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The Mitzvah of Officiation

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This essay is based on a talk given to the national Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, December 1996, in Los Angeles. Published in Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism: Conflicting Visions (Routledge, 2001), edited by Dana Evan Kaplan.

The smicha I received from Dr. Glueck in 1963 states that my ordination as a rabbi "authorized and licensed" me to "perform all rabbinical functions in the name of God and Israel." My decision to officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples is guided by that mandate.

For the first seven years of my rabbinate I did not officiate at mixed marriages. But I started to question the wisdom of my position. Ultimately I concluded that the reasons I gave for not officiating were outweighed by the reasons for officiating. And so in 1970 or 1971, I informed my congregation of my decision to officiate at mixed-marriage ceremonies.

Over more than three decades I have met with hundreds of couples, including many interfaith couples. Many have expressed their appreciation for the insights they gained from our discussions and for the values that were imparted to them through the symbols and rites of a Jewish marriage ceremony. Almost all of the Jewish partners of those mixed marriages have not only maintained their ties with the Jewish people but have strengthened those bonds, a strength expressed in the creation of homes where children are being raised as proud and participating Jews. I wish I had saved the notes I have received over the years. But my memory has kept all of those affectionate and loving expressions of appreciation, the looks exchanged between Jewish brides or grooms and their parents that clearly revealed their comfort and satisfaction in having a Jewish ceremony.

An Unscientific Review

Recently I conducted an unscientific review of the last 101 marriages I officiated at as of December 1996. In 28 of those 101 marriages both parties were born and raised as Jews. In nine of those marriages one partner was not born and raised a Jew but converted to Judaism prior to the wedding. In four cases the one partner not born Jewish converted after the wedding. Out of those 28 marriages, 10 couples did not have children. Sixty of those 100 marriages involved a born Jew and a non-Jew. My review shows that in the last 28 of these marriages the children were certainly to be raised as Jews and the non-Jewish partner was essentially not practicing his or her faith yet was not of a mind to convert. In 20 of those 60 marriages I do not know for certain how the children are being raised, although I suspect that the majority are not raising their children in any non-Jewish faith. In 12 of those 60 marriages there was no expectation of having children.

 

 

No children

Children raised as Jews

Uncertain

TOTALS

Born Jews

10

18

0

28

Pre-marriage convert and Jew

N/A

N/A

N/A

9

Post-marriage convert and Jew

N/A

N/A

N/A

4

Jew and non-Jew

12

28

20

60

TOTALS

N/A

N/A

N/A

101

The most recent 100 marriages I performed prior to December 1996

In those 28 families where the children are being raised as Jews, Jewish identity will be expressed in many forms, just as it does in homes where both husband and wife are Jewish. The non-Jewish partner in these 28 cases is a non-practicing Christian who does not plan to convert but will respect and support the Jewish partner. A few years ago I devised a modified form of a ketubah for just such occasions. It contains a statement that the Jewish partner "reaffirms a strong commitment to the Jewish people" and the non-Jewish partner is "intent on respecting and supporting" the Jewish partner in that commitment.

One such wedding sticks out in my memory. The bride was the daughter of a past president of our congregation. She was president of our youth group, a National Federation of Temple Youth board member and a camper at Camp Swig. She went on to enroll at Hebrew Union College and receive degrees in education and Jewish communal service. Her first marriage, to a Jew, ended in divorce. I officiated at her second marriage, to a brilliant man who is not converting but is totally committed to supporting a Jewish home. He continues to find meaning in his Christian faith although he does not attend church. This couple now has a son, and the child is being fully raised as a Jew. They are members of a synagogue. Their Jewish marriage ceremony remains for them a significant moment. It was a moment that brought greater strength to our Jewish people.

In the 20 marriages where I do not know how the children will be raised, I am inclined to believe that, as a result of our counseling and as a natural outgrowth of the ceremony, there will be a continuation of Jewish loyalty and identity by the Jewish partner. If there are children, they most likely will be raised as Jews but certainly will not be raised as Christians. Most likely they will be taught about Judaism and Christianity, and the chance for their opting for a full Jewish commitment is certainly good. That the door is opened wide for that development is due, in large part, to my readiness to officiate at a Jewish ceremony. This group, for better or worse, falls into the same category as couples where both partners are Jewish, but whose Jewishness is rather marginal.

The Role of Jewish Law

It seems to me that the first consideration of a rabbi in determining whether or not to officiate at mixed-marriage ceremonies ought to be the role that Jewish law plays in the matter. Clearly Jewish law does not allow for a Jewish marriage ceremony to be conducted unless both parties to the marriage are Jews. Beyond that the law goes on to qualify who can be married. A descendant of the kohanim cannot marry a divorced person or one who was descended from an illegal marriage of a kohen. Later expansion of that included the proselyte as well.

However, the rabbinical conference held in Philadelphia in 1869 determined that those qualifying laws had lost "all significance and are no longer to be respected." I believe that all Reform rabbis, with no exception, agree that such laws should not be imposed and therefore the restrictions pose no impediment to a marriage. Similarly, the law requiring that both parties to a marriage be Jewish has, for some of us, lost significance and need no longer be binding.

Jewish law does accept the validity of the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew even though it obviously discourages such unions. But were one to invoke halacha in this matter, then one must invoke it in other matters as well. For we who are liberal Jews, halacha is not binding. We say that as a statement of neither pride nor guilt. Rather, it is a defining statement of who we are, of our liberality. We turn to Jewish law for guidance but not governance. As Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, put it so well, "We look to the past for a vote, but do not empower it to give us a veto." It surprises me then to see Reform rabbis invoke halacha to justify their stance with regard to not performing mixed marriages. I cannot in good conscience invoke halacha in one area if I am not prepared to invoke it fully.

I do not, for example, invoke the halacha when determining the order of aliyot in my congregation, with the Kohen and the Levite receiving the first two aliyot. I do not invoke it in my view of gays and lesbians. I do not invoke it in my determination that men and women may be seated side by side in the synagogue, nor in hundreds of other practices. Though I have a great respect and appreciation for custom and tradition, I am equally comfortable in departing from it, reshaping it, or creating new customs or practices.

The words of the Jewish marriage ceremony need not be taken literally any more so than many other words we use in prayer. We often will sing "Vezot ha•Torah asher sam Moshe," "This is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel," yet we do not take those words literally, as we accept a more scholarly understanding of how the Torah came into being. The words of the blessings we teach every child to chant before the haftarah speak of the words that came from Moses, the servant of God, the people of Israel, God's people, and the prophets of truth and righteousness, yet we find that not each and every word of the prophets continues to ring out in absolute truth for all of us. Certainly the formula of the Kol Nidre is taken less than literally, and the words of the Unetane Tokerf, speaking of the decree being written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, is taken somewhat less than literally by most of us. Why have the words of the marriage ceremony become so sacrosanct that they are not also open to nonliteral meaning? K'dat Moshe v'Yisrael for us means not the exact laws of Moses and the people of Israel but the spirit of the tradition, which is one of love and devotion between husband and wife.

Departing from Tradition

A Reform rabbi who has chosen to officiate at mixed-marriage ceremonies must explain why he or she chooses to depart from two operative resolutions of our rabbinic conference, the one passed in 1909 and the one adopted in 1973.

There are instances when I have consciously dissented from a standard set down by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Those standards represent the majority's will but are not entirely binding on each and every member of the CCAR. An example of this is the work done in the area of responsa over the years by some of the most scholarly members of the rabbinate. I find their decisions to be interesting but not necessarily binding. Autonomy of the rabbinate is indispensable. Responsible and conscientious exercise of that autonomy is equally as indispensable. Still another example is the prevailing use of the prayer books published by the CCAR but which some congregations, my own included, do not use.

Whenever I meet with an interfaith couple, I make clear to them that in the Reform rabbinate there are rabbis who will officiate and rabbis who will not, and both are right. I convey to them the importance of freedom and autonomy in Reform in general and in the Reform rabbinate in particular. I hope that I always convey to them the respect I have for my colleagues who hold a position different from mine. I am not always sure that my colleagues reciprocate with equal respect.

Guiding Principles

What, then, guides me as a Reform rabbi in determining whether to officiate or not officiate at a mixed marriage?

The first guidepost is the relationship of the act to the survival of the Jewish people. The matter of concern for Jewish survival is not the same as acceptability to the wider Jewish community. Long ago I ceased worrying about whether what I do as a Jew is acceptable to the wider community. Those of the Orthodox and Conservative movements who want to reject our legitimacy as Reform Jews find plenty of grounds on which to do that, much to our chagrin. Will a rabbi's officiating at an intermarriage provide the Orthodox or Conservative Jew with grounds on which to condemn us? Yes. But so will lots of other things we do based on sound principle, such as our openness to gays and lesbians, our acceptance of patrilineal descent, our rejection of the obligation for a get to be issued prior to remarriage, our burial of cremated remains in our cemeteries, our endorsement of organ donation, and others.

Jewish strength and solidarity might be better served by performing interfaith wedding ceremonies than not. I would point to many leaders of my synagogue and other synagogues--including some people who sit on national boards of our Reform institutions--who are involved in Jewish life and the synagogue because a rabbi did not turn them away at the time of their marriage to a non-Jewish partner.

Some of my colleagues who do not officiate insist they always convey to the couple that they are fully and warmly welcomed into their synagogue. But that message often doesn't come through. There are members of my congregation who are members precisely because they felt that a rabbi in another synagogue who does not officiate was implying they weren't accepted. I find that my officiating gives me an opportunity to expose the non-Jew and his or her family to the values, symbols and words of the Jewish marriage ceremony, which enhances an appreciation of Judaism.

In my counseling sessions prior to a marriage, I help a couple explore their religious views on a level deeper and more comprehensive than they have experienced before. The questions I ask and the manner in which I steer the discussion are important. Often the non-Jew is surprised at what the Jew believes and vice versa. Sometimes I suggest that the gap between them is too great for them to expect a good marriage. Those counseling sessions would not be possible if a caller is told, "The rabbi doesn't officiate at such marriages." And they are certainly not possible when we direct them to well-intentioned civic officials, judges or others whose role is simply to perform the rite and who are not equipped to provide such counseling.

I have also found that when I agree to officiate at an intermarriage, I open the door to further exploration of Judaism by the non-Jew. Sometimes this leads to his or her choosing to be Jewish or functioning as a de facto Jew. Those that convert after marriage often do so with greater sincerity than those who convert as a prerequisite for a Jewish ceremony.

A second consideration is compassion. This consideration flows most deeply from the mainstream of Jewish tradition. If it is not the letter of Torah, it is most surely the spirit of Torah as we understand it. A mitzvah is not restricted to the 613 commandments. Mitzvot are life-affirming and elevating acts. I think it was a mitzvah when I participated in a funeral mass at an Episcopal church for a dear friend and community leader. It is a mitzvah to be engaged in a variety of interfaith activities. It is a mitzvah to hug a kid. Mitzvot come in many shapes and forms.

In the matter of mixed marriage we are dealing first and foremost with human beings, people with genuine feelings. We are not dealing with abstract concepts. These couples and their families have feelings. Not only do they feel love for each other, they feel they want to do right by their families, and this is found to a higher degree among the Jewish partners, who for the most part have been nurtured more passionately on the importance of family.

By the same token I think we need to be sensitive to the non-Jewish bride or groom who may be rather indifferent to Christianity but who out of love and respect for her or his parents just cannot convert to Judaism. It is time we realized that non-Jewish parents can experience as much pain and discomfort when their child embraces Judaism as Jewish parents do when their children embrace Christianity.

I have come to believe that the human situation is best served by my willingness to officiate. I use that as a guideline for my decisions in many other life-cycle matters. Why not in this matter?

A third consideration is whether there will be a favorable outcome for the Jewish individuals involved. While I certainly have regard for all people, I readily admit to a high degree of Jewish chauvinism. I became a rabbi to serve Jews and Judaism. I have found that my decision to officiate at an interfaith marriage often enables a Jew and his or her family to gain a new or renewed appreciation of the role of Judaism in their lives. It enables them to avoid the pain and discomfort of participating in either a civil or church ceremony at such a significant moment in the life of their family.

Finally, while it is certainly not a major consideration, I must also mention that I will often agree to officiate so that the couple will be spared from falling into the clutches of those few colleagues who have made a business out of officiating at mixed marriages. I am distressed by their exorbitant and somewhat extortionary fees and the absence of counseling.

I should also add that my agreeing to officiate at an intermarriage in no way undermines my encouragement that Jews marry Jews. One often hears the objection that we cannot effectively argue for inmarriage while performing intermarriages. That is not so. There are many other settings in which we can and do articulate our hope and desire that Jews marry Jews and give substantial reasons for that being a good thing to do. I have yet to be convinced that when it comes to falling in love, people ask, "Is this what my rabbi approves of?"

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. 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." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. 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. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") 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.
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 "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 Hillel Cohn

Rabbi Hillel Cohn is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino, Calif.

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