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Why We Call Them Intercultural Weddings: A Secular Humanistic Jewish Approach

When Jews are about to intermarry, they confront their feelings about their Jewish identity. This is a critical and vulnerable moment. If the Jewish community turns them away, they may never again identify with the Jewish people.

The Secular Humanistic Jewish position on intermarriage responds to the needs of Jews who have decided to intermarry by helping them create a marriage ceremony that affirms elements of the backgrounds of each member of the couple.

Intercultural marriage is the term I use to describe the marriage of a Jew to someone from another religious tradition. Intercultural marriage acknowledges that while the backgrounds of the partners differ, their love is based on shared values. These values may derive from different sources, but feel compatible to the partners. Interfaith marriage, a term we prefer not to use, suggests an attempt to join, or marry, two different belief systems. This difference may be semantic, but it is emotionally valid. Intercultural marriage places the difference in the past, not the present.

Secular Humanistic Jewish clergy not only accept intermarriage as a fact, but also support the right of the partners to make a marital choice based on their love for each other. Our rabbis and leaders (ordained clergy) officiate joyfully at ceremonies when one partner is not Jewish and co-officiate with representatives of other religious traditions. When I co-officiate, I follow these Secular Humanistic Jewish guidelines: I ask that the ceremony be a blended one that includes symbols and traditions from both backgrounds; that the ceremony be equally shared between the two clergy; and that Christian clergy use language common to both traditions--specifically, that the theistic language refer only to God only, not to Jesus.

Dignity and integrity exist in a marriage ceremony only when the people involved in the relationship are acknowledged authentically for who they are. In preparation for the wedding, I encourage couples to reflect on their own identities. Planning a wedding is an opportunity for them to reevaluate their connection to their heritage and discover what is important to them.

Often the partners have never discussed their feelings about their heritage with one another. This is an ideal time to address these issues and develop communication skills to deal with them. I encourage couples to be open and honest with one another. I also encourage them to ask their parents about their needs and expectations. I ask them to listen to their parents and then to make a decision based on their own needs, while considering their parents' feelings. Ultimately, the couple must decide for themselves what they wish to do at their ceremony. If they make choices different from their parents' requests, I encourage them to lovingly tell their parents what choices they have made, and that the choices were based on their own needs and the needs of each family.

Many couples place a high value on equality and want their ceremony to equally represent each of their backgrounds. Although they may not personally share the beliefs of their families, they do respect them and want to show their respect. Usually, each member of the couple wants something familiar from his or her tradition included in the ceremony, and neither wants an encounter with anything that would feel uncomfortable. In striving for equality, it is rare for either member of the couple to consider conversion.

Secular Humanistic Jewish ceremonies are creative and personal. A new ceremony is typically created for each couple based on its unqiue needs and desires. From the Jewish tradition, we might have a chuppah (wedding canopy) under which the couple is married and a cup of wine from which they drink. From the Christian tradition, they may light a unity candle, give flowers to their mothers, and read from texts they find meaningful--whether a favorite poem, excerpt from the Bible, lyrics of a much-loved song, or something they have written themselves. I always explain the meaning of the symbols so that they will not seem alien to those from a different tradition.

The focus of the ceremony is on the individuals being married and the partnership they are creating, their connection to family and to their heritage. I celebrate their love with them and their families. While I am willing to officiate either in a temple or a church, I believe that a neutral setting is preferable for an intercultural marriage.

The greatest concern is always about future children. Although I recommend that couples begin the process of discussing how they want to raise their children, I am realistic enough to know that they cannot make the decision before they actually have a child. We never know how we will feel about something until we are experiencing the situation. To make a promise to a prospective spouse or future in-laws about raising children in one tradition or another and then discovering that you cannot live with that decision could promote feelings of severe betrayal, something we want to protect these couples from.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has a distinctive approach to intercultural marriage, one that respectfully acknowledges each partner in the union and provides a warm and embracing environment for both the Jewish and the non-Jewish partner to raise their children within the Jewish community.

Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris

Rabbi Miriam Jerris is the rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis. She has been supporting intermarried couples and their families for more than 22 years. Jerris has been married to her Humanist, born-Catholic husband for more than 16 years. Contact her at miriamjerris@shj.org or through her website theweddingconnection.net.

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