When the Devout Marry

R.R. Reno, a practicing Christian and theology professor at Creighton University, wrote a wonderful essay in Commentary on his intermarriage to a religiously observant Jewish woman. Unfortunately, it’s available for subscribers only.

The story of his interfaith relationship begins typically. He met Juliana when they were both graduate students at Yale in the ’80s:

Make no mistake. There was nothing about Yale University in 1985 that made such a love difficult or even noteworthy. Our lives as students were full of common experiences and common aspirations, and in that bastion of American liberalism, one could easily imagine a Jew marrying a Christian—after all, religion is a “life-style choice,” is it not?

When they wanted to get married, they looked for a rabbi to officiate at their wedding. They decided against it when it was clear that the majority of rabbis would not. But religion was important to both of them, so they ended up getting married in a church–a fact that hurt Juliana.

Later came the conversation about how to raise the children:

We had no more interest in a neutral child than in a neutral wedding, and we certainly did not want to tear our children in two by pretending that we could raise them as both Jews and Christians. I remember the conversation well. “The children will, of course, be raised Jewish,” remarked Juliana one day. I looked at her and said with coldness, “What do you mean, raised Jewish? You do not go to synagogue. You do not keep kosher. I am not going to keep my children from baptism just so that they can be raised as bagels-and-New-York-Times-on-Saturday-morning Jews. If you become a religious Jew, then I am willing to promise that I will support you in raising the children as religious Jews.”

But unlike in most interfaith marriages, she called his bluff:

That Saturday, she marched down the street to the Hillel minyan. She announced that we were buying new plates and would keep a kosher kitchen. She was willing to marry me in a church, but she was not willing to see her children baptized. The first blow had awakened her, and she saw that the way forward in her life with me would require seriousness about what it meant to be a Jew.

As his wife and children embraced an observant form of Judaism, Reno felt increasingly spiritually apart from his family. As he watched them observe the rules of kashrut–eating milk and meat from separate plates, abstaining from eating much of what their friends ate–he went through a crisis of faith. Judaism demanded that its adherents behave in a certain way so that they would belief in a certain way. Christianity, on the other hand, demands that it adherents believe a certain way so they will behave a certain way. Reno wonders if Christianity has it backwards. Is prioritizing belief a convenient way to say one thing in church and do another in the world?

I thought of my daughter and son. Their mother was training their hands not to mix milk with meat so that the will of the Lord might be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Hands so trained, I thought, would not so readily take up the sword to slay the innocent, even if their hearts burned with murderous desire. Their hands were being pierced with the nails of divine intention day after day. And my hands, what of them?

It’s a beautiful and poignant piece and details the challenges faced by interfaith couples when both partners are devoted to their religion.

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3 thoughts on “When the Devout Marry

  1. This couple should not have taken this ship to sea before before sealing the bulkheads. Conversations about the religion of the children should have been taken care of before saying I do. Actually, before they even agreed to get engaged. If this marriage was a ship, it would be the Titanic.

  2. this is perhaps the only time that i will agree with anti-intermarriage. when both partners are devout in their separate faiths, it spells disaster for the marriage.

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