Rabbis (At Least Some) Ought to Officiate at Interfaith Marriages
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I really wanted to have a Jewish wedding. I wanted to have a Jewish ceremony, because I feel like that's an important part to me. And also we discussed that I might want to send our children to a Jewish school if and when we have children. So, that was kind of discussed before we even got engaged. But I also know that Joe is very strong in his beliefs and I didn't want him to do anything that was not real. I understood that he could go through the conversion process, but he wouldn't believe it and I never felt like it was something he should do. So… I only wanted to see rabbis that would not push the conversion on us. I found this list online of all the rabbis that performed interfaith ceremonies in the U.S., which I found to be a very small list.
-From a March 25, 2007, interview with Joe and Sara, an intermarried couple, a year after their wedding. Names have been changed.
In 1975 I graduated the Jewish Theological Seminary. The experience transformed me, bringing me into a deep connection with the halacha and the halachic process. I found joy in my own personal religious life as well as bringing others into connection with Jewish life. The law established a connection for me to God. In making decisions within changing circumstances, that connection was two-way: the halachic process was a way of understanding what God wanted of me.
For more than 10 years, I've officiated at interfaith weddings, sometimes with another clergy from another religious tradition. This experience has once again transformed me, bringing me into a deep connection with couples that want to use Judaism as they start their families. As I guide these couples, I find joy as they find their own meaning and establish their own connection to the tradition and to God. In their own way, they find out what God wants of them.
It's been quite a journey from the Rabbinical Assembly to the CCAR, from thinking that I needed to convince people to follow the halacha as it is written to helping them establish their own relationship to these details of Jewish life. This has been a shift in my role from deciding Jewish law in response to the questions of individuals (the posek) to being the connector between individuals and their own understanding of Jewish law.
The Jewish partners in these intermarriages are a new phenomenon in Jewish history. At various points in history the decision to marry a non-Jewish person was a decision to "marry out." It was a step in a clear pattern of assimilation. The "out-marriage" was a necessary step to enter the larger society.
This is no longer the case today. Our society is open and no one needs to "marry out" to join the larger society. People can just drop their Jewish identity if they choose. So a Jewish person who comes to a rabbi for officiation at his or her intermarriage is making a positive Jewish choice. The Jewish person is asking a rabbi for help in using Judaism in his or her marriage.
The non-Jewish partner's decision is also in a new context. The non-Jewish partner may be very religious or not. Being "not Jewish" no longer means being strongly identified with another religion. So each intermarriage has its own specific set of circumstances. These circumstances offer us one of the most effective and powerful teachable moments in our rabbinate.
In each wedding ceremony, the two individuals become life partners. There is a moment of change of status, which is the central and holy moment of the ceremony. Those of us who stand with the couple at that time of change are given two souls and all their family interconnections and all their ideas and hopes to guide through this change.
Sara (speaking about her mom and her fiancé): Joe kind of broke that team up a little bit. Not in a bad way, but just in a sense that now he was the first person that I would go to and I think she had a little bit of a hard time with that.
Joe: I think it was very hard for her.
Sara: I think it was difficult for her.
Joe: Understandably so. Changes like that are difficult and she had this special relationship with you and let's face it, I got in the way.
Sara: Yeah. So, that was maybe--
Joe: It was funny. She expressed the discomfort like almost focusing on one point and otherwise she's been very good about that.
Interviewer: What was the one point?
Joe: How people are going to walk down the aisle.
Sara: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's funny, because I remember crying on Rabbi Rim's couch.
Joe: A couple times.
Sara: Because it was so dramatic and traumatic at that time, but now it's like I forgot about it. And he was like, "You know, this is going to be a minor thing. I understand this is a problem now." And I was like, "Yeah." But it was just basically she was having a very hard time with who was going to walk me down the aisle, because I was trying to figure out how to include my dad and my mom and I don't have a very close relationship with my dad, but I didn't want to not have him walk down the aisle at all. So, what I was going to do is just walk with my brother and then have my mom and my stepdad walk behind me and my dad and his now ex-wife walk behind them. And my mom was just really not happy with that and it was just like there were multiple, long, loud arguments on the phone and all this stuff was brought in. So, we definitely bumped into each through the wedding planning process. It was funny. She would make fun of me for having this big wedding, because they didn't have these kinds of weddings in Russia at all. And I'm like, "It's my wedding. We're paying for it. We are both working adults."
With that change of status as the frame, each couple I have met is more than willing to spend the months needed to shape that moment, to decide what words are appropriate at the giving of the rings, to decide whether or not there should be a ketubah and what it might say. The discussions around these types of decisions offer the couple a safe place to share their feelings about the use of ritual in general, and about specific language relating to God and the Jewish people. Most powerfully of all, these decisions create the ceremony--a public statement to their families about their new life together.
I acknowledge that this approach places the liturgy in the hands of the people praying. I am not the person who decides what a proper prayer is. The couple learns about Jewish liturgy and how to use it with intellectual integrity. For example most couples will understand that they are working in a framework that is not that of traditional Jewish law and will easily understand that using "kdatmoshev'yisrael" is inappropriate. On the other hand, discussing whether to use a theological statement, such as "b'anaelohimv'adam" or a more humanistic statement such as "anil'dodiv'dodili," can be an important sharing and mutual discovery.
From an interview on Feb. 25, 2007 with Mary and Shimon, an intermarried couple; Shimon is Israeli. Names have been changed:
Mary: We did the mother's glass of wine.
Interviewer: Both of your mothers?
Mary: His side did it in Hebrew and then my side translated. It worked out nice. We had pretty much even numbers.
Interviewer: Your mother said kiddush? It was okay in your family for a woman to do?
Interviewer: I've never been to an observant house in Israel where a woman would ever say kiddush. Like on Friday night it's always going to be a man.
Shimon: Obviously. Both of them--they were so excited.
There are some clear facts about intermarriages.
Jewish people will continue to choose to marry non-Jewish people. Our society places a high value on marrying for love and being happy within marriage. Our society places a high value on the democratic ideal of paying little attention to ascribed (as opposed to achieved) status.
People who are planning their wedding offer the rabbi a powerful teaching opportunity which ought not be ignored.
Walking an interfaith couple through a wedding ceremony officiated by a rabbi:
- is an opportunity to help people use Judaism in a way that makes meaning in their lives.
- is an opportunity to help people use ritual to enhance their families' lives.
- is an opportunity for the rabbi and the couple to speak about God and to struggle toward answers for crucial questions.
Someone who makes Jewish legal decisions, interprets Jewish law ("halakha"). Plural is "poskim."