Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What ever happened to clergy performing weddings?

Couples are increasingly choosing less traditional locations for wedding ceremonies. Photo by Ibrahim Asad/Creative Commons

I was talking to a young friend the other day. She told me that she had just attended a Jewish wedding — two thirty-something Jews getting married.

“Which rabbi performed the wedding ceremony?” I asked.

Her response was telling.

“A rabbi? Who does that anymore?”

Hmnn.

Apparently, my friend was not wrong.

Over the last few months, I have been reading the Sunday New York Times wedding pages — um, religiously.

I have been doing a silent survey — seeing how many wedding ceremonies were performed by clergy, and how many were performed by friends of the couple and/or people who had gotten instant ordination as, say, Universal Life ministers.

On the average, non-clergy/instant clergy do about a third to a half of all weddings in the New York Times.

So, yes — this is a trend. Dorothy Bush Koch, the non-clerical aunt of Barbara Bush (daughter of W, granddaughter of George H.W. Bush) performed Ms. Bush’s wedding earlier this month. I would imagine that there were any number of clergy people available to do this state wedding. But, that didn’t happen.

You would probably say: “Sure, Jeff, you’re a rabbi. No wonder this troubles you. Your livelihood depends on it!”

Not so fast.

For me, and for many of my colleagues, the issue is not livelihood. Most Jewish clergy do not set fees for weddings or other life cycle ceremonies for their members. (Non-members is a different story). Most of my clergy friends in congregations are not out chasing weddings or funerals or whatever. We have enough to do, thank you very much.

Likewise, I have many rabbinical and cantorial colleagues who do not serve congregations; in such cases, their livelihood really does depend on being there for and with people in their sacred moments. That deserves both attention and respect, as well.

The issue is not who can perform a wedding ceremony. Truth be told: you don’t “need” a Jewish clergy person for a Jewish wedding ceremony. Technically, any knowledgeable lay person can perform a wedding ceremony — or, to be precise, to be a mesader kiddushin, the one who arranges the wedding ceremony and makes sure that everything happens correctly.

The same is true of any Jewish life cycle ceremony or worship service — a brit or baby naming, a funeral, a conversion, etc. People will usually say that they won’t “feel” “really” married, etc. if a member of the clergy is not present. I honor those feelings — and I hope that people will continue to feel that way.

The issue is not pre-marital counseling, which is often a part of the wedding process. Not every member of the clergy feels competent to offer such counseling, and sometimes couples will go elsewhere. Again, you don’t need a clergy person for such an important piece of the wedding puzzle — should you want it.

For me, there are two essential issues.

First, it’s about clergy authenticity.

If you want to have a friend or family member perform your wedding — because he or she knows you well — I get it. I am not offended.

But, at the very least, can that person get a one-day wedding officiant pass? Many states now make provisions for people to do this (here is New York’s bill that permits it).

Just do me — and all of my clergy colleagues — a favor.

Don’t go the ” instant ordination” route.

Why not?

Because, whether they know it or not, those who get instant ordination for the purpose of performing weddings are actually mocking the meaning of what it means to be clergy.

“Real” clergy study, long and hard. Speaking for rabbis, we study in a graduate program for five years, including the first year in Israel. We study Bible, midrash, mishnah, Talmud, liturgy, theology, history, homiletics, counseling, Jewish literature, etc. We write theses based on Hebrew texts. We take advantage of internships, mentoring, student pulpits, for valuable experience.

To become a clergy person in order to do a wedding, or even many weddings, reduces our sacred tasks and responsibilities into one life cycle ceremony. “Real” clergy officiate, and teach, and engage in activism, and counsel, and comfort, and manage, and…

It diminishes — actually, lampoons — our years of training and commitment.

Frankly, it is an insult — even though it was not intended that way.

Second: It’s about tradition.

When authentic members of the clergy perform a wedding ceremony, they bring with them an entire box of traditions, ancient and modern. They lead the couple through a ritual of poetry, gesture, tastes, smells, prayers, music, symbols. They did not invent those rituals. They merely (!) inherited them, and they are passing them on to those whose lives are intimately bound up in that moment.

If the non-clergy-officiating-friend-or-relative is knowledgeable in those traditions (and, theoretically and ideally, could be), great. The officiant and the couple can study together, create, improvise, add — and it works for everyone. Just the way it would work if a clergy member was present.

But: I worry about what happens when we willingly jettison traditions at the most sacred and most sensitive moments of life — especially when those traditions speak so forcefully and so poetically to the human condition.

You want friends to speak at your wedding? Great.

You want them to read part of the ceremony? Wonderful.

But, ideally, the officiant brings something from outside the couple, and from beyond the couple and their immediate circle of family and friends. Ideally, the officiant brings something that predates the couple by millennia, and will, we pray, live way beyond the couple’s time on earth.

That “something” is called the holy.

And, last time I looked, the holy has become an endangered species.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

34 Comments

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  • Wow.

    First, at least 30% of young people are not religious. They do not believe in your deity. Why should they get a deity-spokesman to perform a ceremony when they don’t believe in a deity?

    Second, you are offended by the instant ordination? Really? Do you have any clue why instant ordination is necessary? Many states have laws that say wedding ceremonies must be officiated by clergy. State law says that non religious people CANNOT have their ceremony officiated by someone who shares their values, unless they have an impersonal courthouse ceremony. And even then the Justice of the Peace might toss in religion. Sham, instant ordination counts as clergy, but humanist organizations cannot ordain officiants. You are not nearly as offended as the atheist who is told the only way he can officiate at a wedding is to get a sham ordination certificate. If you don’t like sham ordinations, talk to your legislature.

  • I’m not sure your argument is based on reality. As I recall, all states allow Humanist Celebrants to officiate at weddings. That is, there are plenty of people who are permitted to conduct weddings who have no religious affiliation at all.

  • Added to that is the increasing prevalence of multi-faith couples getting married.

    To those couples the religious officiant is either a hindrance or a potential cause of unnecessary conflict. In many cases having a religious officiant of one faith is considered exclusionary to one half of the couple’s family and having two of them is wasteful or too costly.

  • As for Great Britain – the law in England and Wales blatantly discriminates against humanists and other non-religious folk.

    “Religious people have a choice between being married by a civil registrar and being married by a representative of their religion who shares their approach to life. Except in Scotland, non-religious people have no option other than the civil registrar. Many hundreds of people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland each year choose to have a personalised and meaningful wedding ceremony performed by a humanist celebrant but their wedding is not a legal marriage.”
    https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

    Wonder why England and Wales discriminate?

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/14/what-god-has-not-joined-together-the-rise-of-the-humanist-wedding

    And yes – the CofE has a scale of fees relating to marriage services – and no – they aren’t (or certainly weren’t) waived readily.
    I was married, c. 50 years ago, by my (parish incumbent priest) father, my ex-wife’s (parish incumbent priest) uncle did the chat and the local (locum) priest read the prayers! And the church (at which FIL was a lay reader) demanded the fees in cash whilst we were waiting for the bride to turn up!

  • Have you ever heard of Google?

    You are dead wrong.

    This is the first result of “states that require religious wedding”

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.usmarriagelaws.com/marriage-license/wedding-officiants-requirements.shtml%3famp

    The first few states Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas all limit wedding officiants to religion. This means sham mail order ordinations are acceptable, but honest and non religious are excluded. You can read the rest on your own.

    States that allow non religious and non government wedding officiants are the exception.

  • For centuries the clergy have had a state-imposed wedding monopoly. It’s hardly a surprise that people want an alternative which makes sense for them and does not involve readings from the Bronze Age. Now ordained clergy must compete for weddings and even though they have the advantage of tax-free facilities they’re still losing out in a growing number of cases. I have performed several weddings. My couples are still together and no fees were charged.

  • I have been describing the Church of England as a western form of Shintoism–mo doctrine needed, there for life event ceremonies. And I’ve been saying that the mainstream churches in the USA are following. So I’m wrong. More and more young people don’t even want the clergy and the building with its architecture for their big events. They are hanging a sign that says, “No Clergy Need Apply.” Not only are weddings not being performed by clergy, but also baptisms, confirmations, funerals. Yhere will always be churches and clergy, just not so many, except in the God-besotted South. Even the Catholic church will find its strongest base in the South. But decline may begin to happen there too.

  • This is why we need civil celebrants like Australia and some other countries have. They perform ceremonies but also see to it that appropriate documents are completed to register the marriage.

    The times they are a changing.

  • I believe in all of these states, a Secular Humanist Celebrant or similar official in a similar organization count as “clergy” for the purposes of each state’s marriage laws. The link you sent me doesn’t seek to answer that question, and it’s just parroting the statutory language of each state, but I know that in my state, despite language referring to “clergy”, a non-religious official in a secular society counts for the purpose of celebrating a marriage.

    http://thehumanistsociety.org/celebrants/apply/

  • I’ve married two couples.

    I studied humanism, but I wasn’t interested in studying to become “qualified” to say any magical spells that would somehow make the couples’ unions real, or strong, or legitimate. They didn’t need that. Their relationships were already real, and strong, and legitimate. I studied them. I studied their history, their present relationship, and their future aspirations for themselves and each other. I drew upon my understanding of relationships as a marriage and family counselor. I know how bewilderingly complex relationships can be, and how they can also be unsolvably simple at the same time. They can be reassuringly difficult, and heartbreakingly easy.

    I worked with the couples to write and plan their ceremonies. They liked my ideas and insights, but I made sure the final draft was entirely theirs, entirely them. Yes, I did bring in things that predated the couples by millennia. I talked about things that predate every religion that ever was. I talked about the principles of respect, and compassion, and truthfulness, and equality, and courage. These principles will still be here as long as people are here, long after the last religion is nothing but fragile artifacts in a museum. I talked about how love should be spelled h-e-r-e. I’m here. I’m here for you. I have been, and I will be here for you. One ceremony was long, one was short, and both were deep, hopeful, wise, rational, and frankly beautiful presentations of them as a couple to their families, friends, and the community. The ceremonies weren’t beautiful because of what I said. They were beautiful because of the material that I had to work with. I didn’t feel proud of the part I played, I felt privileged.

  • Perhaps you should READ the link you provided.

    However, marriage laws vary by state in the United States. We suggest contacting your local county clerk’s office for the most accurate legal information.

    Yes, duh, the Humanists have a program to establish Humanist officiants.

    THAT IS NOT THE SAME AS STATES ACCEPTING HUMANIST OFFICIANTS AS LEGALLY ALLOWED TO OFFICIATE WEDDINGS.

    DUH.

    The American Humanists have lawsuits underway around the country to change state laws. They are not doing that for shits and giggles. They are suing states BECAUSE people married by humanist celebrants are not considered legally married in those states.

  • http://thehumanistsociety.org/celebrants/resources/laws/#oregon

    Randomly selected:

    Oregon

    Who is authorized to perform ceremony?Judges, Justices of Peace, County Clerks or their Deputies within appointing county, Persons appointed to perform the ceremony by a congregation having regular meetings in the state (i.e., ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis).

    Connecticut

    Who is authorized to perform ceremony? All ordained or licensed clergymen belonging to this state or any other state may perform marriages as long as they continue in the work of the ministry.

    Iowa

    Who is authorized to perform ceremony? A judge or a person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith.

  • I’m an ordained clergyperson in a “mainline” church, serving in a tourist town that is a major wedding destination. The Town Clerk, where folks must go to get their license, maintains a list of at least a dozen local entrepreneurs who are licensed as Notaries specifically for the purpose of performing weddings. They are essentially civically “ordained” for the purpose of performing weddings, and make a good business of it.

    I do not consider these civil officiants to be “competition.” When someone calls and says they are going to be in town on a cruise ship and want to be married on a mountaintop (a call that I get several times a year), I’m happy to refer them to civil officiants, as I prefer not to be a costumed prop. When someone calls and says that our church looks really pretty online, and they wonder if they “have their wedding” here on a date two weeks out, I introduce them to the requirements for pre-marital counseling, for canonical approval of remarriage after divorce, and the words of the traditional wedding liturgy. If they balk, I’m happy to send them to my secular brethren.

    I understand Rabbi Salkin’s sense of insult at “instant ordination,” as I do the non-religious’ offence at needing a sham ordination to witness a friend’s wedding. Witnessing marriage is the only time in my ministry that I function as an agent of the state, and it always makes me uncomfortable. When I’m signing a marriage license and have to squeeze my ordination date into the slot that asks for my Notary license number, I always feel a bit out of place. I would be much happier if the state licensed marriages and I blessed them, as is the case in many jurisdictions.

  • Tradition is the problem here. People get instant-ordination because there are ‘traditional’ laws on the books that require a religious official to perform the service, even though you already admit that’s not necessary. Your complaint is with those outdated laws, not the people who go through the trouble of getting around them when there was never any need for a religious presence in their relationship.

  • Let’s calm down, shall we? I understand that the statutes you point to say, but legislation in this area is frequently more complicated than the plain meaning of the statute says (it shouldn’t be this way, but alas, it is). For example, the Internal Revenue Code provides for a tax-exempt parsonage allowance for “ministers of the gospel”, which, taken in it’s literal, plain meaning, implies a Christian minister of some sort. However, courts have held that the meaning of “ministers of the gospel” includes Jewish cantors. Silverman v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, U.S.Tax Ct.1972, 57 T.C. 727. The reason for that interpretation is, of course, that the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits favoring one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.

    A recognized Humanist Officiant meets the definition of someone automatically permitted to perform weddings in almost every state that has some provision for automatic permits. I am aware of precisely one case (in Indiana) involving a humanist wedding officiant,. Ctr. for Inquiry, Inc. v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, 758 F.3d 869 (7th Cir. 2014). In that case, the 7th Circuit held that a wedding performed by a secular humanist officiant had the same validity as other ceremonies performed by officiants of religious organizations with a belief in a deity. If you know of a pending case, please cite it so that I can speak to it intelligently.

    However, marriage laws vary by state in the United States. We suggest contacting your local county clerk’s office for the most accurate legal information

    This accounts for places like Hawaii, where recognition by a religious group does not automatically allow a person to perform a wedding ceremony. In Hawaii, a Catholic priest’s ordination does not automatically permit him to perform a wedding–he must first register with the state. Likewise, a secular humanist officiant can perform a wedding in Hawaii only after registering with the state.

  • My apologies, I responded to the earlier post before reading this one. This is indeed an interesting case, but it’s not clear to me whether the plaintiffs ever attempted to solemnize a wedding, which was then invalidated by some state action. In other words, I don’t see evidence of how the state has actually interpreted its statute (the references to communication with the state are unfortunately vague in the body of the complaint, and the appendix was not available in the copy linked to in the article). I fully expect that the 7th Circuit’s precedent will control here.

  • A recognized Humanist Officiant meets the definition of someone automatically permitted to perform weddings in almost every state that has some provision for automatic permits.

    That is not true.

    Indiana changed its requirements ONLY AFTER A LAWSUIT.

    It is not complicated.

    The laws in most states limit wedding officiants to religious ministers with congregations and select government employees.

    And the christians who write laws and control government offices think that christians own marriage and that non religious people should not officiate over marriages.

    State laws requiring celebrants to be religious exist and are enforced.

    This is a real issue, faced by real people. Today. In our supposedly secular country. In some states they will let the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ordain wedding celebrants, but not Humanists. It is insulting. And guidance from some states to just lie and get a fake ordination is even more insulting.

    The IRS provisions most certainty do not apply to humanists or atheists. As evidenced by an active lawsuit by the FFRF.

  • It’s still not clear to me that the plaintiffs were told that a marriage performed by them would not be recognized. Again, I will watch with interest.

  • … is challenging Michigan’s marriage law, which limits the authority to solemnize marriages to clergy and certain government officials.

    How much clearer do you meed it?

  • I “meed” it to be something official. Like, an official of the state actually denying someone a marriage license or declaring a marriage void because it was performed by a humanist.

  • Well, atheist groups do have a tendency to sue when they have actually suffered no harm. Freedom From Religion Foundation regularly sends complaints that are not well founded simply because they’re a cantankerous bunch.

  • “State laws requiring celebrants to be religious exist in most of the US and are enforced.” Yeah, you haven’t actually demonstrated this.

    Again, show me a couple whose marriage has been invalidated, or who was told by an official of the state, that their marriage would be invalid, because it was performed by a secular humanist celebrant.

  • I have officiated for nearly 25 years as a ministry to support those without a church home or who have been rejected by other ministers or by their home church. I have witnessed that many couples have no sense of religious connection nor sense that there can be power in their binding together through ritual. So I am not surprised that the officiant market has devolved from the seeking of quality officiation to seeking a freebie or the lowest quote for service. Many couples view us officiants as just a necessary evil.

    Issues of religiosity and state support of religion aside, there is another big problem created by the use of inexperienced and ill-trained officiants. I am hearing horror stories from wedding coordinators, photographers and venues, that they are seeing so many really badly done wedding ceremonies because the officiant doesn’t know what they are doing.

    BTW I know a Hindu priest who was refused authorization to officiate by the state of Ohio.

  • I have made nunerous thoughtful comments. You have consistency replied with ignorance. A minimal search for accurate information would reveal that your slurs against the FFRF are false.

    The only conclusion left is that you are intentionally making false statements. That makes you a liar. You aren’t worth my time.

    Read those precious commandments. Your deity dislikes liars.

  • I have personal experience with the FFRF. I have represented institutions that have received frivolous complaints from FFRF for activities that were a) perfectly legal and b) resulted in no actual harm to anyone.

    So, no, I’m not lying. Please consider the irony of your apparent view of divine infallibility vested in the FFRF.

  • Example, please, of a situation called out by the FFRF that was “perfectly legal.” I’ll wait.

    Also, could you provide the date when “resulted in no actual harm to anyone” was added to the Constitution as a reason for ignoring rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

    You could argue that a Baptist kid is not actually “harmed” when a school employee directs him to pray to the VIrgin Mary. But a government employee instructing kids to pray still violates their freedom of religion.

    The FFRF does not want to sue. They prefer that government orgs simply start complying with the Constitution. When they do take a matter to court, they usually win. This is because every issue they raise is backed by settled case law.

  • Umm…there were several examples in the link I provided. Here are specific links to specific cases: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/memoranda/2015/08/31/13-35770.pdf

    http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0049p-06.pdf

    http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2010/03/11/05-17257.pdf

    http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/18a0096p-06.pdf

    Harm has long been an element of standing to sue in court. See Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, 551 U.S. 587 (2007).

    Your Baptist kid argument is ridiculous, and nothing like the cases that FFRF usually brings.

    “The FFRF does not want to sue. They prefer that government orgs simply start complying with the Constitution. When they do take a matter to court, they usually win. This is because every issue they raise is backed by settled case law.” It really is striking how the certainty and dogmatic zeal in this statement resembles religion.

    “Since I never called FFRF devine [sic] it looks like you’re lying again.” Since I never said you called FFRF “devine”, I’m not lying. I said you apparently viewed FFRF as though it had “divine infallibility”.