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Rabbis Are Not Ministers

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When I am asked to officiate at a wedding ceremony which includes someone who is not Jewish, I never say no. I say, "I'm sorry--I cannot."

That answer only occasionally elicits the response I hope to receive, which is a genuine interest in understanding why. Most often, at least initially, it leads to an expression of disappointment, and often, anger, especially when the question is coming from a member of my congregation whose child is marrying someone who is not Jewish. At this point, most of my congregation knows my position (I have been in my current congregation for almost eight years), but I still receive an occasional inquiry from one of our members. I do not do a lot of weddings for those outside of my congregation, largely because I am busy enough with what is already on my plate. I do not accept any personal gifts for anything I do in my work as a rabbi (all gifts go into my discretionary fund), so there is no financial incentive for me to do so, and there are enough other rabbis around Greater Boston who are, in fact, pleased to be called upon that I am not in danger of leaving anyone in the lurch.

I do, in almost all cases, refer those who come to me, whether they are from within my congregation or without, to other colleagues who might be able to assist them. When both members of the couple are Jews, the list, of course, is longer. I will only refer interfaith couples to colleagues who I know well, and whose standards I respect. Not to do so would send a message that is unacceptable to me: I have the information you seek, but will not share it, as I believe that what you are planning to do is wrong, and I will not be complicit.

I cannot say that anyone's marriage is wrong. I know dozens, perhaps hundreds, of interfaith couples who have created strong, committed, Jewish families and households. I have devoted a substantial portion of my rabbinate to keruv. I serve as vice-chair of the Reform movement's Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community. I understand very well the importance of welcome and of reaching out to the ger toshav as well as to the potential ger tzedek. I simply cannot equate officiation at interfaith weddings with keruv. In fact, I would argue that we do so at our own peril. And even if it were true that rabbinic officiation led to a greater likelihood of attachment to the Jewish community, it is impossible for me to construct an understanding of my role as a rabbi that would allow me to do so.

A number of years ago, Harold Schulweis (who, of course, is a Conservative rabbi) spoke of the fact that he was seeing very few interfaith couples approaching him about marriage; what he was seeing was a significant number of interfaith-less couples. He was right, of course. Rarely do any of us see couples who are working out the challenges of being committed to different faiths. Most often, we see couples that include someone who has no connection to his or her religious heritage (most often Christian), and someone who feels warmly enough about his or her Jewish identity, and/or has parents who care that their child's is a Jewish wedding. This presents us with an opportunity, of course, but we must be realistic about what is happening and why they are coming to us in the first place. As this is being written, several studies of the relationship between officiation and Jewish identification/affiliation are due out within days. It will be interesting to see if they are able to provide any insight into the extent to which the predisposition to seek out a rabbi indicates a pre-existing attachment to Jewish identity. In other words, will anyone be able to tell us if having a rabbi is a factor in Jewish connection and affiliation, or simply a marker of existing commitment? Once upon a time, not all that many years ago, intermarriage was seen as a one-way ticket out of the Jewish community. That may have been true at the time, in part because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jews who intermarried were often treated like pariahs, even in Reform congregations, and their spouses were often, at best, tolerated. Forced to choose between their spouse and their community, it was a painful but not difficult choice to make. There were other considerations to be sure, and a Jew who became seriously involved with a non-Jew was already placing him/herself at the fringe of the community. But as the outreach revolution has proven, it does not have to be that way, and today's Jews know it.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is harder to send a message of welcome when a rabbi must answer the question of "will you officiate at our wedding" with "I'm sorry, I cannot." But it is absurd to suggest that those words, warmly and caringly uttered, turn people away from Judaism and the Jewish community.

Allow me to illustrate my point with an ostensibly unrelated personal story. A number of years ago, my wife and I experienced a late-term miscarriage (the story has a happy ending--the miscarriage led to the ultimate diagnosis of a condition which was remedied, and we are the parents of two healthy children). When my wife first entered the hospital late at night, the resident who examined her broke the news coldly and efficiently: "There is almost no chance that you will have a viable fetus at this point." The next morning, the doctor from our OB practice came in and gently said, "you know, we have had cases like this where everything worked out." My friend who was there for both of these conversations put it well: "The resident made us feel like it was the end of the world, and the other doctor made us feel as if we had won the lottery."

I submit that the same dynamic is at work when we discuss officiation with those who approach us. And while it is true that in most cases, what the couple cares about most is hearing the word "yes" (or at least the word "maybe"), a good "no" is better than a bad "yes."

By a good "no," I mean a response that transcends the content of the words, and invites the couple to be part of the Jewish community. If they are prepared to hear it, it means sharing the reasons why I cannot do what they are asking. It means affirming that I, and by extension, the Jewish community, am not rejecting them, even if they cannot fully embrace my response. I will always invite them to consider having a civil ceremony, and will work with them to incorporate appropriate elements of Jewish tradition. I always offer to be available to couples the same way that I am available to couples at whose weddings I will be officiating--including doing all of the same premarital work. To date, only one couple has taken me up on that particular offer, in part because they have decided to have a friend receive a one-time authorization to be the officiant (as can be done in some states).

In most other cases, I think, the couple has found a rabbi, and does not need (or want) me. I am always saddened, however, when I learn that in too many of these cases, the rabbi who officiated at their wedding spent very little (or no) time with them. I am troubled when I hear of weddings that involved no connection to the Jewish community and no effort by the officiating rabbi to help the couple become connected. And I am equally saddened when I learn that he same thing has happened when both members of the couple are Jewish. We abdicate our responsibilities when we allow our relationship with the couple to end as we walk away from the huppah--what I would call a bad "yes." Having a rabbi present is meaningless if it does not lead to something more, and too often, we allow ourselves to think that whatever we did leading up to the wedding, and the ceremony itself, was enough. I submit that following up with a couple at whose wedding I did not officiate a year or two later, and inviting them to an event or a program--especially one geared to interfaith couples--or just to come in and say hello--is of greater significance than whether I or someone else who carries the title rabbi was present for their wedding ceremony.

So why do I say "I'm sorry--I cannot?"

Because it is not the Jewish people, but the state, that says I am authorized to stand with that couple and sign their civil wedding license, because the state does not understand the difference between a rabbi and a minister.

We are all aware of the fact that certain Jewish concepts do not map well onto the English language, requiring us to employ the closest possible analogues, even if they do not quite fit, translating chet as sin, for instance, or teshuvah as repentance. It becomes more of an issue with regard to rabbis--smicha becomes ordination, and m'sader kiddushin becomes officiant.

And in turn, rabbi becomes minister.

You do not need me to tell you that a Jewish wedding takes place between two Jews, who establish a sacred (the most sacred) covenant, grounded in the greater covenant between us and God. The role we have inherited and been authorized by our tradition is not to "solemnize" marriages (as the licenses in Massachusetts say) any more than it is to give communion. To serve as m'sader kiddushin is a great privilege, historically afforded to rabbis who were sufficiently acquainted with the laws of kiddushin to play that role better than anyone else--but not to arrogate to ourselves, or to assume a mantle of priesthood that did not exist even when the Temple stood. The moment we "officiate"--and I put that word in quotes now to remind us that it is used because it is the closest English word we have--at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew, we have not only stepped outside of the authority conferred upon us by our people and our tradition, but have obliterated the distinction between Judaism and other Western religions, by rendering irrelevant the very foundation of our religious life: covenant. We complete the process that has been at work for decades, the assimilation not only of Jews, but of Judaism, as we declare that in fact, rabbis are ministers, and that Judaism is fundamentally no different from any other religion.

But it is. Even if in many ways the work that rabbis do is so very similar to that which ministers do, it is, in the end, not the same. Only we can lovingly draw the boundaries that will preserve its essence. And when we do so in ways that tell couples that we value them and want them to be part of our community, we are truest to our tradition, our heritage, our people, and our mandate--"yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin."

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 "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 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. 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. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. 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 Howard L. Jaffe

Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe is at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in Lexington, Mass. Rabbi Jaffe has a single mission: to continue to build a vibrant, dynamic Jewish community dedicated to the values and traditions of Judaism and the Jewish people.

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