Rabbi Albert Axelrad was far ahead of his time.
In 1985, the longtime director of the Brandeis University Hillel wrote “Meditations of a Maverick Rabbi.” Perhaps the most provocative essay in a book full of them was “Mixed Marriage and the Rabbi: A Rational Alternative to Company Policy.”
In the essay he explains why and how he officiates interfaith weddings — a full six years before the intermarriage “crisis” broke in the American Jewish community. Unsure but hopeful about the positive effects of his decision, he called for a serious sociological analysis of the impact of rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings. Twenty-three years later, his call is starting to be answered.
“Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys in the United States,” recently published by the National Center of Jewish Policy Studies at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., is the first report of its kind: It focuses on the connection between rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings and interfaith couples’ later Jewish behaviors. And the results, as those of us in the field have long suspected, are quite positive.
The author, Arnold Dashefsky, found that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as the sole officiant at their wedding were nearly 40 percent more likely to raise their children Jewish than couples who didn’t have Jewish clergy or had co-officiants. These couples were nearly three times as likely to say it was “very important” that their grandchildren be raised Jewish and significantly more likely to attend High Holy Day services. These correlations are buttressed by the results of another study, also out of the Boston area.
A recently released report drawn from the 2005 Greater Boston Community Study showed that interfaith couples raising their children Jewish were three times as likely to have a Jewish officiant at their wedding as interfaith couples who weren’t raising their children Jewish.
The authors of both reports are careful to note that their results suggest correlation, not causation. They’re right. Causation could be shown, if at all, only by following interfaith couples from their engagement to their wedding to the raising of their children. It would take years; require control groups of couples who wanted to have, but were unable to find, a rabbi; and probably cost more than $100,000. In short, it’s unlikely anyone will ever have the patience and resources to prove causation.
But, taken together, these reports suggest quite convincingly that there is a strong positive connection between rabbinic officiation and interfaith couples’ future Jewish involvement. This is significant because for many rabbis, the objection against officiating at intermarriages is less theological than it is practical: They wonder if they are truly helping an interfaith couple become more Jewishly involved, or simply serving as a hechsher to mollify an anxious parent or grandparent.
Currently, many rabbis who officiate do so for reasons that have nothing to do with Jewish law or demographics. They have to do with compassion, and a sense that every loving union — be it an in-marriage or an intermarriage — is holy and worth blessing. But many more rabbis are on the fence, and they are more pragmatic. They’ve considered officiating at intermarriages, but they want to know their involvement will have an impact on the future Jewish life of the couple. They need their decision to be good for the Jews. Ultimately, they want to know whether their involvement is aiding and abetting Jewish population decline — or promoting Jewish
No one denies that interfaith couples would welcome having more options for rabbinic officiation. We at InterfaithFamily.com currently receive more than 115 requests a month for help finding officiants, and some cannot be filled. Those rabbis that do officiate often find they have more requests than they can possibly schedule.
This mismatch between supply and demand has unfortunately led to a number of opportunists marketing their wares as Jewish officiants. We’ve all heard the stories: the clergy with dubious credentials, the multifaith minister-rabbi, the officiants who charge exorbitant fees for a brief service.
But the small number of charlatans (commonly derided as “rent-a-rabbi”) gives a bad name to the larger, quieter, less marketing-savvy group of Jewish clergy who officiate at interfaith weddings for well-considered moral or practical reasons. The more legitimate rabbis who officiate at interfaith weddings, the fewer chances there will be for the opportunists to take advantage of couples.
These new reports don’t close the book on rabbinic officiation. We encourage more sociologists and demographers to research the issue. Indeed, the Hebrew College report is, funding permitting, just the first from a multiyear study — as the couples and their children age, we hope to find out more about the links between officiation and child-rearing.
But the results do offer a nudge to those who are uncertain about officiating. Times have changed. Facts have been established. A rabbi no longer needs to be a maverick to bless an interfaith wedding.
Rabbi Lev Baesh is director of InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Jewish Clergy.