SO YOU’VE JUST gotten engaged…mazel tov! By now you’ve probably told your family and friends and heard the question “But is he Jewish?” many times over. “No, I’m a bad Jew, he’s Catholic” you may have answered. And then the dreaded follow-up question: “Is she going to convert?” Add this to the list of questions swirling around in your own head about who’s going to officiate, where’s the venue, what’s the date, who’s doing the flowers, the catering, etc.. You are probably feeling pretty overwhelmed. As a rabbi who officiates a lot of weddings (mostly interfaith), let me offer you some helpful guidance as you begin your journey from engagement to marriage.
First, you may hear yourself identifying as a “bad Jew” for being in an interfaith marriage. Marrying someone of a different religious background does not make you a “bad Jew.” In fact, I do not believe there is any such thing as a “bad Jew.” While there is a spectrum of Jewish observance through the varying Jewish movements, there is no spectrum of “goodness” and Jewish identity. Yes, there are Bad Jews—those people who murder, rape, abuse power with violence—and who also happen to be Jewish. But their badness has nothing to do with their Jewish observance, and neither does yours.
In my work with interfaith families, I have a lot of conversations with parents of children marrying people of different religious backgrounds. The question I hear most often is, “What did I do wrong that my child isn’t marrying a Jew?” This question hits me hard because it carries so much shame in a time when there should be joy. I try to rephrase the question to be about what they did right and not what they did wrong. They raised a child capable of love and commitment. They raised a child in a way that they see past differences and connect to the soul of another human being. They raised a child who embraces his or her partner’s different background while still maintaining his or her own identity. They have the opportunity to widen the family’s religious and cultural experiences while strengthening those traditions they hold sacred. Their child is marrying the love of his or her life! Rejoice!
Now that you found the right partner and your parents are (mostly) OK with your choice, it’s time to start planning the wedding. You will be making decisions about a lot of things, but your officiant represents one of the most important choices. Finding the right person to officiate your wedding can be a stressful and disheartening experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Think about what your ceremony will feel like and which traditions you want represented. Knowing the answer to that will help you decide if you want just a rabbi, a rabbi and a clergyperson from another faith, or no clergy at all.
When people come to me for help with officiating their wedding, one of the first questions I ask is, “Why did you choose a rabbi?” I ask this question no matter what religious backgrounds the couple comes from because I find that it helps clarify the role and meaning of having a rabbi officiate. Knowing why you have a rabbi officiating your wedding helps you work with the rabbi to create an intentional and meaningful ceremony steeped in tradition. If you want to have a meaningful ceremony, talking about your intentions can help you own your decision to have a rabbi officiate. Having a rabbi officiate your wedding doesn’t just have to be a box to check off or a way to feel that the wedding is “legitimate.” In fact, according to Jewish tradition, you don’t need to have a rabbi officiate at all. For interfaith couples, finding a rabbi to officiate a wedding can be a challenge, and finding the right rabbi who can create a meaningful ceremony is an amazing experience. Starting with intention helps you get there, bringing you on the path to not only a beautiful ceremony that reflects both of you, but a marriage in which both individuals feel fully represented.
The most meaningful wedding ceremonies are officiated by someone who knows the couple well, is comfortable speaking in front of a lot of people, and is well acquainted with the traditions and rituals she is leading. A friend or secular officiant can absolutely meet these qualifications. However, there is more to a wedding than the wedding day. I tell my couples that the better I know them, the more meaningful the ceremony will be. And that our conversations work towards a bigger purpose than creating a beautiful wedding: a strong marriage.
Working with a rabbi towards marriage isn’t just about planning the ceremony, but preparing for your life together. What does preparation for marriage with a rabbi look like? Be prepared to have conversations you may not have had before. Preparing for a wedding is great practice for preparing for marriage. By having difficult conversations about money, family, religion, sex, you are practicing in an extremely intense way for a lifetime of difficult conversations. Rabbis are trained and experienced in facilitating these conversations with premarital couples. Once you’ve found the right officiant, worked through some tough conversations, and made some difficult decisions, you will be ready to stand in front of your family and friends and begin the next step of your lives together.
Marriage is about the coming together of two people to walk through life’s difficulties and joys. In today’s world, those two people will almost always have had different life experiences, including religions. Shed the shame of being a “bad Jew” and instead celebrate and embrace your differences while finding help along the way. Mazel Tov and congrats, as you embark on one of life’s most exciting journeys!
Rabbi Keara Stein lives in Pasadena and works with interfaith couples and families to engage in Jewish life.