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
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Many might ask, even accuse, how can I, a rabbi who once was Orthodox, who served an Orthodox congregation and at the helm of Orthodox educational institutions, be willing, nay eager, to help interfaith couples and (co)officiate at their weddings?
Let me open with a family story. I remember a discussion my grandmother had with my great-uncle in front of me. They had both moved from the East Coast to Portland, Oregon to be with their children and grandchildren. Neither was observant in the Orthodox sense of the word, but both had bought kosher meat back east. While my grandmother continued to buy kosher meat in Portland despite the higher price, my great uncle started buying non-kosher meat, once he moved out there. He explained that kosher meat was just too expensive. My grandmother sternly responded, that she continued to buy kosher meat, because, "that is how our parents brought us up!"
That logic never made sense to me. I bought kosher food, lived in the eruv, sent my kids to a costly day school, and fulfilled all the other costly and taxing demands of halacha, because I firmly believed that God had commanded me to do so. Even where tradition came into play, such as the standard derech hapsak (modus of halachic ruling) of the Rama 1, concepts of minhag yisrael din hu (the custom of Israel has the force of law), and the like, the implicit, if not explicit reasoning was that God wants you to do it this way, not that tradition in and of itself had some independent value aside from God's will. My opposition at the time to intermarriage, as to any transgression of Jewish law had nothing to do with tradition. As an Orthodox rabbi I did not, nor would I have dreamt of, performing intermarriages, as it is against halacha. Period. What mattered to me was the desire of the deity, not a tradition in and of itself.
Somewhere in the middle of 2006, this all changed. I had an epiphany of sorts, and it became clear to me that I could not remain Orthodox. I began a year and a half long journey of study and exploration, at the end of which I left the Orthodox world behind. I now live my life as a Jewish secular humanist. I no longer buy kosher food, live in the eruv, send my kids to a costly day school, or fulfill all the other costly and taxing demands of halacha, because I firmly believe that no God has commanded me to do so. As my objection to officiating at intermarriages was part and parcel of my halachic life, I see no reason not to do this now. Period. Now what guides my life are the ideals of humanism. What matters is how I can help my fellow human being, and how I can make the world a better place for humanity in general. That is of the most paramount importance, not the imagined desire of a deity.
I remember when I first met with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, over some kosher ribs at Irv's Market in Kansas City. (Cukierkorn had stated that his reason for moving to Kansas City could be summed up in one word, "BBQ.")He explained his philosophy of what he would and wouldn't do through a story which was intended in good humor to cause even the most liberal Orthodox rabbi (me) to raise an eyebrow. Once he got the effect he wanted, he explained seriously that he has one criterion when he judges a potential act--will it further the cause of Judaism? I too have one criterion--will what I do help my fellow human beings, and will it further the cause of humanistic ideals?
Treating a couple with kindness and compassion, as human beings, as individuals, which is the way they treated each other when they fell in love is the best way of fulfilling this. In fact, I can think of few things better than helping a couple make the most important day of their life even more wonderful, especially when so many rabbis will not do so without attaching numerous conditions. Most studies and personal anecdotal experiences indicate that the vast majority of the rabbis that will perform intermarriages attach conditions to such willingness, such as no officiating on Shabbat, officiating only for members of the rabbi's synagogue, no co-officiating with non-Jewish clergy, officiating only if the couple will raise their children as Jewish, and more and more. Very few, like me, attach no conditions to their willingness to officiate or co-officiate.
Rabbi Adam Chalom describes all marriages as intermarriages. People marry multifaceted individuals; each one of us has many defining characteristics, with our religion being just one of them. In that sense even a marriage between two Ultra-Orthodox Jews is a mixed marriage, and a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, who are on the same "wave length" in many things could be less of a stretch, depending on the other characteristics of each individual. In Grown Up Love is Complicated Amy Elkes writes, "My boyfriend and I share many of the same beliefs and values. We both believe in acting with honesty and integrity. We both honor our families and believe that children are a couple's greatest commitment. We love learning and traveling and exploring new places. When we face problems, no matter what kind, we turn to one another for comfort and support. In short we do not define ourselves solely by our religions, and as a result, we have a tremendous amount of common ground to stand on." Each couple must ascertain if their "package" is one that will work. After all a perfectly halachic marriage between a Humanistic Jew and an ultra-Orthodox Jew would probably have a lesser chance of remaining intact, than one between a Humanistic Jew and a Humanistic Buddhist. 2
The interesting thing is that if we are to invoke tradition, we who see nothing wrong with interfaith marriage have quite a leg to stand on, and in a sense a better one than those who invoke tradition against it. After all, from the period where our ancestors, the Canaanites of the Central Highlands started to define themselves as Israelites and Judahites to at least 450 B.C.E., beyond the standard xenophobia, so common to those times, not many thought there was really that much wrong with intermarriage. This was in part because they all worshipped many of the same gods, with a small group of priests in the 7th Century B.C.E. pushing monolatry 3 of one of those particular gods, Yahweh, and trying to foment a little bit more than the standard xenophobia with their intermarriage prohibitions. The latter openly lament, that they really didn't make too much of a "splash" at the time in the general populace. That is why we see intermarriage exemplified by the legendary figures of Ruth (Ruth 1,4; 4,13), Ma'acha (I Chronicles 3,2), Na'ama(I Kings 14,21), Jezebel (I Kings 17,31), Yeter (I Chronicles 2,17), Uriah (II Samuel 11,3) and many more. Prof. Baruch Halpern 4 talks about the fact that in general this Yahweh Alone party rewrote history with the traditional Israelite practice condemned as foreign and against tradition, and the new practice of this new party elevated as the true Israelite tradition. This is just one more instance where that is so true. By being open to interfaith marriage we invoke the ancient and true traditions of our Canaanite/Israelite ancestors. By leaving their xenophobia behind, we improve on these traditions.
I feel a personal connection to such an avenue of thinking regarding myself as one who will (co)officiate at interfaith marriages. The following is my personal conjecture, and I may be a little off, but certainly not anymore so than traditional Judaism's version. There have been a number of fascinating studies regarding the evidence mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA markers give us regarding the development of the human race. One of the most fascinating of these studies is the study that implies that 70-80% of today's male Kohanim (Aaronide or Zadokite priests) are in fact descended from a single common male ancestor who lived 2100-3500 years ago 5. Now, the consensus of archeologists is quite clear that the Israelites and Judahites emerged from the Canaanites of the Central Highlands 6. That means that that ancestor most probably came from within that milieu. If you read between the lines of the Bible, you can see that there is a certain probability that the story of the Aaronide priesthood really begins with the selection of two rival Cannanite priesthood lines by the rustic Judahite chieftain we know as David (who we now have evidence did in fact exist 7) with the Zadokite line winning out. When I, a Kohen, stand before a couple and consecrate them in marriage, I see myself not only as an heir to the historical traditions of Judaism and the original Cannanite/Israelites, but also, by virtue of my DNA, as an heir to that ancient Cannanite priesthood, who may have officiated at many marriages of all sorts, without anyone thinking anything about it.
Some may say that officiating at interfaith marriages will decimate the Jewish people. Some, and I count my former self as guilty in this regard, even use abhorrent references to a "voluntary holocaust", as if people wishing to marry those they love are analogous to those who murdered a third of our people. Again Chalom is poignant in his thinking in this matter. Why not look at this as enlarging the Jewish people? To Jewish theists of all stripes, there is a need to legally define who is Jewish and who is not, as they look at Jews through religious eyes. Who is a Jew, is as important a subject to the most liberal Reform rabbi, as it is to her Neturai Karta counterpart. To them, by virtue of some version of halacha the children of the interfaith couple will be Jewish or won't be Jewish, and this is a concern of the utmost importance.
To me, Judaism is primarily an issue of culture, history, and an intellectual tradition, the positive and relevant aspects of which I embrace along with the traditions of the enlightenment. One can be a part of many different cultures. My children are three quarters Ashkenazic, and one quarter Sephardic. Did I do damage to Ashkenazi culture by not marrying a fully Ashkenazic woman? My cousin married a man from China. Did she do damage to her children by not marrying an American born man? Did he do damage to his children by not marrying a Chinese woman? Certainly, to their shame, many people, a generation or two ago would have answered to the affirmative. To the shame of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, they still answer to the affirmative today to my first question. Need we be so narrow-minded? Can we not understand that there is something enriching and positive and wonderful about more people out there being heirs to a Jewish cultural, historical and intellectual tradition, combined with whatever additional identities they have? This should be seen as a blessing, not a problem.
Our rabbis ask (Bereshit Rabbah 68,4) what does God do ever since he finished with the heavy lifting of creation? They tell us that he does one thing--matchmaking. The idea of marriage, two separate people coming together to form one united entity, when you think about it, is really quite fantastic. In our modern culture with the high divorce rate, we see how incredibly difficult it can be to keep such a package intact. Those of us who are married know that you need to keep working at it day by day. If we are approached by a couple who deeply love each other, who have thought the issues of their compatibility through, and have decided that they would like nothing more than to spend their life together, blending their lives and their flesh into one, and they ask us to help them make this dream come true, dare we say no? I know I cannot, and I will not. I will not attach any conditions to my willingness to (co)officiate, and I will have one question only, the question Chalom says he asks couples when they approach him, "Do you love each other?" If the answer is yes, I will have only one response, "Mazel Tov, now let's look at some dates?"
1. Acronym in Hebrew for the Polish Rabbi Moshe Iserles, contrary to his Spanish counterpart, Rabbi Yosef Karo, ruled primarily based on tradition, many times opening his glosses on the latter's ruling with the phrase "In these lands the custom is". Karo based his rulings primarily on a quasi democratic system amongst three rabbis, Maimonides, Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, and Rabbenu Asher, whom he crowned, the "three pillars of Halacha". This arbitrary system was severely criticized by Iserles and others.
2. See for instance Winterbottom, M. (Director). (2007). A Mighty Heart, and the book it was based on, which tells the story of Daniel and Mariane Pearl, who fit this bill. The film includes scenes of their interfaith marriage.
3. This is the concept of believing in the existence of many gods, but swearing allegiance to only one. This is quite different from monotheism, where one believes in the existence of only one god. Most scholars today agree that the Yahweh Alone party were monolatrists, not monotheists, and the straightforward reading of the Hebrew Bible really always pointed in that direction.
4.Halpern, B. Sybil, or the Two Nations? Archaism, Kinship, Alienation, and the Elite Redefinition of Traditional Culture in Judah in the 8th-7th Centuries B.C.E., in Cooper, J. S. and Schwartz, G. M. (1996). The Study of the Ancient Near East in the Twenty-First Century: The William Foxwell Albright Centennial Conference. Indiana: Eisenbrauns
6. Finkelstein, I. & Silberman, N. A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed. New York: Simon and Schuster