Whose Life Is It Anyway?: Officiating at an Intermarriage

By Rabbi Paul H. Levenson


The young couple sat in front of me, telling me how they met, how they spent their time together and apart, before they were engaged and after. We got around to the “religious question” soon enough.

“My parents weren’t very happy that I was marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish,” said the man, who then told them: “I don’t know why you feel so strongly about it. Your own ties were tenuous, at best. You’re still just three-day-a-year Jews plus Passover.” He added, “I certainly hadn’t gotten a strong message that being Jewish was so important that I should marry only someone who’s Jewish. When they still objected, saying stuff like ‘I’m glad your grandmother isn’t alive to see this,’ I really blew up. That’s all I needed, a big Jewish guilt trip. ‘Whose life is it anyway?’ I shouted. ‘You had your chance. You married the person you wanted and did everything you wanted to do, including having me, for which I’m grateful. But this is my life and I love Kathy, and we’re going to get married! You’re invited to come, and we’d really love to have you. Just don’t tell me whom to marry and how to bring up my kids.'”

“Wow!” I responded. “That must have been a heavy scene.”

“Oh, it was”, he answered.

“And how are you going to bring up the kids,” I asked quietly?

“We’re going to bring them up in both. Kathy feels pretty strongly about having her Catholic religion represented somehow in our family. I told her that there’s no way that I could ever become Catholic, even if my family didn’t do that much Jewishly. I feel strongly about my own Jewishness. I can’t tell you why, I just do”.

“When you say you’re going to bring your kids up in both religions, do you mean you’ll send them to a Catechism class and also to a temple Hebrew school? Cause if you do, you should know that even the national Reform group voted not to open their schools to children who are also attending a church school.”

Kathy broke in for the first time. “I actually like some of the Jewish things I’ve seen in Mark’s family. They are very close as a family, and I think their Jewishness has something to do with it. They do keep some of the traditions. I’ve been to Passover seders and they’ve been wonderful. They’ve tried to teach me Yiddish words, which is hysterical, and they took us to a Jewish wedding, too. I would have liked that rabbi to do ours, but he said he couldn’t. I’d be happy to help Mark bring the kids up Jewish, but he doesn’t seem to know that much. I ask him questions, and he doesn’t know the answers. I had lots of Jewish friends in college, even went to Hillel with them (laughing), which is more than Mark did.”

“But I don’t want Kathy’s family to feel left out”, said Mark, ignoring Kathy’s dig, “particularly at the wedding. They and her grandma are into the Catholic religion, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

“Well then, it seems that when you say you want to ‘bring them up in both religions,’ you mean that you don’t want to cut the kids off from their Catholic grandparents. That’s something that isn’t going to happen no matter what anyone might say. They’re certainly going to visit them and enjoy their home and company. When the time comes, you’ll see where you’ll want to draw the line, if at all. It might be that you don’t want them taking the children to church every time they visit, or baptizing them, or having them take Communion.”

“No, I don’t think we’d want that done,” frowned Mark, looking a little anxiously at Kathy. “We’re both inclined to have them do the Jewish thing, mainly as a cultural experience, so they’ll know who they are”.

“Well”, I replied, “if the two of you will take a Judaism 101 course that’s given by the various movements, shop around for a temple you’ll feel most comfortable in, and when they come, give your children a Jewish education starting as early as possible, I’ll be happy to officiate at your marriage.”

“I think we’d like that”, Kathy smiled, relieved. She looked to Mark for approval, which he gave.

“Oh”, I said rather off hand. “There is one more thing.” They suddenly looked worried. “No piggy products at the wedding.” They laughed in relief. “No problem, rabbi,” said Mark. “It is my life that I’m choosing to live, and I really love Kathy tremendously. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” He laughed again. “But my folks will be disappointed that they won’t be able to serve scallops wrapped in bacon at the reception.”

*The above dialogue is a composite of several true-to-life conversations with couples who have come to Rabbi Levenson. It also states the prerequisites that must be met before he will officiate.


About Rabbi Paul H. Levenson

Rabbi Paul H. Levenson graduated HUC-JIR in 1959, and began officiating at intermarriages in 1970 while in Kansas City, Missouri. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Chayai Shalom, Easton, Mass., is a member of the Newton Centre [Mass.] Minyan, and currently serves as rabbi at Boston Medical Center, New England Medical Center, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.