A Quid Pro Quo for Officiating at Interfaith Weddings?

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Rabbis Robyn Frisch and David Teutsch consider the implications of requiring an interfaith couple to promise to raise their children as Jews in order to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding.

By Rabbi Robyn Frisch
 
Not long ago, I received a call from a young bride-to-be who was nearly in tears. “I just got off the phone with a rabbi,” she said, “who said that she officiates at interfaith weddings. But she told me that since I’m Catholic, in order for her to officiate at our wedding, we have to promise that if we have kids, we’ll raise them Jewish. My partner and I think that we want our kids to be Jewish, but we’re not ready to promise that right now. Maybe we should just go find a justice of the peace to marry us.” 
 
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had such a conversation. Often, rabbis will officiate at weddings where one partner isn’t Jewish, as long as the couple commit to having a Jewish household and raising Jewish children. I certainly understand this — as rabbis we care deeply about the future of the Jewish people. However, I think that as rabbis we also need to care deeply about Jewish individuals as well. As several Jewish partners have wondered aloud after having been told by a rabbi that he or she won’t officiate at their wedding because they can’t commit 100 percent that they will raise their children Jewish: “Why does the rabbi care more about hypothetical children that I might have in the future than about me, a Jewish person standing before the rabbi right now?”
 
At my initial meeting with an interfaith couple, I am, first of all, glad that they want to be meeting with a rabbi. There are many options for couples getting married today and they don’t have to come to a rabbi. Yet for some reason they have — whether it’s because they’re both sure they want to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family; the Jewish partner wants to have Jewish clergy present at this most sacred moment; or for some other reason. Whatever the reason, the couple — both the partner who is Jewish and the one who isn’t — have decided together that having a rabbi at their wedding is important. This is no small thing!
 
Do I discuss with wedding couples whether they hope to have children, and if so, how they might raise them? Absolutely. And do I share with couples that I’d be thrilled if they raise their children as Jews? You bet. But I also let them know that I think it’s essential that they be open and honest with each other — that the partners strive to understand what their own religious heritage means to them, and that they also seek to understand how their partner relates to their religious heritage. If the lines of communication and respect are open before the wedding — even when the conversations get difficult — then they’re a lot more likely to be open after the wedding.  
 
I’m always happy when an interfaith wedding couple tells me that they’re 100 percent committed to having a Jewish family; but I also know that things evolve and change — both for those couples who’ve made this “promise” and for those who haven’t. I’d rather perform a wedding ceremony for a couple who have great communication and are considering raising their kids Jewish but may not yet be prepared to make an ultimate commitment (or lie and tell me that they have, starting out their marriage on a dishonest note) than to turn them away.  That way I can share with them the beauty, joy and meaning of Judaism in the months we spend getting to know each other as we prepare for the wedding ceremony.  I believe that by opening the door to Judaism wide by officiating at the wedding, there’s a greater chance that the couple will want to come on in.
 
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai.
 
Rabbi David Teutsch responds:
 
In Rabbi Frisch'ss discussion about intermarried couples, she remarks that her approach involves sharing with them "the beauty, joy and meaning of Judaism in the months we spend getting to know each other." The key to a successful interaction with an intermarrying couple is to have the time over months to get to know them well, engage them in Jewish celebration and study, to listen to their concerns and respond, and to draw them into Jewish life.
 
 The amount of time needed for that undertaking is very difficult to find for the rabbis of a large congregation, who have so many different kinds of obligations. It is therefore not surprising that an increasing number of intermarriages are performed by rabbis who function in other kinds of settings. Rabbis sometimes require intermarrying couples to take an introduction to Judaism course and then use that as part of the basis for their discussions with a couple. Given the complex expectations to which full-time congregational rabbis need to respond, that seems like a sensible approach as well.
 
 Given the increasing rate of intermarriage among those marrying for a second or third time, the question of how the children will be raised is less relevant to many couples than it used to be. For older couples, what grandchildren will be exposed to in their grandparents' homes is a more central question.
 
 Helping couples think about the implications of their choices is highly important. That can only happen if couples can spend enough time with the officiating rabbi. This is something that I hope the couples will think about when they are considering which rabbis to approach.
 
 There are no reliable statistics indicating which approaches to intermarriage have what effect on couples five or 10 years after the wedding ceremony. What I do think is beyond controversy is that when family and friends and clergy are all as welcoming into Jewish community and Jewish living as possible, there is a greater likelihood that the Jewish community will be seen as allies as a couple makes life decisions in the following years.
 
The boundaries of the Jewish community are shifting to make room for non-Jewish partners. We need to include them in every way we can. 
 
Rabbi David Teutsch is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and editor of the new three-volume set, A Guide to Jewish Practice.