I received this inquiry recently:
Some gay friends wanted a “fully multifaith ceremony.” They felt rejected when no rabbi would agree to co-officiate, but Christian clergy would. I’m not sure how to help them address their feelings in the aftermath. — Sympathetic Friend
I answered the question in my monthly Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly.
Here’s my reply:
Your friends’ desire was to find a rabbi to co-officiate. Any rabbi they spoke with should have first explained that they don’t need a rabbi to have a Jewish wedding.
A Jewish wedding requires four things, according to halachah (Jewish law), and none of them are a rabbi. Many modern couples focus not on the four legal requirements but on the minhag (custom). Most want the chuppah, breaking the glass, dancing the hora — all of which can be incorporated into any wedding. My guess is that your friends wanted a rabbi to represent the Jewish spouse’s heritage simply by his or her presence, and to make the couple feel that Judaism validated their marriage.
Since your friends are gay, the emotional stakes became much higher. From the start it was the rabbi’s responsibility to have a kind conversation that drew out the couple’s longings and needs, before addressing the rabbi’s boundaries. Beginning like this would have allowed the couple to identify aspects of the wedding — special food, music, symbols — that they controlled and could integrate into their ceremony. That would have met their first need for the wedding: representing the Jewish spouse’s heritage.
Second was the need for Judaism to validate their wedding. American rabbis from liberal branches of Judaism are rapidly moving toward embracing same-sex marriage, and your friends told you that they were not rejected as a gay couple. Perhaps the rabbis they spoke with did not clearly affirm the authenticity of their relationship as a beshert (destined) match, something they could have done even if they did not plan to co-officiate at the wedding.
The rabbi could have opened the conversation about boundaries with an I-statement: “Since you have come to me, I must tell you my personal stand on co-officiation and multifaith ceremonies.”
All Jews, rabbis included, have the right and responsibility to study Jewish tradition and their personal values to develop a meaningful relationship with their faith. Just as your friends chose to create a relationship they hope will never be dissolved, the rabbi is in a permanent relationship with tradition/God/ethics that he or she does not desire to dissolve.
If one rabbi could not perform the wedding, so be it. But your friends apparently were turned away by many rabbis. Now they must go beyond the hurt and try to understand: What happened here, and why does Judaism generally seem so unresponsive to a “fully multifaith ceremony”?
First, our understanding of the world is often from an American, not Jewish, viewpoint. As America’s dominant faith and culture, Christianity doesn’t fear the loss of its existence. Not so for Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Native American traditions. Many Jews readily understand the Zoroastrian’s rejection of the dominant religion because we support the underdog. We forget that Judaism is right there with these minority faiths.
Most rabbis are not willing to participate in a ceremony that does not feel Jewish and in fact feels threatening. One rabbi said to me, “I don’t want to be the only Jewish thing at the wedding.”
Second, it is important to understand that religious adherents of a particular faith are making heartfelt decisions based on their own spirituality, not on our personal desires. Mixing in another religious tradition may feel expansive to us, but it may feel disrespectful to those for whom the religion is a way of life. Just as we want rabbis to respect our choices, we need to respect theirs.
This moment of rejection hurt. But now it is time for your friends to move on and grow from the experience.
Spouses will not agree with each other at every turn; they can still love each other. They can love and respect a rabbi while not agreeing. For their own sake, the couple might determine that this experience will open their eyes to how others differ from them, what their boundaries are, where those boundaries can stretch and where they cannot.
You can listen to my podcast on how to find a rabbi here.