves to be mentioned clearly that if she does not formally become a Jew before childbirth, the children themselves will not be recognized as Jews from birth and will require conversion in order to be considered as Jews, according to Jewish law, and according to all religious branches of Judaism, except Reform and Reconstructionism.

Actually, I consider and define my mixed-marriage ceremony to be a Jewish ceremony without being the Jewish ceremony. In fact, I have come to view it as "Part One" of the Jewish marriage ceremony. "Part Two," the normative Jewish ceremony, would occur whenever the non-Jewish partner formally becomes a Jew. At that time, following the "conversion" procedure, the couple would either return to me or approach any rabbi of its choice anywhere, and join in the recognized Jewish marriage ceremony, in the synagogue or rabbi's study, at home or in the outdoors, privately (in the presence of two suitable witnesses) or in the presence of family and friends. In that way, the marriage would take on the vital Jewish dimension of having attained full standing in Jewish law and within the Jewish community at large.

The notion of a two-stage marriage ceremony is neither alien nor unprecedented among us Jews. Centuries ago, our marriage ceremony occurred in two stages, Kiddushin or Erusin (betrothal) and Nissuin or Likuhin (nuptials), also separated from one another in time. To this day, in fact, the traditional Jewish marriage service, telescoped for centuries into a single unified ceremony, preserves a reflection or reminiscence of the two separate stages, in the form of the Birkhat Erusin (the betrothal benediction). The kind of two-stage ceremony that I now propose admittedly differs from its much earlier precursor, but the possibility of it should not strike us as bizarre or unfeasible.

As time goes on, I continue to second-guess myself and to rethink my approach constantly. With every challenge, I wonder anew whether I am on the right track. I feel unsettled by the knowledge that I am taking a gamble with every mixed-marriage ceremony that I conduct. Yet, in the end, my conclusion is that the greater gambles with Jewish continuity are the positions other than the one to which I have gravitated. This much is corroborated by my experience. Though I do not keep statistics, the fact is that I stay in touch, at least for a few years, with just about all of the mixed-marrying couples in my small, select, hand-picked sampling. To my knowledge, all of them maintain demonstrable Jewish households and raise their children as Jews, actively and exclusively. Overwhelmingly, the non-Jewish partners "convert" formally, usually within the first two years of the marriage and, in any event, almost invariably before childbirth. The vast majority of my couples do indeed celebrate "Part Two," the normative Jewish ceremony. (6)

Many of the couples, and many of their Jewish parents, including rabbis, Judaica scholars and Jewish communal leaders, have written to me not only to express appreciation for the ceremony, but to register the affirmation that the pre- and post-marital counseling that I offered, along with the mixed-marriage service itself were most conducive to, if not instrumental in, the Jewish households and childrearing patterns the couples have established, and to the non-Jewish mate's "conversion" itself. I take these messages not as ego-stroking but as a clue that I really am on the right track.

Which is not to say that all reactions are favorable. Indeed, some parental reactions are less than enthusiastic, even hostile. One Conservative rabbinic colleague whose daughter was mixed-marrying strenuously objected to my position and rejected it outright, allowing that my intentions were good, but my position "misguided." Another, a Reform colleague, never returned my letters or calls, boycotted the wedding, refused to speak with his daughter, despite his wife's protestations. One Jewish mother attended her son's mixed marriage, but with bitterness, hurt and resentment written all over her face. I can easily understand such negative reactions. Truth is that if any of my children were to marry out, I know myself well enough to be certain that I would be very upset emotionally, to say the least. I would hope, however, that my love of and commitment to both my children and my people would be sufficiently profound to lead me to recover in time and to strive not only to accept the mixed marriage, but to help make it work--for them, for Judaism, and for the Jewish people. Easier said than done--perhaps. But, as Rabbinic Hebrew has it, leit breira--there is no acceptable alternative.

Such a position recommends itself to me as a rational alternative to company policy on the subject of mixed-marriage. I urge it upon my Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist colleagues. In the interest of Jewish continuity we must question our old assumptions and bend our wooden regulations. We must reach out to mixed-marrying couples, invite them in and make them feel welcome and wanted. Perhaps above all, we must keep our cool, remembering that mixed-marriage itself is not an illness but a symptom. Hysteria and alarm over the symptom's epidemic proportions will serve only to divert attention from the underlying problems, which have to do with the glitter but unattractiveness of much of what passes for Jewish life. It is that challenge that we must address, positively, creatively, energetically, while making the trend of mixed-marriage work for us rather than against us.


1: For purposes of this essay, the term "mixed marriage" refers to a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew who does not convert to Judaism prior to the wedding.

2: It would be useful to know to what extent the participation of rabbis in mixed marriages conduces to mixed-marrying couples establishing Jewish homes, raising their children as Jews, and to the non-Jewish partners ultimately "converting." Conversely, it would be useful to know to what extent rabbinic refusal and rejection exert destructive impacts. Sociological analysis would be rendering a service by honing in on this issue, without bias.

3: I confess, incidentally, that I tend to believe them and take them at their word. In general, I tend to adopt an unguarded stance in life. With 18 years of rabbinical experience under my belt, I still have no regrets over that. On this issue in particular, I find the couples to be candid and honest. When they seek out my rabbinic services in order to appease their parents or grandparents, that invariably surfaces quite rapidly in our conversation.

4: I use the term "conversion" advisedly, inasmuch as it sometimes implies the formal acceptance of a system of dogmas and creedal requirements. This is not really consistent with the meaning and significance of "conversion" in Judaism. Rather, I prefer to use longer but more accurate terms like "coming aboard," "becoming part of the Jewish people" or "becoming a Jew," as we are, in my view, not a church or organized religion, but, with Mordecai Kaplan, a trans-national people, with a religious heritage as our single most central but not exclusive bond, and, with Martin Buber, a "covenanted community." Such terminology is also more in keeping with the Hebrew terms for "conversion," namely le-hitgayer and le-hityahed.

5: For this formulation, I am indebted to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Everett Gendler.

6: A few years ago, in fact, a Conservative Rabbinic colleague in Hillel, who had once bitterly attacked my position on the issue, wrote to tell me of a particular couple whose mixed-marriage ceremony I had conducted several years earlier. They were now both graduate students on his campus, deepening their ongoing study and experience of Judaism with his help. He was writing to remind me sheepishly of his earlier attack and to share with me the good news that the bride was "converting" with him, after which he would be conducting "Part Two" of their Jewish marriage ceremony. Similar letters have come from other Hillel and congregational colleagues around the country.

Hebrew for "sanctification," Jewish marriage is often referred to as Kiddushin, as one partner (traditionally, the bride) becomes "sanctified" (dedicated) to the other partner (traditionally, the groom). 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 "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. 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.

Rabbi Albert S. Axelrad is the chair of the Center for Spiritual Life and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Emerson College in Boston. He is the former longtime chaplain and Hillel director at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

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