The story is told of a rabbinical student who, looking to score points with his professor, regurgitated for the teacher an interpretation of Torah that the professor himself had offered some time earlier. When the professor scolded him for offering such an off-base interpretation, the student told him from where he had learned it. “Yes,” said the professor, “but I’ve grown since then!”
Nine years into my rabbinate, I am grateful to still be growing. In so many ways, my understanding of Torah and Jewish tradition has grown and evolved in dialogue with our sacred texts and with the people whom I am privileged to lead and serve. One particular change is the subject of this article: my approach to weddings between Jews and people who are not Jewish.
The view I have held until recently – and for which I still have a great deal of respect – can be summarized as follows: “I am a rabbi, whose authority to officiate at weddings is rooted in the Jewish tradition. Since Jewish tradition has long recognized that only a wedding between two Jews may properly be called a ‘Jewish marriage,’ it is inappropriate for me to stand beneath the hupah to serve as a rabbi for any other sort of ceremony.” All rabbis held this view until the last hundred years or so, and most continue to hold it today. I respect this approach, and do not hold in judgment those rabbis who continue to follow it.
My view now – held by many rabbis before me whom I respected even when I disagreed with them – can be summarized as follows: “I am a rabbi whose task at a wedding, as everywhere else, is to ‘open doors to Judaism.’ In twenty-first century America, it is often the case that Jews will fall in love with and choose to marry people who are not Jewish. In some cases, those Jews and their partners are seeking to walk through an open Jewish door on the day of their wedding. I belong at those weddings.”
What led to this change? The recognition that marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners are often imbued with an appreciation of Judaism (even a love of Judaism) and with the desire to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. Where that is the case, I find myself at odds with the tradition, and with the vast majority of my colleagues across the ages (and a solid majority today). I find myself comfortable – eager, even – to join those couples under the hupah and to invite God’s blessing upon their marriage.
Does it follow from this change of heart that I now intend to officiate at all interfaith weddings? No. Since my understanding of the wedding ceremony is that it is a potential “way into” Judaism, it follows that I will officiate at those weddings where both partners are committed to walking through the door. Specifically, I contemplate officiating under the following circumstances:
- I will officiate when both partners want a ceremony that is unambiguously Jewish.
- I will officiate when both partners are committed to creating an unambiguously Jewish home, raising their children as Jews, and taking part in the life of the Jewish community.
- I will officiate when both partners commit to a course of study with me prior to the wedding, exploring what it means to be a Jewish family.
- I will officiate when neither partner has other religious commitments that would keep them from taking part in the wedding ceremony and in subsequent Jewish life cycle ceremonies involving their children with a full heart.
Absent any of these conditions, my response to the couple will remain what it has been up to this point for all marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners: A hearty mazel tov, a willingness to work with them to find a ceremony that is a good fit, and a sincere hope that the door to Jewish life will remain open.
I am happy to answer your questions about my new approach to this important issue. One forum for discussion will be at the congregational meeting on April 18.