It’s one of the most challenging situations that faces many American rabbis today, especially in the progressive movements: a young couple approaches a rabbi and asks about officiating at a wedding. One partner is Jewish and one is not. The rabbi is suddenly confronted with two young people–deeply in love and ready to make a commitment–who want to spend their lives together. More than that, the couple is sufficiently interested in having a Jewish ceremony, perhaps even committed to creating a Jewish home together, and they are seeking out a rabbi to perform the wedding to solemnize their relationship in a Jewish framework. If the rabbi says “no” he or she risks alienating these young people from Jewish life–a dangerous precedent given the high intermarriage rates in the American Jewish community. If the rabbi says “yes” he or she is contributing to the same demographic trend that threatens the community’s long-term existence given all the statistics and evidence that children of intermarriage identify with and affiliate with Judaism at an alarming low rate. What to do?
For some rabbis the answer is easy–marrying a Jew and a non-Jew would be a betrayal of their title and role. For others–even for rabbis who generally do not perform intermarriages themselves–the question is not so straightforward. Non-Jewish spouses are often committed to creating Jewish homes, sometimes more so than the Jewish partner is. I’m always impressed and moved by the commitment of non-Jewish parents in our congregation who are get up early on Sunday morning to bring their children to Hebrew school, or who pray at services (often in Hebrew) at a family Shabbat dinner, or who ask me for ideas for the seder they are hosting for their in-laws. Many members of my congregation are Jews by choice, who converted long after they married, after many years of living effectively Jewish lives in a Jewish community.
In our time, tragically, Jewish identity is a fragile and precious quantity and I believe we must do everything in our power to nurture it, because it is infinitely precious. Despite what demagogues on both sides of the intermarriage question say, it is not always so clear what the best choice is to ensure Jewish continuity. For my own part, I do not officiate at intermarriages because I cannot sanctify (kiddushin, the Hebrew word for wedding, means “sanctification”) the relationship of a Jew and non-Jew, even if I can appreciate the positive aspects of the relationship. Yet, while I do not perform intermarriages myself, I understand why some rabbis choose differently than I do, for either philosophical or practical reasons.
Intermarriage is not an easy issue and it doesn’t have an easy answer. Accordingly, (returning to the couple in the rabbi’s office) it does not seem that a simple “yes” or “no” is necessarily the best response. Rather, the rabbi best serves the couple and the Jewish community by engaging the pair, affirming the love that they feel for one another, and challenging them to think through the ramifications of an intermarriage. Perhaps the non-Jewish partner will convert, perhaps the couple will be better prepared to recognize the challenges they will navigate. Perhaps, despite the rabbi’s best efforts, they will merely walk away feeling rejected. But, whatever our position, rabbis must engage–it’s the least we can do for the next generation and the ones that follow.