Originally published on Jewschool.com.
Remember how I promised more “Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School” posts? Well, here we go, although this will take quite a different tack than the previous one.
Today, I’d like to take on the institution of marriage. I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage in the last five years or so, although not (unfortunately) because I’ve gotten any closer to it myself. However, between seeing many of my friends and relatives get hitched and watching the national debate over the nature of marriage in politics, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about the subject.
If you want to skip directly to the controversial point of this post, here it is: Rabbis should get out of the marriage business. However, if you read this sentence and then skip straight to the comments to call me a godless lefty pinko homosexual heretic (and, to be fair, you’d be about half-right) you will miss the point. Read on.
It might be helpful to take a step back and let you in on a few basic beliefs I’m working from:
- I believe in the ideal of marriage as a monogamous, lifetime commitment between two people who both love each other and want to build a life together. (I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but I do believe it’s an ideal. But I encourage you to read The Trouble with Normal and The Ethical Slut for counter opinions.)
- I believe that marriage is a critical point of contact for under- and unengaged Jews with Jewish tradition and community. In other words, many people who haven’t yet given a thought to Judaism in their lives suddenly seem interested in incorporating Judaism into their nuptials. This is an important opportunity for those of us in the establishment to put Judaism’s best face forward and send a loud, clear message to all Jews that they are needed, wanted, and have a stake in the Jewish people.
- I believe that symbolism has more power than we often give it credit, and that politics can be put aside for the greater good. Some may call me an idealist.
And now an important fact: Halakhically speaking, a rabbi is not required for a Jewish wedding.
While I don’t particularly care for halakha myself, I understand that it is important to a great many of Jews out there in the world – included many who don’t follow it or even know the term. (Where I grew up, such Jews often joined Conservative synagogues, content in knowing they’d have a rabbi who would be observing Jewish law so they wouldn’t have to.) In the words of Tracy Rich of Judaism 101:
Because marriage under Jewish law is essentially a private contractual agreement between a man and a woman, it does not require the presence of a rabbi or any other religious official. It is common, however, for rabbis to officiate, partly in imitation of the Christian practice and partly because the presence of a religious or civil official is required under United States civil law.
(I know, this isn’t exactly an authoritative source, but it says it concisely. To walk through the rabbinic sources just to prove the absence of something would be a long and not particularly interesting process on a blog. But if anyone wants to come study Kiddushin in hevruta with me, I’d welcome the opportunity.)
So to be clear — Jewish law does not require an officiant, only witnesses. Secular law in the United States gives people designated as “clergy” by their religious hierarchies the authority to simultaneously create a civil marriage while officiating at a religious ceremony.
I think this is a bad law. Specifically, during the last half-dozen years of political debate over same-sex marriage, I have come to believe that the civil contract of marriage and the religious sacrament of marriage should be separated. As a gay activist, I won’t accept civil unions as a substitute for marriage if it’s only offered to gay people. However, if all politically-sanctioned marriages were civil unions (and therefore performed by a state functionary) — getting clergy out of the government contract business — I would fully support civil unions for all. Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church has advocated for this as well, noting that other countries have been operating this way for years.
That’s a little bit secondary to the point I want to make, but I think it’s important to understand where I’m coming from.
At this point, I think a little diversion into my family’s history with marriage may be informative. My parents are both Jews, each born to two Jewish parents. My parents are still on their first marriage. Each of their parents’ marriages lasted decades until the death of a partner. However, in my generation of my extended family, not a single person who has married is married to a Jew. And when I talk about my extended family, I am really talking about not just my first cousins, but also my first cousins once removed, my second cousins, and so on. (Actually, my second cousin Alan may have a Jewish wife… I’ve only met her a couple of times and it hasn’t come up. But even if so, that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
Looking at all my married cousins, I see that most of them are raising Jewish children. And when I say they are raising Jewish children, I mean they are raising children who are actively engaged in Jewish life at home and in the community, although each family does it differently. I have cousins playing in the Maccabi games, cousins attending shul every week, cousins studying in traditional Hebrew schools and more.
Now to be fair, I also have cousins who are not raising Jewish children. A couple are raising their children in other faiths, and some aren’t raising their kids in any particular faith tradition.
I have one first cousin who is the product of a mixed-faith marriage — her dad’s first wife was Jewish, but that marriage didn’t last. Her mom, my aunt, was raised as something vaguely Christian but is So Not Into That. My cousin was raised with a Jewish identity but no real Jewish education. I think the family dabbled with attending a Unitarian-Universalist congregation for a bit, but that didn’t last.
So it was interesting to me that when this cousin decided to get married, she and her fiance (raised in some sort of Christian faith, but not particularly religious or Christian today) asked me to officiate at the wedding.
I am not a Rabbi. But as one of the most Jewishly-knowledgeable members of the family, I have often taken on the role of family religious leader, leading services for a couple of b’not mitzvah, running family sedarim, etc. I was flattered and immediately said yes and got to planning their ceremony with the couple.
It’s worth mentioning that because they got married in New Hampshire, and I live in Massachusetts, and I am not clergy, I was not able to perform the civil bits for them. My uncle became a Justice of the Peace so he could sign the necessary paperwork.
In the planning of the ceremony, my cousin and her fiance discussed “weaving their two faith traditions together for the ceremony.” I asked what those traditions were. The answers were: Jewish and vaguely Christian. So when I pressed them on what they thought this looked like, they mentioned a chuppah and the breaking of a glass on the Jewish side, and a unity candle and The Prayer of Saint Francis. In other words, they were looking for cultural traditions that are lovely but inoffensive and fairly non-theologically-specific. (In a neat twist that I’m not sure was based on a conscious decision on their part, the text they chose to accompany the lighting of the unity candle was from the Baal Shem Tov.)
The ceremony was lovely and it was a very positive experience for everyone involved. A couple of the groom’s family members mentioned they had never been to a Jewish ceremony and really liked the Jewish parts of what we did. I was quick to point out that this wasn’t a Jewish ceremony but yes, the chuppah is lovely. A couple of the couple’s friends mentioned they would be getting married within the year and were having trouble finding a rabbi who would be a part of their interfaith wedding – would I be interested?
And that set off the chain of thinking for me that is resulting in this post right here.
I believe that a large number – possibly the majority – of relatively unengaged Jewish people who want a rabbi to perform their interfaith wedding aren’t looking for a ketubah, or nissuin or kiddushin or anything like that. I believe they’re looking for an opportunity to say publicly that they are a part of a unique culture/civilization/religion that recognizes relationships in a particular way. And I believe they’re looking for someone who represents that culture/civilization/religion to say we value your membership.
(I recognize that there are also plenty of perfectly active and engaged Jewish people who marry spouses who aren’t Jewish. More on that later.)
Anyway, for folks like my cousins and their friends – some of whom may be halakhically Jewish, some of whom may not be – it doesn’t have to be a rabbi standing up at their wedding to validate their sense of membership in the tribe. But as long as there’s a general standard that rabbis perform weddings for Jews, that’s who they’re going to ask first.
So getting rabbis out of the marriage business at this point serves a dual purpose: it helps clarify the distinction between civil union and religious marriage, and it opens a door for interfaith couples to include Judaism in their marriage ceremonies without requiring some religious official giving their hashgacha to a relationship that may fall outside the bounds of their religious sensibility. (Obviously, if we establish a trained group of laypeople who can assist in the execution of Jewish marriages of all varieties, there will be among those plenty who still won’t participate in interfaith ceremonies. However, the barrier to entering this group is much lower, so it will be much easier to develop a cohort of “marriage madrichim” willing to work with interfaith couples.)
But what’s the point? Well, astute (and by astute, I mean “gay,” or if you prefer, “theatrically oriented”) readers might recognize the title of this post as a lyric by Frank Loesser from Guys and Dolls. You might remember the next line of the song is “…and change his ways tomorrow.”
Now I’m not actually advocating that we are in the business to change anyone’s ways. However, as I mentioned above, getting married is a major point of contact between most people and their religious traditions, and for many of them, it might be the last time they give the tradition a shot at impacting their lives. If we (and here, again, “we” means “the establishment” — suck it, Jewlicious, I revel in being a part of the solution) take advantage of this point of contact to establish the positive message that “there’s a place for all Jews in the Jewish community, well, we all come out ahead — and here the “we” is both “The Man” and “the folks getting married.”
A common hysterical reaction to this kind of logic goes like this: If we are nice to intermarried people then EVERYONE will marry out of the faith and Judaism will DIE and we’ll just be FINISHING WHAT HITLER STARTED!”
All I can say is this. One, I seriously doubt it. Two, if we engage Jewish people at every point in their lives instead of slamming the door in their face, we are more likely to see a thriving, living Judaism in future generations. If we just keep tightening our boundaries, Judaism might live on for generations, but it might all live within one square block in Brooklyn.
Now, I mentioned before that I think this solves a problem for unengaged and underengaged Jews. What about those of us who are Jews, fully participating in Jewish life, knowledgeable and all that, but who still end up with non-Jewish partners? Yes kids, it does happen. Well, again, we only benefit from keeping the doors open. Marrying out of the faith didn’t seem to hamper Moses’s ability to engage with Jewish life, so I’m not sure why it might hamper ours. Granted, I’ve heard some midrash implying that his children left the faith, but his brother’s kids rose all the way to the top and they didn’t end up contributing much more. And as a recent study on intermarried families showed, when the Jewish community includes intermarried families in Jewish life, the children of those families are twice as likely to engage in Jewish living themselves. In other words, when we treat intermarried families the same way we treat endogamous families, their kids affiliate at the exact same levels. And engaged Jews who marry non-Jews are probably more conscious of how they want Judaism to function in their families than under/unengaged Jews who marry Jews.
So there’s my big idea. Sure, it’s going to cut into the rabbis’ livelihoods, and we don’t want our rabbis starving on the street, so I promise not to tell anyone that we don’t need rabbis for funerals, either. But ultimately, I believe that getting rabbis out of the marriage business might be a way to save the Jewish people from stagnation and extinction.