By Rabbi Brian Field
I read Rabbi Steve Abraham’s article “It’s Time to Say ‘Yes” last week with a lot of sadness. Rabbi Abraham, I hear you. I hear the pain of my Conservative colleagues who wish to say yes to interfaith couples but are currently constrained from doing so. I also hear the pain of the growing number of interfaith couples who approach rabbis of all denominations in the anticipation of their rabbi helping them sanctify their marriage, only to be told no. So much pain in the name of halacha! Is there another way? Is there a way to say yes that is grounded in Torah for interfaith couples and for their rabbis?
Rabbi Abraham, you are not alone in wanting a Jewish yes. And while the parameters of your challenges are specific to the Conservative rabbinate, there are Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis who feel similarly challenged. I know those challenges personally. I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1988, convinced that I would never officiate intermarriages. But then I started working with interfaith couples and my perspective changed.
I want to address the pain of not officiating from both perspectives, that of the interfaith couple who desires a rabbi to officiate their ceremony, and that of rabbis who struggle with the Jewish integrity of officiation.
I am the senior rabbi at Judaism Your Way, a Jewish outreach organization based in Denver, Colorado. Our organization was created in 2003 to provide a Jewish yes to individuals and families who were not connected to local synagogues or temples, including interfaith couples, LGBTQ Jews, secular or cultural Jews, people whose identity includes Judaism and another spiritual tradition, and Jews and loved ones of all financial means. We proudly serve interfaith couples not only by officiating their weddings, but also by providing counseling, coaching, and community.
Judaism Your Way offers free High Holy Day services at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a flourishing Open Tent B’nai Mitzvah program, adult education, rabbis to officiate lifecycle events, and holiday celebrations. Our outreach to LGBTQ Jews includes major spiritual leadership for the annual Denver Queer Seder and for a community Shabbat experience during Pride weekend. I share spiritual leadership at Judaism Your Way with Dr. Caryn Aviv, a student in the ALEPH Rabbinic Ordination Program (Jewish Renewal). Our High Holy Day leadership also includes a Conservative rabbi and a Hebrew Union College (Reform) rabbinical student.
Judaism Your Way is often not the first stop for an interfaith couple who wishes to be married. Frequently they speak first to a congregational rabbi, often the Jewish partner’s childhood rabbi. In the case of many young couples, this meeting might be the first time they have a conversation with a rabbi as an adult. For the partner who is secular or of another faith, this might be the first time that s/he has personally met with a rabbi. I can’t emphasize strongly enough just how painful it is for couples to hear, “no, I won’t or I can’t marry you.” No matter how gently and compassionately worded, hearing that no is wounding. There is only one chance to make a first impression. In my experience, I have noticed that couples carry that no with them long into their lives.
Rabbinic integrity is grounded in our relationship to Torah. And at Judaism Your Way, our relationship to Torah is expressed in what we call “The Torah of Inclusion.” In Parashat Nitzavim, Moses proclaims that everyone is part of the people, including those who are not there. When Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, children of a Jewish father (his son Joseph) and Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, he says, “Through you shall all Israel be blessed.”
I think it is possible for rabbis to relate to interfaith couples from Moses’ maximally inclusive perspective and to see interfaith couples with Jacob’s eyes.
When an interfaith couple asks us a Judaism Your Way rabbi to officiate their wedding, we hear the commanding voice of the Torah of Inclusion. We wish the couple a hearty “mazel tov!” and work on crafting a ceremony that reflects their unique relationship. I invite my Conservative colleagues to hear the Torah of Inclusion with me, and to give voice to what it teaches us.
Rabbi Brian Field became the rabbi of Judaism Your Way in 2004 after serving two congregations and working as a hospital chaplain. Inspired by the work of Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l and Ken Wilber among many others, Rabbi Brian envisions a maximally-inclusive Judaism that plays a robust role in the healing of the planet and the liberation of all human beings.