Rabbi Barbara Penzner is a Reconstructionist rabbi serving Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, Mass. She is also the mother of two children who teach her every day.
From Yes to No
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When I was a rabbinical student, I came to a decision that I wanted to be an open door and to reach out to as many Jews as possible. My enthusiasm for Jewish life was overpowering (for me) and I believed that just as I had come to see Judaism as a vast array of choices, so I could open that menu for others who might not feel so enthusiastic. At that time I was committed to officiating at interfaith ceremonies, within limits. I was also committed to performing what we then called "commitment ceremonies" for two Jews of the same gender who wished to be life partners.
For my first four years as a rabbi, I performed all kinds of weddings: a Jewish man and a Jewish woman, a Jew and lapsed whatever, a Jew and a Buddhist, two Jewish women. My congregational work was part-time, so I felt fulfilled by these additional events, not to mention enriched by the extra parnasah. In my creative zeal, I loved working with couples to develop ceremonies that were meaningful to them, though based in the traditional symbols and language of the Jewish wedding. I would not officiate in a church or on Shabbat. My bottom line for interfaith couples was that the non-Jewish partner did not actively practice a religion antithetical to Judaism (read: Christianity). I can't recall how explicitly I stated it, but we worked under the assumption that their children would be raised as Jews. I firmly believe in the psychological and pedagogical necessity of bringing children up with a solid foundation in one religious tradition. Sometimes I even would say it was better to choose to raise children with Christianity as the sole religion rather than try to raise them with both. However, if a family continues family customs for cultural reasons, or participates in Christmas celebrations (outside the home) as a way of remaining connected to extended family, I do not consider that the same as giving children multiple religious identities.
In the ceremony, I spoke to the "fellow traveler" with words of welcome that I had borrowed from Rabbi Al Axelrad. In addition to working with interfaith couples on the wedding ceremony, I tried to help them deal with issues of marriage, the "time bombs" they were likely to encounter (e.g., when children came along), and talked about what God meant to them and how they could create a Jewish home.
Over the years, I began to insist that the couple participate together in educational programs to help them understand what it would mean for them to raise a Jewish family. Fortunately, Boston has developed a fine and extensive array of "Introduction to Judaism" courses, principally sponsored by either the Reform or Conservative movements. I collected books on the subject of intermarriage. My favorite was The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews & Christians (Morrow, 1991) by Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen. During that period, I even participated in a group for married interfaith couples with a local Lutheran minister. We met with the couples and eventually shared a Passover seder together. I learned a lot about what these couples were going through, though I was never 100 percent at home.
As my rabbinic career shifted, I left the Reconstructionist congregation and began to work in a congregation that was affiliated Conservative. At about the same time, I began getting calls from couples that forced me to stretch my own boundaries. I found myself saying "no" to couples. Perhaps they had a Catholic priest in the family and wanted him to take part in the ceremony. Perhaps they wanted me to avoid talking about their decision to raise their children as Jews, to "protect" a parent or grandparent. Perhaps they just couldn't find time to go to class. I was also getting calls from parents, looking for a rabbi because the bride and groom had either gotten discouraged, or simply didn't have time to look for a rabbi. Or perhaps the desire to have a rabbi officiate was not really what the bride and groom wanted at all, but they felt it was necessary for shalom bayit (my term, not theirs).
In any case, when I told people "no" I discovered that they were just as hurt as if I had said that I didn't officiate at intermarriages at all. My justifications were not adequate. The line I had drawn had gotten too fuzzy and my decisions appeared more subjective than principled.
Eventually, I decided not to officiate at intermarriages anymore. There were many factors: my new congregation would not have approved (I assumed); my life was already too busy; it was just too complicated. The main explanation I have settled on for the past 10 years is that I am not trained to be a rabbi at the wedding of someone who is not Jewish. I know how to do a Jewish wedding--even for two Jews who are not strongly committed to Jewish religious life. But how could I adequately reflect the experience and world-view of a bride or groom who was not Jewish? The ceremony that I would perform would have Jewish symbols and rituals and language. What could I add to the ceremony from outside the Jewish tradition that would be authentic to the non-Jew and authentic to the wedding ceremony as I know it?
As a result, I no longer officiate, but refer couples to rabbis who are comfortable answering the question. I am grateful for the list of at least a half-dozen rabbis, men and women, Reform and Reconstructionist and independent, whom I hold in esteem and who attend to these couples with sensitivity and integrity. There are rabbis who perform intermarriages who are not on my referral list. No one needs to know who they are or why I don't refer to them. I am not interested in judging another colleague. My goal is to help couples when I can.
I am also happy to talk to couples on the phone before I refer them, or to meet them in my office or to welcome them into our congregation. My decision not to officiate rests on my own sense of self and not theirs. I also refer couples to Jewish justices of the peace, particularly when they seek to find a rabbi and a priest who could bring both traditions into the ceremony. I assure them that they can have Jewish symbols without having a rabbi. However, I generally do not spend time talking to inquiring parents. If they are looking for a rabbi to perform an interfaith wedding, I give them a couple of names and get off the phone as quickly as I can. (My apologies to the colleagues who have to deal with them after me.)
Of course, there is often an exception to any rule. I did officiate at one wedding several years ago in which the bride was Jewish and the groom was not. They persuaded me to work with them because they were an older couple with no plans to have children. A Jewish wedding was important for the bride. The groom did not have any religious objections or requests. In that case, I did not have to make demands on them (beyond the demands of working on their relationship and discussing the future of their marriage) and they were comfortable with the Jewishly-rich ceremony that I offered.
Though my views on officiating at intermarriages have changed, I still officiate at same-sex weddings, for two Jews. As a Massachusetts resident, I can now sign the marriage license as well. And if a gay or lesbian couple is looking for an interfaith ceremony, I have a list of rabbis I can refer for that as well.