Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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Interesting question, I thought. As a hospital chaplain, I served the needs of people of all religious persuasions. I recited prayers for healing, brought religious ritual objects to patients, and in one case said last rites for a patient when a priest could not get there in time. All this time, I was acting as a rabbi with a grounding in my own tradition. Others acknowledged my standing as clergy and saw me as a conduit through which their religious needs could be served. The fact that I was a rabbi, and not from their faith tradition, did not matter.
Why then would it matter if two people who were not Jewish wanted a rabbi to marry them? It is starting to happen more often than you might think. A few years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine asked me if I would officiate at her wedding. In the end, she bowed to parental pressure and went with their minister, but she confided in me that it would have been much more meaningful for her to have me, a close, friend officiate than someone she really did not know. Several people I know have gotten on line “ordination” as a universal life minister so that they could marry friends or relatives. Remember the TV show Friends? Joey does this so he can marry his friends Monica and Chandler. Having a personal connection to the officiant is becoming more important than having an officiant from a particular religious tradition.
Does anything in Jewish tradition forbid a rabbi from officiating at non Jewish marriages? Not really. Until now, no one would have asked a rabbi to do such a thing. As a rabbi, I would make some changes in the traditional Jewish ceremony so that it would apply to the situation at hand. But my power as clergy in the US still makes it a legal wedding under US law. It may not be a valid wedding under Jewish law, halachah, but since these are non-Jews, whether or not it is valid according to Jewish law does not pertain. Many of the symbols of a Jewish wedding translate beautifully in to any wedding – a marriage contract where the two parties spell out their commitment to each other, a wedding canopy signifying the new home being created, a series of blessings for the new couple, and a broken glass to remind us of their commitment to each other in good times and bad.
So do I think that a rabbi can officiate at a marriage between two non-Jews? My answer is a resounding yes.
Let the celebration begin. Mazal Tov!