Ron Li-Paz has been the cantor of Valley Outreach Synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, California since 1996. He is committed to the needs of interfaith families and regularly travels throughout the United States and Europe performing lifecycle events and concerts.
How I Counsel Interfaith Couples before Their Wedding
We have all seen the wedding checklists in bridal magazines and wedding guides. They offer a methodical journey toward life enriched by love, companionship and accountability. The easiest boxes to check on these lists might be location, cake, flowers and other incidentals. These are primarily based on taste and means. Certainly, for the interfaith couple, beyond all of the production elements on the checklist, the choice of officiant and character of the ceremony are the most critical. These choices represent compromises, decisions, family relationships, and very often, powerful emotions.
I realize that the decision to approach me, a Reform Jewish officiant, may come of another experience as well, rejection. In many instances, the doors of houses of worship slam shut in the face of the interfaith bride and groom. Upholding tradition, clergy unwittingly usher the pair away from religion and toward a wedding and marriage as legal rather than sacred institutions. In demanding conversion prior to marriage, rabbis and ministers cater to the willing and interested but alienate those who are less knowledgeable or amenable to such an enormous life change. To many, marriage itself is a big enough leap for one stage in life. In such cases, it is a privilege for me as a Jewish officiant to welcome the husband/wife-to-be. I have the opportunity to show them the beauty of the Jewish wedding tradition and to support the couple in their journey toward marriage. Together we create a ceremony that honors them as adults worthy of one another. A door toward religious life is opened.
In our pre-marital discussions, my focus becomes the marrying rather than simply the wedding. After all, what use is a beautiful doorway that leads to a poorly constructed house? In our modern inclusive society, David is at least as likely to fall in love with Christine as he is with Rachel. The reality of interfaith love makes interfaith marriage inevitable. Two mature and loving adults can withstand a modicum of dissonance in their relationship. One can attend synagogue services on Saturday and the other can go to church on Sunday. However, life and statistics teach us that shared experience and common values realized through one religion not only foster compatibility but add the very necessary “glue” to the structure of a life-long partnership.
If the goal of marriage is family, then, I explain to couples, children certainly deserve parents who consider their welfare even before they arrive. Studies and experience teach us that children thrive on rituals, treasure family celebrations and require unambiguous ethics. They benefit from an identity that carries with it a purpose. They grow strong in the knowledge that they are integral and accountable not only to a family but also to a greater community, to the world at large, and to its Creator. While nature introduces children to a world of wondrous resources and sometimes puzzling circumstances, religion offers them an understanding of this world and a guidebook for journeying through it on more than mere instincts. It introduces them to the notion that living can be ennobling.
While adults recognize variety to be rich, children often see it as baffling. In their early years, they look to their parents for clarity and for boundaries. When they strive for independence, they trust their parents to choose appropriate opportunities for it to be expressed. In interfaith religious terms, a child raised with two religions and the independence to choose one can become desperately conflicted. My own experience with these boys and girls shows that in many cases they struggle with the wealth of their inheritance. They feel that inevitably, they will have to make a choice. That choice in their eyes will be between parents, not religions.
As the son of interfaith parents (my step-mother was raised Catholic), a cantor and a parent myself, I suggest to prospective interfaith wedding couples that they apply the same principle of wise parental leadership to the issue of religion that they would to other integral aspects of parenting. For instance, when my family eats at a buffet, my wife and I seat our young children and then make suitable dining choices for them. We do not merely offer them a sea of choices and assume that they will be mature and able to choose appropriately. Needless to say, the day will dawn when we the parents will be seated and trust the little ones to march forward and make wise choices for themselves. Hopefully, by that day, we will have guided them well.