It was an intimate wedding at our local park where we take the dogs to run and where we throw our crusted sins into the stream each year on Rosh Hashanah. Between the couple, some of their friends and relatives, my wife, and me, we numbered just 10.
I led a niggun and shared a teaching from the Vilna Gaon about love. Blessings were made, vows and rings exchanged. The bride and groom stepped on a glass, triggering shouts of “Mazel tov!” Like many weddings I’ve done in 22 years as a rabbi, this was a beautiful seal placed upon a love that was meant to be. Sort of. For the couple, it was their long-awaited marriage. For me, it was a heart-wrenching divorce. The bride was Jewish; the groom wasn’t. To marry them, I had to leave the Conservative movement.
In 1988, while in rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, I thought I’d be the Conservative rabbi whose sons wouldn’t be subjected to circumcision and who’d one day rewrite the rules on intermarriage. Who was I to tell a Jew whom they could or couldn’t marry? I was wrong on all counts. My three sons were circumcised (which I endured with copious amounts of Manischewitz at their brises). And while I recently performed my second intermarriage, I had to leave the Conservative movement, which I’d served for 27 years, to do so.
According to my Orthodox upbringing and Conservative rabbinical education, endogamy was the key to preserving Jewish tradition and ensuring the vitality of the Jewish people. Anyone who chose otherwise was rejecting Jewish identity. I had watched my own father’s weakening connection to Judaism give way after he married his second wife, a non-Jewish woman. Though she later converted, I wonder if some tensions surrounding their intermarriage might have also pushed them toward the margins of the Jewish world where they’ve been for most of the last 38 years.
As the world changed, so did intermarriage, so did Judaism, and so did I. Society now welcomes us without asking us to diminish our identities and encourages interaction across backgrounds, enabling us to live proudly as Jews in the big, diverse world. I realized it wasn’t only inevitable that Jews would meet and fall in love with people from other communities, but also that Jews would want to enjoy those relationships without sacrificing their Jewish lives.
For the first 20 years of my rabbinate I turned away interfaith couples who asked me to marry them. I believed it my professional duty to do so. But telling someone that I won’t do their wedding because I disapproved of their life partner increasingly chafed against my calling to engage Jews with their heritage. Judaism isn’t mine to offer or withhold at will. I don’t own it. As clear as my policy was, saying no caused pain for the couple and for me. My refusal was often taken as rejection by Judaism itself, leading couples to reject Judaism in turn.
Some cared little about their Judaism and just wanted the optics of a Jewish wedding. I never struggled, and still don’t, with those calls. It’s a simple no. But those who cared about being Jewish and participating in Jewish life even as they found themselves in relationships with non-Jews started keeping me up at night. They made me think that our line in the sand serves us gatekeepers of Judaism, but refusing those couples erodes our capacity to speak with relevance and courage to the changing realities of Jewish families.
The contradiction weighed heavily—a policy that condemns Jews for living in the open society we fought, and even died for, and discovering one of the unintended, often uncontrollable consequences: falling in love. I could no longer judge someone for whom they love. I’ve been so judged. As a rabbi and as a gay woman, I could no longer defend that.
I started teaching about the evolving landscape of Jewish identity: patrilineal descent; the definition of Jewish parenthood; same-sex marriage; non-religious conversion ceremonies, secular Jewish communities, alternative Jewish synagogues, and other Jewish innovations. The trend was obvious: Lines delineating who was in/out and what was in/out were getting blurry. Jewish diversity was growing, and there was no turning back. My task wasn’t to tame the energy out there and mold it to traditional standards. Sustaining Judaism doesn’t require denying pluralism. My challenge was, and is, to harness the unmistakable, if varied, yearnings for meaning, connection, and authenticity and lead them to committed and robust Jewish lives.
The 2013 Pew study also revealed something critical: Intermarriage rates soared, yet more people wanted to integrate their Jewish identities into their intermarried families. By rejecting these couples I may hold the line on intermarriage but I was losing the opportunity to engage them and encourage their Jewish lives.
Some rabbis say, “I’m sorry I can’t officiate at your wedding but please come join my synagogue.” That’s a far cry from synagogues addressing mail only to the Jewish partner in an intermarried home. And it’s quite something that, in a recent nod to the changing Jewish family, the Conservative movement approved burying non-Jewish family members in a designated section of Jewish cemeteries. Still, while some intermarried couples will abide the rejection around the wedding and still seek out a synagogue at a later date, many won’t accept the perceived hypocrisy of those who welcome their membership dollars after someone else does the “dirty work” of (i.e., takes responsibility for) consecrating their marriage.
For a few years I wrestled with this in classes, debated with colleagues, and ruminated on long runs. But when Beth approached me, it was no longer hypothetical.
Divorced with two kids and a graduate of Jewish day school, Beth (not her real name) called me about her wedding to her non-Jewish fiancé, Joe (not his real name). I’d been her rabbi for many years: I officiated at the bar mitzvah of her son, buried her mother after a tragic death, and led her synagogue. She was a proud Jew and intended to continue living as one. Her Orthodox upbringing long in the past, her Jewish soul remained fully formed. And she and Joe were perfect together.
Though we talked conversion, Joe, raised Catholic but not practicing and also the father of two, wasn’t interested in that path. Joe supported and participated in Beth’s Jewish life but felt no need to change his identity to join his life to hers. Joe wasn’t looking for God or religion. He just wanted to marry Beth and welcome the traditions and community that came along with her.
I could have easily refused their request. But it felt misguided to turn them away. I was their rabbi before they married and would be afterward. Who was I supposed to be for the moment they came together? Couldn’t I stand at their wedding, bless their love, and convey the Jewish community’s desire for their continued involvement, while maintaining my integrity and that of Jewish tradition?
I believed I could, but that belief was hard-won.
I wouldn’t perform a Jewish ceremony for them with the traditional rituals of a ketubah, the Mosaic ring formula, and the seven wedding blessings. To me, those are historic, holy elements reserved for two Jews. But our treasure of Jewish texts has words to invoke without coopting tradition. Moreover, I’d have to consult my spiritual partners whose understanding and respect mean everything to me: mine and Andi’s children.
Were I to marry Beth and Joe, I couldn’t allow it to undermine our messages to our children about sharing their lives with another Jew, raising Jewish families and their privilege and responsibility of carrying Judaism forward.
The kids, who ranged in age from 12 to 21 and were all day-school students or alumni, were clear and consistent: It was my duty to embrace this couple, keeping them close to the Jewish community. “You have to stay close to them, Mum. You can’t just turn people away because of whom they love,” one said, capturing their shared conviction. “They’re still Jewish and part of our community.” Our kids’ position wasn’t a signal that their sense of what we expect of them had changed, but it pointed to a reality that I as a rabbi had to learn to address, lest Judaism become hopelessly irrelevant to the swelling ranks of intermarried Jews. Everyone had been touched by intermarriage. Saying no was sticking my head in the sand and missing a critical opportunity. This was the wisdom our children felt compelled to share with me.
Truthfully, before this ever came up, we’d had discussions during which our children wondered what would happen if they fell in love with non-Jews; these talks revealed the anxiety of a generation of American Jewish youth with so much freedom who also feel deep loyalty to their Judaism. It could happen to them, they knew, no matter how many years of day school they attended, no matter how traditional a home we’d had. Every conversation followed the same pattern: We’d reiterate the importance of marrying a Jew, born or converted, and concluded by reminding them that, being our children, we’d always stand with them and want above all for them to live authentically and at peace with themselves.
I realized, too, that if I set aside millennia of precedent to marry this couple because I was standing by a committed Jew who loved a non-Jew, she should affirm her ongoing Jewish devotion. I knew I would be taking a tremendous risk with both my reputation and my beliefs by marrying Beth and Joe, and I wanted to make as explicit as possible the reasons I was willing to do so. I asked Beth to increase her visibility and activity within our community to affirm her Jewish loyalties; she did. She became the chair of an important committee, a clear public role, and was careful to maintain her presence at events and services.
Next, I resigned from the Conservative movement. At 20 I had left my Orthodox home to follow my calling to be a rabbi, and I’d found spiritual and intellectual affinity with Conservative Judaism. As with all changes, there were gains and losses. It was difficult to leave the Jewish world I’d known all my life to fulfill my own Jewish aspirations. That move altered many relationships with my extended family and friends, the effects of which I still negotiate today. Finding myself again having to leave my spiritual home to be true to myself was painful. But knowing the movement’s rules forbidding rabbis from officiating at and even attending intermarriages, I had no choice but to withdraw. When speaking to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis, I explained that my membership limited my ability to serve in the way I felt could most ensure Jewish lives. She acknowledged that the Conservative movement wasn’t where I was. We sadly agreed to part ways.
The morning of the wedding I sat on my bed, frozen. Was I doing the right thing? Was I risking Jewish tradition or saving it? I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I knew that I couldn’t turn them away.
What I created with them wasn’t Kiddushin—the ceremony reserved for two Jews. Some people have challenged me and said that as a rabbi, officiating in any way makes people think it’s a Jewish wedding. However, the distinction between a Jewish wedding and what we did was made clear, most importantly, to Beth and Joe. That’s what matters to me. They know their choice was non-traditional and that there are implications to accept. But they also know that their choice won’t exclude them from the Jewish community, not from their Jewish community. Not from mine.
It felt good to have done the wedding, even as the weight of it took time to absorb. I didn’t rush out the next day and make a shingle for my door saying, “Yes, I do intermarriages.” Instead, I’d evaluate each request that came and consider the Jewish commitments of the couple before agreeing to marry them. I’ve both worked with, and turned away, other couples since.
The second call I felt compelled to answer was from a young interfaith couple wanting a Jewish home and family and requesting not only that I marry them, but that I keep learning with them, so they could grow into their shared Jewish dreams. Rather than “sprinkle some Judaism” on their marriage ceremony—which is all the Jewish bride’s mother thought she could hope for, assuming her son-in-law would never convert—I planted seeds of learning, commitment, and responsibility that, nourished with my presence at their wedding along with our ongoing study, will hopefully yield fruit for us all in the years to come. That fruit might be the husband converting to Judaism, or, at the very least, becoming a Jewishly educated non-Jewish father raising Jewish children.
The bride’s parents’ faces shone as they introduced me to friends craving not only the same Jewish spirit at their own children’s upcoming intermarriages, but also for a rabbi to articulate the expectation I had expressed during the ceremony that these couples remain connected to Judaism. They recognized I’m not out there to accommodate reality; I’m trying to transform it into meaningful Jewish lives. When the bride opened her speech at the reception by tearfully thanking me for marrying them, I knew she understood not only the journey I made, but the one I charged her and her non-Jewish husband to make too.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker once listed the skills a rabbi needs to be successful, and he noted that what almost always fails to appear on anyone’s inventory is what he called our charge to be an “ish/isha ha-Elohim”—a man or woman of God. To me this means being present to another to make manifest the singular, sacred, if messy, essence of life, transcending all particular religions and identities, and binding us to one another and to the divine. Our Jewish path to that revelation is rich, beautiful, precious, and in need of reinforcement. But its continuity will take many forms. My role is to illuminate for people their own path to ensuring Judaism’s future. Or—to paraphrase another rabbi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—the true teacher connects you with your God and then gets out of the way. As for me, I don’t want to get out of the way entirely, just enough to honor each person’s path, and help them follow it home.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes is the founder of Sha’ar Communities, which promotes an innovative, pluralistic approach to building Jewish identity by creating multiple portals into Jewish life and community.