The Answer is Edwin.
Why do I officiate interfaith weddings? The answer is Edwin. My mentor,
Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman was a master teacher and psychotherapist.
He wrote the major textbook for Pastoral Counseling. He wrote the key article on the interfaith phenomenon, The Myth of the Shiksa. Briefly, Ed taught me how to reframe questions in a way that promotes transformational vision.
Just what is “interfaith”? Is Judaism a “faith group”? What beliefs lead to some Jews rejecting intermarriage? Just what is intermarriage? Does the Torah prohibit a Jew from marrying a Catholic? A Protestant? A Hindu? A Buddhist?
Is it permissible for an observant Jew to marry a secular Jew? An atheist?
In my rabbinic opinion the Torah prohibited, past tense, marriage between an Israelite and a Pagan. Wait a second. I need to be more precise since the dictionary defines a pagan as someone who is not a Jew, Christian or Muslim. The Torah prohibited marriage with certain native inhabitants in ancient times, including the Moabites. The dreaded Moabites offered their firstborn (and perhaps second and third on occasion) to their fire god . The ancient prohibition seems more than reasonable. This is a generic principle of Torah. Do not sacrifice your children to an idol.
But what about to an ideal? This is the point of The Book of Ruth, where we see Naomi allow her children to intermarry. The hero of this groundbreaking book, Boaz, violates the broad prohibition by marrying Ruth, who, according to the Midrash, was the daughter of the King of Moab. Forbidden. The ideal is ignored because Ruth had no intention to honor her fathers “officiating” at child sacrifice. By the way, even without this lovely story of intermarriage the ancient prohibition is now null and void in our time. We have no genetic markers for Moabites or any other “pagan” ancient fire god worshipers.
Another objection to “intermarriage” is strictly rabbinic. We want Israelites to marry Israelites so we have a way to transmit our core values and unique Covenant from generation to generation. This makes sense. So, we ask, who is an Israelite? Who is in, and who is out? The modern update of not intermarrying with the Moabites includes not sacrificing our children to an ideal. So the question remains. What is intermarriage?
I believe, in our times, Rabbinic Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and all the sects and denominations therein are legitimate heirs to the promises of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. I love to invite all of them to the weddings I officiate. Of course, technically Jacob was the only Israelite in the group, and a few of our matriarchs were certainly “outsiders.” Notice the dissonance when we apply modern standards to our ancestors. We entwine ourselves in a double bind when we look back to our ancestors for every precedent on how to act today.
Jacob earns the name Israel after struggling with issues divine and human; and limps away with a new name. We all know the feeling. “Israel” means the one who struggles and then triumphs. As a Rabbi I have wrestled with the question of the intermarriage of a Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim, or an atheist with a Jew. Are they pagans? A Hindu is, but only by the dictionary definition. Again ancient categories are not always instructive or operative. My major concern is that ideals do not become idols. Hindus are not pagan and are, on the whole, the most open minded towards other religions. If I ever come across a “child sacrificer” I will be sure to decline their request to sanctify their marriage.
Did you know that at a point in our history The Twelve Tribes of Israel were forbidden to intermarry? Tribal Reubenites could only marry tribal Reubenites and tribal Judahites other members of the tribe of Judah.
Tribal thinking is also present in our time. The Catholic Church used to demand written documents that a Jewish Catholic couple would raise the children Catholic. On the whole, in the spirit of Vatican II, most Bishops have given up on this power play. The Reform movement in Judaism in our time requires a missive that the child will be raised Reform Jewish. Conversion is encouraged or demanded. This also seems to be the policy of the Conservative movement. Traditional Judaism does not encourage
this strong arm approach seeking conversion from conviction rather than convenience. The denominations are hopelessly divided on the issue. The good news is that eventually the tribes united and permitted intertribal nuptials. What about today?
I was thinking this all through twenty years ago when I was mapping the future course of my rabbinic career. My guide and mentor was Ed. He taught by example, officiating at hundreds of intertribal wedding ceremonies in the Washington D.C. area. I came to understand that it was time for me to declare my independence from Conservative Judaism.
Conservative Judaism in our time lives up to its name, conserving both essence and anachronism. The main anachronism that I jettisoned was the denominations rather cold war against Christianity. Once again reframing questions I wondered why a wedding between a Rabbinic Israelite and Christian Israelite is considered intermarriage and a scandal. Perhaps it is simply intertribal.
What if a Jewish Christian couple is able to pass on the wonderful and precious legacy of our Torah to the next generation? The Reform movement took a stand when it announced the triumph of Reform over the Church. This is not quite Yavne II. Do we win the power struggle when we insist on conversion? Not really. I do not think conversion is the answer and wonder how a convert to Reform feels when they might need to convert to Conservative to be accepted by that denomination. “Orthodoxy” demands a third conversion in most, if not all, cases. My bottom line is the need of the couple to transform their home into a Sanctuary. I have written the scripts for this pageant, knowing it will take several generations for the denominations to create synagogue or church services with the intermarried in mind. By the way the process for couples taking charge of their spiritual identity begins with how we create their wedding ceremony. The script for the ceremony is chosen by the bride and groom with the guidance of this rabbi. This approach is a radical transformation, considering the old way is for the clergy to determine every word of the ceremony, or to read, word for word, wedding after wedding, the predetermined script from the Manuel provided by all the denominations of religion.
Ed did not encourage conversion. This one stop solution simply announces the triumph of one tradition over another. The Myth of the Shiksa exposes the tendency of any family to avoid responsibility by blaming outsiders for all woes. Religion becomes a smokescreen. Why are so many modern young Jews marginal to tradition? Who is to blame? The blond shiksa goddess? Why not. The myth is that the Shiksa pulls the Jew out of the fold in a type of religious seduction. The facts, as Ed explained, and I have experienced over and over, is that the non Jewish partner is keenly interested in all things Jewish and would love to incorporate all that deserves conserving in Judaism in her relationship with her beloved Jewish partner. In my practice this happens, since I do not demand she give up her selfhood and identity. Then I help construct the foundation and ground floor of the Home Sanctuary every couple must build to raise their family.
All of the above is not always true when a Jew marries a Jew, creating the curious paradox that the future of Jewish practice might best be assured by advocating intermarriage.
So this is what Ed taught me:
1.) Be brave
2.) Dare to be different.
3.) Be vulnerable to criticism.
4.) Stay calm and focused and persevere.
5.) Write your “I have a dream speech”
6.) Go “tell it on your mountain.”
I heard and I obeyed. I found the mountain, and founded Temple Shabbat Shalom. Our mission is transformation not conversion. We ask everyone to take responsibility for their own personal quest for God and meaning. We also accept atheist and agnostics into our congregation. We are all works in progress. We welcome Shiksa’s as members with full rights and privileges. They are called for an Aliyah (honor) with or without conversion.
Temple Shabbat Shalom is in our home as a reminder that the Home is your primary spiritual place, and can easily be transformed into a Temple.
Dedicate your dining room table and your meals become a religious experience. Intelligent conversation is an obligation. Simply follow the order of the Seders. Sanctifying your meals with table services in the home transforms your Tables into Altars.
By the way, even though my mentor Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman has been gone for years he still a- muses and delights. I hear him clearly reminding the Jewish community to return to personal religion and responsibility as he continues to bless my rabbinate. He endorses the Seders. They are also for “Jewish-Jewish” and “Christian- Christian” couples. They are, in fact, for everyone. They are our future.
Rabbi Laurence Aryeh Alpern