I’ve been officiating at interfaith marriages for nearly 40 years. It didn’t start out that way – at least for the first month of my rabbinate. Like many rabbinic students I spent lots of time during my five years of rabbinic seminary talking with fellow students about the problems and challenges of interfaith marriage and coming up with a long list of rules and expectations and criteria for when I would and when I would not be willing to officiate. By the time I graduated and was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion I had my list down to an exact science and thought I was totally prepared to go out into the Jewish world and apply my detailed criteria to whatever requests and circumstances might arise. And then my friends called.
There I was, barely a month after my ordination with criteria in hand and two of my dearest friends who happened to be an interfaith couple called filled with excitement, bubbling over with joy as they told me that they had gotten engaged and asking (naturally) “Will you do our wedding?” A minute later I realized that I had answered “yes” without even giving it a second thought. And that was it.
Ultimately my personal values and personal priorities became very clear. I discovered that individual Jewish people are more important to me than the Jewish people as a whole. Simply put, and I know it really is simply put – I put people first. Period. The rest of my rabbinate for the past 33 years has been just that – putting people first, caring for their personal lives, personal dreams, personal struggles, personal wrestling with who they are and how they can make lives of meaning and purpose and holiness regardless of who they love and who they marry.
This has been my guiding principle and continues to guide my choices and decisions to this day. It is why I have always been willing to do same-gender commitment ceremonies or weddings, interfaith marriages, and as a congregational rabbi with a relatively large congregation of about 1,100 families, include non-Jewish partners and parents fully in every aspect of congregational life with absolutely no regrets
When I stood on the bima a year ago at Rosh Hashanah and gave a special blessing to the non-Jewish partners of our interfaith families, thanking them for their own unique contributions to the Jewish life of their children and partners and community I was flooded with gratitude. I can’t even adequately express the depth of the emotional response I got from non-Jews who felt validated, their personal sacrifices and commitments acknowledged and their willingness to support Judaism in spite of not formally being Jewish celebrated. It was for me one more validation of why I do interfaith marriages and why I subsequently give a free year’s membership in my synagogue to every couple I marry.
I know that my experiences are similar to every other rabbi who officiates at interfaith ceremonies. All of us have sat with couples who have been emotionally scarred and traumatized by how other rabbis have treated them in the process of their search for someone to officiate at their weddings. The rejection that they Jewish partner has felt from his or her religious tradition, the messages they and their non-Jewish partners have received that their union isn’t worthy of sanctifying by a Jewish clergy because somehow one of them not being Jewish diminishes its validity.
Over and over throughout my rabbinic career I have felt like part of my job was rescuing Jews from the rejection of Judaism itself. I believe that since the couple is going to get married one way or another, as an official representative of Judaism and Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, I can present Judaism as welcoming, open, encouraging, and non-judgmental and a safe emotional and spiritual place to explore ones personal spiritual journey and that is the choice that I always make.
My goal is for every couple to know that when they have issues about how to live their lives religiously, how to raise their children, what choices are the best for them to make, they can turn to me as a rabbi and feel confident that I will be a safe and non-judgmental place to work through these many issues. In my personal experience that is exactly what has taken place over and over again. I officiate at a couple’s wedding. I give them a membership in my synagogue. They may use it to come to High Holy Day services or they may not use it at all until they have a child years later – and then I am the clergy and my synagogue is the sacred community in which they know they will feel most comfortable as they figure out how to create their own unique religious lifestyle.
I know that is why I have so many interfaith families in my synagogue, and I also believe that is why I have so many non-Jews who ultimately choose for formally become Jewish as well. Many of my congregants choose to become Jews after many years of raising their children (often in the year before their oldest child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah) – not because we push conversion (which we don’t), but specifically because we allow people to follow their own path and discover their own spiritual lives in a non-judgmental way. People have said as much to me time and time again, and have thanked me for allowing them the respect and opportunity to find their own way.
So after 33 years of officiating at interfaith marriages of all kinds, I continue to believe that putting people first is the most important value that I represent as a rabbi. I know it’s a cliché, but the most important principle which informs my entire rabbinate, is the truth that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It is caring for people and truly being present in their lives and believing that people are doing the best they can to bring meaning and a sense of the sacred into their own lives that continues to inspire me to be a rabbi in the first place.
(Rabbi Reuben’s book is There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage – Praeger Publishing, 2008)