Rabbi Julie Greenberg has served a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia since 2001 and is also a licensed family therapist. She can be reached at email@example.com or through rabbijuliegreenberg.com.
Dan and Christine (names have been changed) come to my monthly interfaith support group distressed by their dilemma. They are a couple of attractive, successful young professionals who have been dating for two years. Each feels that it is time to move forward with plans for marriage or end the relationship. Yet they feel stuck, totally stuck.
Christine explains in her vivacious, forthright way that she was raised in the Armenian Apostolic church. She is wholeheartedly committed to raising Armenian Catholic children. While she wouldn't mind exposing children to the heritage of a Jewish husband, she is definitely passionately planning a Christian upbringing for them.
Meanwhile Dan cares about his Jewish identity and would like his children to share it. But the fact that he is in love with Christine is leading him to question whether he can compromise on his religious desires. Can he imagine raising Christian children? What about his own heart-felt links to his Jewish traditons? Would he be giving up too much?
As Christine and Dan present their dilemma to the group, our hearts go out to them. What a hard place to be in. Having counseled hundreds of interfaith couples, I appreciate Christine for being so clear about her priorities. She is brave and honest enough to speak her truth, even though she might lose Dan because of it. While this kind of honesty is painful in the present, it is much more helpful than avoiding the issue through vagueness and false assumptions. Speaking your truth, whatever it is, is essential to a healthy relationship.
In so many relationships, even when people start with huge differences, a process of listening, learning, negotiating, problem solving, and evolving together can help two partners find meeting places that work for both of them. But some situations involve either/or choices. You can't have a baby and not have a baby. You can't live in California and not live in California. You can't raise your children as Christians and not raise your children as Christians.
Dan needs to register that Christine is saying loudly and clearly "Christianity and me are a package deal. This isn't an area where I can compromise or change who I am." Dan has big choices to make. He can keep the relationship but give up his vision of raising Jewish children, or stay true to his desire to raise Jewish children and probably lose this relationship. This is a real dilemma and it is no wonder that Dan and Christine, who deeply care about one another, feel stuck.
There's no right answer for Dan as he grapples with his choice and there's no one who can tell him what to do. This is a major life crossroads that he'll have to face in coming to the decision he can best live with. The support group can help him to realize that whatever he chooses, there will be loss involved. If he chooses his own intergenerational Jewish identity, he'll lose his partner. If he chooses his partner, he will lose his right to pass on his heritage to Jewish offspring. In either case, making space for acknowledging the loss, and mourning, even grieving, for what might have been, will be important for Dan.
Excruciating as this kind of dilemma is, it is a by-product of being an adult, free to shape one's own destiny. No parent or king, God or clergy, therapist or guru can tell Dan which decision is best for him. And who knows, once he has decided, life goes on and it's possible that other pieces of the puzzle will shift. Maybe Dan will end the relationship with Christine and then she'll decide that her priority is their relationship even more than her religion. Maybe she'll be the one to mourn. Maybe he'll choose his religion and in a few months he'll meet a wonderful partner who is open to Jewish education for the kids. Maybe he'll choose Christine and feel that the life they are making together is worth this sacrifice. Who knows how it will play out?
Couples sometimes ask me whether I think one of them will resent the other for having to give something up. I think when people make their own decisions, without coercion, resentment isn't what follows. As Dan maturely makes this hard choice, owning it as his own difficult decision, I would expect joy, relief and a feeling of liberation to follow because he is living his own life with integrity. With the help of our interfaith support group, hopefully he will listen to his partner's position, clarify his own values and desires, mourn what can't be, and move on.
Every life involves choice, and every life includes joys and sorrows. Dan does not have to do it alone because we are all there to support him. But, thank God, only he can decide how to live his life. It is his choice.