Rabbi Alvin Sugarman is rabbi emeritus at The Temple: Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Atlanta, Ga.
They Would Marry Whomever They Loved
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Forty-one years ago when I entered Hebrew Union College, I was firmly convinced that mixed marriage was anathema to the Jewish people and its future. I held to that conviction throughout my years at HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion and at my student pulpits. And it was at the latter that I had my first 'rabbinic' encounter with the issue by counseling a young man to sever his romantic relationship with a non-Jew. At that time I was very proud of my ability to persuade someone from continuing their relationship with some outside our faith. Then in the middle of my senior year, I held a session at my student pulpit with the college students who had come home for Thanksgiving break. The topic quickly turned to the issue of intermarriage; after hearing me give all the arguments against interfaith marriage, they promptly, to a person, told me that they would marry whomever they loved, regardless of whether or not they were Jewish.
The following summer when I began my rabbinate as an assistant rabbi, I was required and happy to follow the policy of my senior rabbi, who would not perform an interfaith marriage. However, I kept wondering about that young man whom I had dissuaded from marrying the non-Jew he loved. And as well, I remembered the determination of those college students who would not let anything deter them from marrying "the one that they loved." Further, as soon as I arrived after ordination at my congregation, one family after another began to come to me with stories of how they felt their children had been pushed back from Judaism because their children could not find a rabbi to conduct their wedding ceremony for the reason that the person they had chosen to marry was not Jewish.
Two and a half years later, when my senior rabbi died suddenly on the last day of 1973, multiple requests came immediately for me to perform mixed marriages. I refused them all and told everyone that I could not give them an answer until I had given the issue a deep soul-searching, now that it was to become my decision. However, after much internal struggle over the next nine months, and many heated discussions with my wife who was absolutely against the idea of a rabbi performing a wedding ceremony for a Jew and non-Jew, I made the decision to conduct interfaith marriages for members of my synagogue community, if the couple both took a basic Judaism course and agreed to raise Jewish children. To me the marriage ceremony is very much a public prayer offering a couple's commitment to each other, to God, and to the future of the family institution. It helped a great deal that the words from Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 7, "…My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," are emblazoned across the front of the entrance of The Temple in Atlanta.
I deeply believe that intermarriage offers an incredible opportunity for the future of a healthy, growing Jewish community. Every time we welcome interfaith couples into our community by having their rabbi perform their ceremony, and their synagogue help them in raising Jewish children, we are making new Jews. For instance, if an interfaith couple has two children, then that one Jew in the marriage has created two new Jews. Further, it is always possible for the non-Jewish partner who has been welcomed into our community to eventually find his or her way into Judaism through their own conversion.
On the other hand, when we say no to an interfaith couple by refusing to conduct their wedding ceremony, no matter how much we may profess that we are welcoming them, we are sending a message that we really do not want them to be a part of the Jewish community. The one partner's non-Jewish identity damns them as an outcast, not worthy of rabbinic participation, and therefore the blessing of the Jewish community, at that most important time of their life.
Someone once told me of a rabbi who when asked why he does not perform an interfaith ceremony declared, "I'm not going to throw away 2,500 years of Jewish history for a 15-minute ceremony." This kind of thinking shuts out the reality of the 21st century and deadens us to the incredible possibilities that interfaith families can bring to our community. Further, over the years I have found that with many of the interfaith couples, the non-Jewish partner has a greater interest in having and maintaining a religious home, and so often it is the non-Jewish partner who either kindles or rekindles the other's commitment to Judaism.
Our Jewish community faces a critical juncture in its future. One road, the road far less welcoming, foretells, I believe, a much-diminished Jewish community, one bereft of multi-faith households wherein Jewish children are being raised. The other road bears an outstretched hand to interfaith families to join with our Jewish community to explore all the rich possibilities that a multi-faith family can bring to our community in their quest for spiritual wholeness, in an environment that does not deny for the children the non-Jewish identity of one parent and one set of grandparents, while at the same time nourishing the Jewish identity of those children, and gently holding the door open for the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish partner.
Now more than three decades later, I still believe that requiring both partners to take a basic Judaism course, to commit to raising Jewish children, and to belong to a synagogue all help to insure that the welcoming message I am sending as a rabbi by performing their wedding ceremony is done within the context of assuring the future of our faith and people.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.