Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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My decision to officiate at marriages between Jews and non-Jews was based on my hope that couples who wanted a rabbi to officiate at their wedding ceremony and wanted an exclusively Jewish wedding would be welcomed by the Jewish community and be encouraged to embrace Jewish life. While I am sure that this has happened in some situations, such as when I have been privileged to officiate at namings and brises and b'nai mitzvah ceremonies for the children of such couples, I also know that often it has not. Yet, more than 26 years later, I remain convinced that officiating at intermarriages is the right thing to do.
Couples should view their wedding as reflecting who they are and the home they are in the process of creating. By choosing to have a Jewish wedding, even if one of the partners is not Jewish, the couple is saying that Judaism is important to them and will play an important role in their family. It does not mean that they will suddenly become more observant, but that they are committed to Jewish observance, learning and values. It also does not mean that they will not have a Christmas tree or will not share holidays with the non-Jewish partner's family, but that such practices, if they so choose, will not interfere with their commitment to Judaism.
Many couples do not see the wedding in this light; they might be seeking a rabbi to officiate (or co-officiate) to please the Jewish parents. While honoring one's parents is an important mitzvah, it is not a sufficient reason for me to officiate.
My requirements are that the couple has an exclusively Jewish ceremony (I do not co-officiate) and--if they are planning to have children--commit themselves to raising the children as Jews. I encourage them to take an Introduction to Judaism class and to become a synagogue member.
Many of the couples do, indeed, become active in synagogue life. This involvement might be observing Shabbat and holidays at home, being active in a synagogue and the Jewish community, visiting Israel or taking classes. If a couple is committed to doing some or all of these things, then why doesn't the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism before the wedding?
Sometimes it is a matter of time; with all of the preparations for a wedding, there is just not enough time to seriously undertake study that would lead to conversion. At other times, the person just might not be ready to make the commitment to Judaism. I have worked with a number of people who have decided to become Jewish five, 10 or even 50 years after marrying a Jew. It is quite gratifying to have played even a minor role in helping a couple along the path to greater involvement in Jewish life.
Of course, there are also cases when the couple does not follow through with embracing a Jewish life. They might celebrate Passover with family or light Hanukkah candles, but other involvement with the Jewish community is minimal. While I am, of course, disappointed, I still continue to officiate because I know that each couple is different and have observed that many of these couples wholeheartedly embrace Jewish life. For me, the bottom line is that my welcoming interfaith couples to Jewish life must include agreeing to officiate at their wedding if they, in good faith, are committed to embracing Judaism.
If I am unable to officiate because they do not meet these requirements or, just as often because they have scheduled their ceremony for Shabbat (which has even happened with Jewish couples!), I offer to work with them to create a ceremony incorporating certain Jewish rituals and blessings, refer them to a rabbi who might officiate or, on occasion, refer couples to ministers or other individuals who are able to officiate at weddings and I know will be sensitive to the couple's wishes. I hope that this will keep the door to Judaism open for these couples, even though I am not able to officiate at their wedding.
When I do officiate, the ceremony is similar to ceremonies for Jewish-Jewish couples, with the exception of the "Harei at…" and "Harei atta…" which are said to one another when exchanging rings. Instead, I ask the bride and groom to say to each other: "As I place this ring upon your finger, may our separate lives become one, as we commit our everlasting love to each other."
In most cases, the non-Jewish partner is either not religious or only nominally religious. Some have seriously begun exploring conversion but are not prepared to complete the process prior to the wedding. The Jewish partner is sometimes very active in Jewish life. Often, however, the Jewish partner is not active yet strongly identifies as a Jew. I try to explore these religious differences with the couple and help them find a path to Judaism, at the same time respecting the thoughts and feelings of the non-Jew.
As a rabbi, I have learned that we must reach out and embrace all who are interested in being part of Jewish life including interfaith couples. While it is, of course, possible to reach out to these couples, but not officiate at their weddings, for me being able to help them celebrate this most important occasion is an important part of reaching out and welcoming them to our community.