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Out of Orthodoxy – Why This Former Orthodox Rabbi Will Officiate at Interfaith Marriages
Many may ask, even accuse, how can I, a rabbi who was once Orthodox, who served an Orthodox congregation and at the head of Orthodox educational institutions, be willing, not eager, to help couples interfaith and to (collaborate) in their weddings?
Let me open with a family story. I remember a discussion my grandmother had with my great uncle in front of me. They had both moved from the East Coast to Portland, Oregon to be with their children and grandchildren. Neither was observant in the orthodox sense of the word, but both had bought kosher meat in the east. While my grandmother continued to buy kosher meat in Portland despite the higher price, my great uncle started buying non-kosher meat as soon as he moved there. He explained that kosher meat was simply too expensive. My grandmother harshly replied that she continued to buy kosher meat because, “that’s how our parents raised us!”
That logic never made sense to me. I bought kosher food, lived in the Eruv, sent my children to an expensive day school, and fulfilled all the other costly and taxing requirements of the Halacha because I firmly believed that God had commanded me to do so. Even where tradition came into play, such as the standard derech hapsak (modus of halachic governance) of the Rama, the concepts of minhag yisrael din hu (custom of Israel has the force of law) and the like, implicit, if not implied. The obvious reasoning was that God wants you to do it this way, not that the tradition itself had any independent value apart from God’s will. My opposition at the time to intermarriage, as to any violation of Jewish Law, had nothing to do with tradition. As an Orthodox rabbi I have not, nor would I dream of, intermarrying, as it is against the Halacha. Period. What mattered to me was the desire of the deity, not a tradition, per se.
Sometime in the middle of 2006, everything changed. I had a kind of epiphany and it became clear to me that I could not stay Orthodox. I began a year and a half long journey of study and exploration, at the end of which I left the Orthodox world and now live my life as a Jewish secular humanist. I no longer buy kosher food, live in an Eruv, send my children to an expensive day school, or fulfill all the other costly and taxing requirements of Halacha because I firmly believe that no God has commanded me to do this Since my opposition to intermarriage was an integral part of my halachic life, I see no reason not to do so now. Period. Now what guides my life are the ideals of humanity. What matters is how I can help my fellow human beings and how I can make the world a better place for humanity in general. This is of the utmost importance, not the imagined wish of a deity.
I remember the first time I met Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, over some kosher ribs at Irv’s Market in Kansas City. He explained his philosophy of what he would and wouldn’t do through a story that was intended with good humor to make even the most liberal Orthodox rabbi (me) raise an eyebrow. After getting the effect he wanted, he seriously explained that he has one criterion when judging a potential act – will it further the cause of Judaism? I too have a criterion – will what I do help my people and further the cause of humanist ideals? Treating a couple with kindness and compassion, as human beings, as individuals, as they treated each other when they fell in love, is the best way to accomplish this. In fact, I can think of few better things than helping a couple make the most important day of their lives even more wonderful, especially when so many rabbis won’t do it without a lot of strings attached.
Rabbi Adam Chalom talks about the fact that all marriages are mixed marriages. People marry multiple individuals; each of us has many defining characteristics, our religion being just one of them. In this sense, even a marriage between two ultra-Orthodox Jews is a mixed marriage, and a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, who are on the same “wavelength” in many things may be less expansive, depending on the other characteristics of each individual. Amy Elkes writes, “My boyfriend and I share many of the same beliefs and values. We both believe in acting with honesty and integrity. We both honor our families and believe that children are a couple’s greatest commitment. We love to learn, travel, and explore new places. When faced with problems, no matter what kind, we turn to each other for comfort and support. In short, we don’t define ourselves by our religions alone, and as a result, we have a great common ground to stand on.” Each couple must determine if their “package” is one that will work. After all, a perfectly halachic marriage between a humanist Jew and an ultra-orthodox Jew would probably have less chance of remaining intact than a marriage between a humanist Jew and a humanist Buddhist.
The interesting thing is that, after all, if we want to invoke tradition, those of us who see nothing wrong with interfaith marriage have a pretty big leg to stand on, and in some ways a better one than those who invoke tradition. against her. After all, from the time when our ancestors, the Canaanites of the Central Highlands began to be defined as Israelites and Judahites until at least 450 BCE, beyond the standard xenophobia so common in those times, not many thought that there was really so much wrong . with mixed marriages. This was partly because they all worshiped many of the same gods, with a small group of priests in the 7th century BCE pushing the monolith of one of those particular gods, Yahweh, and trying to promote little more than standard xenophobia with their help. intermarriage bans. The latter openly complain that they really did not make much “sprinkling” at that time in the general population. This is why we see intermarriage exemplified by the legendary figures of Ruth, Ma’acha, Na’ama, Jezebel, Yeter, Uriah and many others. Prof. Baruch Halpern talks about the fact that in general this party “Yahweh Alone” rewrote history with the traditional Israeli practice condemned as foreign and against tradition and the new practice of this new party exalted as the true Israeli tradition. This is just another case where it is so true. By being open to interfaith marriage, we call upon the ancient and true traditions of our Canaanite/Israelite ancestors. Leaving behind their xenophobia, we improve these traditions.
I feel a personal connection to such a way of thinking considering myself one who will (co)work on interfaith marriages. The following is my personal guess, and I may be a little off, but certainly no more so than the traditional version of Judaism. There have been a number of fascinating studies regarding the evidence that mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome markers provide us with the development of the human race. One of the most fascinating of these studies is the study that implies that 70-80% of today’s male Kohanim (the Aaronic or Zadokite priests) are actually descended from a single male ancestor who lived 2100-3500 years ago. . Now, the consensus of archaeologists is quite clear that the Israelites and Judahites descended from the Canaanites of the Central Highlands. This means that that ancestor most likely came from within that environment. If you read between the lines of the Bible, you can see that there is a certain probability that the story of the Aaronic priesthood actually began with the election of the two rival lines of the Canaanite priesthood by the Judahite peasant leader we know as David (whom we now have evidence that they actually existed) with the Zadokite line winning. When I, a Kohen, stand before a couple and consecrate them in marriage, I see myself not only as an heir to the historical traditions of Judaism and the original Canaanites/Israelites, but also, because of my DNA, as an heir to that the ancient Canaanite priesthood, which may have officiated at many marriages of all kinds, without anyone thinking of it.
Some may say that performing interfaith marriages will destroy the Jewish people. Some, and I consider my former self to be guilty of this, even use disgusting references to a “voluntary holocaust,” as if people who wish to marry the ones they love are analogous to those who killed a third of our people. . Again Chalom is poignant in his thinking on this matter. Why not look at this as an extension of the Jewish people? For Jewish theists of all stripes, there is a need to legally define who is Jewish and who is not, as they view Jews through religious eyes. Who is a Jew is as important a subject to the more liberal Reform rabbi as it is to her Neturai Karta counterpart. For them, based on some version of Halacha, the children of the interfaith couple will be Jewish or they will not be Jewish, and this is a concern of the utmost importance. For me, Judaism is primarily a matter of culture, history, and an intellectual tradition, the positive and relevant aspects of which I embrace along with the traditions of the Enlightenment. One can be part of many different cultures. My children are three quarters Ashkenazi, and one quarter Sephardic. Have I done a disservice to the Ashkenazi culture by not marrying a fully Ashkenazi woman? My cousin married a man from China. Did she harm her children by not marrying an American-born man? Did he harm his children by not marrying a Chinese woman? Of course, to their shame, many people a generation or two ago would have answered in the affirmative. To the shame of Ultra Orthodox Judaism in Israel, they still today answer my first question in the affirmative. Do we have to be so narrow minded? Can’t we see that there is something enriching, positive, and wonderful about more people out there being heirs to a Jewish cultural, historical, and intellectual tradition, combined with whatever additional identities they have? This should be seen as a blessing, not a problem.
Our rabbis ask what does God do since he finished the heavy lifting of creation? They tell us that he does one thing – matchmaking. The idea of marriage, two separate people coming together to form a unified entity, is, when you think about it, very fantastic indeed. In our modern culture with its high divorce rate, we see how incredibly difficult it can be to keep such a package intact. Those of us who are married know that you have to keep working at it every day. If we are approached by a couple who deeply love each other, who have thought carefully about their compatibility and decided that they would like nothing more than to spend their lives together, blending their lives and their flesh into one , and they ask us to help them make this dream come true, dare we say no? I know I can’t and I won’t. I will not put any conditions on my willingness to (co)form, and I will have only one question, the question Chalom says he asks couples when they approach: “Do you love each other?” If the answer is yes, I will only have one answer, “Mazel Tov, now let’s see some dates…”
Copyright 2007 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved
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