When friends heard that our daughter was marrying a non-Jew, some of them assumed that she would include some Jewish traditions in her wedding. After all, my wife and I are observant Jews, and I was a pulpit rabbi for 35 years. Surely, they may have thought, even if our daughter was marrying outside the fold, we would take every opportunity to make her wedding as traditional as possible. They were surprised, then, to hear that her wedding ceremony was secular, devoid of Judaism. “Why wasn’t there a hora?” they asked. “No breaking the glass?” “You didn’t want a chuppah?” “Why didn’t you do the ceremony?”
I am sure the queries, which started coming as soon as our daughter was engaged, were well meaning. But the very fact that these types of questions come up at all is telling. The inclusion of Jewish rituals of kiddushin (marriage sanctification) into mixed-marriage ceremonies has been a growing trend in American Judaism. Some would expect that a rabbi might be the first to try to import something—anything—Jewish into his child’s mixed-faith wedding. And I am not judging those who decide to bring Judaism into mixed ceremonies; no one size fits all. But the size we chose for our daughter’s wedding, one without the trappings of Judaism, fit us very well, and I am here to tell you why.
First, some clarifications: Had our daughter asked us if there could be a chuppah or glass-breaking, we might have acquiesced out of respect for her wishes, although this would have been a concession on our part. Had she asked me to officiate at her wedding, I would have refused. But she didn’t ask me, because she both knew and understood my position: As a Conservative rabbi and member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I am not permitted to conduct intermarriages. This policy has become controversial, but I choose to follow it not because I’m a good soldier but because I endorse it.
We raised our children in a home deeply immersed in Jewish life and observance. We have always kept kosher, honored Shabbat and the festivals. When I served as a pulpit rabbi, my wife always brought our children to synagogue on Shabbat mornings. My former congregants still share memories of my kids running up to the bimah to sit on my lap during services. However, in their teenage years, my son and daughter began to separate themselves from Judaism, and eventually they became nonpracticing Jews. They still affirm their heritage and, I believe, are proud of it and of their parents’ devotion to Judaism, but living Jewishly is not on their radar. Had we always wanted her to choose a Jewish mate? Certainly, and we never hid our wishes from her. But then we were faced with the fait accompli of her choice of a husband. Initially, we were not OK with this. We felt sad and confused. Like so many others, we have struggled, knowing the challenges intermarriage presents to Jewish continuity within our family and the Jewish community. In time, we have learned to respond to her decision by striving for acceptance.
For us, there was a wisdom in keeping the ceremony secular. As we see it (and I use “we” in this essay because my wife and I agree about this), a wedding between two Jews is a consecration marked by kiddushin, or Jewish ritual sanctification. It is a sacral event distinguished by the inclusion of specific rituals meant to celebrate the union of two Jews. The word kiddushin comes from the Hebrew root K-D-Sh, or kadosh, holy. Holiness implies separation, uniqueness, something special or extraordinary. I contend that there are different types of holiness: Some follow a religious/ritual model, others may be more generically spiritual. It is particularly wonderful when the two models converge, but this is not always the case.
My background in cultural anthropology has taught me to shun cultural imperialism, and to embrace the relative value of different religions and civilizations. Thus, I can affirm the Jewish concept of kedusha while endorsing ideas of holiness taught by other religions. I can also support a more secular idea of holiness that is not defined by religious symbolism but by a deep, personal union between two people, a bond characterized by a selfless, spiritual type of love. This is the kind of spiritual connection that the biblical Song of Songs expresses in lyrical terms, a love-intoxicated relationship between two young people. Only later did this poem come to be allegorized as an expression of love between God and Israel, a necessary prerequisite for its inclusion in the biblical canon. But that is probably not what the author had in mind.
I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter who fell in love with a sweet, kind, and good-hearted man. Since they first met almost three years ago, my wife and I have seen their love grow, deepen, and mature. It has helped them to bring out the best in one another. Their transition into marriage is a consecration of their mutual love. As I see it, their wedding put a stamp of holiness on their relationship—not the Jewish type of holiness that would call for kiddushin, the Jewish ritual that is appropriate for such an occasion, but a secular and spiritual type of holiness, one that recognizes the merging of two souls meant to spend the rest of their lives together. In helping to plan our daughter’s wedding, my wife and I didn’t feel the need to mix the two. We were happy with the nonritual, secular, civil but spiritual alternative. And we believe that it worked well for everyone.
So when people asked us those questions about the omission of Jewish rituals, we decided upon a simple and effective answer. We said, “This wedding is different.” That’s all. The guiding principle here is differentiation, a separation between different realms of holiness and spirituality. By excluding Judaism from the ceremony we chose to separate one type of holy union from another. It’s as simple as that.
When Jewish festivals such as Passover or Sukkot coincide with Saturday evenings, a special Havdalah paragraph is inserted at the end of the Kiddush. While holding a cup of sacramental wine, the leader concludes with the following blessing: “Baruch ata Adonai, ha-mavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh.” Praised be you, Adonai, who separates the holy from the holy.” The blessing is meant to mark the differentiation between the holiness of the Sabbath that is ending and the holiness of the festival that is beginning at that moment. I am suggesting that “ha-mavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh” also applies in the case of our daughter’s wedding. It explains why we can appreciate one type of holiness while opting for another. The Jewish wedding is one type of holiness. An intermarriage is the recognition of a different kind of holiness separate from religion, a celebration of a loving union, a formal consecration of that love into a legally binding alliance.
While my wife and I may originally have hoped for in-marriage, my daughter chose a different path. We support her decision and we affirm the kedusha of her relationship with her new husband. We can embrace the kedusha without the kiddushin. We can celebrate a holy bond without mixing in the Jewish rituals of marriage. That was our decision, and we stand by it.
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