How to Find a Rabbi for Your Interfaith Wedding by Rabbi David Gruber

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Finding a Rabbi – Study after study shows that at least 50% of American Jews are marrying non-Jews. Thankfully, this has caused the liberal wings of Judaism – the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and to some extent the Conservative movement – to become much more inclusive towards interfaith couples and families. Some rabbis now routinely and openly emphasize the importance of welcoming interfaith families. In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that many Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are actually dismantling programs geared specifically towards interfaith couples and families, because such families are so well integrated into congregations that they no longer want or ask for programs especially for them. Most telling perhaps is the fact that members of the lay synagogue leadership frequently are intermarried themselves. There does remain one major issue, even in the more liberal movements, regarding which most congregations and rabbis remain fairly traditional, and that is officiating at an interfaith wedding.

Halacha, or Jewish Law, bans interfaith marriage, and does not recognize such marriages as valid. Therefore, all Orthodox and Conservative rabbis who recognize the binding authority of Halacha refrain from officiating at interfaith weddings. Even though their movements do not always recognize the binding authority of Halacha, most Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis tend to defer to it on this issue. Some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at interfaith weddings, but in agreeing to do so, they may attach various conditions to their willingness to officiate.

For example, they may agree to marry an interfaith couple, but they will not officiate on the Sabbath. They may refuse to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy, or require the couple to agree to raise their children within the Jewish faith. The rabbis may also ask the couple to join their congregation, participate in courses on Judaism and/or attend pre-marital counseling sessions. Almost all rabbis who will officiate at interfaith weddings will not officiate in a church, or allow any mention of Jesus in the ceremony. For some couples, these conditions present no problems, but other couples may be less ready to agree to them, and for the latter group, it can be very difficult to find a rabbi who will marry them.

Still, there are a small number of rabbis out there who will officiate for you. Some are bona fide rabbis. But there are also individuals in the market place who call themselves rabbis and who officiate at interfaith weddings, even though they have not undergone any type of serious training, and indeed have very little knowledge. They have obtained credentials from unaccredited institutions, and usually spend very little time studying much of anything. Just as you would not want your attorney, doctor, plumber or mechanic to be someone who has earned his or her credentials on the fly, it is probably not a good idea to have an officiating rabbi who did! It is not hard to distinguish between the bona fide rabbis and those who are not. If a person’s rabbinic ordination was obtained after a rigorous course of study lasting at least five years, his or her ordination is most likely acceptable. If a person’s “ordination” followed something less rigorous – there are actual cases of people becoming “ordained” after studying for just a few weeks, or taking some type of take home test – buyer beware.

Finding the Rabbi – Once you find a rabbi, you want to make sure that that rabbi is the rabbi for you. You don’t just want a rabbi who is willing to officiate; you want the right rabbi, the one who will officiate a ceremony that will leave you and your families with pleasant and wonderful lasting memories. Compromising on quality is just not an option. So what should you look for to make sure you have found the right person?

The most important thing is to make sure that you find a rabbi who is truly interested in you as a couple, and makes it clear in word and action that the wedding is about you and the celebration of your love for each other. He or she should take time to get to know you, as individuals and as a couple. After all, how can a wedding ceremony be personalized to who you are, if your rabbi does not take the time to get to know you as persons? He or she should be someone who is warm, friendly, truly passionate about people; someone with a good sense of humor who does not take him or herself too seriously. This will help him or her create, with you, a ceremony that has that sought-after blend of seriousness and lightheartedness, something that sometimes eludes officiants.

The ideal rabbi is the one who will build the ceremony around you, not try to fit or “shoehorn” you into a preconceived notion of a ceremony that he or she already has. The right rabbi is someone whom you won’t hesitate to tell what you want, and with whom you feel comfortable sharing what you don’t want. He or she should be there for you throughout the process of preparation and obviously the wedding itself, and should be just an email or a phone call away. One rabbi personally commits to couples that he will return emails or phone calls within 24 hours (unless he is officiating outside the country), since he understands that planning a wedding can be sometimes stressful, and that prompt replies can help alleviate some of the stress.

Creating the Ceremony of Your Dreams with Your Rabbi – The rabbi should have a plan for the preparation and creation of your ceremony, and should be able to lay it out clearly for you. You want to feel confident that the rabbi will stay on top of things. At the same time, he or she needs to be flexible enough to adjust that plan to your needs and your schedule, while keeping the ball rolling, all the same.

Ideally, this plan should consist of three or four meetings, where you and your rabbi carefully develop your ceremony. The first meeting should focus, first and foremost, on getting to know each other. It should be at that time that the rabbi lays out that clear plan for the development of the ceremony. That first meeting should involve many open-ended questions, general and specific, about what you want to see in your ceremony. It is a good sign if you answer many of these questions with, “Wow, that is a good question; we need to think about that,” because that means that you will think about it! It is really helpful if the rabbi can supply you with a summary of the meeting that highlights those items you wanted to think about. The rabbi should also suggest a book or two that can help you learn more about interfaith ceremonies, to assist you in developing your ceremony together with your rabbi.

During the meetings that follow, as you work together with the rabbi, with his or her guidance, things should gradually gel and fall into place. In the final meeting you should be able to together review the entire ceremony, with a written copy, based on your discussions, in front of you. (One rabbi tries to email a draft to couples a few weeks before the final meeting, so they can actually begin this discussion by email in advance of the final meeting.) You should feel comfortable to make any changes, additions or deletions that you feel are needed. The rabbi should also discuss technical details and pointers, so there are no surprises, and your ceremony goes smoothly and seamlessly.

If you choose to have a co-officiant, you will of course want to meet with him or her as well. The rabbi should also make sure that the co-officiant is part and parcel of the ceremony planning process. (Some co-officiants have never co-officiated with a rabbi before.) You may even want to have one meeting with both co-officiants together.

The Day of Your Dreams, and How Your Rabbi Can Help Make It Magical – First of all, an important technical note – it should be obvious to your rabbi that he or she should arrive about 45-60 minutes before the ceremony. This enables him or her to make sure that everything is in order. Hopefully, there are no last minute surprises, but if there are, this will give the rabbi sufficient time to deal with these.

It is difficult to describe exactly what the day of your dreams will look like, since, especially if your rabbi followed the above steps, your day will look different from every other bride and groom’s day. That said, there a number of general characteristics that ideally every ceremony will include. It is important that no one be “in the dark,” and so the rabbi should organically incorporate explanations of the rituals and customs into the ceremony. That way everyone will feel comfortable. Blessings in Hebrew, especially when chanted (and then translated into English), add a unique flavor and rhythm to the ceremony. There should be, as was mentioned above, just the right mix of seriousness and lightheartedness. There should be tears of joy, and also hearty laughter. Since your rabbi spent time with you and got to know you, he or she will be able to share some personal and meaningful remarks with you and your family and friends. Obviously, almost every ceremony will include the fundamental customs associated with a wedding ceremony – readings of your choice, vows, rings and the breaking of the glass.

One rabbi has a number of specific components that he loves to include, though he always reminds couples that what matters is what they like, not what he likes, as it their wedding, not his. He loves chanting the traditional Seven Wedding Blessings for the bride and the groom in Hebrew, interspersed with seven English blessings of the couple’s choice, that speak to who they are as a couple. The English blessings may be recited by him, his co-officiant, if he has one, or by a family friend or friends. One of the warmest moments in almost every ceremony he officiates is the Priestly Blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord shine his countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; may the Lord look upon you with favor and grant you peace.” Sometimes, he will wrap the couple in my prayer shawl, and chant the ancient blessings in a soulful tune, just as he imagines his great ancestor, the mythical Aaron, the brother of Moses, did, as the legendary first High Priest.

Of course many people’s favorite ritual is the breaking of the glass. Let me elaborate on how one rabbi does with that ritual. He almost always begin the last part of the ceremony by mentioning that when people hear that he does weddings, they usually say to him “You (or sometimes y’all) break a glass, right?” Many times it is the only thing they know about a Jewish wedding. You would think, therefore, that we would know the reason why we break a glass. As is typical of many of the rituals of the Jewish people, there are about fifteen or twenty reasons for this ritual, which really means that none are true. He then says that following “extensive Talmudic research,” he has found the real reason – the groom breaks the glass to symbolize that this is the last time the husband will be able to put his foot down! This always elicits a hearty laugh. He then usually follows this comment with a serious explanation, one that speaks to the couple and their hopes and dreams.

The most wonderful explanation for the breaking of the glass, and one that most couples end up choosing, is that at an interfaith wedding the shattering of the glass symbolizes the breaking down of barriers between peoples of different cultures and different faiths. We look to the bride and the groom, and hope that the day will come when everyone in the whole world will learn from them, and love each other, regardless of faith and culture. It is especially important to end this way, as couples hear from enough people that there is something wrong with what they are doing. Therefore, it is very fitting to end their ceremony with a reminder to them, and to everyone, that it is actually the opposite – we should all be learning from them and their example. – Rabbi David Gruber has officiated more than 50 weddings for interfaith couples in the last two years, in or from more than 7 countries and 20 states.

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September 25, 2014 |

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