Not long ago, I received a call from a young bride-to-be who was nearly in tears. “I just got off the phone with a rabbi,” she said, “who said that she officiates at interfaith weddings. But she told me that since I’m Catholic, in order for her to officiate at our wedding, we have to promise that if we have kids, we’ll raise them Jewish. My partner and I think that we want our kids to be Jewish, but we’re not ready to promise that right now. Maybe we should just go find a justice of the peace to marry us.”
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had such a conversation. Often, rabbis will officiate at weddings where one partner isn’t Jewish, as long as the couple commit to having a Jewish household and raising Jewish children. I certainly understand this — as rabbis we care deeply about the future of the Jewish people. However, I think that as rabbis we also need to care deeply about Jewish individuals as well. As several Jewish partners have wondered aloud after having been told by a rabbi that he or she won’t officiate at their wedding because they can’t commit 100 percent that they will raise their children Jewish: “Why does the rabbi care more about hypothetical children that I might have in the future than about me, a Jewish person standing before the rabbi right now?”
At my initial meeting with an interfaith couple, I am, first of all, glad that they want to be meeting with a rabbi. There are many options for couples getting married today and they don’t have to come to a rabbi. Yet for some reason they have — whether it’s because they’re both sure they want to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family; the Jewish partner wants to have Jewish clergy present at this most sacred moment; or for some other reason. Whatever the reason, the couple — both the partner who is Jewish and the one who isn’t — have decided together that having a rabbi at their wedding is important. This is no small thing!
Do I discuss with wedding couples whether they hope to have children, and if so, how they might raise them? Absolutely. And do I share with couples that I’d be thrilled if they raise their children as Jews? You bet. But I also let them know that I think it’s essential that they be open and honest with each other — that the partners strive to understand what their own religious heritage means to them, and that they also seek to understand how their partner relates to their religious heritage. If the lines of communication and respect are open before the wedding — even when the conversations get difficult — then they’re a lot more likely to be open after the wedding.
I’m always happy when an interfaith wedding couple tells me that they’re 100 percent committed to having a Jewish family; but I also know that things evolve and change — both for those couples who’ve made this “promise” and for those who haven’t. I’d rather perform a wedding ceremony for a couple who have great communication and are considering raising their kids Jewish but may not yet be prepared to make an ultimate commitment (or lie and tell me that they have, starting out their marriage on a dishonest note) than to turn them away. That way I can share with them the beauty, joy and meaning of Judaism in the months we spend getting to know each other as we prepare for the wedding ceremony. I believe that by opening the door to Judaism wide by officiating at the wedding, there’s a greater chance that the couple will want to come on in.
This piece first appeared on the Jewish Exponent‘s Rabbis Uncensored blog, where you can find another rabbinic response to the column