Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselves—people with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.
We don’t live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met “the one”—even if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.
Many people, before finding their mate, have a “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.
For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.
I’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.
These people didn’t see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people I’ve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.
The fact is that in today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.
So don’t just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity aren’t important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.
Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*
Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to
Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.*
Son: Really? That’s so awful.
Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:
Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!
Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.
I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?
Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.
So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples: Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.
I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.
*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.
When I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.
When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”
For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.
I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.
Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.
For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.
About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!
In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.
In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.
My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”
I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.
As the new managing editor at InterfaithFamily, I want our blog to be a place where our readers can find out about the “interfaith conversation” that’s happening when it happens in the Jewish and secular media. Yesterday, 21-year-old Rachel Cohen wrote an informed piece on The Daily Beast, “Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage,” challenging Jewish communal leaders to essentially, be less offensive. She speaks to the inclusion we at IFF are working toward much more succinctly than I could, and she speaks directly for her generation:
Cohen is getting clear messages from the Jewish community. But they’re not the ones she wants to hear: We support you, as long as you marry another Jew.
Interfaith marriage is not the problem, as Cohen sees it. Alienating America’s Jewish youth from Jewish communal life is.
Read her whole essay here.
I recently read an article, Debatable: Should Our Seminary Admit Students with Non-Jewish Partners?, in the spring 2013 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine. In sum, Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no. You can read their rational online.
I’ve been thinking about their respective points of view. If Reform Judaism truly represents progressive ideologies, then I agree with Daniel:
As a congregational educator and communal professional, I can’t tell you how many times the “active parent” in bringing a child to religious school or Jewish functions was the parent who was not raised with Judaism. Often this parent has made a commitment to raising Jewish children but for a variety of reasons is not Jewish. This does necessarily undermine religious participation by the family.
Brandon notes that “we have a covenantal responsibility to God, Torah, and Israel that extends beyond the self.” Reform Judaism does not propose to follow traditional Jewish law (halakha). Therefore, Reform Judaism does not have a covenantal responsibility. Already the URJ has evaluated and adapted its understanding of halakha to embrace patrilineal descent, welcoming children born to a Jewish father into our community whether or not the mother is Jewish.
It seems to me that it is time to evaluate this “rule” and consider permitting our leadership to truly represent our membership. I have found that the best leaders experience the same life experiences as their constituencies. Well over 50% of Jews marry someone who was not raised Jewishly. Won’t those families feel the most welcome and comfortable if the leadership and clergy of our congregations and organizations are the same as them — also intermarried?
Brandon also states that “applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices.” The one exception ? “[An] agreement not to be ‘engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.'”
I propose that we hold clergy and professionals to a higher standard. A standard of practice of modeling Jewish behavior, lifelong Jewish learning, active involvement in the Jewish community, and living a Jewish life. And that this standard must be upheld regardless of who they end up partnered with, Jewish or not.
One question couples typically ask me as we go over their wedding ceremony is, “can we have a ketubah even if my partner isn’t Jewish?” A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I usually explain how they have changed over time as Judaism and society have changed.
The ketubah as part of the wedding ceremony for Jews who are not Orthodox has come back into vogue. For the recent generations past, the ketubah was sometimes seen in liberal Jewish settings as archaic, too legalistic, and unnecessary. However, in part because it is often a purchased piece chosen for its artwork as much as for the text, and in part because liberal Jews have begun to re-embrace and reinterpret Jewish traditions that had been discarded, it is popular again. (Where “again” is “for the last 4-5 decades.”) It is signed in the presence of witnesses who are close to the couple; it’s displayed in the home as a tangible memento of the wedding.
Traditionally, the two witnesses who signed the ketubah had to be Jewish, males over the age of 13, and not related to the couple. With a modern ketubah, the couple can pick whomever they want to sign it. Once we veer from a strict interpretation of Jewish law, I feel that any decisions regarding the ketubah can be adapted as well. Thus, as a woman rabbi signing the ketubah, I am open to having parents or siblings of the couple sign the ketubah, even if they aren’t Jewish. The point is to pick witnesses who are valued and trusted — the couple will be seeing their signatures for years to come, and they should elicite feelings of warmth, connection, pride, and love.
You may think that anything other than a halachic (and it’s always whose version of halachic) text to be absurd, a farce, or inauthentic. However, Judaism has always had room within it for descent, for adaption, for re-interpretation, and for adaptability. An interfaith couple that finds meaning in Judaism and seeks to imbue their wedding ceremony with Judaism, can have a ketubah — absolutely.
The question I ask myself is at what point does a tradition or custom get so altered that it becomes something else? Is it possible to appropriate such totally different meaning to a tradition that it no longer makes sense? I think that the original point of a ketubah was to write out the terms of the wedding legally and to protect each partner financially if anything happened to one or the other or the sanctity of the union. While a liberal Jewish ketubah or interfaith ketubah may not be a legal document within Jewish or secular courts, it is still a wedding contract. The texts speak about the parameters for the marriage in terms of hopes and dreams the couple share and in terms of the values each see in the other. So although an interfaith ketubah stretches this Jewish tradition far from the original texts, I do believe it is still within the spirit of traditional ketubahs and still meaningful and emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically binding. Signing the ketubah can be a beautiful way to begin a wedding.
What are your thoughts? Did you use a ketubah at your wedding? Do you hope to include a ketubah as part of your wedding?
Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:
I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”
And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.
A great point to start us off. He continues,
Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.