One of the hot topics in the Jewish press this summer has been: Should Conservative Rabbi’s officiate at interfaith weddings? I’d like to share my thoughts with you on this very sensitive topic.
Believe me, I understand that Intermarriage is a “third rail” of Jewish life. And I know that virtually every family here has been touched by it. I recognize that sitting here with us are non-Jews, and Jews with non-Jewish family members.
I promise that I’m not here to condemn or rebuke, or even to make anyone uncomfortable. Rather, my goal is to do some serious thinking out loud about intermarriage; about what it means to be Jewish; about Jewish wedding ceremonies; about the dilemmas faced by Rabbis; and about how synagogues might be more welcoming.
Let’s start with a statistic. In 1970, 17% of Jews who wed married a non-Jew. In 2013, according to the Pew Study, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews married outside the faith.
Why is the number so high? For one thing, it’s a sign that we have made it in this country. There was a time when Jews couldn’t get into certain schools, or certain country clubs – or marry into certain families. Those barriers have all fallen.
Another reality is that, despite what you might think living in New York, Jews make up only 2% of the population in America. I tell students: Imagine a barrel with 98 white ping pong balls. Add two blue ones. Then, blindfolded, reach into the mix – what are the chances you’ll pullout two of the blue ping pong balls? Odds are you’ll end up with a white.
And it must be said that America has changed. Have you noticed that TV commercials now have inter-racial couples? Our willingness to accept that all human beings are created in the image of God is a good thing.
So why is intermarriage such a sensitive issue for Jews?
Built into our DNA, after centuries of persecution, is a fear of the ”other.” From Pharaoh to Amalek, Antiochus to Vespasian, Hitler to Arafat we have been programmed by our history to be cautious, to circle the wagons, and to stick to our own.
And, to be truthful, Jews can be prejudiced. Though the Hebrew word ‘Goy’ simply means ‘a nation’, in Yiddish there is a severe negative connotation to the term. And for those who use the word ‘Shiksa’ – perhaps even in a playful sense, are you aware that the word in Hebrew means ‘an abominable reptile’?
But there are other reasons for our sensitivity. In 1935 there were 18 million Jews in the world. In 1945, there were 12 million. Seventy years later we’re only up to 13 million. But with low birth rates, and high intermarriage, it’s possible that Jews might one day disappear. There are a billion Christians in the world; They’re not going to become extinct.
And finally, there are those who are concerned not just about our numbers, but about our heritage. There may always be some Jews around, but will Judaism as a way of life survive if parents don’t create a home filled with Jewish traditions and Jewish values? The best of Judaism – its culture and its religion – has so enriched the world.
In the last hundred years, there has been a real change in how Jews responded to Intermarriage.
Tevye tells Golda: “Chava is dead to us. We will forget her. Go home.” Before Fiddler on the Roof was a Broadway musical, there was in 1939 a Yiddish movie of the story – filmed, by the way, across the road from where Jericho High School now stands. To see Tevye in that more realistic version, rip his shirt and sit on a box and wail over his daughter who married a Russian is gut-wrenching.
Thirty years ago, people didn’t sit Shiva, but an intermarriage in the family was a source of shame. But as it became more prevalent, there was a sense of acceptance. How many times have you heard people say: “He’s a wonderful boy in every way except…”
And now we’ve moved into the next stage – legitimization: Many Jews feel that not only is there nothing tragic or shameful about intermarriage, but Rabbis should officiate at such weddings.
Maybe it was about making grandma happy. After all, if a Rabbi is officiating, how bad could it be?
Or perhaps it was just abut acknowledging that love is sacred, and should be sanctified. I’m always reminded of the line from the musical Cabaret: “Can one ever choose where the heart will lead us?” Should we condemn people for falling in love? Or do we adopt the same approach as “you can fall in love with a rich girl, just as easily as a poor girl?” – and say “If you don’t go out with non-Jews, you won’t marry one!”
Which brings us to this summer’s controversy. Conservative Rabbis are part of an organization known as The Rabbinical Assembly. There’s about 1700 of us.
There are in The Rabbinical Assembly standards of practice – things you cannot do and still remain a Conservative Rabbi. At the top of the list is that Conservative Rabbis cannot officiate at an interfaith wedding. What’s more, the Rabbi cannot even attend the wedding, even if someone else conducts the ceremony.
In the past several months, a handful of Conservative Rabbis broke with the standard, and have already, or shortly will, officiate at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew. These rabbis were either expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly, or they resigned their memberships. This is not exactly a mass movement. We’re talking about a handful of rabbis – out of 1700.
What are they thinking? They say: “I named this kid; I Bat Mitzvahed her. I’ve been the family rabbi for 30 years. If I say ‘No’ to officiating, they’ll find somebody else – a Reform rabbi, a Justice of the Peace, a friend who gets licensed on-line – but they will feel like their rabbi, and their Temple rejected them. What’s more important to me, these Rabbis say, is not what happened at the wedding, but what happens in the rest of their marriage. By officiating, I still have a place in their lives, and an opportunity to influence them Jewishly.”
At the same time that this was going on, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – the organization of Conservative synagogues – changed its By-Laws to allow individual synagogues, if they so choose, to offer membership to non-Jews. This was to try to be more inclusive of the non-Jewish members of an intermarried couple. Most temples – like ours – already provide High Holiday tickets to a non-Jewish spouse. Another issue: of membership is: who can vote at the annual meeting. Here, nobody considers voting a great perk (we’re lucky if 40 people, out of 600 show up at the congregational meeting.) But there’s another interesting issue: Holding leadership positions. Is it OK for a non-Jewish husband to become Vice President of House and Buildings? Can a non-Jewish wife be Sisterhood President? What about Ritual VP? You might find different answers in Mississippi, and on Long Island.
This spotlights the great dilemma that Rabbis face: Who do we serve: the Jewish people or the Jewish religion? Some rabbis feel that their primary responsibility is to Jews. So they will officiate at an intermarriage, because what’s most important is that Jew on one of the most significant moments of their lives. But other Rabbis say: “I work for God, who gave us the Torah and all the mitzvoth and traditions. I teach the laws, and I must follow them – as painful as that sometimes may be.”
One of the key roles of the Rabbi is as Gate Keeper. He or she has to decide where to bend the rules and where to hold the line. You can ask two Rabbis – even two Conservative Rabbis – the same question and get two different answers. It’s not that one is right and the other mistaken; they both know the same texts and sources. It’s that they each give different weight to other issues – like the human factor in a particular case.
To put officiating at an intermarriage in perspective let me give you some other examples of the dilemmas we Rabbis face when it comes to weddings.
How about The Treif Wedding? Back in 1980, Conservative Rabbis on Long Island had a standard that they would not officiate at a Jewish wedding if the food was not Kosher. In some cases, this refusal pushed the family into making a Kosher wedding – afraid that their rabbi wouldn’t attend and officiate. But in other cases, the family felt that the venue and the menu of their choice was more important than who officiated. Over time, most Conservative clergy recognized that the Caterer, not the Rabbi, was the ultimate authority. Most of my colleagues say: “I’m just glad that two Jews are getting married; requiring Kosher food is expecting too much.” There still are some Conservative Rabbis though who hold to this standard, and in some cases, their insistence sways the family decision. Personally, I do officiate at non-Kosher weddings, even though I don’t stay for the meal; even if provided with Kosher airplane food I’m just not comfortable. I wish people felt that a Jewish celebration should be Kosher – but many – don’t.
Then there’s The Saturday Night Wedding. Last year, I officiated at just one wedding. “You mean that only one person in our Temple got married?” Actually not. Here’s the story.
These days everyone wants a Saturday night wedding. And in the Spring. And in New York City. Here’s the problem: Shabbes starts at 8 o’clock. And doesn’t end until 9. And if no one else is driving into the city on a Saturday night from Long Island, I can get there by 10. Nobody wants a wedding to start at 10 o’clock. So they find someone else to officiate and they begin at a convenient time. Should we apply the same intermarriage argument to the Saturday Night Wedding: “Rabbi – you named this child. You Bar Mitzvahed them. You’ve known us for 30 years. How can you not be there to officiate?” I don’t drive, or write on Shabbat. Make the wedding on a Sunday, or on a Saturday night in the Winter – and I’m there.
And how about The Gay Wedding? I would officiate at the marriage of a Jewish gay couple. “But Rabbi, being gay also goes against the Torah, so why would you do that wedding, but not an intermarriage?” I believe the Torah was written by people, and 3000 years ago they really didn’t understand homosexuality the way that we do today. To tell gay people that they are forbidden to share physical love with someone their entire lives is just cruel. It’s a law that should no longer be observed. And if two Jews are going to create a Jewish home, then I’m willing to perform a Jewish wedding ceremony.
But doesn’t a Jew who falls in love with a non-Jew deserve to have a wedding ceremony? Of course. And I wish them all the happiness in the world. But I’m not ‘a justice of the peace.’ I see my role as Rabbi to teach what Judaism is about and to conduct not just ‘a wedding’ – but a ‘Jewish wedding.’
And what exactly is a Jewish wedding? Most people will tell you: Huppah, Ketuba, ring, wine, break the glass. But those are only the outward symbols. We’ve seen so many weddings on TV and in the movies, that we think a wedding is all about the two people. “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedding wife? Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. I pronounce you man and wife”. But that’s not what a Jewish wedding ceremony is about. We say:
- ‘Asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav,
Mikadesh Amo Yisrael –
We praise you Adonai, who sanctified
us with your commandments…
and who sanctifies your people Israel;
- K’dot Moshe v’Yisrael – “In accordance with the laws of
Moses and the people Israel.
And in the Sheva Berachot we say:
- M’sa-may-akh Tz’yon b’vaneha –
who causes Zion to rejoice with her children
- Od Yishama b’Aray Yehuda
May there be heard again in the cities of Judah, the voices of bride and groom feasting and rejoicing.
The American ceremony that we’re all familiar with is about two individuals, and their love. A Jewish ceremony, on the other hand, is about the Jewish people, and how this couple is part of the Jewish future. That’s why – to me – it doesn’t make sense for a Rabbi to officiate at that ceremony unless the couple are both Jews – committed to creating a Jewish home.
So an interfaith couple decides to join a Temple. That’s a good thing, and they should be welcomed, and the non-Jewish partner should be given a lot of credit for his or her part in helping to bring up their children as Jews. The question is always asked: To what extent can they participate in Temple services?
Let’s start with the common assumption that a non-Jew is not allowed to be on the Bimah. There is no such prohibition! Some of you may remember a time when people said a Jewish woman – wasn’t allowed on the Bimah, even in a Conservative synagogue. There is no such law. We’ve had baby namings, where one parent is not Jewish, and we invite the non-Jewish father, or mother up on the Bimah to hold the baby as we do the naming.
There also was a time when we thought it was wrong to offer congratulations to a family in the Temple newspaper on an intermarriage, and some rabbis thought that anyone who intermarried should never be offered an honor of any kind. Today those standards just seem mean spirited, though they testify to how threatened the Jewish community felt about intermarriage 30 and 40 years ago. And these measure weren’t effective. We can be happy for a couple, on their marriage, at the same time that we feel worried about the future of the Jewish people.
And what about honors during the service? Part of the problem is that most people look at what takes place here on a Saturday morning as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Of course, we feel, a father or mother – of whatever religion – should play a key role. The truth is that what takes place here on Saturday morning is a Jewish Shabbat service, at which we happen to celebrate a child becoming Bar Mitzvah. While Jews would be welcome to attend a Church service for a Christening, a first communion, a wedding, or a funeral, we would never expect – (nor would we be comfortable) to be asked to participate in a Christian religious ritual. It doesn’t make sense to me for a non-Jew to have (or share) an Aliyah in which they say the words ‘Asher Bachar Bonu Mikal Ha-Amim’ – ‘We praise God who chose us from among all peoples to give us the Torah.’ In my opinion opening the Ark and Carrying the Torah are key roles in a Jewish religious service – to be done by people who profess that religion.
Can we include a non-Jewish parent, or other family member, in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? There are English readings they can do – like the prayer for the government. At our Temple we’ve created an honor – asking the person to come up and present the Yad – the Torah pointer – to the child as he or she is called on to read their Torah portion.
The different streams of Judaism respond in their own ways to the reality of intermarriage.
The Orthodox insulate themselves from contact with those who are not of their own community. When how you dress, what you can eat, and who you can date are strictly controlled, intermarriage is very rare.
In 1983, the Reform movement came up with a revolutionary approach. Going against 2000 years of Jewish tradition, Reform Judaism accepted the principle of patrilineality. Up to that point, Jewish status was determined by the mother. Now, in the case of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, the child could be considered Jewish – so long as that was the exclusive way he or she was raised. Status based on how you were brought up, not on what your mother was made some sense. The problem is that irrevocably divided the Jewish people. We could henceforth no longer agree on who was a Jew.
The response of Conservative Judaism to the challenge of intermarriage is conversion. We invite non-Jews to join us, and become a part of the Jewish people. Conversion entails a period of serious study, immersion in a Mikveh – a ritual bath – and for a male, Brit Milah (or if already medically circumcised, Hatafa – the symbolic drawing of a drop of blood.)
Here on Long Island, the Conservative movement runs a course for converts – the Hillel Institute, and since the year 2000 I’ve been a member and the head of the Bet Din – the Rabbinic tribunal that oversees conversions. In the past 18 years, we’ve welcomed over 250 people into the Jewish people. Yes, many of them got into this because their fiancé (or their fiancé’s parents) asked them to. But what we found in listening to converts, is how meaningful they found Judaism. They were attracted by the Jewish emphasis on family. That Jews were encouraged to ask questions. That Judaism emphasized living in this world and making it a better place, rather than a fixation on Heaven and Hell.
Some Jewish women say: I’m Jewish so my kids will be Jews; that’s all that matters. But I would say: It’s not just about the status of the kids. It’s about the kind of home that the parents and the children will create. Some Jewish men say: She didn’t ask me to convert to her religion, how can I ask her to convert to mine? But it is not about who wins a power play. You’re not demanding a sacrifice or a favor – you’re offering them something wonderful. And a lot of people say: All religions are basically the same, Love your neighbor, and give gifts in December…
Religions are not all the same. Consider: Views about sexuality, birth control and abortion. Attitudes about the essence of human nature and original sin. Beliefs about who gets into Heaven and who doesn’t and the importance of deeds vs dogma.
I’ve met non-Jews who have said: “I’d consider converting, but it would devastate my parents, or my relationship with them. I would only tell you that while conversion used to take place almost always before marriage, or not at all, we’re seeing a different trend: Conversion after marriage. Sometimes before those children are Bar or Bat Mitzvahed, sometimes when these children are already grown up. The door is always open. And over time, some non-Jewish parents become more open about their children’s choces.
Here’s the message I want to give non-Jews. We invite you to consider joining the Jewish people. We believe that it will bring meaning and richness to your life. And that it can strengthen your family. And know that you will be helping to enhance and strengthen and preserve the Jewish people. For that, we Jews would be eternally grateful to you.
And for those who can’t for whatever reason, we still respect you, and cherish you. And we thank you for what you do to support the Jewish people, and Jewish life.
And here’s the message I want to give the Jews:
The non-Jews in your life take their cues from you. Your boyfriend or girlfriend, your fiancé, your spouse, your daughter-in-law or son-in-law – they look to you to see how seriously you take your Jewsihness.
Does your Judaism stop at the Mezuzah on the doorpost, or does it go inside and permeate your home?
Does your Judaism just consist of just a Seder meal without much of the Hagadah and Break-the-Fast gathering (after just an hour in the Children’s service), or do you live by all the ups and downs of the Jewish calendar and Jewish Life Cycle milestones?
Does your Judaism center only on Seinfield episodes and Holocaust movies, and Matza ball soup or on serious Jewish learning, a search for a meaningful relationship with God, and a commitment to acts of Tzedaka and Tikun Olam?
If the non-Jews in you life see how much Judaism means to you, there’s a good chance that your commitment and your enthusiasm will be contagious.
Ruth, the Moabite, followed Naomi, the Israelite, because she saw how special her mother-in-law’s people, and her mother-in-law’s religion were.
And Naomi, the Jew, came to see how blessed she was, to have Ruth, born a non-Jew, in her family.