“In Different Words”: Jewish Identity, Interfaith Marriage and Rabbinic Officiationby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
This past summer, sitting at home, I came across a You Tube video from far away. It was a four-minute long Spanish-language film which had just won first place in an online competition of the Cannes Film Festival. The clip is called Historia de un letrero, “Story of a Sign.”
It opens to soft sound of a Spanish guitar. There is a boy, smiling in a park, balloons, pigeons, a family-friendly site. A squirrel, munching on a nut. And then a picture of a beggar: blind, unable to walk, with wrinkled skin and squniting eyes, propped up against a stone wall, next to a sign and a tin can.
The scene changes, and we see a slender businessman with a close-cropped beard, wearing shades and a black suit, carrying a razor-thin briefcase. He strides through the park, on his way somewhere important – but he pauses, to watch the beggar for a moment. People pass by. A few – a very few – toss coins at the can, but it is a furtive move, done in haste, and without human contact.
The businessman comes closer to the man, then puts his briefcase down. The blind man feels his shoes. The businessman picks up the cardboard sign, stares at it for a moment. The words read “Have compassion. I am blind.” The businessman takes out a pen, writes something down, and puts the sign right back where it had been.
The screen goes blank for a moment. It opens on the same scene, but if feels like a different day. The music is faster, more upbeat. And the coins come fast and furious, placed in the can, but overflowing, so much so that the blind man needs to grope around, to find all of the money. There are even bills in the bucket.
The businessman returns. The beggars senses him, then feels his shoes once again. He looks up in his general direction, and he says – in the first spoken words in the film: “what did you do to my sign?”
The slender man responds: “I wrote the same, just in different words.”
The film ends as we see the new words. The sign now says: “It is a beautiful day, and I cannot see it.”
It is a beautiful day... if only we can see it.
Indeed, it is a beautiful time in our history, if we know… how to look at it right.
It does not mean that the challenges are not real, that the problems we face are not the same… but… how we frame the issues we face… maybe that makes all the difference.
What the man in the suit knew… is that saying the same thing, in a more personal way, in a way which relates… that this matters. It matters a great deal.
My friends, I stand before you this day, and I face the most challenging task I have ever taken on in a sermon. What I am about to share with you is deeply personal – for many of you, as well as for me. It is something which hits home, which relates in a fundamental way to the lives of many, many members of this congregation, and our families.
I have come to an important conclusion, concerning one of the most difficult decisions a Reform rabbi has to make. I believe that I stand for the same goals I have always stood for. But I have come to the conclusion that I can reach those goals…in a different way.
And how I frame what is to follow… how I say it, and how you hear it… that, too, matters. So much so that I take an unusual step, and issue an invitation. My topic this morning is too important to be a one-way street, a monologue, words that flow from me to you. No, it must be a dialogue, and an ongoing conversation, to make sure, amongst other things, that we hear each other in the right way even if – in fact, especially if – we disagree with one another. And so at the conclusion of my remarks I am going to issue an invitation, to carry on the conversation, in a way in which we can speak with each other.
“Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lif’nai Adonai Eloheichem,” we read this morning; “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, elders and officials, all the Israelites: men, women, children… v’geircha asher b’kerev machanecha…even the stranger within your camp.” An inclusive vision is held out before us: we all stood at Sinai! The whole community – all of us – entered into God’s covenant that day.
But this is more than merely an ancient echo of a world that was. This is a mythical, mystical vision. It is a temporal prism which is not primarily about the past, but rather the present. These words transcend time: “V’lo itchem l’vad’chem anochi koreit et habrit hazot… It is not with you alone that I make this covenant… but with those who are standing here this day with us… and those who are not with us here this day?”
These words are about personal spiritual commitment. They are about entering into the Jewish covenant with God. And I still believe that this act matters… a powerful statement of solidarity, of identification, of reading oneself into the Jewish story.
But there is enough ambiguity here… to make us think. Who might we mean? Who might be meant by those who were not standing there that day? And who… who are the strangers within the camp?
The customary view is that “those who were not there that day” refers to all Jews, of all generations… a kind of primordial precommitment, a sense that we are all bound by the commitments, and the promises, our ancestors made for us. Like the television program from the 1960’s: “You Were There!” This is why there is a traditional Jewish answer to the trite pick up line in a bar: “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” “Ah, well, it must have been at Sinai!”
And established interpretation has always viewed the ger referred to here as a ger tzedek, a Jew by choice, someone who converts to Judaism, who joins the Jewish people.
But, as I said… there is ambiguity here. Ambiguity about who is meant, who is included. Ambiguity about identity.
And we… we live with ambiguity as well. For there are those among us – there are many – who have come to our community through association, through family ties, through the bonds of love and life, even… even without having stood at Sinai. To what extent are these individuals meant… in this expansive, and inclusive view? And might not our answer to that question, our understanding of it, might that not change… over time?
My friends, at this time I am announcing a change in my position on the issue of officiation at interfaith marriages. After many years of wrestling with this question, I am now prepared to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies, under certain circumstances and conditions.
I have always believed... I have always believed that it is a wonderful thing, in this world, to find someone with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. It is a wonderful – and it is difficult -- and it should be celebrated. The question I have had… concerned only the context of the celebration.
Without actually performing interfaith marriages, without personally officiating, I have, nonetheless, throughout my career, worked on ways to support what I considered to be appropriate celebrations. I have helped couples craft a ceremony in which their own spiritual lives were reflected, while the one who united their lives stood on neutral ground, representing the civil jurisdiction rather than any ecclesiastical authority. I have referred families to other rabbis or cantors, colleagues whom I know would treat them well, but whose position was different than mine. I have counseled and comforted countless couples, working on the issues that building an interfaith family presents. But after 20 years as a rabbi, after over a decade of actively wrestling with this question, I have come to the conclusion that this is not enough.
Now, for some of you, to hear that a rabbi will perform an interfaith marriage ceremony is no big deal. For much of the history of this congregation, there have been rabbis here who have done so, all with their own sets of conditions. Many of you might not have known that I did not, and will potentially be retroactively upset [don’t go there; just… don’t go there!] – how I could hold such antiquated and narrow-minded views? Certainly there are those who do not understand why this is a close call, and a difficult one.
In order to understand why it is, in fact, such a big step that a minority of rabbis and cantors choose to officiate at interfaith marriages, one has to understand why the vast majority of Jewish clergy, of all denominations, do not do so. To answer this adequately is beyond the scope of what I can accomplish today, except to say that this position has to do with both the content of the ceremony, and the concept of continuity. Let me remind you of my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah, in which I described Judaism as a folk as well as a faith, a community and a people as well as an expression of individual spirituality. And so this is not simply a question of clergy catering to personal needs, to the sanctification of the consumer, a world in which we expect clergy to do whatever we want them to do. We do that to some degree, clergy do serve the needs and desires of congregants – but that is not all that we do, and all that we stand for. And as a community we are not merely an assemblage of individual opinions; we are a group. We are called to be ethnical, as well as ethical. Please do not – please do not! – position yourselves so far away from the concept of peoplehood that you cannot understand, that you do not even “get” what a radical step this is, in the context of our communal history!
And it is neither inherently racist nor necessarily chauvinistic for a group to want to survive. It’s just not.
But today the question of Jewish survival can be seen from many angles. And it may be… it may be… that a wider welcome… will serve the same end… in a better way.
I am not sure, precisely, what the exact “tipping point” was, in this decision to change my position. It might have been the influence of other colleagues, whose positions I have seen evolve over time. It might have been the words of an Orthodox rabbi a few years ago, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, speaking to a convention of Reform rabbis, who indicated that were he Reform, he probably would perform interfaith marriages under certain circumstances. He said that at the time of the Bible, marrying an Israelite, marrying a Jew was simply a way into the Jewish community, and he thought that this might be the case again today. It might be the experience over time of working with so many devoted, deep, sincere individuals exploring Judaism and possibly willing to take the final step of joining our people – but who do not like the fact that they “have” to, for the sake of a ceremony. Finally, it might have been the question of same-sex marriage. For I have been willing – and have performed – same sex ceremonies, and I even though I see the issues of interfaith and same-sex marriage as apples and oranges, unrelated decisions, still I have been unable to convince even the brightest and most thoughtful of friends of why there is a difference. People have responded that one should be fully traditional in both cases, or fully flexible. I did not agree, until I realized that there is an emotional connection here, even if no rational or logical link exists.
I am sure, however, what the tipping point was not. My decision is unrelated to the turmoil and transition our congregation has experienced over the past year. If anything I have delayed the decision, for the fear it would be seen as linked. This is an issue I have been actively struggling with for a decade. This is a decision that was a long time in coming.
I was in Buffalo when a colleague in the community, Rabbi Barry Schwartz, once our Rabbi-Educator, then of Temple Sinai in Amherst, New York, and now in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, gave a sermon to his congregation on Yom Kippur, announcing his change of position. He reminded his congregation that a Jewish marriage is called kiddushin, holiness, and he concluded that he could no longer deny that some sense of holiness – even as understood in Jewish terms – could well be present in a marriage between partners with different spiritual backgrounds.
Even if we can all say – and always see – that there is a kind of general holiness in all healthy marriages – no judgment here – still, of the minority of rabbis who do perform interfaith wedding ceremonies, the vast majority – 90-plus percent – do so only under certain and highly defined conditions. I confess that I feel somewhat vulnerable on this point, because once we step into this territory at all, these conditions are both necessarily subjective – and, for me, subjectively neccessary. On the one hand they have the feel of making couples…jump through hoops of my own devising. And yet I could not imagine performing such ceremonies without any parameters, guidelines which help promote what Rabbi Hartman referred to as a pathway into a Jewish family, even if not the Jewish people. So it then becomes a question… of what these conditions are.
Here are mine. I would agree to officiate at an intermarriage for couples who can agree to:
My friends, I am a rabbi. I see my role as promoting Jewish community, faith and folk. I will continue to teach, as I have before, and to act, as I have before, both in what I consider to be the best interest of our people and with integrity, as I understand it, vis a vis our tradition. It has been many years, already, if ever, that I felt honestly able to tell our children, our students, our youth, that they must marry Jews – although I blame no parent who does say this to their children, and, as I said earlier, I simply do not consider it racist or chauvinistic to make such a statement. Let me repeat this, though: I do not teach our youth that they must marry Jews, as if they would listen to such a statement in any event! What I do tell our young people is that I hope they will be advocates for Judaism – in any relationship they are in. And you know, and I know, that sometimes such advocacy is necessary… even when two Jews by birth marry one another.
I will teach and I will preach, then, in the best interest of the Jewish people as I see it. It is just that the way I see those interests… has changed. And the time calls out, perhaps, for us to open up. At least, the time came… for me to do so, in the way I understand that I have been called to serve our people and our God.
In many ways I find it hard to imagine… a more controversial topic. It is, then, not fair, that all that is said on this subject… is my speaking, well, at you. At this time I issue a call for a congregational meeting, a Town Hall format, on Sunday afternoon, November 9, at 2pm, for interaction and discussion, questions and clarifications, on how this change will affect you, the congregation, and our community. I will send a letter to the congregation several weeks from now, with either a copy of these remarks or similar background informaiton, and a more formal invitation to that meeting. I look forward to being with you, to working with you, to exploring the ways in which our community can balance the integrity of the tradition, and the needs of the present time.
The Days of Awe, this season of our lives, this Day of Atonement… it is to be a time of searing introspection, of opening up our lives, of looking at our choices, and our actions, of being open to change. This year… this year, as a rabbi, this year, at least in this way, that… is what I have done.
“Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Elohaichem… You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…”
There was smoke, and there was thunder, the shaking of the earth, the primordial power -- the presence of God. And then, silence. An utter, supernatural stillness.
Who stood at Sinai? Who entered that covenant, the once and future promise?
And who stands, under the chuppah, bringing a new family into our community?
It is a beautiful day.
And I can see that now.