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After 25 Years of No, Now I Say Yes

Strom Gutter wedding

In the late spring of 2009, I celebrated two wonderful anniversaries: 25 years of marriage to my beloved Lori and the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi. My ordination followed my marriage by two days… I had my priorities straight!

Ordination certificate in hand, I headed off to my first job knowing what I was going to do but not necessarily how to do it. On-the-job-training, and a caring and competent mentor, meant a great deal to me in my first years.

Prior to my ordination I was contacted by a cousin of mine asking if I would officiate at her wedding once I had become a rabbi. When she told me that her fiancé was from a faith other than Judaism, I told her that I would be unable to accommodate her request. It was a painful lesson for me about expectations and disappointment. I still have a letter written to me by my parents expressing their surprise and dismay at the decision I made not to officiate at interfaith weddings, a policy to which I adhered for 25 years.

I said “no” to my cousin because all that I had learned about Jewish wedding traditions convinced me that a Jewish wedding is a ceremony intended for two Jews. Moreover, the evidence from research at that time suggested that interfaith marriage was detrimental to long-term Jewish survival.

For decades, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the organization for Reform rabbis), recognized the right of each and every rabbi to make Jewishly appropriate decisions, but stood clearly opposed to rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings. I stood among the majority of Reform rabbis who would not officiate at such weddings.

As the rates of interfaith marriage continued to climb in the 1980s and ’90s, I knew that when it came time to strike out on my own as a congregational rabbi, there would be increasing numbers of synagogues for whom my non-officiation might be an insurmountable impediment to my being hired.

To its credit and to my good fortune over the past 18 years, the Falmouth Jewish Congregation did not make my stance on officiation at interfaith weddings a deal-breaker. The conversations I had were never easy ones; most rabbis do not enjoy saying “no,” especially to people whom they know and about whom they care deeply.

An analysis of our religious school population has revealed that for a number of years now, upwards of 70 percent of our children come from interfaith homes. The parent from another faith tradition in those homes may, or may not be practicing another religion. There are large numbers of these multifaith family members who might best be described as gerei toshav–resident sojourners—people who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish community and who resonate, to a large degree, with Jewish rhythms and values even if they do not desire to become Jews themselves.

Interfaith wedding
Rabbi Lieberman officiating at a wedding

Having served this congregation for 18 years, I have seen many of these children blossom into adulthood with firm and vibrant Jewish identities. They’ve attended Jewish events, joined Jewish groups on their college campuses, enjoyed Birthright trips to Israel, and, in some instances, have manifest passionate attachments to Israel and to Jewish concerns.

I have also encountered Jews married to other Jews whose children never evolve Jewish identities. There are few givens and few predictable conclusions, when it comes to real people, real couples, real families.

Here’s what has changed for me since my ordination in 1984: In any given year I receive dozens of inquiries about officiating at weddings. The majority of these calls come from couples, and occasionally from parents of the bride or groom, who live out of state and are planning a Cape Cod destination wedding. Upwards of 95 percent of those calls are from interfaith couples seeking a rabbi to officiate. Because of my decision not to officiate interfaith weddings, more often than not, I suspect that our conversation leaves a residue of disappointment and anger, especially when it is the Jewish partner making the inquiry.

I have seen a generation of children grow up in my congregation, including my own. I harbor no illusions that all these kids will automatically, or magically, find Jewish partners and contemplate marriage. Most adults in this congregation have been aware of my position but it may have been a theoretical for them when their children were small. As their kids come of age and bring home potential spouses, the question of my non-officiation has loomed larger for them.

Then, something happened. I received the kind of call I’d been dreading. It was from a lovely young woman who grew up in the congregation and whose multi-generational family has been deeply rooted and involved. She told me that she was engaged and wanted to know if I was available to officiate at her wedding.

After extending my “Mazel tov!” and asking her fiancé’s name, I moved on to the next question: “What is his faith background?” She told me that he is a non-practicing Catholic and I then, sadly, proceeded to tell her that it is my policy not to officiate at interfaith weddings. I expressed that I was eager to sit down with the two of them to explain myself more fully. To their great credit, they accepted the invitation.

I was anxious about that conversation. When the day of our meeting arrived I met a charming young man and his bride-to-be who, of course, I knew well. They shared with me the story of their relationship, their desires and intentions for the future, including their shared desire, if blessed with children, to raise them as Jews. I explained to them why I do not officiate at interfaith weddings. I believe they understood and respected the principle on which my decision has been based even while they dealt with their disappointment.

Then this young woman said something that shook me to my core. She told me that she had been very fearful that, as an interfaith couple, she and her husband would not be welcome in this congregation. That she harbored a fear that they would be unwelcome in the congregation she calls “home” was so painful to hear. It sent some seismic shockwaves rippling through me and, by the time our conversation ended and I had provided the couple with the name of a rabbi to whom they might turn, I told them that our conversation had reawakened in me something with which I had begun to grapple some time ago. I asked them to hold off on contacting that rabbi for a little while unless they felt they absolutely had to quickly pin down a date, a time and a rabbi.

That’s when my struggle began in earnest. Could I justify to myself a position I have held for so long and which has occasioned through the years no small amount of disappointment and pain? It was time to balance my need to honor my understanding of a particular tradition and ritual with the needs of increasing numbers of people to experience a significant moment in their lives in a Jewish context, notwithstanding the fact that one of them is from another faith or no faith practice at all.

I can no longer assert that my non-officiation has a role to play in Jewish continuity.

While I do believe that it is a wonderful thing when Jews find Jewish partners, I do not believe that interfaith marriages are inherently weaker marriages or incapable of bringing a new Jewish generation into being. I know many interfaith couples who live vibrant and Jewishly-connected lives.

Interfaith marriage is simply not a “dead-end” for Judaism. I have more than enough evidence sitting before me in my own congregation to convince me otherwise. I have felt the need to reconcile what has been perceived as conflicting messages: We welcome interfaith couples and families with open arms but I, as the rabbi of this welcoming congregation, refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings. It is a high price to pay when couples who want to create a Jewish home and contribute to Jewish vitality, turn away from the Jewish community after being refused officiation at their weddings.

A colleague, Rabbi Brian Field, assesses the situation this way: “In effect, the current discourse [on interfaith marriage] can be characterized as ‘yes, but.’ Yes, you’re welcome, but we can’t help but see you as a symptom or a problem. Yes, you’re welcome, but we wish you had married a Jew, or we wish that you would convert. Yes, you’re welcome, but we wish you were different and more than you are.” I have chosen to free myself from the constraint of the unanswerable question, “Is it good for the Jewish community?” and to focus, instead, on the question “Is my officiation good for this couple?”

Having reached the decision to reverse my longstanding policy, I did several things. I called the young couple with whom I recently met and told them I would feel privileged to stand beneath the chuppah with them and to thank them for helping me clarify for myself the appropriateness of this decision.

It is my fervent hope that the decision I have made to change my practice in one important aspect of my rabbinic work will enable me to more effectively draw near to Judaism and to the Jewish community the couples who will share sacred space and sacred time with me beneath a chuppah–the wedding canopy.

I cannot guarantee that the couples I marry will never divorce; I cannot guarantee they will join a synagogue; I cannot guarantee anything except my commitment to make them feel welcome in Jewish life.

The couples whose marriage licenses bear my signature may, in fact, forget what I said to them in our pre-marital planning sessions or beneath the chuppah; they may, in fact, forget the details of what they did during their ceremony. But, if I am successful in my work as a rabbi, they will remember how I made them feel. And it is my heartfelt prayer that they will feel proud to be making Jewish choices and valued by me as important parts of the Jewish community.

For almost 25 years, part of my professional identity has been that of a “rabbi who doesn’t officiate at interfaith marriages.” After careful self-examination, I see myself in a new way, and acknowledge the price that I, and others, paid for my decisions. It means a readjustment of my sense of self. It has meant coming to the realization that I needed to make a change in my life and finding a way to do so.

I rarely hold myself out as a role model for anything, but I will humbly suggest that the personal change I described for you here is an example of a process each of us is called to consider. None of us has reached a state of perfection; each of us can articulate a list of things we’d like to change or improve in our lives. My friends, now is the time. Now is always the time.

Rabbi Elias Lieberman

Rabbi Elias Lieberman graduated Vassar College and was ordained from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He served as an Assistant and Associate Rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, MD from 1984-1990. Since 1990, Rabbi Lieberman has served the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Falmouth, MA (Cape Cod).