The 1960s were a transformational decade in the life of American Jewry. In my last op-ed, at the end of May, I shared with you my reflections upon the Six Day War, recalling both the impact the seminal event had upon me as a 19-year-old college freshman, and how the results and consequences of the 1967 war continue to play a role in the unfolding of world history, Jewish history, and the relationship between Israeli and American Jewry.
The 1960s also were a time of great social change within America. While American Jews were not the primary focus of either the Civil Rights Act or the legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid, both of these historic legislative achievements have greatly affected American Jewish life. I hope that all of you are reaching out actively to Congress to protect the Medicare and Medicaid funding that is so vital to so many Americans, including the vast majority of the residents of Jewish nursing homes across America. The Civil Rights Act opened educational opportunities, made discrimination in housing illegal, and opened previously closed doors of universities and neighborhoods to Jews, along with other minorities.
While the impact of the Six Day War contributed to increased pride and commitment to world Jewry, the opening of opportunity in the 1960s resulted in American Jews becoming more integrated into American life. Today, Jews can and do live wherever we want. The unintended consequence is that the American Jewish community is more diffuse. Intermarriage, once viewed as an act of rebellion, now is a result of who Jews meet, and of our acceptance as equal members of American society. For the past half century, the party line within the American Jewish community has been to confront intermarriage with hostility, and to equate intermarriage with the loss of Jewish identity. But the 2013 Pew research study of American Jewry has called the perception that there is a direct correlation between intermarriage and assimilation into question.
Opposition to intermarriage is not limited to the Orthodox community. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have longstanding resolutions against rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages. However, to quote the strange and often estranged Jewish Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin”. Recently, a number of my colleagues whom I know and respect, in both the Reform and Conservative movements, have announced publicly that they are changing their position and in the future will officiate at interfaith weddings if the couple is committed to establishing a Jewish home.
I applaud them for their thoughtful stance, even though at this point I am not going to change my personal position. I do not officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I also find that my position has evolved. I once was critical of rabbinic colleagues who did not take my position. Today, as someone who believes in Jewish pluralism in all ritual matters, I see officiation at interfaith weddings as a legitimate difference of opinion, where people on both sides of the argument must avoid condemning the other.
As I wrote these few last sentences and discussed them with family members and close friends, I was challenged to explain why my position was not a hypocritical cop-out. How can I balance my continued personal commitment to engage in proactive outreach to interfaith families but not officiate at weddings unless both partners are Jewish? Can I applaud actions of colleagues if I will not do them myself?
My decision not to officiate at interfaith weddings is not based upon a fear of assimilation, which is a larger issue and food for thought for a future column. Rather, it is my personal interpretation of the meaning of marriage and the Jewish wedding ceremony that keeps me from doing it. The Jewish ceremony is meant to be a miniature covenant, in which the couple not only makes promises to each other, but also, as a new family, embraces their shared covenant with their Jewish community. Therefore, it is assumed that both people are Jewish. Under Jewish law, the presence of a rabbi at a wedding is unnecessary. (Halacha requires only two Jewish witnesses.) Rabbinic officiation at weddings is, however, a centuries-old tradition, insurance that the ceremony would be done in accordance with Jewish law.
What traditional Jewish law does stipulate is that the bride and groom commit themselves to each other “k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael,” — “in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.” To me, the implication is clear. Jewish marriage is two people entering into a personal covenant that is linked to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
I also believe that any wedding ceremony, be it religious or civil, should truly and without reservation, reflect the understandings that bind the partners together. Thus, at a same gender wedding — at which I will officiate — the traditional vows and blessings should be changed to reflect the gender of the couple. Reform liturgy now reflects this. However, if Judaism is not what binds the couple together, a Jewish exchange of vows does not honestly reflect the covenant of the two people getting married and the values and beliefs that bind them one to the other.
Though I have never officiated at a wedding where both partners were not Jews, I do attend interfaith weddings of family members and dear friends. In counseling interfaith couples, my practice over the last 42 years has been to invite non-Jews to consider conversion and to offer to teach and guide the couple on their journey. I simultaneously have encouraged couples, when I see that conversion is not a path that the non-Jewish partner is ready to take, to find a civil officiate. I have helped many of them put together a wedding ceremony that reflects who they are as a couple. I firmly believe that a wedding ceremony must honestly reflect the “we” who that particular couple is committed to becoming.
We begin the reading of the book of Deuteronomy this week. With the commemoration of Tisha B’Av on Monday night, we also begin our annual countdown to a new Jewish year. In this last book of Torah, the command to be inclusive of the widow, the orphan, and the ger, the non-Jew living within our community, is repeated many times. I hear in this repetitive call a reminder that all of us need to become more pro-active in reaching out to not only the elderly and disabled within our community, through political action and tzedaka, but also to be equally proactive, both individually and communally, in reaching out and welcoming interfaith families into our communities.
Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, is a former chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He currently serves as a National Vice Chair of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs