Welcoming Interfaith Families – From the Start
Each Rosh Hashanah brings with it an opportunity to check in with ourselves on many issues.
Though every morning presents us with a fresh start, a new year gives us that much greater incentive to turn the page. I am now well into my ninth year as an ordained rabbi and my fourteenth year serving in a rabbinic role.
Out of all the sermons I’ve delivered in my career, this morning’s will have more impact on my rabbinate than any other. Some of you today will be thrilled by what I have to say, some will be disappointed, and some may be sad that I didn’t give this sermon sooner.
After a great deal of thought and soul-searching, I have made a change in my personal policy.
I will now officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I hope to explain my decision to you with integrity, sensitivity, and compassion.
Until this year, it has been my policy not to officiate at interfaith weddings between individuals of any gender. When such couples have approached me, my policy was to invite them to come in and speak with me about my decision, and/or to make a referral to a colleague who would agree to officiate. I have in the past and continue to do my best to welcome interfaith families in our synagogue community. However, I felt that it was not in my job description as a rabbi in service to the people of Israel to sanction a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew under the chuppah. I would not officiate at a wedding in which the vows I asked each wedding couple to recite were untrue: “With this ring you are consecrated unto me as my wife/husband according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” How could a non-Jew marry a Jew “according to the laws of Moses and Israel?”
As members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the Reform rabbinic professional organization, all Reform rabbis are given rabbinic autonomy, meaning that we are allowed to make our own decisions about a number of issues, including officiation.
When I first interviewed with the rabbinic search committee here at Temple B’nai Torah,
chaired by Stan Friedman and Sue Matzkin, I was asked what my personal policy was concerning interfaith marriage. I explained that I did not “currently” officiate, but that I am always re-evaluating how I feel about the issue. I told the group that I strive to make all decisions with thoughtfulness and input from a variety of informed sources, and that I could, one day, change my thinking. I also shared that I was comfortable with working with a Cantor who did choose to officiate, just as Cantor Sher does.
Over the years, I’ve had to say no to performing interfaith wedding ceremonies to many people who are important to me. Friends, synagogue leadership, congregants, and even family members. But I always felt sure in my decision, that I was doing all I could to ensure the future of the Jewish people. Yet, over time, the reasons for me TO officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies have now become greater than the reasons NOT to officiate. In fact, I have now come to believe that ensuring the future of the Jewish people REQUIRES that I begin to perform interfaith weddings which meet certain criteria that I will explain to you shortly.
My time at Temple B’nai Torah has been transformative. Witnessing your lives, day in and day out, affords me the most interesting observations. I see many wonderful Jewish households in varying degrees of observance. I see parents working hard to educate both themselves and their children in the traditions of Judaism. I see adults of all ages pursuing lifelong Jewish learning. And one of the most fascinating aspects I observe: in many of these couples one spouse may NOT be Jewish.
I see a non-Jewish spouse or parent setting up for a luncheon. Driving the kids in a carpool to Hebrew School. Frequently attending Friday night services. I see the non-Jewish parent making sure that their kids receive a proper Jewish education, study diligently for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and continue their Jewish learning into adulthood. I sit with the non-Jewish spouse on committees and at meetings. I hear them plan Passover Seders, make Shofars, and decorate Sukkahs. I see them crying with joy when their child reads from the Torah for the very first time.
And I had to pause.
And I had to think.
Centuries of thought about the negative effects of interfaith marriages on the Jewish community no longer seem entirely relevant. And I knew I had to begin a serious exploration of how to proceed as a result of these new observations.
Whenever a rabbi approaches any decision, we consult a variety of sources. We make sure to review the most sacred texts of our tradition, as well as hundreds of years’ worth of commentaries. I have spent years speaking with colleagues, studying texts, and reviewing the literature regarding this topic.
According to the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), American Jews intermarried at a rate of below 13 percent before 1970 up to 47 percent from 1996–2000. This study found that interfaith couples are significantly less likely than Jewish couples to join and attend a synagogue, join a Jewish Community Center, volunteer under Jewish auspices, light Shabbat candles, and keep kosher. They are also somewhat less likely to have close friends who are Jewish, give to Jewish causes, hold or attend a Passover seder, light Chanukah candles, fast on Yom Kippur, and maintain connections to Israel. Perhaps the greatest concern to the Jewish community is that in interfaith households, only 33 percent of children are being raised Jewish, as compared with 96 percent of children in households with two Jewish parents.
Put another way, if one considers that 47 percent of Jews who married in 2000 have non-Jewish
spouses, about 44 percent of all children born of Jews married in that year will not be raised as Jews.
These numbers are staggering to me, but there is more. When one survey asked interfaith couples what experiences pushed them away from Judaism, many respondents cited perceived rejection by family members or the Jewish community; a rabbi’s refusal to officiate at their wedding; an expectation of conversion of the non-Jewish partner; and the questioning of the religious identity of the couples’ children by family members, rabbis, and others. Those with a more positive view of Judaism cited the warm welcome they received, the availability of Jewish education classes, and their congregation’s acceptance of the marriage without conversion.
In an article published last year in the CCAR Journal, Katherine Abend wrote, “Such responses suggest that in order for outreach to intermarried couples to be effective, the Jewish community must shift from an approach where non-Jewish partners are accepted as a last resort, sometime after the marriage occurs, to one where such partners are accepted from the outset when they agree to meet certain requirements. A warmer welcome of such non-Jewish partners could increase the likelihood of the couple remaining connected to Judaism.”
In the Torah, our Patriarchs were quite concerned with marrying women within their family circle. Though these women may not have yet adopted the new Israelite customs, they would seemingly be more amenable to these changes. Thus, Abraham married his half-sister, Isaac married Rebecca, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Jacob married Leah and Rachel, who were his first cousins,
and Esau married Mahalat, the daughter of Ishmael, his uncle. It was actually Jacob’s sons who were the first to look outside of the family clan for wives. Both Judah and Simeon married among previously rejected Canaanites. Joseph married outside the clan, though this was unavoidable after he was sent to Egypt against his will. Intermarriage continued throughout the Book of Exodus. Moses himself married Tzipporah, the daughter of a Midianite Priest.
Elsewhere in the Bible,
there are blatant prohibitions against interfaith marriages.
A prohibition against marriage with Edomites and Egyptians appear in Deuteronomy. Children of these unions are not to be admitted into the congregation until the third generation. In many of these cases,
the prohibition was founded on a fear that the foreign wife would somehow turn the husband away from the Israelite religion. For example, The Book of Kings specifically warns against these foreign wives:
The peoples known as Moabites and Ammonites were prohibited from being “admitted to the congregation of the Eternal…even in the tenth generation.” The Book of Numbers in the Torah tells us that while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they consorted with Moabite women and were then led astray after their gods. Yet we must note that, in a fascinating contrast, Ruth, a Moabite woman herself, converts to Judaism in the Biblical Book that bears her name, and she was the great-grandmother of King David.
The most thorough Biblical injunctions were directed against interfaith marriages with the seven Canaanite nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. As the text teaches us, “You shall not intermarry with them and not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.”
A delightfully dramatic example of an interfaith marriage in the Bible is the popular story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was set aside by his mother to be a devoted servant of God, and he never cut his hair to show his devotion. Therefore G-d gifted him with incredible strength. Delilah had been sent secretly by her people, the Philistines, to find out the source of his superhuman strength. She eventually seduced him and convinced him to tell her his secret. While he slept one evening, she invited in Philistine men to cut Samson’s hair and imprison him. With a story like that in our literature, it can’t be surprising that we were suspicious of those from outside our faith who wished to marry us!
The clearest statements against interfaith marriages appear at the end of the Biblical period in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, when we find specific legislation prohibiting such marriages and demanding that Israelites separate themselves from foreign wives. Ezra made sure that every marriage was between two Jews. He therefore scrutinized the marriages of the citizens of Jerusalem and the neighboring villages.
From the year 0 until about 500 CE, the most significant change was made during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods: the declaration that mixed marriages were invalid. With the codification of the Mishnah, and its Tractate – or section – Kiddushin, the invalidity of interfaith marriages is recorded.
Marriages which involve Gentiles are declared void; no Kiddushin, no official Jewish sanctification of the marriage, would be possible. This text, nearly 2,000 years old, remains a MAJOR factor in why most rabbis won’t officiate today.
The prohibition against interfaith marriages was expanded in the Talmudic period so that it included all pagan peoples. Every effort was made to create a protective wall against the outer pagan world
to shield Jews from contact with non-Jews. Restrictions against specific nations were eliminated,
meaning that anyone could convert to Judaism and become part of the Jewish people. As long as the conversion occurred without ulterior motive, but simply because of an attraction to Judaism, then the convert was treated as any other Jew.
Later Jewish thinkers, such as Rashi, Maimonides, and Joseph Caro, all reiterated the ban.
At the same time, in Christian communities, prohibitions were also made against interfaith marriage.
In 300 CE the Council of Elvira, in Spain, forbade Christian women from marrying Jews lest her parents be excommunicated for five years. In 315 CE, Constantine established legislation that imposed death to converts of Judaism and those responsible for the conversion. A host of Church injunctions against interfaith marriages followed in the next several hundred years, demonstrating that the laws were likely ineffective, but that the Church remained concerned about the issue.
Though the Christian authorities had clear views against interfaith marriage, they didn’t always have an impact on what the actual people were doing. In the 18th century, when social barriers between Jews and non-Jews decreased in England, interfaith marriage increased. Conversions to Judaism were rarely permitted, so such individuals were usually left with no choice but to marry within the church.
We should remember that opposition to interfaith marriages remained equally strong on the part of Catholics and Protestants. Slowly some Protestants granted concessions if the children were raised as Christians. The Catholic Church insisted that such marriages were not valid and that remarriage was necessary after conversion of the non-Catholic partner, although some changes in this view began to occur in 1821.
Interfaith marriages occurred with increasing frequency beginning in the latter part of the 18th century.
This was true in all lands of Western Europe and in the United States. By the late 18th century there were synagogues in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Newport, Savannah, and Richmond. Although many Jews attempted to follow Jewish laws, religious controls were relaxed, and individuals were freer to do as they pleased. Few communities had an ordained rabbi in their midst, thus they were at a loss on how best to respond when these marriages occurred.
For example, in 1793 a Jewish man named Moses Nathans sought to remarry his gentile wife in a Jewish ceremony after she converted to Judaism, but their community’s leader was unsure whether they could proceed. The congregation wrote to a beit din (rabbinical court) in Europe and had to wait for more than a year for a positive response which allowed them to remarry.
The Rabbinical Conference of Braunschweig in 1844 stated: “The intermarriage of Jews and Christians,
and, in general, the intermarriage of Jews with adherents to any of the monotheistic religions, is NOT forbidden, provided that the parents are permitted by the law of the state to bring up the offspring of such marriage in the Jewish faith.” A motion was also made to permit rabbis to officiate at such marriages, but that was rejected. Therefore no Jewish authority was authorized to conduct such marriages.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis has dealt with the question of interfaith marriage extensively from its earliest days. Discussions at a conference in 1909 indicated that all the rabbis present opposed interfaith marriages, although some were willing to officiate at them. The debate dealt with the freedom of the individual rabbi versus the power of the Conference and the general force of the rabbinic tradition. The resolution which was passed read: “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that mixed marriages are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion and should, therefore, be discouraged by the American rabbinate.”
In 1971, the CCAR declared its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes an interfaith marriage, but still recognized rabbinic autonomy to choose to do so.
And so we’re here today. A recent survey by the Jewish Outreach Institute of a mix of 650 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis shows how leaders of each denomination respond
to the issues of, and outreach to, interfaith couples. Neither Orthodox nor Conservative rabbis will officiate at intermarriages under any circumstances because such marriages are banned by existing Jewish law. Nearly all Orthodox rabbis will convey disapproval to interfaith couples and 20 percent will go so far as to urge parents to boycott the wedding,
an approach adopted by only 5 percent of non-Orthodox rabbis. Only 11 percent of Orthodox rabbis will ultimately refer couples to rabbis who would officiate at the marriage.
About half of Conservative rabbis will convey disapproval to the couple, and only 32 percent will provide a referral.
Only 23 percent of Reform rabbis will convey disapproval, and 36 percent will officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies, usually with requirements such as a commitment to raise Jewish children. Of those Reform rabbis who will not officiate, 68 percent will provide a referral. Reconstructionist rabbis are the most welcoming of interfaith couples, with only 19 percent conveying their disapproval to the couple, 85 percent officiating at interfaith weddings, and all who will not officiate offering a referral.
Among laypeople of all denominations, there was found to be a strong consensus on the need to increase outreach to intermarried couples, with 80 percent of Orthodox Jews and 90 percent of all other Jews supporting such efforts. In fact, to that end, Temple B’nai Torah is rebooting our Outreach Committee this year, under the capable leadership of Barbara Morgenlender. If you are interested in working to reach out to the unaffiliated and intermarried in the community surrounding Temple B’nai Torah, I know that she’d love to include you.
Unfortunately, as you might recall from the start of my talk, research shows that these outreach efforts are likely compromised by the sense of rejection that interfaith married couples feel when they initially encounter opposition from their rabbis and families. It is the Jewish community’s reaction to interfaith weddings and marriages that is largely responsible for the tendency of the Jewish partners and their children to disengage from Jewish life.
Allow me to repeat this finding once again: it is the Jewish community’s – our community’s –
REACTION that is responsible for the tendency for the interfaith family to disengage from Jewish life.
The rules and laws are there presumably to keep the Jewish community intact. However, it seems that, now, these same rules are pushing too many away.
While I have always maintained that I am welcoming to interfaith families once they have decided to affiliate with our community, it seems that, by saying “no” to families who are interested in leading Jewish lives, I may have been irrevocably closing the door to them.
As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov has said, “If there is going to be a future for Judaism, we must make sure that there will be Jews.” I have always felt that my ordination as a rabbi
requires me to do what I can to help create new Jewish households. I thought for a long time that Jewish households could only be built by two Jewish parents. But now I see that this need not be the only case.
To that end, regardless of gender, I have decided to officiate at weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew
in which the couple agrees to meet the following five criteria:
The ceremony will be a Jewish wedding ceremony and will not include clergy of another faith.
The couple commits to keeping a Jewish home.
If the couple chooses to have children, they raise their children exclusively as Jews.
The non-Jewish partner agrees to engage in further Jewish learning (as we will determine together).
The couple affiliates with a Jewish community where they live.
We at Temple B’nai Torah pride ourselves on being a warm, welcoming, and inviting congregation.
I have come to understand that an interfaith couple’s future that begins with the rejection by a rabbi
will have trouble ever truly feeling welcome in the same rabbi’s congregation. I understand why interfaith couples may have viewed my previous policy as a contradiction: “Yes, you are welcome in my community, but, no, I won’t officiate at your wedding.” Instead, my new policy to officiate at interfaith marriage ceremonies will seek to achieve three goals: it will validate the Jewish partner’s desire
to maintain connection with our Jewish community; it will provide a positive Jewish experience for the non-Jewish partner; and it will allow for the nurturing of a warm relationship between me and the interfaith couple that will hopefully flourish within our community for many years.
My mandate to encourage Jewish choices and to help create a dynamic, meaningful Jewish present and future remains the same. My hope remains the same: those born Jewish will grow up as Jews,
remain Jews as adults, and raise their children as Jews. I believe that Judaism has many rich, unique, and holy things to bring to the world, and that we are lucky recipients of this heritage.
As I stated earlier, while 96 percent of the children born to two Jewish parents will be Jewish, only 33 percent of the children born to interfaith parents are raised as Jews. I refuse to contribute to this statistic any longer by doing anything to alienate those couples who wish to build a loving, thriving Jewish home.
Thus, as of today, as of Rosh Hashanah 5773, I proudly join the growing number of my Reform colleagues who will officiate at Jewish weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew as one method of fulfilling my duty as a rabbi – that of ensuring a strong Jewish future. I will create a liturgy largely based on the Jewish wedding ceremony which will be appropriate for these couples. And I will do my best to serve them throughout their relationship with me, with the congregation, and with the Jewish people.
 United Jewish Communities, The National Jewish Population Survey 2000–2001: Strength, Challenge, and Diversity in the American Jewish Population 16 (2003), https://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/4606.pdf
 Jewish Outreach Institute, Survey of American Rabbinate, https://joi.org/library/research/rabbis.shtml