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You Don't Need a Rabbi to Have a Jewish Wedding

March, 1999

You're in love? That's terrific!

You're getting married? Hooray!

Even though one of you isn't Jewish, you've decided to raise your children as Jews, and you've talked about joining a temple someday? Wonderful!

You want a rabbi to officiate at your wedding? Uh-oh.

Interfaith couples who want an unambiguously Jewish wedding often have a hard time finding a rabbi willing to stand up with them. Indeed, it's nearly as hard as finding a rabbi willing to co-officiate at an explicitly inter-denominational ceremony.

A small number of rabbis perform intermarriages as hired guns, charging a lot of money just to show up at the wedding. Other rabbis, however, make their decisions on a case-by-case basis, meeting with a couple several times and agreeing to officiate only when they believe there is a real commitment to creating a Jewish home. However, the overwhelming majority of rabbis--from all Jewish denominations--say "No." Even when they say it nicely, it feels like a personal rejection. And it can hurt.

It helps to understand why most rabbis refuse to officiate. According to Jewish tradition, the core of the ceremony is the ritual statement made by the groom to the bride; "By this ring, you are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel."

It's the "laws of Moses and Israel" part that's problematic; if both parties aren't bound by those laws, the commitment has no legal teeth and the marriage has no Jewish standing. Rabbis who officiate at intermarriages do not include this statement, which is referred to as the harah aht (for the first two Hebrew words.) But most rabbis (and cantors) refuse because, regardless of what is or is not said, their very presence makes it appear that the marriage has Jewish standing.

The truth is, nobody needs a rabbi to have a Jewish wedding, and that includes couples where both people are Jewish. For a Jewish wedding to be "kosher" (according to Jewish law), all that is required is a bride and groom, two witnesses who are not related to either of them, and a ring (or indeed, any object of modest value that the bride accepts from the groom).

Of course, it's more complicated than that. Over the centuries, the Jewish wedding has incorporated many other traditions that are now "standard" and expected. Prayers such as the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings, and customs such as breaking the glass, are what make Jewish weddings unique and beautiful. The presence of a rabbi has become traditional as well, both as the bearer of the Jewish community's blessing and now as a duly appointed representative of the secular authorities, who signs the state marriage license.

But, in fact, you can create a beautiful, meaningful wedding that celebrates your love for each other and your authentic commitment to Judaism without a rabbi. It happens every day. Here's how:

Study Jewish wedding customs and traditions.

Learn as much as you can about the hows, whys, and wherefores of the Jewish wedding. Talk to rabbis, cantors, and other couples who have had Jewish weddings. Read everything you can get your hands on. (My book, The New Jewish Wedding, has been helpful to lots of interfaith couples, and is widely recommended by Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis.)

Once you have a handle on the tradition, decide what elements are most meaningful to you and make them your own by, for instance, creating an original canopy or chuppah, or writing a non-traditional ketubah or marriage contract. Explain your choices to your families in advance, and to your guests in a wedding booklet that defines Hebrew words and describes customs that may be unfamiliar.

Find a thoughtful justice of the peace (or judge) to officiate ...

Some Justices of the Peace (JP) specialize in intermarriages, and know how to help you craft your ceremony with sensitivity and skill. Ask around for recommendations; some rabbis may be able to suggest a name. Both members of the couple should interview the justice of the peace or judge, and both of your should be comfortable asking him/her questions. Be clear with the judge or JP about the kind of ceremony you have in mind.

Or have a friend deputized for a day.

In most states, individuals can petition for the right to perform wedding ceremonies for a day, so some couples ask a knowledgeable Jewish friend or family member to officiate. This is a great honor, and most people are very moved when asked. Your officiant will probably want to study Jewish customs and laws, and may help plan the ceremony with you.

This is a more personal alternative than hiring a JP, and a practice that seems to be growing in popularity.

Honor your non-Jewish family.

Every wedding is a joining of two families as well as of two individuals. Making the ceremony Jewish can seem like a rejection of the non-Jewish family, so it's important to make both sides feel cherished and honored. Parents and siblings might be asked to read a poem during the ceremony. Some couples feature the non-Jewish family's customs and traditions at the party or reception that follows the wedding ceremony. This can mean serving ethnic food, wearing traditional clothing, and/or celebrating with music and dancing, toasts and roasts, that have special meaning to the non-Jewish relatives.

Five points to remember:

  1. Most rabbis do not officiate at weddings where one of the parties is not Jewish.
  2. You can make a Jewish wedding without a rabbi.
  3. Learn as much as you can about the traditions and customs of the Jewish wedding and then customize the ceremony.
  4. Hire a justice of the peace, judge, or arrange to have a friend deputized by the state to act as your officiant.
  5. Honor the non-Jewish family's tradition in non-religious ways, such as food, music, and dancing.
Hebrew for "the seven blessings," also known as birkot nissuin ("the wedding blessings"), blessings that are recited for a couple as part of their marriage ceremony. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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.
Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer who lives in the Boston area. She is a member of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley.

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