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Important conversation on intermarriage continues
January 9th, 2004
I appreciate The Chronicle for initiating an important conversation about rabbinical officiation at intermarriage. The responses in the Dec. 19 edition to the article and my Commentary in the Dec. 12 issue prompt me to share more of my thinking about my work with this growing part of the Jewish community.
I have a personal stake in this issue, as do all of us. I would be sad if the world my grandchildren grow up in is largely made-up of intermarried families who are under-connected to the Jewish community and ambivalent about their Jewish identities.
Thats exactly why I officiate at some intermarriage ceremonies. I believe that if interfaith couples are offered the opportunity to sanctify their marriage covenant in a Jewish manner, with rabbinic guidance and support, the odds are much higher that they will identify as a Jewish family and hold onto and utilize their Jewish tools and connections over the long term.
Eric Pullin in his letter asked about my attitude regarding conversion. I do not require that the non-Jews convert, though often they do during our work together or after the wedding.
I do require that each member of the couple describe his or her relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. This is not always clear to the couple at the outset and sometimes takes months of study and reflection for them to clarify.
During the ceremony I announce that the couple has mutually chosen Judaism to express their covenant, a choice based on their expressed relationships to Judaism, which I read aloud in the couples own words. In this way, the couple makes a formal public declaration of their connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
This is not a conversion. It is an explicit statement to Jews and non-Jews of their standing within Judaism and among the Jewish people.
Who sets boundaries?
Pullin also likened my work with interfaith couples to an indulgent parent who cant say no. Although I understand that behind this analogy lies Pullins assumption that the rabbi is the boundary-setter for the community, I find his use of the parent-child metaphor for the relationship between a rabbi and an adult couple to be unhelpful and inaccurate.
In a future column I can imagine exploring in more depth the issues of who sets and holds the boundaries in the Jewish community, and what are the mechanisms by which those boundaries can and do change.
Rabbi Avner Zarmi in his Commentary characterized my approach as making lemonade out of lemons. I can think of few things more complimentary for a rabbi to say about a colleagues work than that he or she is taking something that could be seen as problematic and is making something sweet, good and holy out of it.
However I am saddened that Zarmi seems to characterize intermarried couples as lemons, particularly as the Torah offers us not one but two intermarried couples who make abiding contributions to Jewish continuity: Joseph and Asenath, and Moses and Tzippora.
I dont see Joseph and Asenaths marriage as a lemon. Neither did Josephs father Jacob. He blesses their children and recognizes them as the inspiration through which all Israel will invoke blessings.
I believe rabbis need to emulate Jacobs model. We need to make it more likely that intermarried families will find a home in our community and will see Judaism as the means for raising their children and sanctifying their lives.
Im also saddened that Zarmi characterized interfaith marriages with such words as disease, affliction, epidemic and malady. My wish is that rabbis on all sides of this issue can use more respectful terms to describe interfaith couples and their children who are participating in Jewish life.
In fact, the Torah offers a possible term: ger toshav (resident stranger). The Torah is clear about how to treat and speak about others including the non-Jews among us: You shall befriend the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19 and many other verses).
Our choice of words not only reveals our level of hope regarding the Jewish potential of intermarried families. It also shapes how we think about ourselves.
We can emphasize ourselves as primarily fighting a defensive action against assimilationist forces. We can also emphasize ourselves as the heirs of a resilient and generous spiritual tradition that has survived and thrived in many different environments.
Id rather recognize and promote non-Jews as allies and potential resources to me than to position them mainly as depleters or diluters. To extend ourselves as the strong and resilient people we are by hosting non-Jews and their Jewish loved ones is an act of faith in Jewish resiliency and ourselves.
Rabbi Brian Field is a hospital chaplain in Madison.