Dear Rabbi Evan J. Krame,
Thank you for sharing your critical reflections on handling aspects of the interfaith wedding. I appreciate your search for a coherent framework for interfaith weddings that goes beyond “just accommodating”. As you mentioned, many a Jewish partner in an interfaith couple present the need to satisfy their relatives’ or their own desire for a token Jewish presence, and token Jewish symbols, at the ceremony. This presentation seems hardly consistent with, nor honoring of, a Rabbi’s core training and mission.
I am not sure there is a good practical solution to the specific conundrum you described regarding standards for the interfaith Ketubah signing. And perhaps there is no simple solution to the range of questions that emerge as we attempt to be inclusive and welcoming of interfaith couples.
As you said, indeed Reb Zalman was the master of compassionate creativity, and a role-model on how to handle some of these thorny questions. Reb Zalman did teach us how not to fear experimentation. I consider myself eternally blessed by the Rebbe’s example and permission to soar with creativity. But I am also remembering his teaching that experimentation is just that, experimentation. Experiments by their nature may fail, and I wonder to what degree our Renewal community’s experimentation with interfaith marriages has succeeded? Also, Reb Zalman’s creativity had its limits, of which examples abound. And furthermore, Reb Zalman was uniquely qualified to be creative and experimental given his vast knowledge-base, and unusually far-reaching vision.
In the past few years I have been gaining new meta-clarity about some of the deeper issues related to interfaith weddings. This clarity has helped me find greater coherence, some of which I will attempt to share in this letter.
The emerging realization is that interfaith-wedding incoherences, such as you shared, stem from a common misunderstanding or forgetfulness of the essential meaning of Jewishness. How can we establish a true and enduring interfaith pact when the definition of faith itself is murky? Most interfaith couples that reach out, and at times we ourselves, forget the greater context of wedding in our desire to say yes, to be inclusive, and to make a ceremony happen for folks we care about. It is very difficult to coherently negotiate the union between a Jew and a non-Jew when the involved parties have not taken the steps necessary toward maximizing clarity and intentionality around Jewish identity, as well as around Jewish ambiguities.
More often than not both the Jewish and other-faith partner have not had the inclination, nor opportunity to explore the Jewish partner’s Judaism in depth. Usually they view Judaism through the majority-culture lens, that of “religion”, which Judaism is not. Judaism is not a religion but a peoplehood, which Christianity is not. There are other paradigmatic differences between Judaism and other faiths, but let us focus for now on the more common Jewish/Christian case. The difference between being a peoplehood and being a religion is essential for the purposes of negotiating a wedding, and is utterly confusing for most of the couples I work with. I attempt to explain that Judaism is not a religion, but a people with a collective spiritual and practical purpose, which is to be a Mamlekhet Cohanim V’Goy Kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Exodus 19: 6).
Most interfaith couples (and for that matter Jewish couples too) in my judgement engage with the Jewish identity question superficially. They, erroneously view the Jewish identity question as a religious one. Since most of the couples who reach out to me identify as non-religious, they often underrate the “religious” components of the ceremony, while expecting this liberal Rabbi to provide quick, and feel-good “fixes”. Perhaps they believe that I can ease their own sense of identity ignorance and inadequacy, most especially by accommodating their desire to so remain.
While these assertions may sound judgmental of, or demeaning to interfaith couples, they are not meant to be. I am clear that the typical interfaith couple’s expectations absolutely make sense in the context of their own lives. When a couple shows up for a meeting they are not seeking to catch up on Jewish studies but are looking for a caring and understanding officiant. They typically want a master of ceremony not a teacher and certainly not a preacher. The question is how do we accommodate, and flexibly embrace without compromising the integrity of our greater rabbinic mission. Furthermore, what is our greater rabbinic mission and where and when do we set boundaries?
The instinct to set boundaries is triggered for me when the couple’s single-most focus is on their personal needs and desires for emotional and spiritual gratification absent a sense of the Jewish collective sphere and their marriage’s place within it, and potential contribution to it. Isn’t the collective Jewish space the core of the Jewish partner’s identity to begin with? More often than not the couple shows up with a superficial agenda colored by Jewish alienation along with a seemingly contradictory soul yearning, a deep quests for a connection to The Jewish mission. It is this disconnect between soul yearning and superficial selfish-interest that leaves us Rabbis dissatisfied, as I see it.
Isn’t it our job to engage at a level that is an order of magnitude higher than merely producing a momentary “religious” experience for a couple and their Jewish side of the family? There are wonderful interfaith ministers who can do an equally excellent job at producing the ceremonial “moment”. Our higher purpose, as rabbis, in my view, is to facilitate a sacred union in the context of our people’s spiritual mission - to serve the world as a priestly nation. Personally, when I am unsuccessful at engaging a couple at that level of conversation, and the expectation is that I accommodate self-centered social, esthetic, or spiritual desires, then I experience a dissonance in my own Neshama (soul). Accommodating for its own sake pains my rabbinic soul, I have come to understand.
Lately I have been studying with Rabbah Saphir Noiman of Israel, a profound teacher of Zohar, and the literature of the Ari Z”l, and Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al HaSulam). Rabbah Noiman offers a Jewish renewalist world view deeply rooted in The Sources while springing forth from a secular Israeli cultural zeitgeist. Her version of renewal is distinct from that of American Jewish Renewal with its roots in the 1960s social and spiritual tremors. I find Reb Noiman’s vision largely consistent with Reb Zalman’s, though she strongly emphasizes the core mission of "Israel” (as opposed to “Judaism”) and questions many of the old Jewish diaspora assumptions that Reb Zalman actually flowed with (perhaps accommodated). Each an authentic renewalist in his and her own cultural context.
Most of us, US Jews, as I see it now, are confused about our Jewish identity as we struggle to reconcile our historical Jewish experience with the powerful influences of an open and welcoming Christian-majority culture. As welcoming as America has been to the Jewish community, it also draws us, ever so subtly, into becoming a “religion” in our own eyes, which we are not. According to Rabbi Ashlag, an early 20th century Israeli prodigy and mystic, the emerging new paradigm is one of a spiritual “Israel” rooted in the collective mission of Mamlekhet Cohanim, a people dedicated to modeling holiness and justice.
Perhaps then a truly coherent interfaith wedding that justifies rabbinic presence and assistance is a union consciously devoted to the Mamlekhet Cohanim mission of the Jewish partner. Accommodating a couple for this purpose allows a Rabbi to remain in integrity and experience deep coherence. In this context negotiating the union of two souls, one of Israel and one not, takes on an entirely new level of integrity and creative possibilities.
Dear Rabbi Krame, I would like then to help frame the critical reflections you so aptly offered in the following way. Is it my role as a Rabbi to perpetuate an anachronistic Jewish identity, distorted by years of diaspora influence, that in essence dilutes the collective mission of “Israel"? Or is it rather my role to facilitate weddings of souls who are called to perpetuate “Mamlekhet Cohanim” toward the Tikkun of the world? (Structural creativity rooted in traditional continuity can emerge from there). I always have the option to refer the couple who is not interested in these more principled considerations of the Jewish transpersonal landscape to interfaith ministers whose sole blessed calling is the delivery of spiritually rich ceremonies. Are we tasked with offering a warm embrace to our “lost” Jewish brethren so they can feel a momentary sense of belonging? Or perhaps we are called to redefine the parameters of belonging?
A Prophecy Worth Its Fulfillment
What is a prophesy? A story about the future. And a self-fulfilling prophecy? By definition, it is a story that generates a future. This common wisdom about the self-fulfilling potential of articulated predictions, is especially apt on Passover, the holiday of “Telling”.
“Haggada”, the booklet we read during the Seder dinner, literally means “The Telling”. The instruction, clearly spelled out for us in the Torah, “...you shall tell to your child on that day (Passover)… (the story beginning with) I left Egypt” (Exodus 13: 8), teaches us that one of the core practices of the Passover seder is telling our story of origin. The Seder tradition is in essence an exercise in passing on “The Story” to our children.
Even though on Passover we tell a story about our past, yet, the way we approach the telling may indeed be self-fulfilling. As we know, a positive tone draws positive outcomes, and to the contrary a negative texture attracts and perpetuates negativity.
This is illustrated by the hidden meanings of two key Passover terms, Pesah פסח, Hebrew for Passover, and Pharaoh פרעה the name of our ancient oppressor. These Hebrew words, Pesah and Pharaoh respectively, include the phonetics and letter construct that translate as “mouth”, “Peh, פ or פה”.
The name of the festival (Pesah), when divided into its two syllables, Peh and Sah, takes on a whole new meaning. “Peh”, as we already know, means mouth and Sah means “conversation”. In other words, Pesah, a “speaking mouth”. In the context of commemorating our people’s sacred origins and cherished values, this means a mouth that speaks sacred words and meaningful speech. The term Pesah, then, joins the word “Haggada” in illustrating the centrality of storytelling on the Seder night.
The Hebrew word Pharaoh, on the other hand, when scrambled and divided into two syllables, spells the words Peh פה, mouth, and Rah רע, evil - evil mouth or evil speech.
We learn that speech, in both its positive and negative aspects, is central to the observance of Passover, as well as to how we live our lives. The former generates freedom, and the latter generates oppression and ultimately self-destruction, “The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the riders, Pharaoh’s entire army… not one of them remained” (Exodus 14: 28).
I am writing these reflections as the news-cycle continues to challenge. This morning a shooting in the Brooklyn subway system, preceded by a weekend of mass shootings around the country, in addition to the ongoing tragic war in Ukraine. A heavy cloud of escalating violence is overshadowing the holiday. The news can easily diminish our appetite for festivities or for telling stories about freedom gained, or a long journey to a promised land, a long time ago.
It is hard though to ignore the parallels between ancient and current events, a Russian Pharaoh insisting on oppressing and murdering freedom-loving Ukrainians, who are led by non other than a descendant of Moses. Our storytelling at this year’s Seder, whether in the form of reading from the Haggada held in our hands or spontaneous conversations around the Seder table, is bound to be colored by the stresses and weightiness of the news-cycle environment. Can we mitigate that? Can we consciously choose to tell stories that generate a path to a “promised land” of peace, justice, and tranquility, in addition to, if not instead of, bemoaning a complicated and distressing present?
At our Seder, can we share words that calm the fears, ease the pain and alleviate the worries? Can we Peh-Sah, converse from a place of positive vision, a place of sacred and generative consciousness? The wise author of the book of Proverbs says “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue” (Pro. 18: 21). Can we beat the Pharaoh, Peh-Rah, evil mouth, with a defiance of a higher order, weaving a prophecy, our own perhaps, a prophecy that is worthy of its fulfillment?
Yes, we can. Let us dream big about a “promised world”. As a result we will eventually pass-over these challenges as we Jews have done for over three millennia. We have been, and continue to be, the carriers, throughout time, of a vision for peace שלום.
In fact, we have lived “to tell the story”, or rather remain alive as a nation and culture because we stubbornly never ceased the telling. This is due to our intuitive knowledge, held deep down in our collective consciousness, that today’s intentional speech does become tomorrow’s better story.
Each Passover, as we ritually read and tell our story, we draw a bit closer to the fulfillment of a prophecy. Each Passover when we conclude the seder with the words, “next year in Jerusalem” we place another brick in the wall of the utopian “Holy City”, where, according to the prophet Isaiah, all peoples of the world will mingle in peace (Isaiah 56: 7). This is certainly a prophecy worth its fulfillment, let us continue to perpetuate its storyline.
Pesah Same’ah שמח, happy Passover,
Rabbi Reuben Modek
Rabbi Reuben Modek