Once again, we are debating intermarriage as if there is a debate. Intermarriage is a fact. The only question we can debate is whether officiants will participate in the ceremony and surrounding festivities.
I have long believed that marriage is the purview of the state. In a country like ours, this legal arrangement is subject to the prevailing laws of the secular authority. The state has a vested interest in defining such relationships, which I do not challenge. These same interests protect my ability to live my life as a practicing Jew, subject only to the restrictions that protect similar rights of others regarding their faith or philosophy.
As such, I accept grudgingly the courtesy extended to me as a rabbi to act on behalf of the state when I solemnize a marriage. I do not think that clergy should be authorized as agents of the secular authorities, unless that authorization is separate and distinct from their ordination. Were those functions separate, I would not seek such authority because I do not wish to be in the position of devout county clerks who believe that they have the right to limit access to civil rights and privileges.
When I officiate at a wedding, I do so in the context of the “religious society” to which I belong and my personal religious convictions. I believe that my role is to solemnize a ceremony according to the requirements of “Moses and the people Israel,” and I believe that my rabbinic association – in my case, the Rabbinical Assembly – is the arbiter of that standard.
If you gather that it is all about me and not the couple, you are mostly correct. Any couple that is unencumbered by the laws of their state may enter into marriage. I celebrate their love in my heart. But the mandates of my own convictions govern my actions.
Many years ago, I was approached by two couples in a single week. Couple number one was a middle-aged Jewish man and his decidedly younger (and pregnant) fiancée. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and an Irish surname, and was raised on a farm among people of good Christian stock. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was a Jew.
Couple number two was a young man from a modern orthodox family and his fiancée with a Jewish surname and a Jewish upbringing from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She never thought of herself as anything other than Jewish. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was not Jewish, ever – a detail shared with her only because mom knew enough about orthodoxy to know it would make a difference.
I asked my rabbi – a respected Talmudist – how to respond to the two couples. He sighed and told me I had no reason to deny the wedding canopy to the first couple, but absent a conversion, I had no reason to offer it to the second couple. Couple two accepted the conversion option, not without frustration, and I officiated at both weddings.
For very different reasons, I felt uncomfortable at both weddings. But my feelings of discomfort did not compromise my sense of personal integrity as a Conservative rabbi. An Orthodox rabbi would not have agreed to a formal conversion on the basis of upbringing, and a Reform rabbi would not have agreed to the first wedding because the bride had neither education in nor commitment to the Judaism her mother abandoned to marry her father.
Many years later, I responded positively to a request from a friend and colleague to ask about revisiting a restriction on all members of the Rabbinical Assembly; at penalty of expulsion, we are (still) prohibited from attending an intermarriage, including the celebration. Read that carefully – attending, not just officiating. My very understanding family has accepted my absence from such events involving people I love. I observe the restriction because I agreed to. I don’t like it, so I asked about reconsideration.
Just the asking produced an extreme and defensive reaction. The rationale, I was told many times, was to protect rabbis whose personal convictions were at odds with demanding congregants and who could therefore claim that they would be present except for this binding rule. I was importuned to remove my very request. Since I was a supporting actor in this drama, I recognized that the moment was not mine. Even after I agreed to un-ask the question, I was contacted regularly to be certain I would stick to my withdrawal.
Now, dear reader, you have one of two reactions thus far. Either you understand entirely (even if you disagree) or you are filled with some sense of disdain.
I can’t help you if you are disdainful, even if I get it. The culture of our society emphasizes inclusiveness and self-fulfillment, and as people saturated with America we are easily outraged if two people who want to share their love are denied because of what appear to be arbitrary and repressive rules. I have championed marriage equality, and I have a carefully cultivated intolerance of those who would deny the benefits of marriage validated by the secular government to any citizen.
But the standard I maintain as a Jew (who is also a rabbi) is a different standard, which is why I prefer not to be an officiant on behalf of the secular government. If you want my participation, then my declared principles about personal identity, freedom from previous marital obligations, day-and-time of the ceremony and more are part of my protected civil rights. I do not need an association to enact sanctions on my behalf if I have the courage of my convictions. But, likewise, I am ready to challenge rules and regulations that seem arbitrary and of dubious principle.
But, hey, that’s me. Some people believe laws without enforcement are ineffective. Some believe in building a fence around our principles to prevent encroachment. Some believe their autonomy supersedes existing standards. Bless them all.
One of these days I will ask the forbidden question again, along with others who have provoked a “blue ribbon panel” to consider it. And when the answer comes I will decide if I am in or out of the community of rabbis, and that will determine my behavior. But I sure wish the state would take back the gift of public agency. It’s none of my business.