Google the words interfaith, wedding and rabbi together and you get a whopping 1.1 million hits.
Perched atop this list (most are about the issues, rather than sites actually offering rabbis who do interfaith weddings) you will find Rabbi David S. Gruber, an Orthodox-ordained rabbi who has performed 60 weddings since he started doing interfaith ceremonies two years ago.
Rabbi Gruber, 37, who obviously no longer identifies as Orthodox — he describes himself instead as “secular humanist” — in some ways fits the caricature of the mercenary “have chupah, will travel” rabbi.
Interfaith? Yes. In a church? Fine. Co-offication? Sure. Ceremony on Shabbat? Will do. Unsure if you want to raise the kids Jewish? Not a problem. In Fiji? Just book him a flight and he’ll be there.
As he writes on his Web site, which appropriately has the domain www.interfaithweddingrabbi.net (interfaithweddingrabbi.com is still available for purchase), “I have one condition only — do you love each other? If the answer to that is yes, we are good to go!”
When Rabbi Gruber, who lives in a Dallas suburb, got in touch with me, I agreed to do a phone interview, but was fairly skeptical. I secretly called him Rabbi Googler.
But after our lengthy conversation, my understanding of him and his work grew more nuanced.
Born in the United States, he made aliyah with his family at age 7; growing up in Beersheva he attended Orthodox shuls and schools, and upon finishing high school he did a hesder program, combining yeshiva study with Israel Defense Forces service.
After seven years at Yeshivat Shaalvim, a prominent institution half an hour from Jerusalem, he had passed all the tests necessary to receive semicha, rabbinic ordination, from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Once ordained, Rabbi Gruber moved with his Sabra wife, Liat, to Wellington, New Zealand, where he served as the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation. From there, various Jewish education jobs took them to Overland Park, Kan., Toledo, Ohio, and finally Dallas, where Rabbi Gruber was principal of Judaic studies at Yavneh Academy, an Orthodox high school.
(So suspicious was I of Rabbi Gruber, based on my stereotypes of rabbis willing to officiate without a lengthy list of conditions, that I called both Yavneh and Sha’alvim to confirm his story.)
It was while at Yavneh that Rabbi Gruber began seriously questioning his faith.
“I was teaching an ethics course about how the Torah treats modern issues, and it was those conflicts — like how women are treated, how non-Jews are treated — that I’d always struggled with, and I was at a point where I thought there’s got to be a better answer,” he told me.
He read voraciously, consulting, for the first time, books about biblical archaeology and biblical criticism. He stopped believing God wrote the Torah. In fact, he was no longer sure he believed in God.
“It was scary,” he said. “I was a rabbi with a decade of experience and moving up the [day school career] ladder. It was like, OK, what do I do now? It wasn’t like I could even talk about it with anyone. I couldn’t even talk to my wife about it. She signed up for the yeshiva bocher; she didn’t sign up for this.”
Fortunately for Rabbi Gruber, when he finally told his wife, she took the news in stride.
“She thought about it, and we kind of progressed gradually to where we are today in our thinking,” he said. “After a while we ended up at the same place.”
They gradually explained their changed outlook to their three children. He left his job, explaining his reasons without much fanfare, and moved the family to a suburb half an hour away to start a new life.
They don’t belong to a synagogue and are no longer observant, but they speak Hebrew in the house and Rabbi Gruber, while acknowledging it is “illogical,” still can’t bring himself to eat pork or shellfish.
After working in a sales job and becoming “fairly successful,” he decided, at the suggestion of his entrepreneurial wife, to start performing interfaith weddings. As she pointed out, the sales work was “using only 10 percent of [his] training and experience.”
Thinking it over, Rabbi Gruber decided “philosophically I’m OK with that,” and sat down to fill out a form on InterfaithFamily.com, which runs a referral service matching interfaith couples with rabbis. (It fields about 130 requests per month and has a database of over 300 clergy, all of whom are required to meet several times with the couple before the ceremony.)
As he answered the questions — would he co-officiate? Would he do a Shabbat wedding? — he clarified his thinking on the issues, realizing that the numerous conditions that can be sticking points for many liberal rabbis, even those who are willing to perform interfaith weddings, weren’t issues for him.
“Once God has not commanded it; why differentiate between on Shabbat and not on Shabbat?” he asked.
To his surprise, less than half an hour after he’d submitted the online form, he got an e-mail message from InterfaithFamily.com’s Rabbi Lev Baesh, who also co-officiates and is available for Shabbat weddings.
“I don’t think originally I understood how busy I was going to get,” Rabbi Gruber said.
Indeed, the demand for rabbis who perform interfaith weddings — particularly ones without conditions — appears to be considerably greater than the supply, although this may change as the recession attracts newly unemployed clergy into the field.
Rabbi Gruber declined to tell me his fees, but Rabbi Baesh said the going rate ranges from $750 to $2,500, not including travel expenses.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Gruber and many others like him insist that it is not about the money, but about helping couples that have been rebuffed by others and, maybe, being a portal into Jewish life.
“I totally respect those rabbis” who set conditions, Rabbi Gruber said, but the problem is that “couples are falling through the cracks.”
Now that he conducts interfaith weddings, an act that is, after all, cause for expulsion from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, is he worried he’ll have his Orthodox ordination revoked?
“To the best of my knowledge, Orthodoxy doesn’t have a defrocking procedure,” he said, adding that the certificate he received from the Chief Rabbinate says only that he “attained a certain amount of knowledge and can teach and lead.”
Should he keep his title however, it will be a bit ironic, considering that the Chief Rabbinate is not only extremely anti-intermarriage, but has, of late, been revoking various Orthodox conversions to Judaism on the grounds that the convert is not sufficiently observant.
I still worry whether officiating without conditions somehow cheapens Judaism. Nonetheless, perhaps it is better to err on the side of welcoming and accepting than to, like those at the opposite end of the spectrum, become ever more stringent in defining what and who is Jewish.
Coming next month: More rabbis who officiate, with and without, conditions.
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