What Happened to Clergy Performing the Wedding Ceremony?

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?”


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.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Jeffrey Salkin