Thursday, June 01, 2000

A controversial column written in 2000, quite some time before I changed my position (in the fall of 2008) on officiation at interfaith marriages.  Interestingly -- to me, at least -- reading the words of this column now reveal how long ago it was that I was giving serious thought to chaning that position.  (My current stance on officiation at interfaith weddings can be found at  [I will try to post these remarks on the blog in the near future. -- MLF]

Apples and Oranges:
Same-Sex Ceremonies and Mixed Marriage
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Buffalo, New York

From the faded memories of freshman philosophy classes, come this ancient example of flawed logic: a) All men (we didn't say "human beings" yet) are mortal. b) Socrates is a man. c) All men are Socrates.

Faulty logic is common in our society. Very few people are innocent of the hidden assumptions that lead to skewed syllogisms. Errors become embedded in public discourse. Just ask the mayor's aide in Washington, DC, who had to apologize in a hail of protest for using the word "niggardly."

How dare he say something so demeaning to African Americans? Never mind that the word is Scandinavian in origin (Norwegian, to be precise), and has no connection whatsoever with the similar sounding racial epithet which, if used today, might properly force someone out of public life.

So, logic and accuracy do not always carry the day in the public square.

Perception shapes reality as much as, well, "reality" does. This is partly because emotions are at least as much a part of our public life as is logic.

(Just ask Mr. Spock, or any other conveniently located Vulcan observing human beings.)

In Jewish life, there is no more emotional issue than that of mixed marriage. A clarification of terms. Sociologists sometimes make a distinction between "mixed" marriage, in which two partners from different backgrounds are married to one another, even if one of the partners has converted to the religion of the other, and "interfaith" marriage, in which the partners continue to identify, even nominally, with different faith traditions. Rabbis tend to use these terms interchangeably, to refer only to the latter situation; Jewish tradition demands that once someone has chosen Judaism, they are, well, Jewish, and if their are two Jews in  a marriage it is no longer considered a mixed marriage, even if the couple still faces issues dealing with their families of origin.

Last month I shared with you my reaction, and my opinion, to the recent favorable vote of the Reform rabbinate in Greensboro, North Carolina regarding officiation at same-gender ceremonies, whatever those ceremonies are called ("commitment" ceremonies, affirmation ceremonies, kiddushin -- the Jewish term for marriage, or "marriage" as it is defined by the state).

Since that time, I have received numerous e-mails, and even long distance phone calls (to the woman who wanted me to call her back but never heard from me: the phone number we wrote down was a number no longer in service; this column is in part a response to your call, among others). While many reactions were supportive of what I had to say, and one, from an Orthodox woman, while disagreeing with my conclusion, was one of the most precious responses I have ever received, nevertheless a constant theme ran through many of the comments. Expressed in anger, in outrage, or in gentle puzzlement, it boils down to a simple question. The question is this: "If you will officiate at a ceremony for two Jews of the same gender, why won't you do my [fill in the blank: daughter, son, cousin, etc]'s wedding to someone who is not Jewish?

After literally years of thinking about this question, after months of frustration and exasperation at something that seems clear as day to me, I finally admitted to myself that it is a good question. It is one that deserves an answer, even if people do not like what I have to say. What follows, in part, is my attempt to answer this question, at several levels, and the challenges that such an answer has posed to my own previous positions.

Here is the first part of my initial response. I still believe this part of my response is valid, even though I see more layers to the question than I did at first. Even though I now recognize this as a good question, it is nevertheless a bad analogy. It is based on the understandable emotion of the issue, but it is flawed logic. What someone who argues this way is saying is that either you should follow tradition in all circumstances, or you should bend tradition in all circumstances. There is no room for a case by case decision, for weighing the demands of the day, balancing the needs of the people, the presence of alternatives and the availability of options with the integrity of the tradition as understood by each rabbi.

So let's be clear. These are apples and oranges. This, despite the fact that a gay friend of mine once said that he thought any marriage between a man and a woman was a mixed marriage. My wife and I had a good laugh over that. And I guess that guy with the planet-gender book thing going on is making a fortune off the very same premise. In the case of a man and a woman who want an exclusively Jewish ceremony and a Jewish home and a Jewish family there is a way they can accomplish this, within the tradition. (I'm not even going to address the growing demand for these "equal time" ceremonies, for couples who want to actively practice two authentic but occasionally contradictory faith traditions in their own lives, and therefore expect a rabbi and a priest to show up for them and not bother them with any hard questions about their spiritual lives.) If Judaism is actually important to both partners, the one who is not Jewish has a choice. He or she can become Jewish. And have a Jewish wedding of almost any kind the couple wants.

The issue is one of choice. A gay couple who want a Jewish sanctification for their relationship do not have the option of changing their sexual orientation and finding other people in order to have a traditional ceremony. Well, I suppose they do, but this option, exercised for centuries, leads to a kind of agony and misery no one would want to impose on anyone. Unless you believe that sexual identity is as much a matter of volition and choice as is spiritual identity, the comparison of interfaith couples with same-gender couples is apples and oranges. Even if there are common experiences both couples would share as "nontraditional" Jewish families.

A wedding ceremony is a coming together in unity of two people. I believe that the officiant at a wedding ceremony should stand on common ground with both participants. The common ground I am trained to stand on with a couple is that of Judaism. I can do that -- with some creativity -- with two Jews of the same gender, as well as, of course, for a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. The common ground shared by a couple of different faith traditions is that of the civil authority of the community in which they are being married. I will meet with an interfaith couple, and help them write their own ceremony, in which they, as individuals, introduce elements of their own traditions into the ceremony. But I believe that the most appropriate officiant at an interfaith wedding is a justice of the peace.

The uniter should be united with the unitees.

And yet. Unsure enough of my position, and, like most rabbis, really wanting to help people, I will refer a couple to other rabbis whose positions are different from mine. Not all rabbis who do not perform interfaith weddings will do this. But now, there is something that pulls at me anew, and I am struggling with my position once again.

I really believe that I am right in the distinction I have made between same gender couples and interfaith families. But in wanting to welcome Jewish families in all the configurations in which they come (and I absolutely believe that I have been able to create a welcoming atmosphere for interfaith couples in my congregations, just as many rabbis who would not officiate at a same sex ceremony can welcome gay couples in other ways), there is something about the argument being made by so many people linking these two issues. "Can 20,000 Frenchmen be wrong?" (I don't know the origin of the quote, nor why it leaves out French women.) Sometimes perception is reality. And maybe, just maybe, my whole position is worth rethinking.

There was a time, about a year and a half ago, where I almost changed my position. It was a day on which we had two B'nai Mitzvah. The morning service was led by the son of two Jewish parents; the afternoon service (yes, we do Havdalah B'nai Mitzvah; it is problematic as well as powerful, and the subject for another discussion) was led by the daughter of an interfaith family. At the morning service, I knew -- I just knew -- that after the service I would never see that child again. And during the afternoon Bat Mitzvah, the girl said, in her remarks, how important it was that her family came together every single Friday night, for Shabbat, for candles and wine and challah and family time. This, with her Presbyterian father sitting right behind her. I nearly changed my position on the spot. I didn't.

But I came close.

Here is why I didn't. I believe in approaching matters in principle, not governing by anecdote. For almost every story of rejection and dejection is another one of people being turned on to Judaism by the integrity of the rabbis they come into contact with. You can't make decisions by polls or anecdote alone, since how you phrase the question in a poll matters, and for every human experience of one kind you can find a story that will support another position. We just do not live in a one-policy-fits-all kind of world.

If I did, if I were to change my position on officiation at interfaith wedding ceremonies, it would be with a number of conditions. They are clear in my mind. That it be an exclusively Jewish ceremony. That the couple study Judaism -- both of them -- together, in an Introduction to Judaism class. That their home will be a Jewish home, and that any children they might be blessed with be raised as Jews. And. That they or members of their families will have been members of a synagogue (if they live in the area, then, of my synagogue) for a certain period of time. Even if I change my position, I will not be a rabbi-for-hire, nor travel far, nor use my position on this subject to pull members from other synagogues where the rabbis take a principled but different position than mine. This despite the fact that I know I could probably put my children through college if I officiated at interfaith ceremonies with no conditions. The demand for a do-absolutely-anything-I-want where I want it when I want it and with whoever else I want you to do it with is that great. But, for all of us, we must balance the accommodation we want to make with the integrity of the tradition we represent.

All that is if I change my position. I have not done so yet. For I have several fears. Among them is the reality of being called upon to judge the future Jewishness of every single couple I would come into contact with.  What if someone comes in and meets four and a half of five conditions?  What if only four, but is the daughter of the president of the congregation?  The politics and pressure surrounding this issue are real, and intense.  Maybe I should be prepared to do everything I do on a case by case basis. But I am not. Not now. Not yet.

What I do know is that we all work hard, we all struggle to do what we think is the right thing in this world, and that if it were an easy call it would not be a struggle. I know I will offend some of you by sharing these thoughts. But that was not my intent, and I hope you understand that.

I also know that when two people come together in love, Jewish or gentile, gay or straight, emotion and reason are so mixed up and upside down that you'll never see where one start and the other stops. And that in this crazy world we live in, when you find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, that is at least at some level a wonderful thing.

Whoever officiates. And whatever you call the ceremony.