Rabbi Elias Lieberman has served the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Falmouth, Mass., since 1990.
Why I've Changed My Mind
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This essay was originally delivered as a sermon during Rosh Hashanah 2008.
In the late spring of 2009, I will celebrate two wonderful milestones: 25 years of marriage to my beloved Lori, and the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi. My ordination followed my marriage by two days: I sure had my priorities straight!
Since then, I have been tremendously blessed, both in my marriage and in the career I chose for myself. At the time, though, I was hardly certain of what I wanted to do with my life. I backed into the rabbinate, hoping that my strong Jewish identity would gain me admittance to the seminary and that, once admitted, I would find myself drawn to the notion of becoming a "professional Jew." As with most areas of graduate education, there was a vast gulf between what is taught to students, on one hand, and the actual experience of working as a credentialed rabbi.
Ordination certificate in hand, I headed off to my first job. I knew what I was going to do, but not necessarily how to do it. On-the-job-training, and a caring and competent mentor, meant a great deal to me those first years.
Even before I was ordained, a cousin of mine contacted me to ask if I would officiate at her wedding once I became a rabbi. When she told me that her fiancé was not a Jew, I said no--I would not officiate. It was a painful lesson for me, even before I had my rabbinic credentials, about expectations and disappointment. I still have a letter from my parents expressing their surprise and dismay at my decision not to officiate at interfaith weddings, a policy to which I have adhered for 25 years.
I said no to my cousin because I was convinced, from all I had learned about Jewish wedding traditions, that a Jewish wedding is a ceremony intended for two Jews, and that its language stops making sense when someone who is not a Jew utters the words, "I make you my spouse according to the laws of Moses and the Jewish people." Moreover, sociological research clearly showed that interfaith marriage--as a phenomenon--was detrimental to long-term Jewish survival. The overwhelming majority of children born to interfaith couples are not raised as Jews. I believed that officiating at an interfaith wedding would convey a message to those in attendance that the organized Jewish community could make its peace with interfaith marriage, ignoring the troubling reality that, statistically, most interfaith marriages lead to a Jewish dead-end.
For decades, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (an organization of Reform rabbis) recognized the right of each and every rabbi to make Jewishly appropriate decisions, while remaining solidly opposed to rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings. I stood among the majority of Reform rabbis who would not officiate at such weddings.
I understood that I had principled colleagues who saw the issue differently, and who officiated (sometimes on the condition that certain requirements had been met) at such weddings. I also knew that I had colleagues who charged outlandish fees and prostituted themselves, taking advantage of the market. Finally, I knew that when it came time to find work as a congregational rabbi, my stance on officiation might pose an obstacle to getting hired: an increasing number of synagogues might want a rabbi who would officiate, as the rate of intermarriage continued to climb in the 1980s and 1990s.
To its credit, the Falmouth Jewish Congregation did not make my stance on officiation a deal-breaker. Over the years, there have been some congregants who, knowing my position, chose not to broach the subject of interfaith marriage, though there have been others who did indeed ask me if I would officiate at their interfaith wedding. Those conversations were never easy; most rabbis do not enjoy saying "no," especially to people they know and about whom they care deeply. I know, too, that there have been people who left the congregation over my position, either because it was the "last straw" or because their attachment to the congregation was based on that one issue.
A lot has transpired in the broader American Jewish community over the past 25 years. One can view the climbing rate of interfaith marriage as either a) a disaster for Jews, or b) a reflection of diminishing anti-Semitic attitudes. The Reform Movement in particular has devoted admirable time, energy and resources to interfaith outreach, striving to draw interfaith couples and families into the orbit of synagogue life, and encouraging them to raise Jewish children (and also encouraging the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish partner). Our congregation has, with laudable energy, devoted itself to the work of outreach to interfaith couples and families.
An analysis of our religious school population has revealed that upwards of 70 percent of our children come from interfaith homes. The wonderful news, of course, is that all these families have made the conscious decision to raise their children exclusively as Jews. The non-Jewish parent in those homes may, or may not, be practicing another religion. There are certainly large numbers of our non-Jewish members who might be best described as gerei toshav, or resident sojourners--people who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish community. Jewish rhythms and values resonate with them, even if they do not seek to become Jews themselves.
Having served this congregation for 18 years, I have seen many children of intermarriage blossom into adulthood with firm, vibrant Jewish identities. They've attended Jewish events, joined Jewish groups on their college campuses, enjoyed Birthright trips to Israel, and, in some cases, developed passionate Jewish interests, concerns, and attachments to Israel.
I have also encountered Jewish couples--in which both partners are Jewish--whose children never evolve Jewish identities, because their parents lack Jewish commitment. There are few givens, and few predictable conclusions, when it comes to real people, real couples, real families.
In many ways, I am not the rabbi I was 25 years ago. I certainly have less hair. More importantly, I now tend to see shades of grey far more often than I see black and white. I am less certain about the impact my actions will have on long-term Jewish survival and continuity, and I tend, therefore, to focus more on micro, rather than macro, issues. My desire to address the needs of the person standing before me tends to trump the question of how my decision may affect American Judaism a century from now.
My commitment to Reform Jewish principles of autonomy have deepened as I have found myself dealing with real people, not abstract concepts. Rules I felt compelled to follow 20 years ago have, in some cases, come to feel unhelpfully rigid, and I've either set them aside or modified them. Even before I moved to Falmouth, in 1990, I had officiated at a Jewish wedding for a same-sex couple, a possibility our Jewish ancestors never envisioned (but one that felt absolutely appropriate in the late 20th century, when my understanding of sexual identity, and my commitment to making all Jews feel like part of the community, clearly outweighed the fact that Jewish tradition never considered, much less sanctioned, such a possible union).
Let me tell you some of what has changed for me as a rabbi since my ordination, in 1984. In any given year, I receive dozens of inquiries about officiating at weddings. The majority of these calls come from couples, and occasionally from parents of the bride or groom, who live out of state and are planning a Cape wedding. More than 95 percent of those calls are from interfaith couples seeking a rabbi to officiate. Because these couples are not local, I can't sit down with them and explain why I don't officiate at interfaith weddings. Sometimes, when asked, I will refer couples to colleagues who do perform such ceremonies and whose principles I respect. More often than not, I suspect that our conversation leaves a residue of disappointment and anger behind, especially when it is the Jewish partner making the inquiry. There is a tacit assumption on the part of many Jews that rabbis should meet their needs, regardless of the request--even if it violates the rabbi's personal principles.
Having been here for 18 years, I have seen a generation of children--including my own--grow up in this congregation. I harbor no illusions that all of these kids will automatically, or magically, find Jewish partners when they fall in love and begin to contemplate marriage. Most adults in this congregation have been aware of my position on officiation, but it may not have mattered to them--in any concrete way--when their children were small. But now, as their kids bring home potential spouses, the issue may loom larger.
In the past year I dodged the bullet twice: I had the privilege of standing beneath the chuppah on two occasions, officiating at weddings for two young women who grew up in our congregation and who had the good fortune to find wonderful husbands who are also Jews. But I knew that this was a statistical fluke, that more requests would be coming my way or--more likely--the requests would not come because these young people, or their parents, would be aware of my position on officiation.
Then, several months ago, I received the kind of call I'd been dreading, from a lovely young woman who grew up in this congregation and whose multi-generational family has been deeply rooted and involved here. She told me that she was engaged, and wanted to know if I was available to officiate at her wedding.
After extending my "Mazal tov!" and asking her fiance's name, I moved on to the next, necessary question: "What is his faith background?" She told me that he is a non-practicing Catholic, and then I, sadly, proceeded to tell her my policy of not officiating at interfaith weddings. I felt I owed her that response immediately, even though I was eager to sit down with the two of them to explain myself more fully. To their great credit, they accepted my invitation to get together. We made a date for several weeks later.
In the meantime, I grew anxious. When the day of our meeting finally arrived, I met a charming young man and his bride-to-be (who, of course, I knew well). They shared the story of their relationship, their plans and desires and intentions, including their shared desire, if blessed with children, to raise them as Jews. I proceeded to explain why I do not officiate at interfaith weddings. I believe they understood and respected my decision, my principles, even as they felt disappointed.
Then the young woman said something that shook me to my core. She told me that she had been very fearful that, as an interfaith couple, she and her husband would not be welcome in this congregation. I didn't understand how she had reached that conclusion, especially since so many of her peers as she was growing up here were from interfaith families. But I suppose it is possible that our kids are simply unaware of who has two Jewish parents and who does not.
Her fear--that she and her husband would be unwelcome in the congregation she calls "home"--was so painful to hear. It sent seismic shockwaves rippling through me. By the time our conversation ended, I had suggested another rabbi to whom they might turn, but then I told them one more thing: that our conversation had reawakened in me something that I had begun to grapple with some time ago. I asked them to hold off on contacting that rabbi, unless they absolutely had to pin down a date, a time and a rabbi to officiate.
And then my struggle began in earnest; how could I justify the principled position I had held for so long, a position that, through the years, had caused no small amount of disappointment and pain? It was time to balance my need to honor my understanding of a particular tradition and ritual with the needs of an increasing number of people, many of whom I know personally, to experience a most significant moment in their lives in a Jewish context, notwithstanding the fact that one of them is not a Jew.
I can no longer assert that my non-officiation plays a role in Jewish continuity. There may have been a time when rabbinic refusal mirrored the broader consensus in the Jewish community that interfaith marriage was harmful to Jewish survival. But if such a time existed, we are long past it. While I firmly believe that it is wonderful when Jews find other Jews to marry (and in doing so, increase the foundation upon which they build their marriage and their families), I do not believe that interfaith marriages are inherently weaker, or incapable of bringing a new Jewish generation into being. I know many interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner, with or without the active support of the non-Jewish partner, lives a vibrant, Jewishly-connected life. Interfaith marriage is simply not a "dead end" for Judaism. I have more than enough evidence to convince me otherwise, even while I acknowledge that those interfaith couples who affiliate with synagogues represent only the tip of the iceberg of interfaith relationships.
I have felt the need to reconcile what some perceive as conflicting messages: we welcome interfaith couples and families with open arms; but I, as the rabbi of this welcoming congregation, refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings. While I, personally, don't see this as a contradiction, I do understand how it has been perceived. We pay a high price when couples who want to create a Jewish home, and contribute to Jewish vitality, instead turn away from the Jewish community because I refuse to officiate at their wedding.
A colleague, Rabbi Brian Field, assesses the situation this way: "In effect, the current discourse [on interfaith marriage] can be characterized as 'yes, but.' Yes, you're welcome, but we can't help but see you as a symptom or a problem. Yes, you're welcome, but we wish you had married a Jew, or we wish that you would convert. Yes, you're welcome, but we wish you were different and more than you are." I have chosen to free myself from the constraint of the unanswerable question, "Is it good for the Jewish community?" and to focus, instead, on the question "Is my officiation good for this couple? Is it good for the Jewish half of this couple?"
To that end, I always try to speak honestly with you, even when it is difficult. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that my own children, ages 19 and 14, enter into this equation. I pray that my kids will be blessed to find loving marriage partners who bring to their lives the same joy and fulfillment that Lori has brought to my life every day since we first met. I have no illusions whatsoever that they will consciously seek out Jewish partners when the time comes, despite the strong Jewish identities that they each possess. They have grown up in a different world than I did, and their understanding of what it means to be a Jew has been shaped by that world, and that experience. The thought of saying "no" to my children, were they to request that I officiate at their weddings, is too painful to contemplate, and is part of the reason that I have decided, after almost 25 years, to change my stance on officiating at interfaith weddings.
Having decided, finally, to reverse my longstanding policy, I did several things. I called the young couple with whom I had recently met, told them I would feel privileged to stand beneath the chuppah with them, and thanked them for helping me clarify for myself the appropriateness of my decision. I then contacted several members of our congregation who had approached me, over the years, about officiating, and whom I had been unable to accommodate. I wanted them to hear directly from me, and not through this sermon, what had changed and evolved for me as a rabbi. It is certainly possible that I have forgotten someone who falls into that category; if this is the case, please accept my apology for not having contacted you.
I also realized that I would want and need to clarify the conditions under which I will officiate at interfaith weddings. As a rabbi I still view my mandate as being to encourage Jewish choices and to help create a vibrant Jewish present and future. To that end I will ask couples who anticipate having children to make a commitment to raising them exclusively as Jews. I will speak to the non-Jewish partner about the possibility of becoming a Jew--not as a prerequisite for marriage, but because it simply never occurs to some non-Jews who have drifted, or are estranged, from the faith tradition in which they were raised, that they might embrace Judaism and, in doing so, forge a deeper connection with their spouse. I will modify, as I deem appropriate, the ritual of the wedding ceremony so that it does not violate my sense of what a non-Jew should say and do ritually. I will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy, since I intend to create a Jewish wedding and I cannot embrace a tradition that is not my own.
With couples that may be entering a second or third marriage, or for whom raising children is not relevant, the conversation will be somewhat different. It will be important for me to understand the faith commitments of both partners, to determine if a Jewish ceremony is appropriate. Since I have always reserved the right to decline an invitation to officiate at a wedding, even for two Jews, I will reserve that right in the future.
Jewish tradition has never required that a rabbi be present at a wedding. According to Jewish law, it is sufficient for a Jewish man, in the presence of two kosher witnesses, to give a Jewish woman something of value--a ring, for example--and for the man to declare that he is taking her as his wife. That's it!
The person who conducts a wedding is known, in Jewish tradition, as m'sader kiddushin, literally "one who manages [the] order [of] the wedding [ceremony]." Because rabbis are familiar with ritual and liturgy, they are the ones who traditionally serve as m'sader kiddushin. There is, however, another term (in Hebrew) that far better describes the role I wish to play in Jewish weddings, be the participants two Jews, a Jew and a non-Jew, a woman and a man, two men, or two women. The word is m'karev--"one who [causes to] draws near." It is my fervent hope that my decision to change my stance towards officiation will draw me closer to Judaism, the Jewish community, and the couples who will share sacred space and sacred time with me beneath a chuppah.
I cannot guarantee that the couples I marry will never divorce; I cannot guarantee that they will join a synagogue; I cannot guarantee anything except my commitment to make them feel welcome into Jewish life.
I cherish the passage by poet and writer Maya Angelou in which she concludes, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
The couples whose marriage licenses bear my signature may, in fact, forget what I said to them in our pre-marital planning sessions, or beneath the chuppah. They may, in fact, forget the details of what they did during their ceremony. But, if I am successful in my work as a rabbi, they will remember how I made them feel. And it is my heartfelt prayer that they will feel proud to be making Jewish choices, and proud to be valued by me as an important part of the Jewish community.
I have one more thought to share with you before I bring this sermon to a close. While I realize that the subject I've chosen to speak about this morning only affects a portion of our community, I did feel it worthy of discussion--for the following reason. This holy day season both demands and encouragements introspection. We are impelled to pull away the careful facade we construct over the course of a year, or a lifetime--and see our true selves.
For almost 25 years, part of my professional self-definition has been that of a "rabbi who doesn't officiate at interfaith marriages." That is about to change, as a consequence of much careful self-examination. This means seeing myself in a new way; acknowledging the price that I, and others, have paid for my decisions; and reflecting upon what it has meant to conduct myself a certain way for so long. It means adjusting my sense of self. It means realizing that I needed to make a change in my life and have found a way to do so.
I rarely hold myself up as a role model, but I will humbly suggest that the personal change I have described this morning is but an example of a process each of us is called to consider, especially at this time of year. None of us has reached a state of perfection; each of us can articulate a list of things we'd like to change or improve in our lives. My friends, now is the time. It is always the time.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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.