Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What We Can Learn from Chelsea and Mark's Interfaith Wedding

Since the 'big wedding' of the year, last weekend, I've had a number of people email me or facebook me and ask, 'Rabbi, what do you think?'  I often think that one of the questions behind questions like this is 'Is it good for the Jews?'  But I'm not sure if that's the right question.

There is no question that such a celebrity, high-profile wedding that sees a Methodist Minister and a Reform Rabbi co-officiating together on a Saturday evening before sundown pushes a lot of buttons.  Reading many of the comments to blog pieces by Rabbis who have shown acceptance and have chosen to highlight the blessing that Jewish tradition and ritual was a part of a Clinton wedding, a lot of the buttons pushed have been those of Jews who see a wedding like this as an undermining of Judaism.  The Rabbi, James Ponet, who officiated is showered with insults (we often see him referred to as 'rabbi' by those who vehemently disagree with his decision to participate).

On the other hand, there are those whose buttons are pushed in a different direction - some are bloggers who are part of an interfaith relationship, or others who leave comments sharing how wonderful it was for them to be able to honor both of their faith traditions at this important life-cycle moment, or how painful it was to be unable to find someone who would do such a thing when they themselves had sought out someone.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, Co-President of CLAL, has both written on this topic and appeared yesterday on the Today Show to speak about interfaith marriage.  He used an image that I think conveys a reality that we see among some of the Chelsea/Mark generation rather well.  He said that some people today are choosing 'the bazaar' over 'the cathedral', by which he means that we see a growing trend toward picking and choosing rituals and spiritual wisdom from different places and not necessarily feeling a need or a pressure to 100% embrace one modality only.  And so, while we can certainly discuss whether or not we think this is 'good' (see, for example, the Editorial in this week's Jewish Forward), the reality is that this is, and this is the American spiritual 'marketplace' that we are increasingly finding ourselves in.

'So, Rabbi', I am asked, 'What do you think?'

Well, I think lots of things.  And I'm going to continue to be more descriptive than prescriptive in my thoughts.  Here are some things to bear in mind, which I hope will provide a useful framework for judging one's own reaction to the news of Chelsea and Mark's wedding and the co-officiation that took place:

1) Jewish law and tradition about marriage evolved out of an ancient biblical tradition.  What is now understood as a halachic Jewish wedding has it roots in practices that we find in the Torah, but is distinctly different from those practices.  As circumstances and the culture of the society around us has changed, so has Jewish practice.  We don't, for example, continue to practice Levirate marriage (the practice of a brother of a deceased husband taking the widow as his wife).  The practice of having more than one wife was effectively banned within the European Ashkenazi tradition in the 11th century.  It continued in parts of the Sephardic world leading to a situation when families where a husband had multiple wives arrived from Yemen to the State of Israel in the 1950s, creating a conundrum for the fledgling state (they allowed these men to keep the wives they had, but could not marry more, and the law of the land became one wife only from then on).  We also know that marrying non-Jewish wives was commonplace in the Biblical state of Israel, although distinctly disapproved of by the spiritual leaders of the time (Ezra, for example, upon seeing the extent of intermarriage when he returned from the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the 1st temple, ruled that Jewish men should divorce their non-Jewish wives).

2) Even within rabbinic law, we can trace a debate among the early generations of Rabbis regarding intermarriage.  While it is clear that none approved, a majority recognized the outright prohibition as a rabbinic innovation, whereas the Biblical law only specified not marrying with the 7 Canaanite nations when the Children of Israel entered Canaan.  This is clearly about maintaining the identity and tribal integrity of this fledgling people, and maintaining a specific cultic code of practice that was distinct from the rituals, gods, and beliefs of the surrounding nations.

3) We sometimes hark back to a time when no-one would think of 'marrying out'; the consequences were too severe - one would be cut off from one's community and we remember a time when a parent would tear their clothes and mourn their child as if dead.  While there are some who wish our Jewish tradition and community held more influence over the cultural, spiritual and ethical lives of our young people today, most are grateful that most parents no longer act as if a child has died if they marry a non-Jew.  The truth is, the times we are harking back to are times before Napoleon provided the innovation of civil marriage.  While the change did not happen overnight, for centuries if a Jew married a non-Jew, the almost inevitable outcome was the conversion of the Jew to Christianity.  One could only get married in a Church or a Synagogue (or, in Muslim lands, in a Mosque).  Therefore, there was a stark reality to a Jew 'marrying out' truly being cut off from the Jewish community if they did this.  And this was an enormous loss to a parent, equivalent to the death of their child.

4) Now we live in a time when the stark and dramatic consequences of a Jew marrying a non-Jew is no longer so apparent.  For those concerned about the vibrancy and continuation of the Jewish community, these are real concerns.  Many Jews who marry non-Jews are lost from Jewish communal life, and their children are not raised with a Jewish identity (more often the case if a mother is not Jewish).  But we know that there are thousands of Jewish families in the USA where one parent is not Jewish.  Many are raising children who are actively engaged with the Jewish faith and community.  Speaking only of Congregation B'nai Israel, I have heard many passionate Confirmation speeches of youth of interfaith parents who are distinctly aware and proud of their decision to embrace Judaism and continue their learning to the end of High School.  I have friends and colleagues who grew up in an interfaith household who have gone on to become Rabbis and Jewish Educators.  We certainly cannot take the continuity of Jewish peoplehood and community for granted, but neither can we write off the families of interfaith couples.  They enrich our communities and strengthen us when they choose to make Jewish community their spiritual home, and that is something to celebrate.

5)  The decision of a Rabbi to officiate at the wedding of a Jew and a non-Jew is very complex and personal.
a) For many, it is black and white.  Halachah, as it has evolved over the centuries, does not recognize such a marriage as a Jewish marriage and, therefore, a Rabbi who is wedded to traditional halachah will not view their participation in such a wedding as a possibility.
b) There are those who will officiate if they believe what they are doing is part of welcoming a couple into the Jewish community.  Some make specific stipulations about expectations, or require the couple to attend an Introduction to Judaism class together, or provide them with a year's free membership of the synagogue to help encourage their participation in communal Jewish life.  Others simply ensure that the conversation about faith in the home and hopes regarding the upbringing of children are discussed as part of pre-marriage counseling, and emphasize the importance of maintaining a commitment to their pre-marriage understandings.
c) There are still some others who will contemplate co-officiating with clergy of another faith because, while they recognize that this blending and mixing of traditions is a less likely route to an identified and engaged Jewish family unit, they feel that to deny the Jewish person who is authentically wanting to honor their faith and heritage, who clearly feels identified with it, is to counter-productively push them away.  There are times when it becomes clear that a young person has little personal investment, but is being pressured by parents to do 'something Jewish' - that is a more complex situation that requires pastoral guidance and counseling.  Many Rabbis would not contemplate officiating at a ceremony under these circumstances, while others see doing so as the means for them to gain access to the couple to engage in the kind of pastoral counseling that they need.

6)  A consideration of alternatives?  While I truly believe that each Rabbi has to come to terms with their own practices on the matter of officiating an interfaith marriage, and that a plurality of responses is ok because Jewish community is strengthened by being an open-sided tent with many entry points and many places within a spectrum to enable Jews (and their non-Jewish spouses) to find their place, I find it unhelpful to denigrate Rabbis who either do or don't officiate.  Such knee-jerk reactions deny the complexity of the context in which clergy work in the USA today - 'the bazaar' that Rabbi Irwin Kula described - and the tensions between tradition and change that all Rabbis are constantly responding to (even Orthodox Rabbis - just see the recent statement about homosexuality from the Orthodox rabbinate recently released).  Rabbis who officiate are not facilitating the growth in interfaith marriage.  When a couple come to a Rabbi about a wedding, we do not have any influence on whether the marriage takes place or not.  There are Unitarian ministers, Interfaith ministers, Justice of the Peace, and 'friends who have become Universal Life Ministers for the purpose of officiating at a marriage', among the choices available in the spiritual and religious marketplace of North America today.  That is not necessarily a reason to acquiesce to the request - as I said, it is complex - but this is a reality.  This is not the world of the shtetl, or even of Twentieth century USA, where Jews were barred from some Universities, golf clubs, country clubs, residential areas etc.  To deny the relevance of any of this larger cultural context when considering questions of interfaith marriage is to leave out the landscape in which Jewish adults are living their lives today.

And so, I've attempted to describe the landscape.  I hope it provides useful food for thought for those who are considering their own perspectives on these issues, whether Rabbis or lay people.  And I invite your comments, additional perspectives, and thoughts to be posted here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and cogent post. Intermarriage definitely pushes a lot of buttons for many of us, and you've done a lovely job of explaining some of why that might be -- and also, giving context to some ways in which our understanding of Jewish marriage and of intermarriage have changed over time.

  2. All three of my siblings have had interfaith marriages and weddings. My two older sisters had a Justice of the Peace officiate.

    My brother had a combination Rabbi and Reverend team marry him and his wife. They (the Rabbi/Reverend team) had a bunch of other weddings to do together on Long Island that day. The children are not being raised in the jewish community.

    I also have a cousin who married someone who wasn't raised jewish. Their children are all going to be bar/bat mitzvaed. She is more religious than we are.

    I have seen marriages crumble (none of who were my siblings) over Holidays and disputes about how to raise the children.

    Our Rabbi met with us several times before we were married. We were both jewish but having the Rabbi go through things with us was essential.

    My siblings all had successful relationships. I believe they all married people who made them happy. They also knew how they were going to raise their children before they had them, way before they got married they were in agreement.

    A Rabbi in my opinion, would be of great help BEFORE any interfaith ceremony. This doesn't mean that the Rabbi would perform the ceremony. These talks with a Rabbi or other clergy would let the future spouses discuss the importance of their religion to them and the path that they want to take together.

  3. Dear Rachel,
    I want to compliment you on addressing such a complex issue with clarity and compassion. I hope your readers and questioners will feel honored and respected by your comments (as I did as an Interfaith Minister).

    I find that many people come from a place of fear when addressing the issue of Interfaith marriage and relationships– fear of extinction of the Jewish community, fear of dilution of tradition, fear of offending, family, society or community. What I am certain of is that (when it comes to matters of heart and soul) boundaries are less clear and perhaps more tricky to navigate as people chart new territory based on the twists and turns of life, especially with regards to relationships. Personally, I feel the world is more likely to become the peaceful place we envision when we find our “families” enriched by people from different religions, races and backgrounds as opposed to those people and relationships our families and societies deem “acceptable”.

    Thanks for your wisdom, grace and courage in addressing this issue so publicly.