Nine years ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Mindy, fell in love. We were in our mid-30s, and the thrill of love was not only exhilarating — it was a relief. After nearly 20 years in the dating pool, she had found The One.
The catch? He wasn’t Jewish. And while, out of respect for his Catholic parents, Rich wasn’t willing to convert, he was willing to raise his children as Jews and create a Jewish home with this woman he had come to treasure.
When they became engaged, I was thrilled to watch Mindy’s life unfold with such love and with such an amazing partner. It broke my heart to not officiate at their wedding. But I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I knew the limits.
At that point, I had been teaching in the 92nd Street Y’s Derekh Torah program, providing an introduction to Judaism for several years. The couples who sat with me for the 30-week intensive program were, like Mindy and Rich, exploring how to build a life together. Dimitri, who had grown up with a “the world hates the Jews so we have to stick together” attitude in the former Soviet Union, was engaged to a woman from Texas who had never met a Jew until moving to New York. Ofer, Israeli, was madly in love with a Southern belle who had learned to make a killer jachnun for his Saturday morning breakfast.
Not one was deterred from marrying the love of their life because they were denied rabbinic officiation. At this point, after years of involvement with the now-defunct Big Tent Judaism, and experience as a rabbinic fellow on staff at JTS, hearing what “the people” say, one thing is clear to me: When a rabbi says no, couples just find someone else to do what they were going to do anyway. We just lose the chance to bring Jewish life into that moment, or to share their joy and add to it.
When a rabbi says no, couples just find someone else to do what they were going to do anyway. We just lose the chance to bring Jewish life into that moment, or to share their joy and add to it.
I have tremendous respect for Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s decision to leave the Rabbinical Assembly [the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, which does not permit members to officiate at interfaith weddings], and I am deeply interested in hearing more of the Torah he has learned and is creating around the idea of ger toshav (resident alien). I’m excited by the rabbinic leadership of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun’s statement about its own evolving ideas on this front. But I am not convinced that’s the real story here. In my mind, the real story is that we rabbis just don’t matter very much.
Once upon a time, rabbis were the great holders of authority in Jewish communities. That is still true in many Orthodox circles today, though even in the most traditional communities the “age of the great rabbi is over,” as a piece in Haaretz recently observed.
In my mind, the real story is that we rabbis just don’t matter very much.
It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.
The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?
JCCs and synagogues are open to experimentation, and start-up Jewish organizations are exploring that question in myriad ways. At JCC Manhattan, Rabbi Jen Krause will teach a workshop this fall for engaged couples and their wedding officiants — the ones ordained online for the occasion — to help them through the process of creating a Jewish wedding that meets their needs. Our leadership at the JCC, at the board level and on my own advisory council helping steer the Center for Jewish Living, are Jews and those who love us, and the ideas and work that they do make us stronger and better. Our Circles of Welcome is a place explicitly for couples and new parents to explore questions around how they want to “do Jewish” — but really, those conversations are not limited to one program or one rabbi on staff. It’s just what “doing Jewish” means in 2017 America, and the institutions led by rabbis need to reflect that.
The real story here is that it just doesn’t matter. The march of Jewish history will go on — with or without us.
I love the Conservative movement and am proud to be a member of its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, whose members are my rabbinic community, support group, and friends. But the real story here is not about watching to see what the RA will decide, or whether Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s departure and BJ’s big decision will start a trend or not. The real story here is that it just doesn’t matter. The march of Jewish history will go on — with or without us.
At Mindy and Rich’s wedding, I stood under the chuppah with the other bridesmaids. I was careful to heed the “letter of the law” if not its spirit. I did not officiate but I did speak, and talked of the concentric circles of the hora we would soon dance together, with Mindy and Rich in the center, and their Jewish and Catholic families on the innermost circles, and friends all around. How we would dance around them, encircling them with our love and celebrating their joy with our own. All these years later, that is still what I feel our job as rabbis is. Not to judge, not to pretend we have authority where we don’t, even if our predecessors in previous generations did. Our job is to invite couples and those they love into the circle, and then step back, hold hands with our neighbors, and say: dance with us.