I read with dismay Rabbi Stephen Pearce’s opinion piece on jweekly.com last week, “Who is officiating — and why?” In it, he argues that rabbis are uniquely positioned to confer meaning upon lifecycle events like weddings, and that young people don’t know what they’re missing by not connecting to and supporting religious institutions.
Rabbi Pearce is off the mark.
When it comes to wedding ceremonies, there are numerous, compelling reasons for a couple to forgo rabbinic officiation, including to avoid the judgment often served to celebrating couples by their rabbis around their religious, life or love choices.
The choice of a wedding officiant is intensely personal. In 2018, nearly half (49 percent) of couples used a friend or relative to officiate their wedding, according to a Knot Real Weddings Study. They’re not all of unsound mind.
I offer four further counterpoints to Rabbi Pearce’s argument:
1. Judaism has always thrived through democratization and innovation. Rabbi Pearce opines: “As the representative and interpreter of an ancient tradition, an ordained minister, priest, rabbi or imam, by his or her very presence, brings an aura of sanctity to this profound lifecycle event and elevates an otherwise purely legal transaction to the level of a covenant.” Judaism was intentionally architected to democratize religious leadership; sanctity and holiness are invested by the performance of ritual acts, not by their performer. Imagine if only ordained rabbis could leyn, lead shacharit or deliver a drash. Would Rabbi Pearce similarly suggest that we should limit to rabbis the teaching of Torah, since only they can offer such unique presence and interpretation of tradition? Centuries of history argue against that.
2. Spiritual leadership, in general, and in Judaism specifically is de-professionalizing. As the trend toward religious disaffiliation deepens, fresh efforts have arisen among lay millennials and GenZers to create community connection. They’ve found homes in (and founded) alternative, dynamic, innovative religious and secular communities such as Urban Adamah, SoulCycle, Wilderness Torah, Barry’s Bootcamp, Jewish Studio Project, Bamidbar Wilderness Therapy, the Dinner Party, Morning Gloryville, Moishe House. Places where, unlike most traditional synagogues, they aren’t required to check certain pieces of their identity, politics, behavior or beliefs at the door.
Some, though certainly not all, of the leaders of these communities and efforts are ordained. All are remixing and experimenting in surprising ways. Covid-19 will further lift up new leadership doing community and spiritual jobs, as laypeople offer meditation on Instagram Live, family members lead funerals, CEOs write pastoral letters and anyone with a digital device can convene community.
3. Support of religious institutions is not obligatory. Rabbi Pearce writes: “In today’s gig economy, fewer people feel an obligation to support traditional institutions and build lasting relationships.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that a trend toward disaffiliation began decades before the emergence of the gig economy, the idea that religious institutions are somehow inherently deserving of fealty and support is perniciously flawed. People should no more feel obligated to support a synagogue that fails to meet their needs than shoppers should feel obligated to support a supermarket that fails to carry their favorite brand of snack food. Synagogues, like any organization or institution, must demonstrate value to their “customer.” The sense that they are owed something evinces their failure to do just that.
4. Virtual connection can be surprisingly meaningful. Rabbi Pearce states: “Technology creates superficial friendships easily unfriended with the touch of a screen. This results not only in loneliness, but also self-absorption, selfishness and seclusion.” Quite to the contrary, evidence from the Covid-19 shelter-in-place experience already demonstrates the opposite. Just after stay-at-home orders were issued, Sacred Design Lab began offering “family chapel” every weekday. Fifty participants of different faiths share a simple 30-minute multi-religious service of music, text and reflection. As the Rev. Sue Phillips recently wrote: “Most have not met in real life. People who never before used Zoom or shared in a small group are stunned to discover how deeply others receive their care and attention; how thoroughly presence survives in virtual spaces … [Covid-19] is teaching more people than ever before that virtual connection can be meaningful when we take care to create containers of time and intention.”
Covid-19 will accelerate weakening of the traditional religious leadership, institutions and practices on which earlier generations relied for answers. But the virus is also exposing new pathways for meaning and connection in our bruised and hurting world. Rabbinic leaders would be wise to pay attention.