Why I Believe That Officiating at Interfaith Marriages Will Not Lead to the Continuity of the Jewish People

By George Markley


Excerpts from remarks to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, March 25, 1996.

In our last issue, we printed Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson’s opinion that rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages under certain conditions. Davidson said that “as we seek to engage the interfaith families in our communities, we need to advance beyond the means of welcome, to a philosophy of acceptance.”  Read Davidson’s article now.  Here George Markley responds.

Some twenty-seven years ago, I became engaged to a non-Jewish girl. Wishing to be married in a religious setting, we approached a Reform rabbi. Our initial telephone conversation suggested a possibility he would perform the ceremony. But once we were in his study, the rabbi proceeded to lecture us about the pitfalls of intermarriage, including the inevitability of divorce and the possibility our children would be delinquents due to the disruption created by our interfaith relationship. My efforts to argue our case were futile. I left in shock; my fiancee in tears.

Chris and I were married, by the pastor at her Unitarian-Universalist church. The rabbi’s dire predictions did not materialize and Chris and I continue to be married. My wife’s first exposure to organized Judaism was negative, and it was ten years before she would convert and then only after having been welcomed and nurtured by our then rabbi. I have been privileged to serve in the outreach program, including as vice-chair of the UAHC-CCAR Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach. Given that history, one might expect I would advocate that rabbis officiate at intermarriages, but not so. For in retrospect I know that my displeasure 27 years ago was not with the rabbi’s refusal to perform our ceremony, but rather with the manner in which he communicated that decision to us. Although we might have turned our backs on Judaism, we did not. And we did not turn to the church which offered its sanctuary and a beautiful ceremony. I can say that in the almost thirty years since our wedding, neither Chris nor I has ever set foot in a Unitarian-Universalist Church.

First, let’s be clear about one thing–the future of the Jewish people does not depend on whether rabbis officiate or don’t officiate. Continuity is dependent on Jews understanding that Judaism is different, that a 4,000 year old heritage can have deep meaning for Jews in the 21st Century, that Judaism is a faith of integrity and Jewish values can, if given the opportunity, infuse and influence every aspect of our lives. Second, it is the responsibility of Jewish clergy to be our spiritual leaders–not our followers–and to interpret to us–their congregations and students–the principles of Judaism.

The debate over officiation and continuity is, more than anything, about the messages which are sent. A decision to officiate sends a powerful message–particularly when it represents a compromise made to appease a congregation and not a statement of principle based on Jewish values and text. Our rabbis are, first and foremost, teachers, and we must be conscious of what the teaching is when a rabbi solemnizes all marriages–be they Jewish or not.

Rabbis are not merely Jewish justices of the peace. Rather, their ordination empowers them to create Jewish marriages through kiddushin, or sanctification–which is different from any other ceremony. The wedding is not only a public affirmation of a couple’s love. It marks the establishment of a Jewish home, which ensures a Jewish future. No matter how many Jewish clergy may stand under the chuppah, or wedding canopy, a non-Jewish union does not become a Jewish marriage. And no matter how wonderful the couple may be, no matter how good their intentions to have a Jewish home and Jewish children, the chances of there being a thoroughly Jewish household and multiple generations of Jewish children issuing forth from that marriage are seriously diminished.

I believe that ultimately, if rabbis do officiate, only the “yes” will be heard and interpreted. The fact that the rabbi may impose conditions or criteria will be lost. The fact that she may modify the ceremony will be lost. The fact that she may counsel interfaith couples extensively will be lost. The only message that will be heard is that the rabbi officiates at all weddings–period. That will eventually be translated into meaning that the rabbi does not really care whether you marry a Jew or not.

Young adults who feel no strong Jewish connection, who have made no effort to sit in front of a rabbi on Shabbat, will not become committed to Judaism simply because there is a rabbi standing in front of them at their wedding. The Jewish parents may make a nice donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, but they will not become more devoted to the temple simply because the rabbi officiates. The more difficult issue, of course, is those children who are committed to Judaism but nevertheless are involved in interfaith relationships. What will happen to them when the rabbi says she cannot perform their ceremony? I like to think that, if the message is communicated with a rational explanation of its basis and with a proper measure of love and concern, those individuals–even more than others–will understand the decision and will respect it. More importantly, they will appreciate the fact that who officiates at a single ceremony–often occurring at the nadir on the graph of their religious connections–will not determine which road that couple takes when they later start–or restart–their religious journey.

As for the argument that our rabbis are hypocritical when they decline to perform ceremonies and yet welcome the intermarried into the congregation, we must distinguish between the act of a rabbi officiating from the act of a membership chairman extending open arms to newcomers. It is not the rabbi’s obligation to make us feel good; it is to make us feel Jewish. And that may sometimes mean having to say no.

Young people must understand that there are consequences to an intermarriage, that as easy as we might try to make it for them through outreach and other efforts, it can create difficulties for the couple and, more importantly, concerns for the Jewish people. Who, if not our rabbis, are going to send that message?

About George Markley

George Markley, an attorney in Fairfield, CT, is Assistant Treasurer of the UAHC (the Reform Movement). He has served as a vice-chair of the UAHC's Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach. He has been married for 29 years to his wife Chris, who converted to Judaism 10 years after their wedding. Their son Todd is the Director of Youth Activities for the Northeast Council of the UAHC.