Rituals clash or meld when two clergy share the chuppah

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At times, planning a Jewish wedding poses enough etiquette problems to stump even Miss Manners.

Say he's from an Orthodox family; she grew up in a Reform household. For starters, who's going to marry them?

In the words of the classic pop song: "It takes two, baby!"

Today, rabbis of multiple movements commonly co-officiate at weddings and other occasions, with Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and even Orthodox rabbis sharing nuptial duties (if not always a bimah).

"There's no problem doing it," says Rabbi Martin Weiner of Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. "I've co-officiated with Conservative and Orthodox rabbis over the years. We just divide up the service, taking into consideration the various prayers and the relationships with bride and groom."

Adds Rabbi Alan Lew of Conservative San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom: "This is not hard. All the local rabbis know each other. We all know what's done."

The key to co-officiating is making sure that a given ceremony follows the necessary procedures as mandated by halachah, Jewish law.

Lew points out that the rabbi with the less-stringent halachic requirements normally will happily defer to the other rabbi.

"The Orthodox rabbi presides over certain parts of the ceremony, " he notes, "particularly the signing of the ketubah [marriage contract]. In the Orthodox tradition, the ketubah is read in its entirety, which is not the case in Conservative or Reform."

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, of Chabad House of Berkeley, begs to differ, however. "It used to be customary to have the reading of the ketubah done by the guy that cleans the synagogue. Look, for a woman to be married requires three things: a ring that has to be worth at least a nickel, a document [the ketubah] and the marital act or consummation. For two out of those three we have witnesses. The reading of the ketubah is unessential, although the contracting I can see requiring witnesses that are Sabbath-observant."

When Lew teams up with a Reform rabbi, he understands that the ceremony will likely follow a more open structure. "I don't regard this as a defect," he says, "as long as the halachic requirements are met."

Potential problems may arise if the wedding takes place in a synagogue. Some Orthodox rabbis won't even set foot in a Reform synagogue, let alone share a bimah with a Reform rabbi.

"A hotel wedding is a more neutral environment," notes Weiner. "Such a setting opens the door to co-officiating between Orthodox and other denominations."

Sometimes the bottom line is not so rigid. Ferris, for example, says when it comes down to the basics: "In order to perform a marriage, a person needs to keep kosher, be Sabbath-observant. You don't even need a rabbi to get married. I've had many an elopement in my backyard."

Then again, Rabbi Moshe Levin, while fully supportive of co-officiated simchas, hasn't always experienced perfect cooperation.

"These days, there is less intermingling of the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox," says the rabbi at the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. "So it is much less likely that there would be a couple comprised of one from Orthodox tradition and one from another."

One of Levin's most unpleasant experiences occurred at his brother's wedding. The brother chose to have the ceremony in an Orthodox synagogue, which meant the Orthodox rabbi was to co-officiate with Levin.

"I met with the rabbi to discuss who would do what," recalls Levin. "He said, 'You can do whatever you want as long as I do all the required portions: the ketubah, the betrothal blessing and transfer of the ring.' I would do all those things that are custom or law, such as address the couple, give them a blessing, put down the glass."

After filling out the ketubah, the Orthodox rabbi asked to meet the brother's two male witnesses, one of whom was aConservative rabbi like Levin.

Recalls Levin: "The Orthodox rabbi says to my brother, 'You'll have to find another witness.' Why? Because the friend was a Conservative rabbi and therefore kofer b'ikar [a heretic, a denier of the essential doctrine]. My brother sheepishly picked another person he didn't even know."

Then there was the time an Orthodox rabbi barred Levin from eulogizing one of his own congregants because the funeral was taking place at an Orthodox shul.

Recalls Levin: "He said to me, 'Moshe, you know I would want you to participate, but I can't because the service takes place in my synagogue, and we've never had a Conservative rabbi on the bimah. It would legitimize a movement we don't agree with.'"

Levin had to settle for reciting a graveside psalm.

The foregoing tales of conflict between Jews, however, fall under the heading of "all in the family." But what about co-officiating with non-Jewish clergy?

To most rabbis, that's a line that shouldn't be crossed.

There are a few intrepid rabbis out there willing to co-officiate with a priest or a minister. Rabbi Charles Yeshaia Familant, former director of Stanford University's Hillel, has co-officiated interfaith weddings and funerals for years. Though he knows his colleagues frown upon the practice, the independent rabbi is convinced he's helping keep some wayward Jews at least near the tent, if not in it.

"I don't believe in closing doors," he says. "Some people have been estranged from Judaism a long time. They come to a rabbi for the first time since their bar mitzvah, and for their non-Jewish partners, this is their first exposure to Judaism. If they get a cold shoulder, that's not good PR. You prevent any positive development."

Familant dismisses charges that his actions contribute to assimilation. "That's a trend that will happen whether a rabbi co-officiates or not," he claims. "I don't contribute to assimilation, but rather I think I'm helping minimize the problem."

Controversies aside, the bottom line is helping newlyweds get off to a good Jewish start. If co-officiated weddings promote that, then most rabbis agree it's worth any potential pitfalls.

Says Lew, "In every case I can think of over the last five years, they were lovely weddings."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.