Rabbi Steven Foster is senior rabbi at Congregation Emanuel in Denver, Colo.
Why and How I Say No
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No issue for modern American rabbis has been more perplexing that the one that deals with the performance of interfaith weddings. I refer to them as "interfaith weddings" because all of the rabbis I know that serve congregations spend an enormous amount of time working with interfaith couples, even if they do not perform interfaith weddings. And so the purpose of this article is to share why it is that I, as a congregational rabbi, do not perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews, even though I, too, spend an enormous amount of time working with those couples and have found a great deal of satisfaction in that process.
First, and very important to me, is that I try never to speak with couples over the phone about whether or not weddings will be performed by me. It is one of those difficult decisions, and yet I do not want couples that have a hope and an expectation that I will perform a wedding for them to be told that I cannot do so through a cold and impersonal phone call. Sometimes those phone calls are made by rabbis or cantors and sometimes, even more perplexing to me, they are made by support staff. Most couples really want and need the time to hear from us personally. It is hard talking with couples about weddings versus marriage, about why I cannot, from my perspective, perform a wedding unless both partners are Jewish. It is important to them to hear directly from us and not in some cold and impersonal way.
When I meet with couples, I tell them the following: it seems to me that there are three reasons that people come to a rabbi to get married. First, to have legal sanction for their marriage; second, to have a religious ceremony; and third, to have a Jewish ceremony. When it comes to legal sanction, our signatures certainly provide that provide that for marriages, in most states. While Americans pride themselves on the separation of church and state, when it comes to this very important life-cycle event, religion and government overlap. People come to rabbis because they want some kind of religious ceremony. Otherwise, I believe that they would ask a judge or justice of the peace to perform their ceremony for them. But I do point out to couples that this is not just some generic religious ceremony when they ask a rabbi. Lastly, they ask for a Jewish ceremony because, for one reason or another, they want the comfort of something that is familiar to at least one of the partners. Sometimes they want a ceremony that will also include ministers or priests so that both partners can feel comfortable and at home. Sometimes they want a rabbi so that they can please their parents or grandparents. Whatever the reason, they want a Jewish ceremony.
When the couple and I talk about the Jewish ceremony, I point out that the only required element of a Jewish ceremony is that a groom shall recite to his bride, harai ot, "With this ring your are consecrated unto me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel." I inform them that the "laws of Moses and Israel" refer to the entirety of Jewish legal expressions found in the Torah, in the Talmud and in the Codes. I also point out that nowhere in Jewish law is it permissible "Jewishly" to have an interfaith wedding take place. I say that the issue is not about them, but it is about me--that I feel that it is not possible for me as a rabbi to perform a wedding that is so contrary to Jewish law and Jewish tradition. I do try to share with them that they are wonderful people and we hope and pray that their marriage will last a long time. And that this is not intended as a criticism of them personally, but is a statement about the faith commitments that I have made in my rabbinate.
Most of the couples will say to me, "Rabbi, we understand that you cannot use the phrase, harai ot, because of your commitment to Jewish law and so we ask you to still marry us, but leave that faith expression out of the ceremony." I try to explain to them that as a rabbi I find it impossible to perform a wedding ceremony that does not include harai ot because then it is no longer a Jewish wedding ceremony. It becomes a Catch-22 for me. Mostly the couples do understand. I further share with them that if they were to go to a priest or a minister, the chances are that that cleric would say "yes" to performing the wedding but the Jewish partner would probably ask that cleric not to utilize the phrase that they are married "in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" or "in the name of Jesus." They agree that that is probably what they would do, but I also share with them that a minister or priest utilizing or intoning the name of Jesus is, to him, what harai ot is to me. Under most circumstances, the couple does understand and reaches hard for other kinds of alternatives.
While most couples do understand the dilemma that faces a rabbi who is trying on the one hand to be sensitive to their needs as a couple, while on the other hand being sensitive to Jewish tradition, they generally ask me how best to deal with the situation, given the fact that I will not perform the wedding for them. I tell them that they certainly are free to seek out a rabbi who does perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews, but I ask them to keep in mind that each time a rabbi says he will perform such a wedding, he generally has some other conditions that are "subjective" by nature that may preclude his participation. For example, some rabbis will only perform interfaith weddings if the Jewish partner is a member of his or her synagogue; others will only perform these weddings within the immediate area, perhaps within an hour's drive. Still others will perform interfaith weddings with Christian clergy if no references are made to any religion other than Judaism. There are many reasons, and combinations of reasons, why some rabbis will do interfaith weddings but only under specified conditions. It is always a difficult and painful experience for couples as well as rabbis. After all, many of us spend many years cultivating relationships with families. It is not that we are insensitive to their needs, it is simply a fact that for many of us, Jewish law, in regard to wedding practices, trumps anyone's desire to have a rabbi marry them.
I have a compromise that I offer to couples who I know and have been a part of the congregation. I let them know that I am willing to offer a personal blessing of them after the wedding that should take care of their desire to have some kind of religious sanction for their wedding. I tell them that if a judge a performs that wedding, and not a clergy person from a different tradition, then I would be delighted to share with them some words of encouragement or a charge, and perhaps to bless them, or perhaps even to do a motzi before dinner. I ask them to have some kind of separation between the wedding and such a blessing so that I am not later accused of performing a wedding with other clergy or with a judge. For example, I say to them that if there is a cocktail period between the wedding and the blessing, that would serve my own needs best. I share with the couple the fact that, from a Jewish point of view, they are married and, indeed, are entitled to have God's blessing upon their union.
While what I have described above is the ideal, there have been painful times in my own tenure over the congregation when some people have left the congregation when I said, "No, I cannot perform the wedding." The number is fewer than some might expect because I do my best to take the time to meet with the couple and to try to offer alternatives to them.
And, so in conclusion, I have some advice-- especially for younger rabbis. First, try to meet with the couple in person. Do not allow a secretary, a receptionist, an assistant, or an administrator to deliver your message because it will, invariably, get misunderstood simply as "no" without the understanding of why that "no" is imperative for you as a rabbi. Second, if you are in doubt and have yet to determine how best to deal with the issue of interfaith weddings, until you have made that decision, it is best not to perform such ceremonies. You can always perform a ceremony once you have determined that this is what you choose to do. But once you have started down the road of performing wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews, it will be very difficult for you to retract. Third, try to find a personal way to say "I can help", "I can be of service to you in your marriage" and not to make the relationship between the couple and the rabbi simply "No, I cannot marry you." It is off-putting and leads to anger on the part of the couple. And, fourth, and perhaps most important, it is not enough to deal only with weddings. Rabbis must take the responsibility for developing programs within the congregational setting that will reach out to intermarried families. Saying "no" to a wedding does not mean that we say "no" to families. We can and do provide comfort to interfaith couples by what we do programmatically.
Weddings are wonderful times in the life of couples. They are also an opportunity for us, as rabbis and cantors, to be at the center of their lives when they most need us. An interfaith wedding is not simply another 15-minute ceremony and it deserves time and energy given to the couple. In the end, I believe that whether a rabbi performs weddings between Jews and non-Jews or does not, the time spent with the couple is well worthwhile.