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What About Now? Accepting the Challenge of Intermarriage

Jacques Cukierkorn
Summer 2005

If we put a Yemenite Jew and a Polish Jew next to each other, do we see any resemblance? Probably not. The same could be said for the “High German” and “Portuguese” Jewish communities in Amsterdam. And while we are narrowing the scope from countries to cities, why not zoom in even more, why not compare the members of any given congregation in the U.S. Look around you the next time you attend services. How many similarities do you see, and how many differences?  

The fact is that Jews have always interacted with surrounding communities, on every level. In our music we can detect the treads of other cultures. Traditional Jews wear garments that reflect the sense of fashion of Polish nobility and Sicilian farmers. Our cuisine gives a taste of what was locally grown and the fashion in which it was cooked. And the color of our skin, our hair, our eyes shows that we have married outside of our own community from the early days on. Actually, we have “proof” of that. Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of a Medianite priest. Clearly not a Jewess.  

Pragmatism and Flexibility  

Our tradition has always been marked by great pragmatism and flexibility and we have always been able to adapt. When blood libel accusations threatened our very lives, we opened our doors on Seder evenings to allow everybody to see what we were doing, and not until this was a well established practice did we give it the prosaic explanation of inviting the prophet Elijah. When Enlightenment broke down the ghetto walls, Jewish men started to shave off their beards, so they would fit in better with the surrounding environment. Even when they remained observant they were and are willing to violate this commandment in order to make secular life easier.  

Even when it comes to interpreting who is a Jew and who isn’t, we have adapted the commandments of the Torah for no other reason than to survive. Although the Torah states that a child needs two Jewish parents to be considered Jewish, under Roman tyranny so many women were raped, that Halacha (Jewish Law) was redefined to: You are considered Jewish when your mother is Jewish.  

Interfaith Marriage  

When we look at how we have constantly developed, it is odd that we have never addressed the issue of interfaith marriage. We cannot but acknowledge that we have always married outside our own community, yet the issue of interfaith marriage is still left to the discretion of the individual rabbi or congregation. Obviously, I am thinking about a Reform rabbi or congregation. The Orthodox and Conservative communities flat out refuse to take a request for an interfaith wedding into consideration. And since both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis take a discouraging position, the willingness to marry two people who share the same love, but not the same heritage, is left to the courage of the empathetic rabbi and the progressive congregation.  

This situation, of not addressing an issue that has been around as long as we have been around, can be very harmful. What happens to the young man (or woman of course) who might not be so deeply steeped in his Jewish heritage that he falls in love with a non-Jew, but yet has such a positive attitude towards his Jewish background, that he wants Jewish clergy to officiate at his wedding? If we give this young person a negative answer, what are we saying to him or her? We don’t care who you are, only about what you are? We don’t care who your spouse to be is, only what he or she is? We don’t care that you want to bring your spouse into the fold of your heritage, that this might be the first step to raising your children Jewish? What we basically are telling our children who have had the good fortune of falling in love, albeit not with a Jew, is that we don’t care about their happiness, their dreams, their ideals, we only care about them as a statistic in the Jewish census.  

Some have the very tactless and distasteful chutzpah to call the high rate of intermarriage the “silent Holocaust”. When an individual falls in love, there is no similarity to an organized, industrialized effort to wipe out the Jews. Furthermore, this notion puts the blame on the individual who falls in love, while the blame ought to be placed within the total of our community, that refuses to address this issue. If there is blame to be put on anyone for the slow, but persistent dissolving of our identity, we should look at ourselves, and not at the young men and women who pursue a life of happiness, who hold the ideal of starting a family, who want to raise children in a loving environment.  

No Generally Accepted Position  

Since there is no generally accepted position within Judaism on the issue of intermarriage, please allow me to give you mine. It will not surprise you that I am open to interfaith marriages. Mind you, it’s not something I encourage. All of the teenagers in my congregation know my position: “It is as easy to fall in love with a Jew as with a non-Jew.” But when the situation is there and inevitable, a paradigm shift is called for, since my concern is not for Judaism as a whole, but the individual Jew in question.  

Some say God is love. Even after years of rabbinical study, I still can’t give such a clear-cut definition of the Divine Being, but I do know that God loves love. Love is God’s major gift to us. So we are blessed when we are so much in love that we wish to spend the rest of our lives together with another person.  

As a rabbi I feel blessed when I am invited by a couple to share in the confirmation of their love, whether both partners are Jewish or not. In my ten years as a rabbi, no couple has ever asked my point of view on interfaith marriage, nor my permission to get married — rather they ask for my help. My choice, therefore, lies in whether I help them or not, at a pivotal moment in their lives.  

Creating Harmony at a Defining Moment  

I have come to realize that the non-Jewish partner (and his or her family) is as entitled to having a member of the clergy they feel comfortable with as is the Jewish partner. So, I will co-officiate at a service that while true to both traditions, does not have elements that could be perceived as offensive by either party. What is sacrificed in religious “integrity” by crafting a non- denominational service is little compared with the harmony that is created at this defining moment of the couple’s life.  

Rather than talk about issues that divide the couple, such as belief in Jesus, I and the other officiant talk about God and love. At the same time, elements and rituals from both traditions are a wonderful addition to any wedding, so we may use the traditional Jewish seven blessings, breaking of the glass, and chuppah (wedding canopy), the Christian Unity candle, biblical readings, exchange of vows and rings, etc. When selecting readings from the Bible, I ask the couple to use texts from the New Testament that are appropriate and neutral, such as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that talks about love, rather than sections that refer to Jesus. A very nice touch I like to add is doing the priestly benediction at the end of the ceremony jointly with the other officiant. We recite it line by line, I in Hebrew and the other officiant in English. That is a very nice sign of unity at the end of the ceremony.  

Peace in the Home  

Although the ceremony itself is non-denominational when I co-officiate, I do stress a very important Jewish concept known as shalom bayit, peace in the home. The Jewish emphasis on family life is a topic on which I tend to counsel couples at great length, and we discuss their life together and specially issues of raising children in an interfaith family. I don’t believe that interfaith couples have more problems than when two Jews marry each other, it’s just that their problems have extra dimensions. I like to remind all couples that the key to marital success is communication. I believe certain issues are better discussed ahead of time, such as children and religious practices in the home. Clearly, as a rabbi I would prefer that the couple will decide to raise their children Jewish. However, that does not mean I wouldn’t officiate at a wedding for a couple that is still trying to decide what to do. I am a strong believer that children should be raised with one clearly defined religion, but that does not prevent the parents from exposing their child to the other religion, maybe at the home of the other set of grandparents.  

I will co-officiate with any clergy who is as open minded as I am, always focusing on the couple’s wants and needs. I believe that as clergy we must be there to support the couple and to show them that religion can have a place in their joint lives, even if they come from different faiths. Couples and their families tend to be very happy with the ceremonies I participate in, mainly because I attempt to make the wedding a reflection of who the couple is and what they want their ceremony to be and convey. I make sure that each wedding is unique, as no two couples are alike. I respect each couple’s right to make a choice that works for them, and if they choose to claim a place in the Jewish community, I am delighted to welcome them at the moment they officially establish their future together.  

Hope for Change  

The fact that people are willing to go through all the trouble to secure a rabbi for their wedding is to me a testimony of the great value they place on Judaism and the great efforts they are willing to go through in order to have a Jewish element in their lives. I can only hope that my peers, and the organizations that represent Reform Judaism, will see it the same way one day. I am not asking rabbis to change their position. It’s not for me to judge their motivation. Nor do I ask for a full endorsement of interfaith marriages by the Reform institutions. But it should be everybody’s imperative to help people and at least have the willingness to show where help can be found.  

We can easily say that interfaith marriage is less than perfect a situation. But ignoring it because it is imperfect, that’s not the Jewish way. Facing that we are living in an imperfect world and dealing with it accordingly, is what has made Judaism survive, longer than any other culture, longer than any other civilization, longer than any other belief.

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