Finding a Rabbi

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Earlier this week I blogged about non-Orthodox couples choosing to have an Orthodox rabbi officiate at their weddings. This post has evoked quite a few comments.

One of our readers asked:

A real community, that is a community in which a person can be a part and not just a client, is one that shares a common outlook and concern and lifestyle. Did this couple make the effort to find such a community? Did they seek out a Rabbi whose views and Jewish outlook were similar to their own?

This got me thinking. In fact all three couples that I know who are being married by this Chabad rabbi are very active in their respective communities: Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. How is it that they don’t have an “in house” rabbi, one of their same affiliation, to perform the ceremony?

The answer is quite simple. In today’s Jewish community, one can be incredibly active and not have a close relationship with any rabbis. With lay-led minyanim, robust cultural activities, and social action groups, one can be quite engaged with Judaism without stepping foot into a sanctuary.

At the same time, synagogue membership across the Jewish community is down. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001, less than half of Jews are members of synagogues. This number decreases for people without children (and therefore not needing a religious school). The rabbis with whom young couples interact are generally those specifically doing outreach work with young adults. Chabad falls into the category and arguably dominates it.

While couples can turn to a childhood rabbi, the person frequently only knows half of the couple; fewer couples are from the same hometown thanks to the internet and a more globalized society. Also that rabbi may remember you simply as the trouble-maker in the back of the religious school classroom. If the goal if to have a meaningful ceremony, that might be the worst of all the options.

Posted on August 16, 2007

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2 thoughts on “Finding a Rabbi

  1. jskobin

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. In our internet-driven society, so much of the world is changing at higher rate than when our parents were our age. We don’t have to go to shul for answers to our religious questions, because we can look them up online. We don’t have to go to friday night services, when our friends lead a minyan in their living rooms. It totally makes sense as to why so many people of our generation aren’t close to their respective rabbis. And you are right… at least in my experience, the rabbis from Chabad are the most outspoken when it comes to engaging an otherwise apathetic youth to live Jewishly.

    On a personal level, the Orthodox Rabbi my groom-to-be and I have chosen to officiate our wedding was the Chabad rabbi where we went to college. He is the only Rabbi that knows us both as adults, and watched us grow as a couple. He is a personal friend and counselor to my future husband, but he has never tried to sway him to living the Lubovitch lifestyle (with the one exception being our trip to Israel via a Chabad organization). He accepts us and enjoys us as we are. If, per chance, a Reform or Conservative Rabbi put forth the same effort to get to know us better, or invite us over for Shabbat dinner, perhaps we’d be having them officiate.

  2. ZeddZull

    There is no question that congregational Rabbis and the congregations that they lead have done an amazingly bad job of engaging young singles and couples. There are several reasons that this is true and none of them have to do with not caring about this segment of the population.

    * Dealing with the congregation that they have is a full-time job. Trying to reach out to the unengaged is simply one more demand on their time.
    * The unengaged are unengaged for a reason – they aren’t particularly interested or open to congregational/community affiliation
    * Lay-led minyanim are very attractive. They provide a small, close-knit, self-reliant community in the midst of a largely impersonal world
    * The explosion of Jewish resources have dramatically reduced the need for a Rabbi to teach. Access to material of all sorts allows for self-education that reduces the role of the Rabbi to a limited number of ritual events.

    In fact, it may be that a wedding is the last ritual that calls for a Rabbi. Most states restrict the ability to marry a couple to clergy and certain government officials (mayors, magistrates, judges, etc). A couple who wants a religious ceremony needs a Rabbi to officiate, if only to achieve the civil marriage status. A couple who is concerned with the Halachic status of their marriage may want a Rabbi to ensure that they have completed the marriage properly, but a Rabbi is not required, only recommended.

    I think that the bigger issue is whether a marriage is only a personal event or whether it is an event that has community implications. Whether in the context of a formal congregation or as part of a small Havurah, a marriage can bring incredible joy, strength, beauty, and love to a community. And the community can strengthen the marriage, providing emotional, spiritual, and physical resources that can help a marriage over its rough spots.

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