On Rabbinic Officiation at Interfaith Weddings

By Jacqueline S. Guttman


In March 1996 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the association of Reform rabbis) considered its position on rabbinic officiation at intermarriages.

I write about our experience in the hope that it will serve to enlighten those who have preconceived notions about the circumstances, feelings and reactions of both a couple and their parents when an interfaith marriage is about to occur. It is several years since this experience took place; I hope that circumstances have improved since that time.

My son Edward met his future wife, Katherine, during his senior year at Rhode Island School of Design and from that point on they were for each other in a way that many of us can envy. After about five years, and only after jointly attending a nine-week intermarriage course at the 92nd Street Y in New York, they announced their engagement. As I held my breath, they talked about the wedding: who would hold the chuppah (wedding canopy), the need to find a band in her hometown that knew how to play Hava Nagila and, of course, where they would find a rabbi. I was glad we were in the car and it was night time so they could not see my tears. Their wedding, home and children would be Jewish. Katie made these decisions with a whole heart and without coercion–out of love for Edward and a recognition of what Judaism means to him. What a beautiful gift!

So our son–a committed Jew who had studied beyond confirmation, substituted at our religious school and even belonged to a shomer shabbos (Sabbath-observant) scout troop–and his lovely, intelligent and sensitive Presbyterian fiancee began negotiating the Reform rabbinic search maze of interfaith weddings. While some rabbis were supportive and helpful, many were not. Confusingly, they each had their own criteria regarding under what conditions they would officiate, but often, even when those criteria were met, they declined.

There was:
* the rabbi who never returned their calls.
* the rabbi in Katie’s home town who said that he would have gladly done it but that his congregation would not allow it. Some of those congregants were at the wedding; they contradicted his claim.
* the rabbi who would marry an atheist and a Jew but not two people who believe in God in different ways.
* the rabbi in another part of Katie’s home state whom I begged to talk to my son so he would see that they met his requirements, but who then told Edward that he did not want to drive to xxxxxxxx. (We would have provided transportation.)
* the cantor and opera singer who would have charged $1000 plus expenses (seven years ago). Katie’s reaction to this was, “If we have to pay that we will, but I’ll have to keep it secret from my parents.” I could not help thinking about stereotypes of Jews and money.
* Finally, there was the rabbi who said, “You’ll never get a rabbi to go to xxxxxxxx on Memorial Day Weekend to officiate at a mixed marriage. Forget it!”

Had I been Katie, I would have said just that: “Forget it! My minister or nothing.” But her dedication and determination exceeded my own. Ironically, Katie’s minister offered to try to locate a rabbi for them–and even presented them with a seder plate as a wedding gift.

Our own rabbi at the time, it appeared to us, was kind but evasive when we asked for his assistance. While we knew that he would not officiate, we did not realize that, to him, referrals were nearly the same as if he himself were performing the ceremony. He did offer to meet with the couple, but–rightly or wrongly–we all failed to see the point of that since he was not involved in the wedding. He, we found out later, felt that he was extending himself further than he wished, given his own convictions about neither officiating nor having someone else do so in his place. (While he and I have different perspectives on this issue, we did, much later, reach an understanding of one another’s positions.)

Eventually, they did locate a lovely and helpful Reconstructionist rabbi who, with them, constructed a beautiful and meaningful ceremony.

We all worry about assimilation. Were I a clergy person, I, too, would struggle with this issue. I deeply respect the convictions of those who will not officiate, but I have to say that we were dismayed by the lack of assistance we received regarding referrals. It’s astonishing that Reform Judaism, the movement that has dedicated itself to “opening our tent” and “welcoming the stranger,” as Rabbi Alexander Schindler (of blessed memory) put it, simultaneously sets up stumbling blocks to men and women who demonstrate their devotion to their Jewish fiances by willingly agreeing to lead a life of paradox, maintaining a Jewish home though not being a Jew.

How could I respond to Katie when she pointed out, correctly, that two Jews, no matter what their level of knowledge or commitment or plans for their children, can always find a rabbi, but a Jew and a Christian who have made a conscious decision to have a Jewish home cannot? What could I say when she told me that she got a clear message that she wasn’t “good enough” for Judaism? Not good enough — this extraordinary young woman who makes Shabbos (the Sabbath) and seders!

Some clergy as well as lay people feel that, because a Jewish wedding is a contract between two Jews, an interfaith “Jewish” ceremony makes no sense. Their solution is to have a civil ceremony that incorporates religious elements. But for a young man and woman to whom religion is important, having a wedding that is not sanctified makes equally little sense.

So what are the answers? Halachically (according to Jewish law), I don’t know, but let me offer a few concrete suggestions from a lay person’s point of view:

First, need everyone be forced to officiate? Of course not! Just as I don’t think that officiation makes sense in all cases (for example, where the couple could care less but the parents want a rabbi), I don’t think that rabbis should be asked to go against their individual consciences on such a fundamental issue. But I believe that the perception of officiating as a “semi-dastardly deed” must be changed, that the tacit disapproval evident as our clergy are trained must move to an open exploration of options, on a spectrum from non-officiation to co-officiation, with counseling and referring in there somewhere, and with approval by the Central Conference of American Rabbis [the Reform rabbis’ association] and the Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbis’ seminary] of these varying positions. In short, I don’t want Reform Judaism to be pro-officiation; rather, I ask that, as in another important arena, we become pro-choice!

Second, if the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [the association of Reform synagogues] does not want people to go elsewhere for referrals, as our children did, then it should provide its own list, in the form of a database, on its existing web page on the Internet. Does Rabbi A. insist on a Jewish home? Does Rabbi B insist on a commitment to convert? Does Rabbi C. not travel outside of a twenty-mile radius? Put it on the database!

Third is a suggestion put forth by our daughter-in-law, that some sort of guidelines be developed to eliminate the existing ambiguity, such as a requirement that a couple take a course about interfaith marriage issues as a prerequisite to even “qualifying” for rabbinic officiation.

Fourth is the ingredient that made me, personally, comfortable with their wedding ceremony. Edward and Katie were not married “according to the laws of Moses and the Jewish people”, but rather, “in the tradition of…”

Finally, when considering how officiating (or not doing so) will affect the future of the Jewish people, think about this: Perhaps, as I’ve been told, it is counseling rather than officiation that has influenced non-Jewish spouses to embrace our religion. That may be so. But there are parents involved here as well. It was not only our son and daughter-in-law who were alienated by this experience. My husband and I, in our own small way “pillars of the temple,” were alienated as well; in fact, these two pillars came perilously close to collapsing. As people debate the effects of the current confusing stance on the continuity of Jewish life, they should not overlook the disenchanted parents who have been essentially ignored on the occasion of a major life-cycle event. Our children may be the future: we are the present.

Despite our less than happy experience, we are grateful that this issue continues to be discussed. We look forward to progress, with faith in the dynamism and integrity of Reform Judaism.


About Jacqueline S. Guttman

Jacqueline S. Guttman is the immediate past president of a Reform synagogue in Northern New Jersey, where she and her husband have been members for over 20-five years. Edward and Katie have a two-year-old son, Franklin, who, by last December, could say "Hanukkah," "menorah," "candles," and (of course) "open." This article is adapted from a speech she gave in 1996 as part of a panel at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.