Strong opposition to rabbi-minister weddings, but some cracks appearing.
A ketubah behind them, the bride and groom stood under a chupah with a rabbi, listened to friends recite the Sheva Brachot — and at the end of the ceremony, the tallit-wearing groom stepped on a glass.
But Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s long-awaited wedding Saturday night was not your average Jewish ceremony.
That’s not just because the parents held aloft on chairs at the reception included a former U.S. president, the current U.S. secretary of state and two former members of Congress.
And it wasn’t only because the ceremony occurred before Shabbat’s end. It was also because Rabbi James Ponet (pronounced Po-NET), Hebrew Union College-ordained and the longtime director of Yale University’s Slifka Center for Jewish Life, co-officiated alongside Rev. William Shillady, a Methodist minister.
Even as the number of liberal rabbis willing to preside at weddings of Jews to gentiles appears to be growing, co-officiation with clergy of another faith, while hardly unheard of, remains taboo.
Indeed, many, if not most, rabbis who officiate at intermarriages do so only under certain conditions: the ceremony must be exclusively Jewish, and couples are often required to commit to raising Jewish children, taking a Judaism class together and, in some cases, joining a synagogue.
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, of which Rabbi Ponet is a member, officially opposes co-officiating, as does the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, although it is rare for either to discipline members who do so. (Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are forbidden from officiating at all interfaith weddings.)
Just this spring, the CCAR’s Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage for the Reform Rabbi reiterated its opposition to co-officiation (and to Shabbat weddings) in a report that overall has been interpreted as creating a more comfortable, accepting atmosphere for rabbis who officiate at interfaith weddings. While noting both that “intermarriage is a given” and that “debating the question of rabbis officiating at ceremonies of couples who are intermarrying is simply not a productive conversation,” the March 2010 task force report said: “There is an underlying respect for the integrity of colleagues across a broad spectrum of ideology and practice so long as it is consistent with the CCAR Code of Ethics and policies against officiation on Shabbat and co-officiation with non-Jewish clergy.”
Rabbi Ponet did not respond to requests for an interview.
“The mainstream of the Reform rabbinate is not with co-officiation yet,” says Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which since 2007 has run a free referral service for interfaith couples seeking clergy to officiate at their wedding.
Despite the mainstream opposition, 40 percent of the almost 400 rabbis and cantors in IFF’s database (some ordained by the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, some by nondenominational ones) are willing to co-officiate, and in the past six months 31.5 percent of the approximately 120 couples each month using the service have sought someone to co-officiate. (In 2009, 43 percent of couples contacting IFF were seeking someone to co-officiate.)
“I’ve had Reform rabbis say they don’t want to have anything to do with us because our referral service” provides co-officiating rabbis to those couples who want them, Case says. “I think it’s really significant that a highly regarded rabbi would be willing to co-officiate and before Shabbat was over. I think it’s positive too. Maybe it will have some influence.”
Asked to explain the CCAR’s repudiation of co-officiation, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, the group’s president says, “The rabbi’s presence and officiation at a wedding is reflective of a commitment on the part of the couple to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family, so co-officiation with clergy of another faith does not reflect that commit. It reflects, rather, indecision on the part of the couple.”
Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus says that the policy against co-officiation “has no teeth in it” and “was meant to be a guideline and not a punitive regulation.” She declined to comment on Rabbi Ponet and says the CCAR has no plans to publicly rebuke him.
“Sociologically it’s remarkable that the daughter of a president of the U.S. should have a ceremony that had so many public Jewish elements to it, that rather than mainstream America being afraid or opposed, people seem to be embracing it,” she says. “That’s newsworthy, and on some level you could think about it as good for the Jews. But religiously it’s problematic because [the bride and groom are] trying to create a both and there’s no such thing as a both.”
Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, says his movement’s policy against co-officiation is “very much a reflection of the Reconstructionist approach to two things: our focus on Jewish peoplehood and what [movement founder Rabbi Mordechai] Kaplan called ‘sancta’ — the symbols of Jewish tradition; that is things whose meaning makes sense in a Jewish context and outside the Jewish context the meaning becomes confused.
“In our organization, the rituals of a Jewish wedding, including the presence of a rabbi, are understood as highly symbolic,” Rabbi Hirsh adds. “Since our approach to intermarriage is to support in the building of a Jewish home, having a co-officiated ceremony points in the direction of a home that won’t be primarily Jewish.”
Even some rabbis who will co-officiate alongside clergy of Eastern religions, like Buddhism or Hinduism, are reluctant to participate alongside a Christian. Rev. Shillady, who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, is executive director of the United Methodist City Society, a social service agency for the Methodist Church in New York City.
While co-officiating can be an inflammatory issue, it’s not always clearly defined, notes the Reconstructionists’ Rabbi Hirsh. Acknowledging that his group’s 10-year-old policy on co-officiating is “nuanced,” Rabbi Hirsh notes there are many gray areas, such as when clergy offer a blessing or psalm at the end of the ceremony or deliver a speech at the reception.
The details of each clergy member’s role in the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, particularly what specific elements of Christian tradition were incorporated, have not been made public yet.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group that seeks to make the Jewish community more welcoming and to engage all unaffiliated Jews, including the intermarried, says “the common assumption is that when a couple wishes a rabbi to co-officiate, the couple is going to bring up the future children in two faiths or the couple has not made a decision.”
However, says Rabbi Olitzky, who is Reform, “That’s probably a premature conclusion to make.”
“I think there are lots of considerations that are undertaken when you invite an officiant to a wedding, and the officiant is there to meet a lot of different people’s needs, not the least of which are the couple’s parents.”
While he says he does not officiate at any life-cycle events because he is not a pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Olitzky supports “the right of rabbis to choose to do what they feel in their good conscience is best for the Jewish people and best for the couple. It’s OK for me that there are rabbis who officiate [at interfaith weddings] and those who don’t, as well as those who co-officiate and those who don’t co-officiate. I believe there should be a variety of options available for couples.”
While Rabbi Ponet was not available to be interviewed, other rabbis who co-officiate say they do it to be welcoming and with the hope that if couples have a positive Jewish experience at their wedding, they may later seek to become more deeply engaged in Judaism.
“I feel that I’m doing God’s work: God accepts all people, and Judaism should too,” says Rabbi Jill Hausman, the spiritual leader of the Actors Temple, a nondenominational synagogue in Midtown Manhattan and former cantor and assistant rabbi at Boro Park Progressive, a Reform temple in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Hausman, who was ordained through Rabbinical Seminary International and is not affiliated with any movement, says “Judaism is really shooting itself in the foot when it turns people away.
“I love to welcome people to Judaism and show them how beautiful the traditions are,” she adds. “Also to reassure them that whatever path to God they choose, that’s what’s important. Not one path or another, but that they choose a path. A priest I did a wedding with turned to me and said, ‘We have to remember that God isn’t Jewish or Catholic.’”
Lev Baesh, a Reform rabbi and CCAR member who is the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s resource center for Jewish clergy and oversees the referral service, says he co-officiates because, “My view is that any Jew who wants Jewish ritual in their life should have it.”
Even if a couple hasn’t yet decided whether or not to have a Jewish household, “the wedding is a great opportunity to show Judaism is something that has meaning and value for them.”
The hope is that if they have a good experience, then “down the road” these couples will get more engaged in Jewish life.
“I know that I’m not just hoping this, because I also do a lot of baby namings,” Rabbi Baesh says.
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