Erin Bernau is a graduate of Yale University and works as an editor at an educational publishing company. She and Ethan live in the Pacific Northwest where they are planning their September wedding.
Finding the Balance
InterfaithFamily.com does not take an editorial position on officiation at interfaith weddings. We welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community and support their journeys. This article is one example of what is happening in interfaith weddings today.
It starts innocently enough. You're attracted to each other, share common interests, have common goals for the future. So you decide to get married.
Suddenly, things get awfully complicated. As similar as you are, you're also very different people who come from very distinct backgrounds, cultures, and religions. And despite the unmitigated importance of the big white dress, the perfectly catered meal, and the stunning location, you feel that the ceremony must be the heart of any wedding. But that's the one thing you just can't seem to figure out...
If you're planning your interfaith wedding, I'm sure the above situation has some degree of relevance to you. My Jewish fiancé and I were shocked to discover that as easy as it was to choose a band, invitations, cake, and flowers, we were simply unable to decide how and by whom we should be married. My fiancé Ethan is the product of an interfaith marriage. He chose to have a Bar Mitzvah (ceremony in which one assumes the obligations and privileges of an adult member of the Jewish community) and identifies himself as both culturally and religiously Jewish. I was raised in California where my parents' Episcopalian backgrounds and new-agey spiritual interests equally informed my own religious upbringing.
By the time we met, during our junior year of college, Ethan was pretty much a secular Jew who enjoyed spending holidays with his extended Jewish family but also considered himself an agnostic. I, on the other hand, was a regular churchgoer and avid reader of all kinds of religious and spiritual texts, sacred writings, and spiritual memoirs. Ethan was accepting of the various and sundry cross-currents which peppered my views on religion, spirituality, and morality, while I enjoyed learning more about Judaism through spending long, joyful Passover seders (ritual meals) with his family. We agreed to disagree, or at least to be tolerant, about religion and felt that we had worked out compromises that fit our relationship's particular needs and concerns.
And then we became engaged! Suddenly, all of those open-ended conversations, philosophies, and ideas seemed awfully amorphous. The wonderful thing about religious dogma is that it gives people in vulnerable situations structure and focus for major transitions in life. Birth, death, and marriage have their own unique processes and sequences to be followed. And these processes give comfort and continuity across the ages.
But here Ethan and I were with two very different traditions that needed addressing. So, denial took over. We began planning, and soon various parts of the wedding had fallen into place. And yet, we still had no officiant. We'd each take turns trying to bring up the conversation. And, we'd each in turn get shut down by the other. At this point, we invited our parents to give their opinions. My dad mentioned that he and my mom had been married in the Swedenborg church, an obscure Protestant denomination, simply because they loved a particular chapel that overlooked the Pacific. He said that it was important to him that God was mentioned in the ceremony, but other than that he knew that we would make the very best decision for us. Ethan's mom knew a judge who could marry us and seemed interested that there be some Jewish elements in the wedding, but again, it was clear that she was flexible and would be accepting of whatever choice we made.
I started doing research into Jewish weddings, and felt hurt and surprised that there was so much opposition to inclusive interfaith ceremonies. I found rather cruel language on several Internet message boards, many of which referred to families like the one we were about to create as "interfaithless." And, while I continued to consider the possibility of converting to Judaism, the question of how we would raise our own children was still too far in the future for me to commit to raising them Jewish just so a rabbi would marry us.
And yet, I was aware that a church wedding was also out of the question because it was essential that Ethan's Jewish relatives feel comfortable during the ceremony.
Most of all, I felt that while we both would need to compromise, it was also essential that neither of us would look back later on our ceremony and regret that we did not include elements that represented our religious and cultural backgrounds. The ceremony needed to reflect what was different about us with the same amount of dignity and celebration with which it revealed our similarities.
We turned to the Unitarian-Universalist Church because we loved the flexibility it allowed us. We met with a wonderful female minister who assured us that we could have distinct Christian, Jewish, and secular elements that would show our individuality while still preserving traditional elements that would be familiar to our families and friends. We are now hard at work on writing our ceremony with her help and have done hours of research exploring historical, religious, and poetic renderings of marriage, commitment, and family.
As Ethan and I look to the future now, we do so with great hope, expectation, and generous respect for the unknown. We have put our hearts and souls into looking at the challenges and opportunities that interfaith relationships present. Moreover, we have found valuable resources like InterfaithFamily.com, and local religious and community services that provide premarital and child-rearing advice for couples like us. We also feel confident that should we decide to raise our children in a Jewish home, or if I should choose to convert, we now have the resources, respect, and support to be able to do so.
The journey from engagement to marriage has been harder than we could have previously imagined, but we have emerged from it stronger and more respectful of each other as individuals and of us a couple. Our similarities brought us together, and we won't let our differences pull us apart.