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Opening the Gates: Serving the Jewish People, Not Halacha

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The Talmud, in Kiddushin 1:1, states that a woman is acquired in three ways: through money, contract and sexual intercourse. There is nothing mentioned about a rabbi in the text. Because marriage under Jewish law is essentially a contractual agreement between the parties involved, it initially did not require the presence of a rabbi or any religious official. Today, halacha (Jewish law) requires a m'sader kedushin (wedding officiant), but it need not be a rabbi, as any knowledgeable Jew qualifies. Still, the presence of a rabbi helps for several reasons: we are trained to prepare couples for marriage; we are experts in Jewish wedding customs and in creating holy moments; and the presence of a religious or civil official is required under United States civil law.

Reform rabbis are granted the power of autonomy. We are given the right to choose at which life-cycle events we will or will not officiate and are therefore entitled to determine our own criteria. Some Reform rabbis have opted to take a more conservative approach and refuse to open the Jewish wedding ceremony to those for whom it does not traditionally apply: non-Jews. This is largely due to halachic reasons based on the formula during the ceremony which unites the couple, "according to the laws and customs of Moses and Israel." Other rabbinic colleagues are merely concerned with the integrity of the message they are sending by participating and do not feel that non-Jews should take part in ceremonies that are designed for Jews. And then there are other rabbis who represent the other end of the spectrum and officiate at the marriages of almost anyone. Those with authenticity develop consistent criteria in order to be involved; as such they represent the elasticity of the Jewish tradition and enable non-Jews to experience the power of Jewish rituals.

What are the appropriate criteria? Many Reform rabbis require that the couple keep an exclusively Jewish home. Others insist that the couple promise to raise their children as Jews. Such conditions sound valuable, but I find them difficult to enforce. I do not consider myself to be a member of the Jewish police, taking attendance at services, going from home to home ensuring that the members of our community are lighting Shabbat candles. And what recourse do we have if they fail in these requirements after the fact? In addition, there are certainly couples whose members are both Jewish, but who have no affiliation with a synagogue. I have found that many of the couples where one of the members is Jewish stay connected and seek to educate their offspring in Judaism. This is in large part due to the warmth they felt from the ceremony itself. It is hard for me to understand how some rabbis refuse to officiate at an interfaith wedding, but then expect and hope that the couple might join their congregation.

My criteria center specifically on the elements that I can control, i.e., the ceremony. I ask that the rituals involved be uniquely Jewish in nature. For this reason, I have chosen not to co-officiate with clergy of other religious traditions. What I have noticed since being ordained is that by the time couples contact me about the possibility of officiating at their wedding, they are already in love. They are already going to get married. The question is: will it be a Jewish wedding? My goal is, as warmly as possible, to open the gates for them to the wonderful world of the Jewish tradition. I am willing to meet with anyone who is seeking to have a Jewish wedding. During this initial meeting, I hold an open dialogue to determine the expectations the couple has, as well their vision for a ceremony and marriage. I begin a conversation with the couple in an effort to have them talk about certain issues that they may or may not have already discussed, like children, holiday celebrations, etc. I teach them what is involved in a Jewish ceremony and ask that the ceremony reflect Jewish tradition. In this way, the already joyous event welcomes the non-Jewish partner and their family into Judaism, as opposed to out of Jewish life.

According to the Torah and Talmud, a man was permitted to marry more than one wife. Around 1000 C.E., Ashkenazic Jewry banned polygamy because of pressure from predominant Christian culture. It continued to be permitted for Sephardic Jews in Islamic lands. Even today, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews continue to practice it. The modern state of Israel allows only one wife. Those Jews who move to Israel with more than one wife are permitted to remain married to all of the existing wives. The point here is not new. Reform rabbis are well aware that times change and our traditions evolve. As Rabbi Jerome Davidson points out, "As Judaism moved through the centuries, it was not the voices of the gatekeepers for the status quo that led the way. Rather the voices urging necessary, responsible change opened the doors to the future." The time has now come for more of us rabbis to recognize the elasticity of Jewish ritual and consider opening the gates of the Jewish wedding ceremony to others.

A mentor of mine once told me the story of a young lady that asked him to officiate at her wedding. He was the same rabbi who stood next to her parents in front of an open Torah scroll when she received her Hebrew name. He was the same rabbi who stood with her and handed her a Torah scroll on the day of her bat mitzvah. He refused to officiate at her wedding. For while her Jewish identity was strong, her love of Torah and the Jewish tradition firm, she had fallen in love with a non-Jewish man. Six months after her wedding day, she was killed in an automobile accident. The rabbi rushed to comfort the family and officiated at the young woman's funeral. After leading the shivah minyan one night, the father of the young woman said to the rabbi, "She was good enough for you to bury, but not good enough for you to marry." It is a powerful story--so powerful that the rabbi involved chose to change his stance on intermarriage. For rabbis, the decision to participate in interfaith weddings is often halachically based. For all of us, intermarriage is an emotionally charged issue. The young woman in the story was worthy of a Jewish funeral according to Jewish law, but halacha did not play a large role in her life. The rabbi involved did not serve a Jewish community steeped in halacha.

My role as a rabbi, as I understand it, is to serve the Jewish people. As such I take great pleasure in opening the gates to the power of the Jewish tradition for Jews, partners of Jews, as well as those who want to understand Judaism better. The Jewish wedding ceremony, like most of our life-cycles, demonstrates the beauty of Jewish ritual. It is, perhaps, best exemplified by the sacred moments that are compelling, engaging and fulfilling to ALL who wish to experience it.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is 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 "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. 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). Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to 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 "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. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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 "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Philip (Flip) Rice

Rabbi Philip (Flip) Rice and his wife Laurie are co-rabbis at Congregation Micah, an egalitarian Reform synagogue in Brentwood, Tenn.

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