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Rosh Hashanah - 2012/5773

09/01/2012 09:37:44 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

I would like to introduce an important Jewish concept, a fundamental one, in fact: "a dispute in the name of heaven" - "machloket l'shem shamayim."  The Talmud in particular is filled with such disputes, because Judaism recognizes that when it comes to understanding how we ought to live in this world, what our norms and practices ought to be, there is no ultimate human authority, and so, we can share a common goal of a strong and secure Jewish future while disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, as to what will bring us there.  Perhaps the most famous such disputes were between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  The Talmud tells us that in almost every instance, the decision was made according to Beit Hillel, because of their humility, often quoting the position of Beit Shammai before their own.  As we enter any charged discussion, we would do well to remember not only that this is a "machloket l'shem shamayim", a dispute in the name of heaven, but to remember why the decisions of Beit Hillel took precedence over those of Beit Shammai.

I introduce this concept because we are facing a decision, as a congregation, about which there are strong, differing opinions. As you know, a few months ago, after a long period of intense struggle, consultation, and deep consideration, Rabbi Perlman came to the decision that she is prepared, under very specific circumstances, to stand with a couple and officiate at their Jewish wedding ceremony if they have made a commitment to establishing a Jewish home, if blessed with children, to raise them as Jews, and to participate actively in the life of the Jewish community, whether both are Jewish or only one of the two are Jewish.  Because we now have a member of our team who will, under these circumstances officiate at such a wedding ceremony, we now have a proposal before our board to have such ceremonies take place in our sanctuary. It needs to be noted once again that Rabbi Perlman and I began this conversation when she was a candidate for the position for our position, that she and I, and to a lesser extent, Cantor Doob discussed this matter every step of the way, and that Rabbi Perlman has the complete support and respect of both of us. 

Every rabbi and cantor has the right and privilege to make that decision for themselves, and whether any of us agrees or disagrees with Rabbi Perlman's decision, it is hers alone, based on her conviction that it is the best decision for ensuring a Jewish future.    While both Cantor Doob and I continue to struggle with that same question, I want to tell you that I struggle with this question almost every single day.  And while I have explained why this is my understanding and so, my practice, many times over the last few months, I want to take a  moment now to explain, one more time why it is what it is: Jewish tradition has long  understood marriage as a covenant that takes place between two Jews, grounded in the larger covenant between God and the Jewish people.  According to Jewish tradition, a Jewish wedding takes place when two Jews take each other in marriage, in the presence of two "kosher" witnesses (we will leave the definition of kosher for another time). 

If a rabbi or cantor is present, the rabbi or cantor's role, according to Jewish tradition, is to facilitate the ceremony, and not to officiate, in the sense of solemnizing the marriage, as is the case, for example, in Christian practice.  The only reason that a rabbi or cantor is authorized to officiate at a wedding in our society is because the state says so, not because of anything to do with Judaism or Jewish tradition.  No matter how I struggle, and I struggle with this question nearly every day, I have, so far, been unable to construct an understanding of my role as a rabbi that would allow me to stand as officiant with a couple that includes someone who is not Jewish.  Rabbi Perlman understands our role as rabbis and cantors in this particular arena somewhat differently, each of us without judgment of the other. 

Allow me, for a moment, to share one important thought: I want to acknowledge all of those in our community who have never formally embraced a Jewish identity, but have cast your lot with the Jewish people, have helped to establish a Jewish family, have raised Jewish children, and often,  setting aside your own religious identity and heritage to do so.  I have expressed such appreciation privately to many who are here today, but have done so publicly only on occasion, and I and our entire community need to do so more often.  Thank you.  The gift you bring to the Jewish people, which often comes with a meaningful measure of sacrifice, is one for which we can never sufficiently express our appreciation.

It is worth noting that some of the couples we are discussing do not want a rabbi or cantor, and some, quite frankly, do not even want to talk to a rabbi.   Some of them, however, not only want a rabbi to officiate at their wedding, but as you might imagine, some who grew up at Temple Isaiah want their wedding ceremony to take place here, because Temple Isaiah means so much to them, and the person to whom they are engaged is willing and often even happy to do that.  The obvious question before us, then, is: what happens when we say no?  Which is better for the Jewish future: for us to have such wedding ceremonies take place in our sanctuary, or to continue our practice as is, allowing only for wedding ceremonies between two Jews to take place in our sacred space?

There is a fair amount of research, though a lack of consensus, as to the impact of officiation by a rabbi or cantor.  What we do have is quite a bit of anecdotal information, some of it quite powerful.  During the recent series of community conversations on this topic, we heard stories from individuals and couples who had hoped to be married by the rabbi of the Jewish partner, sometimes in the synagogue in which the Jewish partner had grown up, and we heard clearly the pain and the rejection that they experienced when they were told that the answer had to be no.  Somehow, those who came to thes3e sessions and spoke about their experiences, eventually returned or worked hard to remain within the Jewish community, but many have never again set foot in those same synagogues which were once such an important part of their lives. 

We heard from some how devastating it was to be told that their wedding ceremony could not take place here at Temple Isaiah, and how, despite their continued membership in and involvement with this wonderful community, the feeling that their marriage was never fully accepted by our congregation has kept them from being as fully involved as they would otherwise have been.  I want to tell you that these conversations confirmed something that I have come to understand: When a rabbi, particularly the rabbi with one who grew up says "I am sorry, I cannot officiate at your wedding," what is almost always heard is "I am sorry, I WILL NOT officiate at your wedding." 

We also heard, not only during those conversations, but in private communications, from those who are deeply concerned that allowing such weddings to take place in our building would do more harm than good to who we are as a Jewish community and to our Jewish future.  I hope I am doing justice to those who shared these thoughts, as I note that the two specific reasons that have been articulated in opposition to the proposal: one is that having such weddings take place in our synagogue makes it difficult, if not impossible, to encourage our children to marry other Jews.  It sends the message that the community fully sanctions such marriages, and since that is acceptable to our community, there is less reason that someone should especially seek out a partner who is Jewish.  The other reason has to do with the notion of what is sacred about this space, that our sanctuary and our chapel are sacred Jewish spaces, in which only authentically Jewish rituals can and should take place, and since a Jewish wedding can only take place between two Jews, a wedding between someone who is Jewish and someone who is not Jewish, regardless of whatever commitments they make, cannot be a Jewish wedding, and cannot properly take place in our sanctuary.

We have been led to this place by sociological considerations, but that is not the whole story.  If the rate of intermarriage was somewhere around oh, say, five percent, as it was in 1965, it is unlikely that we would be having this conversation.  It is, however, over 50 percent, and consistently increasing.  No one can predict how high those the numbers will go, but if there is a tipping point at which the question demands to be asked, we have reached it.  And for Temple Isaiah, at this point in time, the question demands to be asked: should we have such wedding ceremonies take place in our sanctuary?

The numbers raise the question, "should we?"  But the numbers themselves cannot be the answer to the question, for if we were to make our determination simply based on numbers, basing our most important decisions on demography, we diminish the meaning of Torah, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, and Jewish values to the point that ultimately, there will no longer be any enterprise resembling what we know as Judaism.  The numbers force the question, but cannot drive the answer.  For if this space to have meaning, if it is to be sacred to us as a community, it is what does and does not take place in this space that defines it as sacred, and so, it is the boundaries around what does and does not take place here that determine its sacredness.

Sacredness is always determined by boundaries, by what lines that are crossed disrespect that space, that item, or that relationship, and it is the owners of that space, that item, or that relationship that determine those boundaries.   Once upon a time, weddings simply did not take place in synagogue buildings, out of concern that irreverent revelry might result in the profanation of the sanctity of the synagogue.  Really.  As a result, in many parts of the world, synagogues built courtyards specifically so that weddings could at least take place at the synagogue, if not in them.  There are, of course other ways in which the sanctity and sacredness of the sanctuary have been boundaried over time.  Not that long ago, it was unimaginable for a musical instrument to be played in a synagogue sanctuary on Shabbat, or for a woman to lead worship, let alone become a rabbi or cantor, or for a marriage ceremony of two people of the same-sex to take place in our sanctuary.  As times changed, new questions arose, which, in many cases, led to surprising new answers.  Our understanding of what constitutes the sacred boundaries of the synagogue sanctuary have evolved over time, and we are, once again, faced with another challenge as to what those boundaries ought to be.

So now, the question before us is: can the kind of Jewish wedding ceremony that is under discussion, in which there would not be participation of representatives of any other religious faiths, in which there would not be symbolism representing any other religious faiths, in which the kind of commitments that have been outlined which, to be honest, we usually do not even ask of Jewish-Jewish couples, because they are simply assumed -even when there is little evidence on which to base that assumption - can such weddings take place in our sacred space and respect not only the sanctity of the space itself, but the mission to which our synagogue, and so, our most sacred space, is dedicated?

My answer, in a word, is yes.  My answer is yes, even if, at this moment, I find that I am unable to officiate at such ceremonies myself.

Allow me to be as clear as I can possibly be: I vehemently oppose obliteration of the boundaries that define the sacredness of our community and of this sanctuary.  Without proper boundaries, we lose our raison d'être, and in time will no longer exist.  But when our boundaries become barriers, we also threaten our existence, as well as the purpose of our existence.  If we are prepared to say that the kind of weddings under discussion should not take place in our sacred space because by doing so, that we will somehow influence the choices that our children will make regarding whom they will marry, I would respectfully respond that while there was a  time when that may have been true, and while such a time may return again one day, it is certainly not the reality with which we live today. 

With very, very few exceptions, our children are going to marry (and by our children I mean our collective children) the people they choose to marry.  If any of those getting married are faced with the choice between having their wedding ceremony take place in our synagogue or not marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, what choice do you think they will make I cannot look you in the eye and say that by denying them the opportunity for their wedding to take place in the synagogue, especially if they are prepared to make exactly the kind of commitments we have described, we are increasing the likelihood of them making those choices.  In fact, it is only because these are the kinds of commitments that would be required that I can support the proposal that is before us. 

Again, I have struggled mightily with this question, but I have resolved this one: a wedding ceremony that involves two people who are prepared to commit to a Jewish household, raise Jewish children, and be part of the Jewish community, which employs only Jewish symbols and is a Jewish celebration of their marriage not only respects, but furthers our mission and the very reason that this space exists.  As long as we are mindful of maintaining the boundaries around what takes place in this space, and make our decisions accordingly, we will succeed at our sacred mission.

You might wonder how I can support such a proposal if I am not in a place where I find myself able to officiate at such ceremonies.  The simple answer is that it is not a question about my practice, but about our values as a community, and how we understand the meaning of our communal sacred space.

 My thoughts on this have, clearly, evolved over time, as I hope they will continue to evolve, without yet knowing exactly where I will wind up.   I do know that in colloquial terms, I am becoming something of a dinosaur.  More and more rabbis and cantors are, under varying circumstances, officiating at such ceremonies, including many of my generation.  As for those who will be leading us in the future, I can tell you that according to Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College, our Reform movement seminary, 85 percent of the current student body expects to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies after ordination.  85 percent. That statistic does not obligate us, but it will likely, in time, inform the reality of almost all of our Reform synagogues, and frankly, if history is any guide, it will only be a matter of time before such weddings begin to take place in Conservative synagogues as well.  The men and women who are studying to be rabbis and cantors today are no less committed to Judaism and the Jewish future than any of us who have taken on those titles before, but they are aware of the fact that they are living in a different Jewish world than has ever existed before, and are responding accordingly.

Sometime between now and Yom Kippur, I expect to send out an email announcing a few times that I will be in my study, specifically to sit down with those who would like to discuss this topic further, in a more intimate, parlor meeting kind of setting, rather than the larger conversations that have taken place up to this point.  While I have no vote at our board meetings, I do have a voice, and when this proposal is raised again at our next board meeting, I would like to be certain that I can speak with as much clarity as possible about what I have heard from the members of this congregation.  I would like to offer that opportunity to those who are interested in further conversation, as well as further clarification of my position.

In truth, I am, at the moment, less concerned about the decision we ultimately make, and more concerned about where the process leads us in terms of our relationships with one another.  So I want to remind us all of something else that the Talmud teaches:  despite their disagreements and disputes, more than 300 in all, the sons and daughters of Hillel and Shammai never refrained from marrying one another.  They never allowed their differences to divide them, to keep them from being one unified Jewish community, because they understood that their goal and their mission was the same, even if they disagreed about how to reach it.  While we may disagree about how we get there, may we always agree that , above all, a strong, vibrant Jewish future is our mission, our goal, and our purpose.

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say, amen.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782