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Why I Changed My Mind

It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make as a rabbi. To say no to my sister, who was getting married. I would not–I could not–officiate at her wedding ceremony… because she was marrying someone who was not Jewish.

And today, if my sister were to ask me, the answer would be yes.  Ah, the journeys we take in life!

I am one of those rabbis who will officiate at interfaith marriages. But I was not always in that camp. The journey I took–and the questions I still ask–may be instructive for others.

For the first fourteen years of my rabbinate (I was ordained from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary), I refused to officiate at a wedding ceremony unless both parties were Jewish–either born Jewish or having chosen Judaism through conversion. My reasoning was sound: I–as a rabbi–am only in the business of creating Jewish families and that can only be done in the context of a Jewish wedding between two Jews; it is not my prerogative to create new ceremonies… and the words in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony preclude someone of another faith tradition from participating. Also, my reading of the statistics did not demonstrate that rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriage ceremonies had any significant influence on the subsequent religious choices of the couple, including the faith in which children were to be raised.

Especially based on that last premise, it seemed better to me to be “in” the stream of tradition, then beyond. And so, on many, many occasions, I gently but firmly indicated that I would not–could not–officiate at an interfaith marriage ceremony.

However, what I did offer were a number of possibilities. I would suggest that a couple get a civil ceremony, creating a service that reflected the couple’s budding (shared) religious identity. If that identity was to be Jewish, I would be delighted to assist them in that process. And, indeed, if invited, I would attend the wedding ceremony. I invited the couple to go through my typical pre-marriage conversations and counseling sessions. I encouraged the couple to take an Introduction to Judaism course AND an equivalent introduction to Christianity course, in order to understand both faith traditions better. I invited the couple to join our outreach program, to attend services, and did all I could to make the couple feel accepted and not rejected.

There were moments when my approach worked, couples felt embraced, and a new Jewish family was welcomed into my congregation. And yet, there were an equal number of instances when the couple–or the Jewish partner’s parents–felt rejected and walked away… to what I was never sure.

However, there was one thing of which I was absolutely sure: this position was neither serving nor furthering the future of the Jewish people. If my goal as a rabbi is to keep Jews as Jews and to encourage others to live Jewish lives, then the results of my refusing to officiate were less than stellar. Yet, what to do? Why–or how–to change?

Those answers came for me in 1995, when I was called to become senior rabbi of Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio.

In coming to Columbus, I discovered two very important facts. First, the rabbis of the congregation had officiated at interfaith marriage ceremonies for almost fifty years prior to my arrival. Second, every other Reform congregation in the city had rabbis who officiated at interfaith marriage ceremonies. I realized that my new community had both a history and expectation. And the “norm” of the liberal community was to embrace these ceremonies. Clearly, each rabbi in the community–as well as throughout the congregation’s history–held to different standards. What one rabbi would embrace was beyond another’s sense of Jewish appropriateness. For example, one rabbi in the community would co-officiate with Christian clergy; another would not. One rabbi would be willing to stand under the chuppah (marriage canopy) with an interfaith couple regardless of their decision about how to raise future children religiously; another insisted on a commitment to raise Jewish children. However, despite all the permutations and combinations, there was an unwritten liberal community standard–interfaith couples were welcome to stand under the chuppah and be married by a rabbi.

As a rabbi, I am deeply respectful of “minhag ha-makom” (the custom of the place) and our tradition contains examples of how a community can change the halakha (Jewish law) by its behavior, overriding a rabbi’s ruling.

And so…the impetus to change was before me. And it opened up to me the opportunity to see if another approach would be more successful, more embracing. I began to officiate at interfaith marriage ceremonies.

In the last decade since that change, I have officiated at many such ceremonies. Probably half of all the weddings I perform are between couples of different faiths.

My work with couples remains essentially the same. My goal is to help a couple create a Jewish home, a place filled with Jewish values, traditions, sights, sounds, and smells. And while Jewish couples are sometimes ill equipped for that task, interfaith couples have a built-in “handicap,” since one partner usually has no long-term Jewish experience upon which to build new memories and traditions.

So, with interfaith couples, I require a bit of extra work–not as punishment, but as an encouragement to discover the Jewish rhythms within their shared soul. I ask them to participate together in an Introduction to Judaism course. They usually take the 15-week course offered at my synagogue, which becomes another way for them to meet others in the congregation, others similar to themselves, and for me to see them in a different setting. In addition, I encourage them to attend Shabbat and holiday services, to experience traditions in the home –to light Shabbat candles, to attend/host a Passover seder, to build a sukkah. By participating in the cycle of Jewish living, the couple begins to hear more clearly their unique Jewish rhythm.

I caution the couple. The marriage ceremony is thirty minutes. While important, it is but a blip on the radar screen of their lives together. By studying and working with me in preparation for the ceremony, they are simultaneously laying the foundation for a meaningful Jewish life together.

The ceremony clearly reflects that Jewish life. It contains all the aspects of a “traditional” Jewish wedding, with a few exceptions. There is no ketubah, for that is unique to a Jewish wedding. The vows recited are changed, to reflect the reality of the interfaith couple. And one of the blessings over wine is eliminated, again in respect for the different reality of an interfaith marriage. But, prayerfully, the couple emerges from the wedding feeling like a Jewish couple, committing to themselves, to the community, and to the Holy One to live life according to Jewish values and traditions.

So, what–you ask–have been the results?

To be honest, they have been mixed. There are fewer couples (and parents) who walk away feeling rejected. But some still do. If I will officiate at an interfaith marriage ceremony, why can’t it be with a Christian clergy as co-officiant? Why can’t I officiate if they plan to raise their children as Christians and Jews? The answer, which is the same I gave when I did not officiate, is that each rabbi determines where s/he is comfortable in serving the Jewish people. It is not a commentary on the couple; it is a statement about the rabbi.

I believe that more of my interfaith couples stay connected to the synagogue. Many–but not all–join and remain members. But, I also believe that most interfaith couples still have a harder path to walk than Jewish couples. And many of the divorces I see are between interfaith couples and are so rancorous, focusing on the children’s faith practices.

All that said, I believe that it has been the right decision to make. We live in a very different world than that of our ancestors. Never before have the Jewish and secular worlds been so intermingled. Never before have our children been so welcomed by and welcoming to children of other faiths. Never before have so many of the fences which have separated us been torn down. And so the reality of interfaith marriage is a part of our 21st century North American experience. It is not good; it is not bad. It is! As such, our task is to make that reality into a good. And I believe we do that most effectively by embracing interfaith couples who come to us, encouraging them to choose one faith by which to live (regardless of individual faith commitments), and helping them on that chosen path by officiating at an interfaith marriage ceremony, one that respects Jewish tradition by incorporating those elements possible to incorporate and changing/removing elements that speak to a different reality.

Now, I don’t expect every rabbi–or every couple–to agree with my perspective. I may be wrong. Or I may be right. Only time–and history–will tell. But in the telling, I pray that those with whom I work will share their own commitments to Judaism and–like the Holy One, following creation–look at what has been created and say, “It is very good.”

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.