"Jewishish" Weddings in B.C.
These words expand on my Malchuyot Torah Vort from Rosh Hashanah 5780. On May 26, 2020, I presented my current thinking to the Vancouver School of Theology's Interreligious Studies Conference: Religious, Spiritual, Secular: Living in a Pluralistic Culture. With thanks to Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan for the inspiration and opportunity.
I cannot identify the exact moment I decided to devote my rabbinate to performing interfaith lifecycle events. The amount of learning and studying I did during rabbinic school opened a world to me of new perspectives on old questions, of changes that had occurred over time, and the efforts to resist them, of the development, creation and re-creation of our tradition. I am part of a long tradition of challenging the status quo.
And I do not know if, when I die, I will be blessed in the afterlife for my work and find myself in Gan Eden/the Garden of Eden/Paradise or judged wicked for my actions, suffering in Gehenna/Purgatory until I have atoned sufficiently for my sins, my soul has been purged from all defilement and has achieved spiritual purification. I am in good company, however, because my Rebbe, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, said the same about his rather spectacular life’s work of creating what is now called the Jewish Renewal Movement, as did the Rabbinic Sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who, on his deathbed, said that about his fleeing Jerusalem in 70 CE when it was under siege by the Romans. He met secretly with the Roman Emperor Vespasian and convinced him to allow Rabbi Yochanan and his disciples to set up an academy in Yavneh where they would be able to continue their work of creating Rabbinic Judaism.
Lest I be accused of hubris, rest assured that I do not, for a second, mean to compare my performing interfaith life cycle events to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism or of Jewish Renewal. Only that I know well the self-doubt, the feeling of wondering whether I am actually doing the right thing, or whether I am making a really, really big mistake. Even my paradigm shifting Rebbe Zalman was not willing to sanctify intermarriage.
Interfaith marriages between Jews and people of other heritages has long been hotly debated. From biblical times, when marriage between Israelites and the nations of Canaan was prohibited because it was feared to lead to idolatry and loss of religious identity, through the rabbinic era when the concern for Judaic norms prevailed, resulting in restrictions on social interaction that were considered essential for survival, through the Medieval period which brought new realities and challenges for Jewish communities who interacted on multiple levels with Christian and Muslim cultures, down to the modern, post-denominational era which still does not condone intermarriage but is open to a more nuanced discourse, Jews have struggled with the phenomenon of intermarriage. The normative response has been, and in many communities continues to be, to actively discourage intermarriage and, if that is unsuccessful, to require conversion of the non-Jewish partner. The greatest fear? Assimilation and/or the dilution or loss of Jewish identity. Never mind the legal/halachic arguments.
The Jewish prohibition against intermarriage has a biblical source. In Deuteronomy 7:2-5 Moses tells the Israelites who are poised to enter the promised land that they shall cast out the seven nations there, make no covenant with them and “… neither shall you make marriages with them … “because “he will turn your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods…”.
The prohibition is quite obviously directly linked to the concern for idolatry and the diminishment of the Jewish tradition. In a sweeping Talmudic statement, the prohibition was described as a law of Moses from Sinai(1) and the subsequent ruling by Maimonides, the great Medieval jurist, maintained and affirmed this central position(2). Such marriages are not valid under Jewish law even if they are civilly valid. This resulted in restrictions on forms of social interaction and an insular societal structure. Those voices have been very prominent in contemporary halachic discourse.
A close analysis of the halacha is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that this remains the normative position of the Orthodox and Conservative Movements. The latter encourages acceptance of the non-Jewish spouse within the family, hoping that such acceptance will lead to the spouse's conversion to Judaism, while the more liberal movements such as Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Secular Humanist have developed more nuanced approaches. It is important to note that since the second century CE, Jewish law/halacha has held that the children of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father are not Jews. Halachically, there is no such thing as being half-Jewish. This remains the position in much of the Jewish world, despite formal statements from the Reform movement in particular, recognizing patrilineal descent. It is a significant consideration for many, many Jews, especially the parents of children who have or are “marrying out”.
But, that ship has sailed. As Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie writes:
In rising numbers, modern Jews prioritize love over tribal obligation when
choosing a life partner. These priorities and choices do not always conflict.
In recent years, more people of other heritages choose to join their Jewish
partners and their community, participating to various extents in Jewish life,
but rarely converting to Judaism.(3)
For some, as I have noted, the debate is theological. For others, it is sociological, that is the impact that rabbinic officiation might have on the Jewish character of the homes and families the couples create. In North America, Jews are “marrying out” in extraordinary numbers. In a 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre, almost three-quarters of non-Orthodox American Jews who married since 2005 chose a non-Jewish spouse(4). This is unprecedented in Jewish history. While the issue is of limited concern to many in our community, it is of great concern and a topic of much debate among Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations.
The survey provided some support for both sides of the argument. On the one hand, it showed that offspring of intermarriages were “much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.” On the other, it showed that a rising percentage of such children are Jewish in adulthood.
But who is officiating at their weddings? In British Columbia, indeed in all of Canada, there are really only two options. Either couples can be married by institutionally-nominated Religious Representatives or by Government-appointed secular officiants, here called Marriage Commissioners. In Vancouver, there is no congregational rabbi who will or can officiate at an interfaith wedding. Yet, a 2016 study by the Cohen Centre for Modern Jewish Studies has established that intermarried couples married by a sole Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life and three times more likely to raise children Jewish than those who had other forms of officiation, including co-officiation(5). The study also found that these differences persisted even when gender, Jewish backgrounds and university Jewish experiences of the Jewish spouses were taken into account. Indeed, the Jewish engagement of such couples looked very similar to “inmarried” couples.
The Cohen study could not fully account for the reasons for such profound differences between intermarried couples by a sole Jewish officiant and other intermarried couples. One explanation was that the couple’s decision to have a Jewish officiant reflected the couple’s preexisting Jewish trajectory. They also considered it possible that the couple’s relationship with the Jewish clergy had an independent impact on subsequent Jewish commitments.
In her “Crash Talk”, Rabbi Benay Lappe, the groundbreaking Talmud teacher who founded SVARA: a traditionally radical yeshiva in Chicago dedicated to the serious study of Talmud through the lens of queer experiences, teaches that the Judaism of 100 years from now will be unrecognizable to us. Judaism is a living tradition that continually evolves and changes in response to time and place. We are co-creators in that process(6).
When, as a recent retiree, I began a distance rabbinic seminary program in 2010 I had no idea what my future rabbinate would look like. All I really wanted to do was to study and learn. And since I am a goal-oriented person, I did not want to just take some random courses. So I chose the rabbinic path. But I live in Vancouver and have been active in the Jewish community here for decades. I saw a serious gap in rabbinic services in Metropolitan Vancouver. I had known about it, of course, but it had not reached my consciousness as a problem I could actually do something about until part-way through my rabbinic program.
While in the ALEPH Ordination Program, we students were enjoined not to perform interfaith lifecycle events without specific permission on a case-by-case basis. This was necessary to uphold a halachic consistency within Jewish Renewal as well as to ensure that we did not do anything without having a very full and informed understanding of the potential long-term implications of our actions for individuals involved. Although one person approached me during that period to marry her and her non-Jewish second husband, I declined for that reason, even though I knew that both were well-beyond child-bearing years. Additionally, I was not yet personally comfortable with the idea.
While most synagogues in Metropolitan Vancouver profess to be open and welcoming to interfaith families, not one will permit their clergy to perform lifecycle events for interfaith families, unless it is for the Jewish partner or for children who are considered to be halachically Jewish. This, despite the fact that Metropolitan Vancouver has the highest per capita number of interfaith families in Canada. My synagogue, Or Shalom, has moved to offer blessings to interfaith couples both in aliyot/being call up to the Torah before weddings and at their interfaith weddings, and at burials and funerals for non-Jewish partners. But all synagogues require a child of a non-Jewish mother to go through a formal conversion process before they will perform a Bar/Bat Mizvah, the formal coming of age ceremony, for example.
Rabbi Lappe describes the Talmud not as a code of Jewish law, nor a collection of Jewish wisdom, nor a compendium of Jewish lore, though it is all of that, but rather, as a manual for repairing, modifying, upgrading, and improving the Jewish tradition when components of it are no longer serving us well(7). She enjoins us to see that the Jewish tradition has historically accepted, embraced, took what still worked, mixed the old with the new, and created a new tradition. This flexibility and nimbleness is a hallmark and our strength. To do that, we need to have, like the rabbinic sages of the Talmud, gamirna/learning and savirna/moral intuition.
The sages of the Talmud named svara a source of Jewish law equal
to the Torah in its power to overturn any aspect of the received tradition
that violated their moral intuition or that caused harm that they could no
longer justify, rationalize, or tolerate — even if it was written in black-
and-white in the Torah itself. The sages’ trust in svara is what drives
the evolution of the entire tradition and can be found on every page of
the Talmud … .(8)
So I took my learning and my moral intuition and saw my Torah/my rabbinic deployment. I saw the suffering and the feelings of rejection and, although I do not for a moment think that I have the authority to overturn the halacha, I have come to believe in widening our Jewish tent to embrace the social transformations that we are currently undergoing. There are just too many very real people shaped by our contemporary culture who are suspended between the arguments. People who, as Rabbi Lau-Lavie puts it, have prioritized love of their Jewish tribal obligation when choosing a life partner.
I am not a congregational rabbi so I am not subject to the same restrictions they are. I am a self-described independent or community rabbi. But that does not does not mean I am free to do whatever I want. I am guided by the wisdom of my teachers and elders in the Jewish Renewal movement, by the wisdom of my tradition, my learning and my conscience. At all times I imagine Reb Zalman perched on one shoulder, and Rabbi Marcia Prager, Dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program perched on the other, both whispering cautions and admonishments in my ears.
In the past almost two years I have married thirteen couples, performed two baby covenanting ceremonies, and two funerals. That’s a lot of lifecycle events for interfaith families. Clearly there is a need. I was scheduled to officiate at nine more weddings and a baby naming this year. Of course, all “my” weddings, as well as the baby naming, scheduled for this spring and early summer have been postponed because of the COVID19 crisis and those scheduled for the late summer and fall are still holding their breath and hoping, or creatively reimagining their “big day”. Interestingly, none have been cancelled.
I always ask “my” couples why they want a Jewish wedding. The answers from the Jewish partner are variations of “because I want to stand where my parents and grandparents stood when they got married, I want to say the same words and carry on their tradition. I want to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. For the partner from another heritage, the answers are variations of “to make her/him happy”, “because it is important to his/her family”, “because I do not have a strong connection to my own tradition and there are values in Judaism that I really love and embrace and want to enable in our home”, “because we are creating a family of mixed heritage and Judaism is one of them.”
If someone truly wants to embrace their Judaism at this significant moment in their lives, my philosophy is just to say yes. Weddings offer an opportunity to reflect, refine and define our values, choices and priorities. But I am not rent-a-rabbi. The weddings I choose to officiate at include a learning process, during which the couple is engaged in designing and preparing their weddings and life together. This includes a series of conversations, questions and decisions before the wedding ritual that will hopefully enrich the experience of both partners, and enable them to build a home, guided by their deepest values and commitments within the Jewish community. But I do not require a couple to commit to a Jewish home with Jewish practices and to raising their children Jewishly, although I actively encourage them in those directions.
Usually the weddings I officiate are, what I call, “Jewishish”. I don’t generally co-officiate with another clergy person, although I have done so twice, once with a Buddhist Acharaya and once with an Anglican Priest. I do not come with a predetermined “script,” but I do follow an outline from the arc of the Jewish ceremony. I work with each individual couple to co-create a ceremony that is truly reflective of who they are as a couple and the home and family they envision. For the partner from another heritage, sometimes they really want the ceremony to be reflective of them and their tradition as well. In one situation, the bride was Korean. And, although she was not attached to any particular religion, she felt very strongly that her Korean heritage and culture be reflected and not just as an interesting adjunct. So, they wound up with a trilingual Ketubah/Jewish wedding contract - in English, Hebrew and Korean. They also had a Korean blessing ceremony where they dressed in traditional Korean clothing, ate and drank symbolic foods and were showered with blessings by their parents and close family members. We wove that ceremony into the Ketubah-signing ceremony.
I have to admit that co-officiating has been somewhat of a challenge for me, not socially so much, but theologically. For the wedding I co-officiated with the Anglican Priest, quite a bit of negotiation was required to enable both of us to feel comfortable with the ceremony. But we were both so excited for this couple - gay men who lived in Israel and could not be married there because they are gay and because they are interfaith - a double whammy. Such marriages are not permitted in Israel. One of them was from Vancouver Island and, if they had a civil ceremony here, their union would be recognized in Israel. But they did not just want a civil ceremony. The Jewish groom in particular wanted to be able to say the words and do the things he was prohibited from doing in Israel. It was because of that, and for them, that the Anglican Priest and I worked hard to craft the perfect ceremony.
But what if I am wrong? What if the work I am doing to embrace intermarried families will actually hasten Judaism’s demise. Instead of opening up the tradition, what if my efforts actually help to destroy it? I am heartened by a brilliant recent essay by Rabbi Lappe who points to the deathbed scene of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai as illustrative of the awareness and acceptance of uncertainty that is at the core of the Jewish tradition. Not only that, “[o]ur tradition resists certainty at every turn. Every spiritual technology we have is designed to help us be crash-flex. Every story we tell … is a story of uncertainty.”(9) If you are on your deathbed and you are not just a little worried that you got it all wrong and are on your way to Gehenna, then you probably have not been bold enough.
I am convinced that the Judaism of 100 years from now will be unrecognizable to us today and I believe that what I am doing is part of the co-creation of that unrecognizable future of the Jewish people. I believe that, by performing interfaith lifecycle events, I am embracing the social transformations that we are currently undergoing. This not only enriches the Jewish people as a whole, but is helping to create a better environment to receive the Shefa, the Divine Flow of God’s majesty. I am doing holy work by bringing holiness to the wedding canopy.
1. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 36b.
2. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Biah 12:1-2.
3. “Joy: A Proposal”, June 2017, p. 4.
4. “What happens when Jews intermarry?” The Pew Research Center, 2013. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/12/what-happens-when-jews-intermarry/
5. “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage” Brandies University, Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, 2016.
7. “How to Read the Talmud” My Jewish Learning.
9. “Hot Off the Shtender: I Don’t Know What Comes Next” SVARA, 2020.