Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


In early June 2005 I, a religious rabbi, officiated at the wedding of a Jewish woman and a practicing Catholic man in Belgium. The ceremony was performed with two priests, professors at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), founded in 1425.

The bride and groom were my students; we met when I was a

guest professor in Judaism. They agreed to raise their children (if they had any, with God’s help) in both the Jewish and Catholic traditions. The wedding was held with the approval of the Belgian cardinal, Godfried Danneels.

The story began when I arrived in Belgium on September 12, 2001, to teach a graduate class in Judaism in this Catholic university. I was the first Jew invited to teach at the Faculty of Theology in its 575-year history. Among the students

were, I discovered, ten priests and four nuns representing twelve different countries and five continents. Nineteen students were Catholic and one was a Canadian Jewish woman of Polish background. As a philosophy major (writing her dissertation on Hanna Arendt), she had received special permission to attend

my class. The syllabus of the class noted that I would lecture on the Hebrew Bible, Jesus the Jew and the religion he created, Medieval Jewish Mysticism, and the establishment of the state of Israel.

During the course of the semester I was invited on two different occasions to preach at university chapels. The focus on the first occasion was Abraham as the founder of monotheism and his covenants. On the second occasion the officiating priest made the following remarks: he announced to his fellow worshippers that when Jesus returns he will be circumcised, like the rabbi and not like the Catholics; he would not be able to eat at his home, which is not kosher, and he might ask the rabbi to take him to a synagogue to pray.

Several weeks into the semester it became apparent that my brother was dying and my presence in Israel would be needed in connection with his burial. I took the opportunity to teach on Jewish mourning rituals and noted that I would have to mourn my brother’s death in Israel for seven days in accordance with the Jewish ritual of shiva. As compensation for my absence, I suggested that the class perform a play I had written, which had also been performed at Yale University during my time as rabbi there. The play is a dialogue between Reb Nachman, a well known Hasidic rabbi who died in 1811 and the very influential Czech writer Franz Kafka who died in 1924.

Three students responded positively to my call for actors; the Jewish woman Anya took the part of Reb Nachman and an Alaskan Catholic named Wolf played the part of Kafka. The third role, that of narrator, was played by young Flemish woman

(the university’s official languages are Flemish and English). The play became a major source of inspiration for Anya and Wolf—the couple at whose wedding I would officiate.

The university agreed that the play would constitute a good public “lecture” and we performed the play in a lecture hall on the Sunday after I returned. My comparison between an ultra Orthodox Jew living in a medieval environment and a secular Jew growing up in one of most secular urban centers in modern Europe who never mentioned the words Jew or synagogue in his fictional writing made a point. I do not believe that   secularism and religiosity have necessarily different values nor do the religions of Judaism and Christianity (or Islam). Real

value judgments are the difference between fascism and democracy, between totalitarianism and liberty and between tolerance and fundamentalism. Idolatry is the most important contra in the Hebrew Bible. What is idolatry? It is being

against those values that God proclaimed in the Holy Books. This includes killing (including suicide bombing and genocide), misogyny (including honor killing), the disrespect of “other” human beings (intolerance, slave labor and poverty) and

respect for things as opposed to people (this would include respecting land more than people). The last sentence that I uttered to end my course was the metaphorical question: “If the three monotheistic religions all claim Abraham as their

father, could one be a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim?”

Toward the end of the semester it was obvious, even to a rabbi, that Anya and Wolf had developed a loving relationship. Shortly after I left Belgium Anya and Wolf moved in together and created a kosher home. One year later, when I visited Belgium, they asked if I, together with a priest, would marry them.

Anya had grown up in Canada with very little understanding of Judaism. The few times she had attended a Reform (Liberal) synagogue she had felt no connection to spirituality. She confided to me that she had never experienced a connection to

Judaism prior to meeting a rabbi teaching at this Catholic university. She had attended McGill University in the French Catholic part of Canada and grew up in a home infused with memory of the Holocaust and a love for Polishness. Her

father, Christopher, had been jailed as a young man by the Polish communists and eventually left for Canada where he met Wanda, her mother. He supported the Solidarity movement and eventually returned to Poland. He is connected to current

Polish political leaders and is a published writer in Polish. Anya went to Poland during the negotiation for Polish entry into the EU and gave a talk at a conference about Poland and the Holocaust.

Wolf came to the Catholic University of Leuven as a seminary student intending to become a priest. Wolf’s mother Cecilia had been raised in Austria as an active Catholic, in a neighborhood where the Catholic-Protestant conflict continued into her lifetime. Her family were anti-Nazis. Wolf grew up in Alaska. He came to the Catholic University of Leuven as the youngest of eight children, intending, with his mother’s blessing, to become a priest. However, prior to meeting Anya he had re-evaluated his calling and decided the priesthood was not an appropriate life

choice for him. His chose to do his Ph.D. work in comparative theology.

Very understandably, his decision to marry a Jewish woman who would not convert to Catholicism was a source of great disappointment to his mother.

Anya, Wolf and I devoted many hours struggling with the dilemma of how to raise their future children. They were convinced that their children would understand their hybrid identity; I was less convinced. Nonetheless I agreed to

officiate at their wedding if all the Jewish rituals relevant to a Jewish wedding would be observed. The couple and my collegial priests agreed to these stipulations.

The wedding week began five days prior to the ceremony. Family and friends were invited to meet and discuss this unique wedding. I spoke both publicly and privately with Anya’s mother, father, paternal grandmother, brother and other relatives. I met privately and had deep meaningful conversations with Wolf’s mother (his father was unfortunately too ill to attend) and other relatives and friends.

Anya’s family—primarily Polish and Holocaust survivors—were secular Jews; Wolf’s mother and family were traditional Catholics. His mother, Cecilia, was indeed disappointed that her son chose to marry a Jewish woman but was certainly not anti-Semitic; in fact, she had been asked to translate the German Bishops’ pro-Jew statement (January 2005) into English for her Alaskan community. I stressed to her how distressed my mother would be if I married a Gentile and, furthermore, that she would strongly disapprove of my decision to conduct a ceremony

marrying Cecilia’s son to a Jewess. Cecilia finally decided that if I, a Jewish rabbi, could be such a mensch (decent human being), perhaps Jews “were not so bad.” She concluded that perhaps a Jewish woman was better than a Protestant and she decided she could now be considered a Jewish mother (-in-law).

Anya’s family had been forced to conceal their Judaism in Poland, had survived the Shoah and were then forced to endure Stalin’s atheistic Communism. They had lost their Judaism. Anya had studied at two Catholic universities (McGill and

the Catholic University in Leuven) and had finally openly embraced her Judaism, despite choosing a Catholic young man to marry. Her family did not disapprove of the marriage and were rather amazed at her return to Judaism. It appears that

she had to attend Catholic universities to find her Judaism.

The wedding was held in the late afternoon on the first Friday in June 2005. Since Jewish weddings require signing a ketuba (marriage contract) and breaking a glass —both being acts forbidden on the Shabbat—the ceremony needed to be concluded prior to sunset, the beginning of the Shabbat. The wedding ceremony would be connected with the beginning of the Shabbat and include a kabbalat Shabbat (the welcoming of the Shabbat) dinner.

The wedding ceremony took place in a church. The Jewish rituals included a chuppa, a cloth canopy held by four poles, i.e. an open but marked space under which the ceremony took place. The women of both families and friends designed

and decorated the chuppa.

1. Prior to the wedding Anya was immersed in a mikva (free standing water—the basis of Christian baptism), a ritual which all Jewish brides perform in order to begin their marriage in purity.

2. Anya was escorted to the chuppa by her father.

3. Father Roger welcomed the family and friends.

4. A Catholic usher (and former student) who spoke Hebrew read in Hebrew from Genesis 2:18-24.

5. Father Roger reflected on this marriage.

6. A chorus sang I Corinthians 13: “faith, hope and love.”

7. The mothers lit candles to the singing of the words of Psalm 128.

8. A reading from Luke 10:25-37.

9. A reflection by the rabbi on Genesis 1:26-31 and 2:18-24.

10. Hosea 6:1 was sung by the choir.

11. A homily by Father Reimund.

12. Our Father who art in Heaven was sung.

13. The congregation greeted one another with words of peace and embraced one another as the sign of that peace.

14. Unity candles were lit by Anya and Wolf and the Lecha Dodi (come meet the Bride, i.e. the Shabbat) was sung by the usher and choir—the music of Shabbat.

15. The bride circled the groom seven times (a sign of her acceptance).

16. The seven Jewish benedictions of marriage were recited in Hebrew, English, Greek, Latin, German and Polish by family, priests and friends.

17. Two cups of wine were poured, mixed into one and the bride and groom said the traditional prayer over the combined cup of wine and drank.

18. Father Reimund led the bride and groom in stating their consent, vows and blessings over their marriage.

19. Handing over of the ketuba: the rabbi had written the ketuba (the marriage contract) in its traditional language of Aramaic and Hebrew (as requested by the couple) the language of Jesus and the ancient Jews. Anya agreed to be married under the laws of Moses and Israel and Wolf under the laws of Noah and Yeshu.

The rabbi read the ketuba in English. The bride and groom signed the document and it was witnessed.

20. Father Roger conducted the exchange of rings.

21. Wolf broke the glass, which, the rabbi explained, referred to the fact that although life was not perfect we had a duty to perfect it to the best of our ability. Mazel Tov was joyously proclaimed by all.

22. Bride and groom kissed as husband and wife.

23. Dinner was served.

The dinner began, as do all kabbalat Shabbat dinners, by the singing of ancient melodies and songs, including Shalom aleichem— welcome to the angels accompanying the Shabbat—the blessing over the wine, the washing of the hands and

blessing over the bread. I noticed Anya’s grandmother sitting in front of me as I began singing Shalom aleichem in a traditional melody. Despite her singularly secular life she seemed to recognize the song, perhaps awakening some memory

from her distant childhood.

In order to dispel any possible misinterpretation at the introduction of the reading of the ketuba I stressed that I considered this ceremony to be an exception to the

stringent rule that I observe—Jews should marry Jews and Catholics should marry Catholics. I pointed out that, given the ratio of Catholics to Jews in the world (65 to 1), if such intermarriages happened often, the continuation of the Jewish race would, God forbid, be in danger, an event that would be a tragic loss and of great sorrow to me. This specific marriage was an exception because this couple were exceptional; they were serious, religious people and perhaps, just perhaps, they

could create a hybrid that worked as an exception.

Shortly after I returned to Israel I attended the wedding of a distant relative as a guest. I realized that, together with two priests, I had taken part in an extraordinary event. Despite my concern noted above that we must respect the “other”; being a human being is more important than being Jewish or Catholic. Jewish commentators have asked why the Torah begins with Adam and Eve and not with Abraham or even Moses. Their answer is that God wanted to make it clear that all human beings—and not simply the Jews—were his special children. Thinking of Jews (or Catholics or Muslims) as being God’s special treasure is, in fact, a form of idolatry.