Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Brief Introduction to Why I Perform Interfaith Marriages

Updated October, 2013

One of the most difficult issues to address in the modern Jewish world is that of intermarriage between Jews and those of other faiths. Prior to the 18th Century, the issue had not been of any significant concern in Jewish circles for over well over a millennia. Laws in Christian and Muslim lands had prevented such marriages from occurring. Penalties in Christian and Muslim law were extreme with some codes declaring the punishment of execution for any sexual interaction between Jews and others. Jews and Christians did not interact socially, much less marry.

The coming of modern western states with unprecedented liberty for Jews began to change that. The Christian world came to see marriages between Christians and Jews as acceptable and since virtually all children of such marriages were raised as Christians (I do not know of any who were not, but hesitate to say there were none), there were few concerns on the part of Christian families. In fact, many Jews converted to Christianity. Jews, however, were largely divided on the issue with religious Jews, who we would call Orthodox, decidedly opposed to the practice and secular Jews who had given up any real religious connections, in favor of it. There were no Reform or Conservative Jews at this point in time.

The 19th Century brought major changes to the Jewish world including the essential formation of both Reform and Conservative Judaism. Reform Judaism at its inception was a movement seeking to reform Judaism just as Christianity had been reformed by the Protestant Reformation. Reformers possessed a wide range of beliefs and many would almost certainly be seen as Traditional Jews who simply wished to modernize Orthodoxy. In Europe, these reformers saw themselves as literally saving Judaism from the mire of outdated customs and superstition along with a resistance to reason that was antithetical to the age.

Why is this history relevant to understanding the performance of interfaith marriages? The answer is that this reformation of Judaism was indeed a slippery slope just as many had argued from the beginning. Once Halakhah, the inherited rabbinical legal Tradition, no longer had the final say, no longer needed to be maintained for the sake of Tradition, and contradicted the desired path of those modern Jews who could not in good conscience remain bound to it, laws, customs, and traditions all came into question. Among these was the practice of Jews only marrying other Jews and at that most often through arranged marriages.

The moment Jews were both allowed to fall in love with whom they wished AND could freely interact with Christians, that Jews were fall in love and marry Christians became inevitable. That said, Jews remained in largely insular communities well into the 20th century and such marriages were rare. With westward expansion after 1849 and even more so with the industrial revolution and massive Jewish immigration into the United States in the 1880s, social interaction between Jews and Christians increased dramatically and so did interfaith marriages. The vast majority of such marriages were performed by Christian clergy and the children were raised as Christians. However, the beginning of the 20th century saw American rabbis performing increasing numbers of such ceremonies and rabbinic officiation was addressed as an issue of concern at the 1909 Central Conference of American Rabbis national convention. The decision then by the Reform rabbinical body was to discourage, but not to ban, their performance.

For some rabbis, this was done out of respect for and deference to Jewish Tradition, a position held by many Reform rabbis today. For others, the decision was influenced by concerns that Jews would see such children as either not really Jewish or would ostracize them because of their Christian parent. In spite of this, interfaith marriage rates continued to rise and continue to rise today. Many are surprised to learn that interfaith marriages prior to the 1930s were far more common in Germany and France than in the United States. Here, they were relatively rare until after World War II, only rising slightly until the 1960s when broader social changes altered the fabric of Jewish life.

It was at the 1949 CCAR convention that the issue of rabbinical performance was once again discussed at length. The loss of six million Jews caused rabbis on both sides of the debate to reconsider their positions. The major sides at that convention argued from two distinct and seemingly irreconcilable positions. One side believed that the performance of interfaith marriages helped to foster assimilation from Jewish culture into Christian culture and was a sure path toward the further reduction of Jewish life in the future, both through a watered down Judaism possessed by children of these marriages who were raised as Jews and through the loss of no small number of potential Jewish children to Christianity. The other side, with which I agree, believed that evidence had shown that people would marry those that they loved whether or not their rabbi or any other rabbi would perform the marriage and that the only significant impact that a rabbi’s decision to perform the wedding or not to perform it had upon the couple was in either encouraging or discouraging their participation in Jewish life and their raising of Jewish children.

Thus, one side essentially stated that they would not perform these marriages in order to defend Judaism for posterity while the other side stated that they would do so in order to encourage the survival of the Jewish people, the very posterity for which the other side wished to preserve Judaism. In 2009, Reform rabbis from both poles of the debate are trying to move toward the center in the realization that Judaism and the Jewish people are both important and one cannot simply choose one alone while ignoring the other.

My belief is that if I do my job in welcoming parents of potential Jews into my congregation and into my community, I help to provide a future for the Jewish people to worry about what kind of Judaism Jews are practicing. In my mind, those who would rather see generations fall away because they are not good enough Jews or not Jewish enough promote an idea that will simply result in the slow death of both Judaism and the Jewish people.

My requirements for performing a marriage for those who are planning to raise their children as Jews, or who will not have children together for various reasons, differ based upon the particular couple. Some couples I will suggest or even require attend an Introduction to Judaism class. I often will speak with couples multiple times, sometimes by phone, over a period of months prior to a wedding. In all cases when performing a marriage, I assume the role of rabbi, representative of the Jewish Tradition. I will not perform a marriage as a “justice of the peace” acting in a secular manner. My rules for same sex couples desiring some sort of religious ceremony, be it a commitment ceremony or potentially a marriage ceremony, are exactly the same as my requirements for a heterosexual couple.

What I know for certain is that those families for whom I have performed wedding ceremonies, both the Jewish and non-Jewish sides, have been very happy with them and have in many instances become closer to the Jewish community than they were prior to the events.

Interfaith marriage will continue to be a major issue facing congregations and rabbis going forward and as I have done for years now, I will seek ways to both strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.



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