My friend and colleague Rabbi Leon Morris has made a provocative call for a moratorium on weddings performed before the end of Shabbat on Saturday evening. He argues that such weddings undermine the sanctity of Shabbat and send the wrong message about the demands of Jewish commitment.
While I applaud Rabbi Morris’s commitment to Shabbat and honoring Jewish customs, acting on his proposal would not only alienate the vast majority of American Jews, but it would constitute a tremendous abdication on the part of Reform rabbis to engage our members and honor the spirit of Reform Judaism.
Let me start with two assumptions. First, celebrating and honoring Shabbat is an absolutely essential component of Jewish life. We American Jews need Shabbat, as it guides us to live by Jewish time and provides a necessary respite amidst the business of everyday life. It also, as Rabbi Morris eloquently argues, serves as the basis for an environmental ethic that can help check on our human efforts to dominate the natural world.
Second, Reform Judaism demands an engagement with Jewish law, but it does not insist on its binding nature. As Mordecai Kaplan aptly put it, Halacha has a vote but not a veto. Rather, what makes Reform Judaism unique and essential to the vitality of Jewish life is its insistence that we look at Jewish practice in light of the challenges and norms of contemporary life.
The challenge, then, is to arrive at a place where we can honor Shabbat within the context of American life. It is not an either-or choice. We do not need to self-segregate in order to live fulfilling and committed Jewish lives.
To insist that a marriage ceremony take place at 9:00 pm on a Saturday night rather than 6:00 pm, as such a moratorium would demand, would do exactly that. It would define Shabbat so stringently as to communicate that a three-hour difference constitutes the end-all and be-all of a Jewish wedding. Is that the message we want to send?
A wedding ceremony is an opportunity to create a Jewish memory at a critical moment in a couple’s life. It is a chance to welcome a couple into the Jewish people with open arms and open hearts. It is the last area where we should seek to impose an obstacle that does not violate the spirit of Shabbat.
Rather, as Rabbi Eugene Mihaly wrote in a seminal responsum on this topic in 1976, a wedding ceremony can provide the oneg (joy) that is so central to Shabbat observance. He argues, "The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance."
We do not have to go as far as Mihaly does in encouraging weddings on Shabbat to appreciate his point. A marriage ceremony provides the joy and sense of kedusha (holiness) that is central to Shabbat. To prohibit them based on halachic norms that, as Rabbi Morris points out, view marriage as a purchase constitutes the overly rigid Orthodoxy that Reform Judaism was meant to challenge.
The Talmud instructs us to "Puk Hazei Mai Amma Davar— go see what the people are doing" when we need to interpret a law or understand a principle. We do not have to draw take this point to its logical conclusion, as there are places where leaders need to challenge the dominant practices of the community. Yet, Saturday evening weddings are not one of them. Many couples have a strong commitment to Jewish life and have legitimate concerns that lead them to get married a few hours before sunset on a Saturday evening. Are we going to turn them away?
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL