Question: Does a Jewish wedding need to have a rabbi present?
At Shir Ami-Bucks County Congregation in Newtown, students in an adult-education class puzzled over this question put to them by assistant Rabbi Yair Robinson. In fact, they seemed to be split down the middle in their responses as they debated the necessity for an officiant as the definitive element that made a marriage Jewish.
The topic was one of several issues explored during "A Jewish Look at Marriage, Gay Marriage and Intermarriage," held throughout the month of October at the Reform synagogue. The evening workshops covered the breadth and depth of Jewish marriage, while also exploring the ramifications of interfaith and gay marriage on Jewish traditions.
Shir Ami offers adult-education courses every year, and a class on various types of marriage really seemed to resonate with congregants.
"This is something that's on a lot of people's minds," said the rabbi.
Robinson added that Shir Ami has been very fortunate with its adult-ed programs, which often garner 60 or more people in a single sitting. "This is a community where people want to learn," he said. The congregation is "really passionate about immersing itself in Jewish learning."
He noted that about 30 percent of the couples at Shir Ami are interfaith. And he also mentioned that the time when interfaith couples are treated differently is long gone: "Today, that couple is welcome in the congregation."
Robinson also pointed out that many couples are not saying that they are interfaith, but that they're Jewish families with a non-Jewish partner.
"That warms my heart. That pleases me that they feel welcome," he said. "They should always feel welcome."
The adult-education class began with the rabbi laying the groundwork for the more complicated issues of gay marriage and intermarriage to come.
Indeed, he said, a common vocabulary for such discussions was needed; as such, he defined what it means to be married under Jewish law, and then went on to describe the actual marriage ceremony itself.
As to whether an officiant is needed, Robinson said that no real consensus exists. "It's between the people who are marrying each other. A wedding is about a couple doing that themselves."
Not on the Fringe Anymore
The discussion then moved on to the complexities of interfaith marriage. Robinson reminded the class of the sensitive nature of the subject, and recalled his own experiences in rabbinical school when the topic came up.
"It was a very uncomfortable conversation," he said of the arguments that took place in his class. He described that debate as very fraught on both sides of the issue.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, many of the assumptions made by the previous generation of rabbis were cast aside, he began; by the 1980s, it was clear that the number of rabbis performing interfaith marriages was on the rise. "They were not the majority, but they were more vocal."
He reminded his students of the lesson they'd learned earlier: that a rabbi was not a necessary element in the Jewish wedding ceremony.
Still, for many, the presence of a religious officiant "authenticates the marriage in the eyes of the family."
For rabbis who do perform interfaith marriages, the decision is one of conviction, and of "responding to the needs of the community," said Robinson.
"You're not talking about people doing an interfaith marriage as on the fringe [anymore]," he said about the current state of the issue.
Neither Robinson nor Shir Ami's head rabbi, Elliot Strom, perform interfaith marriages, and for both, turning down a marriage request from a family in the congregation is especially hard. Robinson recalled his earlier point that the couples marry one another — not the rabbis.
"The purpose of the rabbi becomes an agent of the Jewish community, and the rabbi facilitates meaningful Jewish experiences," he said. "For me, that requires Jewish participants."
He added that rabbis, even those who feel they can't officiate, will help with all the preparatory work for an interfaith couple, from assisting them in developing a marriage service to following up with the marriage plans as they develop.
But, he reiterated, turning down families from the congregation with whom he may have a strong personal relationship is downright upsetting: "Ours is often the more painful position to defend."