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"It's a new world." Jewish Marriage As I See it - A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning

10/03/2023 02:13:08 PM


Bruce Alpert

"It's a new world.  A new world: love."

Perhaps you recognize those words as the opening to the song “Do You Love Me” from Fiddler on the Roof.  For those of you who don’t, let me give you a little background.  Our beloved hero, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the dairyman, has just told his wife Golde that he has yet again abrogated his paternal responsibility of choosing a suitable husband for one of their daughters, in this case their second daughter Hodel, and has instead consented to her marriage to Perchik, the young radical with whom she has fallen in love.  To Golde’s protests that Perchik is penniless, Tevye's only response is that Hodel loves him.  That’s when he tells her that they are living in a new world; a world in which marriage is defined by love.  In the song that follows, where Tevye repeatedly pesters Golde with that title question, “Do you love me?” we see the vestiges of their old world; a world of arranged marriages, where questions of love took a back seat to issues of survival.  

As a young boy, I probably listened to that song dozens if not hundreds of times, yet I could never get over my incomprehension when Tevye tells Golde that “the first time I met you was on our wedding day.”  Still, at some point, I began to understand that historically, the institution of marriage was built on economic and social foundations; with considerations of love as a secondary concern - if they were a concern at all.  That point was memorably driven home to me in rabbinical school by one of my wonderful teachers, Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, alav ha-shalom.  I cannot for the life of me remember the question I asked him.  I think it had something to do with the relationship between Jacob and one of his many wives.  But I will never forget Rabbi Zlotowitz’s response: “Mister Alpert,” he said in that rich, sonorous voice of his, “what on earth gave you the radical idea that marriage has anything to do with love?"

I suppose my generation was close enough in time to those old ways that - with a little work and imagination - you could understand how Tevye would see marriage based on love as ushering in a new world.  For my kids’ generation, however, there is nothing new here at all.  To them, the idea that marriage can be about anything but love - that it possesses, if only in vestigial forms, values that have nothing to do with love - is the relic of a dark and bigoted past.  In their world, marriages not only begin with love, they end when love ends.  

Their perspective on this issue became clear to me during the movement toward same-sex marriage.  I will admit it took me some time to wrap my head around this idea.  But for my kids, their cousins, their friends, to deny someone the right to marry the person they love based on sex is no different then denying them that right because of race.  Gay rights are their generation's civil rights cause and it is rooted in their conviction that marriage is about love.

So what about religion?  If such a thing as sex poses no obstacle to marriage, how can religion do so?  And that is what I want to talk about with you today.

You can ask our old friend Tevye just how powerful is the Jewish prohibition against interfaith marriages.  For him, to bend his ways that far is to break.  Indeed, such marriages have long been seen as a path out of Judaism, and I think understandably so.  As many of you know, I grew up with no Jewish religious education at all.  Still, the culture in which I was raised was so distinctively Jewish that to marry outside of it was, in some ways, to reject it.  

Those cultural influences have faded precipitously in the last half century.  But so too has religious identification in general.  The Pew Research Center estimates that between 2007 and 2021, the percentage of Americans who profess no religious affiliation whatsoever has increased from 16% to 29%.  As secularization has increased, so too has interfaith marriage.  Today nearly three-quarter of non-Orthodox Jews marry someone who isn’t Jewish.  

How to respond to this phenomenon is a question that has plagued the rabbinate for decades.  Orthodoxy, of course, does not accept interfaith marriage at all.  The Reform Movement, while maintaining its disapproval, first recognized its rabbis' decisions to officiate at such marriages in the 1970s.  A survey done in 1995 showed that 47% of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis performed interfaith weddings.  By 2018, that number had increased to 85%.  That same year, the Conservative movement’s legal standards committee first permitted its member rabbis to attend interfaith weddings as guests.

Today, seventeen years after it voted to permit its members to officiate at same-sex weddings, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly still prohibits them from performing interfaith weddings.  Violating that prohibition is cause for expulsion.  Seeking some means of accommodating the growing number of interfaith marriages in their communities, some Conservative rabbis have offered various blessing ceremonies both before and after the wedding to convey to the couple their welcome into the community.  The Conservative Movement has sought to develop the value of keruvah or bringing near; as in bringing near the non-Jewish spouse through appropriate means of engagement and participation.  But the movement’s fundamental opposition to interfaith marriage is becoming an ever bigger source of contention.

As for me, before going to rabbinical school, my opposition to rabbis performing interfaith weddings was primarily one of instinct.  When Terri and I got married, interfaith weddings were still not the norm, so for a rabbi to perform one seemed a bit radical.  I first gave the matter serious thought when my rabbinical school held a four-day intensive study session on the subject.  My thinking at the time was simple.  What Jews call marriage - kiddushin - can only take place between two Jews.  Under Jewish law, there is no such thing as kiddushin between a Jew and a non-Jew.  Since my rabbinic ordination only gave me authority to perform Jewish marriages, performing an interfaith marriage would mean I was acting in some other capacity than that of rabbi - as a justice of the peace, perhaps.  Obviously one can fudge these technicalities, and folks do so all the time.  Still, the logic of it all seemed irresistible: rabbis cannot perform interfaith weddings because Jewish law does not recognize them as such.

Two things got me to change my mind about this.  The first was an article that appeared in The New York Times in January of 2015.  It was about Reform rabbis who will marry same-sex couples, but not those who are interfaith.  What I got from the article was that congregants either don’t understand the distinction their rabbis are making between these two cases, or they just don’t care.  Said one Jewish woman after her rabbi refused to officiate at her wedding, not because her fiance was a woman but because she was a Catholic, “I can’t believe we were so naive and trusting… We’d understood that she perceived our relationship as legitimate and would see our marriage as legitimate.  And it really hurt us to be rejected for that reason.”

What I took from this article was how devastating it can be to feel that one has been rejected by one’s rabbi.  It got me thinking of all those young men and women by whose side I have stood on the day of their bar or bat mitzvah, blessing them with the ancient words of our priestly benediction.  What an honor it would be to be asked to join them to the one with whom they have chosen to share their life!  How could I make them understand the principle upon which I was saying no to them, especially since nearly half of them are themselves children of interfaith parents?  And how could I avoid sounding mercenary when I told them I wouldn’t perform their wedding, but I would be happy to welcome them as dues-paying members of the congregation?  

If that New York Times article got me questioning my ability to explain my position on intermarriage to a younger generation, it was a different experience that convinced me that the time for such explanations had long since passed.  This experience came much closer to home.  Some time late in her freshman year at Wesleyan, Rachel asked us if her new boyfriend could join us for lunch.  It didn't take long for us to realize that this was a serious relationship.  And it didn't take any longer for us to realize why.  Like her older sister before her, Rachel had met her bashert in college.  Unlike Sarah's Leon, Rachel's Spencer would have no way of knowing that bashert is the Yiddish word referring to the person that one is meant to marry.

I will not recite all of my younger daughter's extensive Jewish resume.  But my dearest friend and mentor Rabbi Hesch Sommer will not forgive me if I didn't mention that Rachel was the perennial winner of Temple Beth Tikvah's Golden Bagel competition testing Jewish knowledge and mitzvah participation; her only real competition coming from her previous year's score which she was always determined to beat.  Suffice it to say that I have no doubt that my daughter will raise Jewish children, and that Spencer will be by her side, supporting her all the way.

Those, indeed, were my conditions for performing their wedding.  Because I will not do for my daughter that which I would refuse a congregant, those are the conditions I intend to apply any time I am fortunate enough to be asked to officiate at a wedding: raise your children as Jewish and as Jewish only.  

As it happens, Rachel is just one of many truly thoughtful and committed Jews I know that have married outside their faith.  In each case, such marriages reflect a conviction that love is the institution's supreme value, triumphing over all others.  These young people's abiding faith is that, through love's great power, things like religious identity can be preserved and passed on even when that identity is not shared by the couple.  Are they right?

I spoke earlier about the increased secularization of our society; how a growing percentage of our population profess no religious belief at all.  Interestingly, both my limited experience and the vastly greater experience of many of my colleagues proves this out.  They tell me that by far, the  majority of interfaith marriages they have been asked to perform involve a non-Jewish spouse who is not practicing any religion.  In speaking with these couples, they often discover that the desire to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding really reflects the Jewish spouse’s desire to stay connected to their Judaism and to pass it on to their children.  Interestingly, the Pew study I cited before notes that over the years, the children of interfaith marriages are increasingly likely to identify as Jewish, compared with such children of earlier generations.

This is what I have seen in this congregation.  By my rough calculation, in my seventeen years here we have had seven Jewish couples who have had a total of sixteen Jewish children.  Over that same period we’ve had seven interfaith couples who have had thirteen Jewish children.  That is to say, one group of fourteen Jews added two new Jews to the next generation, while another group of seven Jews added six new Jews to that generation.  This, of course, is nothing more than an anecdote, but it does make a point; specifically, interfaith marriage - especially at a time when our society is becoming more secular - need not be a path out of Judaism.  Indeed, it can be a path toward Judaism’s growth, if those couples make the right choices.

I have two basic beliefs that have guided so many of my decisions as a rabbi.  The first is that every one of us - even those who profess themselves to be secular - actually has an innate need for religion.  Extremely rare is that person who can negotiate all of the challenges, all of the anxieties, all of the pain that life throws at us without a belief in something that transcends ourselves.  My second basic belief is that Judaism is the religion that meets that innate need for most people, particularly those who consider themselves secular.  It does so because, in the end, it professes little more than that there is something that transcends ourselves - something that we call God - and that our lives matter.

If those beliefs are correct, then my job as a rabbi is to keep Judaism’s doors open to all who sincerely ask me to do so.  I must not do so in a way that exposes those within to greater dangers and challenges than they already face. But for those who have done nothing more rebellious than to follow the ethos of what was, for Tevye, a new world, I feel I have to try.

And yet, how really new was Tevye's new world?  At the end of their song, he and Golde discover that they do in fact, love each other.  Indeed, what defines Tevye in all his suffering nobility is his capacity for love; for his demanding wife, for his challenging daughters, for his contentious community, and perhaps most poignantly, for his invisible God who, nevertheless, is always by his side.  If this new world in which we find ourselves is one where marriage is defined by love, then certainly Judaism must be our greatest teacher of how to deepen and strengthen that love.  Ultimately it is up to each couple to heed those teachings or to ignore them.  But let us make sure that that choice is theirs to make.

Wed, July 24 2024 18 Tammuz 5784