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Love Can Trump Tradition: Interfaith Relationships in Keeping the Faith

May 2000

I really enjoyed the new movie, Keeping the Faith. In it, two best friends from childhood, a priest--played by Ed Norton (who also directed the film), and a rabbi--played by Ben Stiller, fall for Anna--played by Jenna Elfman--also a childhood friend who is now a high-powered business executive. As the story develops, amidst the humor, it treats serious themes in a surprisingly profound way. I especially appreciated the message about interfaith relationships, as Anna is not Jewish.

The priest and the rabbi are each young, new clergy at their respective church and synagogue. They dress and act in a very "hip" way and work hard to enliven their respective worship services. I liked what the priest said in a sermon early in the movie about God being connections and faith being participating in worship as a way to experience those connections. Too often, we don't talk about the nature of God in our worship experiences.

I also liked how the young rabbi stirred things up at his synagogue as a way to increase the congregation's participation in the worship service, at one point bringing in a gospel choir to sing Ain Keloheinu as it has probably never been done before. I'd love to try that gospel version at my own synagogue. Worship renewal is a very hot topic in the Reform movement today; I didn't expect to see such a "right on" treatment of the subject in this movie.

At one point Anna asks the priest how he lives with celibacy. I liked the priest's answer, that it was part of the job, that he got used to it; it seemed to make sense to me, though I wonder how a person more experienced with Catholicism would react to the movie. The way the movie depicted the priest's struggles with his vocation, including his talks with his mentor, seemed respectful and very believable. I thought the mentor's comment that one can't make a commitment without realizing that it involves an ongoing choice was another serious gem.

I didn't like the way the rabbi initially approached his interfaith relationship with Anna. They were already having a sexual relationship, but he says he didn't even think that they were "going out." When Anna told him that she had been asked to transfer to San Francisco but was thinking of turning it down because she was in love with him, he reacts as if it had never occurred to him that that could be true. I felt that this was unrealistic, that they probably would have talked about Anna converting as a possible solution to his problem much earlier. But perhaps he was so certain that the relationship could not have a future that he didn't even allow himself to think of conversion as an alternative.

A friend who saw the movie with us said that she guessed very early on, when Anna mentioned that she had a class that conflicted with another appointment, that Anna was attending conversion classes. While I don't feel that conversion is required for all interfaith relationships to be successful, the fact that Anna was pursuing conversion seemed appropriate, even though she hadn't talked about it with the man she loved and they hadn't even talked about commitment with each other. Anna became serious about him before he allowed himself to become serious about her. She might have begun the classes not intending to convert but as a way of learning more about what was so important to him. And, for a congregational rabbi, conversion would probably be the only acceptable outcome for an interfaith relationship. Although I did wonder, since the rabbi in the movie appeared to be Conservative, whether Conservative congregations would tolerate one of their rabbis having an interfaith relationship, even if the non-Jew decided to convert.

I thought the Jewish family dynamics were generally portrayed in an accurate way. The rabbi's older brother had intermarried, and the rabbi's mother, played by Ann Bancroft, had not spoken to him for two years. Although that kind of cutting off seems increasingly rare these days, it did seem realistic to me that the mother had had a very hard time with her first son's intermarriage. I liked her recognition that by cutting him off she had made a mistake, and her decision to encourage his younger brother, the rabbi, to follow his heart.

What I appreciated about the movie most of all was the recognition that love can "trump" tradition, that even a rabbi can fall in love with a non-Jew, and that doing so is not a rejection of Judaism. That was the most important message of the movie to me, and I think it was delivered in a sincere, serious, yet very funny way.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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