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Rabbinic Commentaries on Intermarriage

These essays were written by rabbis in response to Call & Responsa 2: Should a Rabbi Perform an Intermarriage?

These essays were written by rabbis in response to Call & Responsa 2: Should a Rabbi Perform an Intermarriage?

Rabbi Neil Cooper, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

I read with interest the comments of many of my colleagues regarding the question posed. I find much to agree with on both sides of this issue. Nevertheless, my opposition to rabbis performing intermarriage remains. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

Most of my Reform colleagues now perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. In addition, a number of my Conservative colleagues favor performing interfaith wedding ceremonies. This “pro” camp often, although not always, requires that a number of explicit qualifications (study in a “conversion-type” basic Judaism class, membership in the synagogue and others) be met. These conditions must/should be fulfilled in order for the rabbi to agree to perform the ceremonies. I suppose that one could call this “conditional agreement” to the performance of interfaith wedding. (I must confess that it is hard to imagine a rabbi saying to one family, “I will do it” and to another family saying, “I will not do it.”). In addition, a number of colleagues are experimenting with gradations of sanctions, such as “kiddushei b’nai noach.” Most of my colleagues, however, express a degree of hesitation and, it is in that hesitation that I reside.

Common to us all, I believe, is a desire to include the interfaith couples in our synagogues and in our communities. In my own case, over the past number of years I have spearheaded changes to our synagogue’s constitution and in the inclusion of the non-Jewish spouse in a variety of ways in our sanctuary during bar/bat Mitzvah services. It is here, however, that many of my colleagues rightly point out an inconsistency. After all, if it is our goal to include non-Jewish spouses in our rituals, our synagogues and communities, why not simply accept the spouse as eligible for every form of involvement?

All of us agree on the importance of encouraging maximum involvement of the non-Jewish spouse, individually and together with the Jewish spouse. Moreover, for those rabbis whose Jewish decision-making process is based primarily of a philosophy of egalitarianism, the notion of, and establishment of, barriers between people, whether by gender, race or religion, is fundamentality rejected. The logical answer to the question, therefore, must be that performing an interfaith wedding is one piece of the work we must do in order to overcome the barriers imposed upon us by Jewish tradition and the strictures of Jewish law.

From this perspective, I am in agreement with most of my colleagues whose inclination (for some, an inclination which has taken many years to prevail) it is to break down artificial boundaries: If we are to encourage the non-Jewish couple to join our synagogues and to send us their children, how can we refuse to perform their wedding? We work tirelessly to bring the family and the Jewish community together and so, as one colleague put it, how can we, in good conscience, reject the couple at the holiest and most sacred moment in their lives?

In addition, when a different rabbi performs the interfaith ceremony after which the couple comes to us, how can we, in good conscience, reap the “benefits” of this newlywed couple, inviting their membership and participation in our synagogues, but refuse to sanctify their marriage? When the decision-making process is based on this line of reasoning, it is hard not to arrive at the point which moves us to perform these ceremonies. Why then do I, and perhaps others, oppose this practice?

As a rabbi, I believe that my role is to confront issues and challenges to the Jewish community from the perspective of Jewish tradition. In considering the question of performing these ceremonies, I must ask at least two questions: What is it that we are trying to accomplish for the Jewish community? And, will this new approach to interfaith weddings bring us closer to the goal we are aiming for? For me, among the goals toward which we should strive is to help create a Jewish community which is knowledgeable, committed to Jewish tradition, and a community whose members sense the unique beauty of Jewish life. To do this, we must make Judaism accessible, dynamic and unique. To do this, Judaism must certainly exhibit flexibility. And within Judaism there is flexibility in order to grow in ways which our people require, in order to meet the needs of every generation.

For me, Jewish law and tradition are neither stagnant nor rigid. I am convinced, for example, that, based on new understandings, scientific and otherwise, our tradition’s view of GLBTQ needed to evolve. The Torah, as I have come to understand, viewed this issue from a different perspective than we. The position of my movement on this issue, therefore, represents the evolution of a dynamic system of Jewish law. Similar points can be made with regard to the evolution of Jewish law in the expansion of the role of Jewish women in Jewish life. In each of these cases, the expansion and evolution of Jewish law has brought to more than half of the Jewish community a sense of inclusion, empowerment, and energy.

But, the issue of the inclusion of non-Jews in the Jewish community in general, and the performance of interfaith weddings in particular, is a different question. One can hope that the couple will remain connected to the rabbi who performs the ceremony, to the synagogue and the Jewish community. Indeed, we have done much to make the boundary between Jew and non-Jew one which is much more permeable, one which allows for the easy migration into the Jewish community.

But that boundary to be crossed still exists. I believe that the performance of interfaith marriages is, essentially, an act which dissolves that line of demarcation between that which is Jewish and that which is not. For those of us who are involved in working with non-Jews converting to Judaism, much is made of this boundary. We are proud of the fact that one can enjoy much of what Jewish Life has to offer without converting. One converts, however, in order to be a full member of the Jewish people, in order to reach the highest level of inclusion, involvement, and responsibility. And that type of membership comes with the blessings of the community which is there to embrace and the rabbi, who pronounces blessings on behalf of the entire Jewish people, at the wedding. If, however, all rights and privileges, from wedding to other rites of passage and privileges of Jewish life are available without conversion, why would one need to convert?

By performing weddings of interfaith couples as representatives of the Jewish people, we rabbis are, in essence, saying that one does not need to be Jewish in order to be Jewish. If all have access to rabbis willing to treat them as if they were Jewish, we have lost that boundary, that sense of membership, that bit of uniqueness to our identity which connects us to our ancestors and to our fellow Jews. Indeed, if we are all, de facto, Jewish, then no one is Jewish. And that is my fear. Back to top

Adina Lewittes, Sha’ar Communities

Back in 1988 while in rabbinical school at JTS, I used to think I’d be the first Conservative rabbi whose sons wouldn’t be subjected to circumcision, and who would one day rewrite the rules on intermarriage, struggling as I did with my right to tell a Jew whom they could or could not marry. Twenty‐six years later I am no longer a Conservative rabbi, my three sons are circumcised thanks to copious amounts of Manischewitz given to them and to me at their brises, and I just performed my second intermarriage.

Like many in the Jewish world, I was raised and trained to promote the beauty and importance of endogamy in order to preserve Jewish tradition, secure Jewish continuity, and grow, in both breadth and depth, the vitality of the Jewish family and the Jewish people.

This view was so prevalent for so long that until recently anyone who chose otherwise was assumed to be rejecting their Jewish identity, having little regard for Judaism or the future of the Jewish people. While society continued to be shaped by clear boundaries between religious and ethnic communities, this wisdom was little challenged. Those who deviated generally left the community.

But as the world changed, so did we. Over the last few decades, traditional hierarchies in business, technology, natural resources and socialization have given way to platforms that promote collaboration, accessibility and power sharing. The unimaginable levels of mobility – literal and digital ‐‐ bringing people from all corners of the world together for work and pleasure have opened us up to one another as never before. Facebook, Snapchat, Buzzfeed, smart energy grids, Zipcars, Uber, and Airbnb aren’t just innovative ways of connecting people to make money. They are reflections of a world no longer segmented by the historic walls that divided companies, consumers, communities and cultures.

When we, our children and grandchildren study, work, play, eat and travel with people from all different backgrounds, when society now welcomes us as we are without asking us to diminish or conceal our particular identities, when we celebrate the possibilities of living as a proud Jew in the big, diverse world out there, it wasn’t only a matter of time before Jews would begin meeting and falling in love with people from different religious or cultural communities, but it was also only a matter of time before Jews would feel that they could enjoy those relationships without sacrificing their own Jewish identities and Jewish lives. That time is now. And those Jews make up 72 percent of those outside of the Orthodox Jewish world.

In our Jewish world today, the clear lines that once delineated who was in and who was out, and what was in and what was out, have become increasingly blurry. Spiritual, ritual and communal diversity in the Jewish world is growing, and there is no turning back. Our task is not to figure out how to tame all the creative Jewish energy out there and make it conform to traditional standards. Our challenge is how to harness the unmistakable, if varied, Jewish yearnings for meaning, for connection and for authenticity and lead them to deepened and sustained Jewish commitment, thereby creating robust and vital Jewish communities.

Consider this nugget from the Pew study of 2013: “When we look at all adults who have just one Jewish parent – including both those who identify as Jewish and those who do not – we see that the Jewish retention rate of people raised in intermarried families appears to be rising. That is, among all adults (both Jewish and non ‐Jewish) who say they had one Jewish parent and one non ‐Jewish parent, younger generations are more likely than older generations to be Jewish today.”

Intermarriage rates are soaring, and yet more and more people growing up in intermarried homes are seeking to live as Jews and are not rejecting their Judaism as did those who intermarried generations ago. More and more are seeking to integrate their Jewish identities into the lives and families they are building with their non ‐Jewish partners. That being the case, so long as rabbis reject these couples, we may be holding the line on intermarriage but we’re also losing the opportunity to engage these couples and their families and encourage their continued desire to participate in Jewish life.

Yes, some rabbis say, “I’m sorry I can’t officiate at your wedding but please come in the next day and we’ll gladly welcome you into the community.” That’s a far cry from the days when synagogues would only address mail to the Jewish partner in an intermarried home. And it’s quite something that in a nod to the changing Jewish family, three years ago the Conservative movement approved burying non ‐Jewish spouses and non ‐Jewish children of Jews in Jewish cemeteries. Still, while some interfaith or intercultural couples will abide the rejection around the wedding and still seek out a shul at a later date, many won’t accept the perceived hypocrisy of those who would welcome their membership dollars after someone else does the “dirty work” (i.e. takes responsibility for) consecrating their marriage.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker once listed all the skills a rabbi needs to have to be successful: a good speaker, an engaging teacher, a competent administrator, an empathic pastor, a tireless activist, a charming personality, a sense of humor, thick skin ‐‐ I’m sure you can add to the list. What almost always fails to appear on anyone’s inventory is what he called our charge to be an “ish/isha ha ‐elohim” – literally, “a man or woman of God.” I understand this to mean being someone who can truly be present to another and help make manifest the singular, sacred, if messy, essence of life that transcends all particular religions and identities and that unites and binds us all to one another and to the divine. Our Jewish path to that revelation is rich, beautiful, precious, and in dire need of reinforcement to ensure its continuity. But that continuity will come in many forms. Part of my role as a rabbi is to illuminate for people their own path to ensuring Judaism’s future. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, the true teacher connects you with your God – and then gets out of the way.

Should rabbis perform intermarriages? For those couples wherein the non ‐Jewish partner is not interested in conversion (or who may be interested at a later date) but there is a clear, shared commitment to establish a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family, I say yes. But I am not advocating kiddushin and the traditional Jewish wedding rituals under these circumstances. Those are historic and holy elements reserved for the wedding ceremony of two Jews. I am advocating for the establishment of a new norm: a new wedding ceremony for a Jew and a non ‐Jew at which a rabbi can be present to welcome them lovingly and respectfully and convey the desire that the couple remain connected and committed to the Jewish community.

Is it possible? My own growing experience says yes. I’ve crafted such a ceremony and both couples I’ve married add inspiring evidence. One remains active in and devoted to their synagogue community; the other learns with me on a bi ‐weekly basis in order to grow their understanding of Judaism so they can make good on their shared dreams for a Jewish life together.

My motivation is a passionate commitment to inclusion, not exclusion, and I’m trying to stimulate discussion and model approaches that can, and I pray will, enfranchise those who risk becoming alienated while strengthening the Jewish people and maintaining the dignity and integrity of Jewish tradition. And besides, if God can welcome us home each and every day and accept the array of choices we’ve made in our lives, can we not do the same for one another? Back to top

Rabbi Dr. Dan S. Wiko, Hopewell Junction, New York:

I, initially, refused to do interfaith weddings but, after much soul searching, I came to the realization, from my point of view, that by denying a couple who wants a semi-Jewish wedding ceremony, I am pushing the Jewish partner away from any connection to our religious practices and beliefs.

The fact remains that, with or without my participation, the couple will marry anyway and, in fact, do so without any basic connection to Judaism. I do, however, modify the ceremony by omitting "Kedaas Moshe," and inserting "in accordance with the dictates of my heart," in its stead. The couple is satisfied and I am able to justify my participation in one of the most important events of the couple’s life.

I suggest, to them, that they familiarize themselves with Jewish customs, traditions and general exposure to prayer, be it in Hebrew or English, and I have found that this works in bringing the couple more to Judaism than to non-practice. I have found that in many, if not most cases, the couple express a desire to raise their children as Jews. That, alone, makes me more comfortable. Back to top

Rabbi Brooks Susman, Congregation Kol Am, Freehold, New Jersey:

The performance of the ceremonies not only follows what Rabbi Buchdahl suggests in strengthening the community, but adds that the presence of Jewish clergy will remind the couple when and if they are blessed with children, that Judaism was present at the ceremony. I believe that one of our missions as rabbis is to enable Jewish grandchildren. Our absence will allow the non-Jew to remind the Jew of our absence in the genesis of the marriage. Back to top

Rabbi Ron Aigen, Congregation Dorshei Emet, Montreal, Quebec:

I disagree with blaming the rabbis who require conversion as being unwelcoming. On the contrary, non-Jews are warmly welcome to join us and be part of us if they so wish.

What I didn’t hear addressed by Rabbi Buchdahl or any of the respondents was the question of integrity on the part of the rabbis or the Jewish community they represent.

The non-Jew who wants to be married by a rabbi without conversion is maintaining his or her own integrity of remaining true to who they are. They are apparently unwilling or unable to identify as belonging to the Jewish people in any public, official sense.

What does it mean, however, when we use Jewish rituals that convey personal identity (e.g., life-cycle rituals, Aliyah le-Torah) equally for non-Jews who do not share the emotional connection that most Jews have to the symbolic language and forms of expression we are using? Would we, for example, celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah of a non-Jew, or someone who wanted to proclaim themselves “half-Jewish”? 

What does it mean to populate synagogues with potentially a majority of non-Jewish Judeophiles  who are themselves not committed to sharing in the covenant of Jewish Peoplehood or actively seeking to promote it?  I think this is what Yehudah Kurtzer  was perhaps hinting at when he raised the strong suit of Orthodoxy—integrity. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I also feel that we need to remain true to who we are as Jews and rabbis.

My own approach to being more “radically welcoming” is to suggest an entry level “cultural conversion” that entails an informed commitment to be formally identified sociologically as belonging with the Jewish People, exclusive of other religious affiliations. It would function something like the Landed Immigrant status in Canada, or the Ger Toshav in biblical times. But so far, no one seems to be interested. Back to top

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El, Scarsdale, New York

Kol HaKavod to SHI for inviting us to join this important conversation. It is a very positive sign, in my opinion, that a respected pluralistic center of Jewish thought like SHI is taking up this critically important discussion.

My five years at HUC (the four latter ones after my year in Israel were in Cincinnati), and my seven years as an Assistant Rabbi in a large Reform synagogue in the San Diego suburbs, never afforded me the opportunity to critically engage with text, and with non-rabbinic stakeholders, about the officiation question. I chose to spend the first year (2012-2013) in my current position (as a solo rabbi in Westchester County, NY) dedicating myself to that exercise. The process ultimately enabled me to decide to officiate for some couples where one partner is not Jewish. I’ve recently written about the study and decision-making experience here .

As a strong advocate for outreach and inclusion, generally; and for officiation under certain circumstances more specifically, the comments of Rabbis Buchdahl and Aaronson naturally resonate with me.

But I want to take this moment to particularly lift up Rabbi Sabath Beit-Halachmi’s teaching on pluralism. From where I stand on this question, there is not one answer that is "more correct" than another one. For my clergy colleagues and I, the question of when/whether to officiate is one of conscience. For some: our conscience dictates that we officiate. And for others the opposite. And for some of us, we tiptoe in between. But I believe that if we are going to acknowledge our shared vocational legitimacy and authenticity, then this conversation has to begin with an articulation of mutual respect, and the understanding that this decision is an intensely personal one. Clergy colleagues shouldn’t be in the business of sitting in judgment of one another.

In light of my own experience of engaging my community very candidly and publicly on this issue, repeatedly over the course of my first year in the position, I can say with some certainty that most of am’cha is not able/willing to extend that same sense of respect. For the families we serve, this issue is too personal. Either they are desperate for their clergy to officiate so as to validate their/their families’ own relationships where one partner is not Jewish. Or: they are desperate for their clergy to ‘hold the line’ so that their children or grandchildren won’t enter into a committed relationship with one who is not Jewish.

Of course there are a rare few who are comfortable residing in the gray. But ultimately, I think that it’s our job – even as we may come to have a particular perspective on this question – to stake out ground in the middle in order to affirm the legitimacy of both sides of this question. ‘These and those are words of the living God’ in my opinion. As clergy, we are blessed to be able to actualize that approach, when we talk about this with our congregants. But we’ll never be able to do that, until we can begin by creating that space with each other, our trusted and honored colleagues. Back to top

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, Massachusetts:

The question is not whether or not intermarriage is good or bad, it is rather if we can create family units where Jewish values, calendar and connection can be nurtured.

Throughout the ages we have nurtured the concept of b’nai noakh, ger toshav, yireh hashem. These folks were close to our community and for the most past accepted the Jewish rubric wherein they dwelled. We are told numerous times to love the "sojourner who dwells with you."

The ger toshav, in terms of our current immigration laws, is a "resident alien." He or she has a "Green Card," but not citizenship, some shared obligations and some privileges.

I am in the process of extending an older idea proposed by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and others to create a b’nei noakh wedding ceremony that is clearly not a traditional Jewish ceremony. It will be a covenantal ceremony utilizing the image of the rainbow, water and a clear acceptance by the ben/bat noakh to support a Jewishly affiliated family.

This would be a ceremony that respects so much in our tradition. It would be helpful if either partner is born Jewish or not. The partner of a Jewish mother will add his/her support to the path of Jewish continuity. The partner of a Jewish father will support the children being raised as Jews.

Whether the Jewish partner will want to immerse children leshem giur is another matter.

Rabbis are committed to the ongoing growth and spiritual life of the Jewish people. We should do whatever is possible to retain our integrity by avoiding conversions for the sake of marriage (I have seen too many folks divorce not only their Jewish spouse but "their" Judaism).

We have a number of geri toshav, yirei hashem, and b’nai noakh in our congregation, and we have come up with simple ways of making sure they are included in all of our activities. Back to top

Rabbi Steve Kane, Congregation Sons of Israel, Briarcliff Manor, NY

This is a very difficult topic, with no easy answers. It seems to me though that our job as rabbis is to do our best with the Jewish community we come into contact with. Those who are Conservative rabbis now have an opportunity to set significant standards and requirements for intermarriages, and unfortunately if we don’t take the initiative to do that, it will be done for us by our own communities.

What kind of standards? Asking the non-Jewish spouse to take a conversion-type class, getting a commitment that Judaism will be the only religion that the family practices, only officiating for children of synagogue members and having only Jewish clergy and ritual in the service.

Many of our most committed families have children intermarrying, but their children still want to have a commitment to Judaism. In their ideal world, they would have married a Jew, but that’s not whom they fell in love with. Abandoning them now, at such a crucial moment in their lives, just seems counterproductive and perhaps even irresponsible to me.  Back to top    

Rabbi Amy Joy Small, Deborah’s Palm, Morristown, New Jersey

Rabbi Buchdahl writes, "I am now almost evangelical about feeling that it is important to be a part of those ceremonies…I know that those couples are much, much more connected to their Judaism and to a rabbi and also to this community because I officiated and met with them.”

I completely agree, and I would even take it a step further. Like Rabbi Buchdahl, I changed my position over time, out of concern for the Jewish people and the need expressed by so many couples to be included. In my experience, these relationships with rabbis, formed at powerful life passage moments, define and shape the attitudes and behaviors of interfaith couples as they create families.

As a rabbi engaged in outreach to unaffiliated Jews — the fastest growing and largest segment of our community — I have found that the feelings of alienation among many unengaged Jews is deep and broad. Many are begging for a path back in, to be accepted as Jews and Jewish families, to be offered a Judaism that adds meaning to their lives. Their feelings of alienation, in response their experience of rabbis and synagogues defining and judging them, cannot be mended by more stringent rules and expectations. They are seeking inspiration, spiritual wisdom and uplifting Jewish experiences from Jewish leaders who listen to their needs and guide them on a Jewish path that suits their life stage.

Most share a strong desire to remain Jewish. But how "Jew-ish” they will become is a matter of exploration and personal choice. We have to meet them where they are.

If we say “no,” we are effectively rejecting them — as they experience it. I believe we do this at our own peril. Notice how many secular or “interfaith” officiants are listed on wedding announcements. The trend is away from rabbis as officiants — we need to invite Jews back home with open arms.

We best serve the Jewish people by extending our hands to all who seek us, to bring them close, especially at the critical moment of marriage, offering tools for their Jewish path, Jewish home, and Jewish family. Back to top


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