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Can You Call It Interdating When Your Partner is Agnostic?

Originally published March 23, 2009. Republished March 17, 2011.

Dear InterfaithFamily.com Readers,

I have a confession to make: I'm not sure I fit the criteria for inclusion. In fact, my situation may challenge the appropriateness of your terms "interfaith" and "family," when it comes to considering what I think is the real heart of the matter: disengagement.

I'm 27, living with my agnostic boyfriend of five years and not planning on having children. This is not an interfaith family--it's a relationship between a Jewish woman, me, and a man who professes not to profess, who has been to only a handful of religious services in his entire life (if you don't count a few years of attendance at a one-room Buddhist-operated elementary school). What we have is not really a family--it is a lasting relationship that might someday end, conducted between two people. And it is not really interfaith, either--because that word implies a dialogue between two different faiths, while the conversations we have about my religion are perhaps more similar to ones that might be had between an artist and an anthropologist.

Shabbat Candles bw
"It hurts me to think that I might light Shabbat candles only for myself. That I might light them just to increase my sense of pleasure in maintaining a tradition. A tradition that is not shared in my home by anyone else. And so, most weeks, I don't light them." Photo: Flickr/SarahNaomi.

When I talk to him about what being Jewish means to me, he is curious, interested and often amused. (I admit, I tell some pretty entertaining stories.) He understands intellectually and emotionally that I consider myself a religious person and that I see the world through the perspective of a particular tradition. He even encourages me at times to engage in a more active practice, especially when I have been complaining about how my current disengagement too often leaves me feeling hollow and unconnected to things that I have found profoundly enriching.

But the thing is, he doesn't share in what I do. If I want to go to shul, I go alone, without his presence nearby. If I want to light Shabbat candles, I am free to do so, but the light that shines isn't any different to him from the light that shines from dinner candles on any other night. I could, of course, make more efforts to spend time with my sister (who lives 40 minutes away by car) or with old friends I've known from my parents' havurah for more than 20 years (who live a similar distance away). We share Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah and sometimes Pesach together but rarely make the time for a Shabbat visit. Certainly, a key factor in my current sense of disconnection comes from the difficulties of sustaining regular ties to my existing nearby Jewish family.

And yet, what I want to lay out for you is something that is probably common in my generation--a disconnection and disengagement that is not due to an interfaith relationship but is furthered by a similar though different kind of relationship issue. For, as a fairly young person living in a mostly secular world, I've fallen in love with someone for whom religion is a fascinating externality. Sometimes I almost wish that he really were Buddhist, or that his parents had raised him in some variety of Christianity (one rejected Catholicism in favor of atheism, the other rejected Evangelical Protestantism in favor of a personal spirituality with connections to various meditative traditions and rooted in a deep connection to nature). Because I sometimes wish that we could have a personal interfaith exchange in our relationship.

I'm not scared of a little syncretism in practice--my sense of my own theology is strong enough to take it! I'd be delighted to be invited to a Buddhist retreat or to Catholic Mass or to a Muslim prayer service, as long as I would be welcome as a not-fully participating guest. I'd be particularly pleased if it meant that I could invite him to help me find a shul where we could both feel welcome to attend every now and then. I like to joke that if we were in an interfaith relationship, we could trade off practices like recipes or hands of hearts, diamond, clubs ... I've got traditions I enjoy in spades. But the fact is, he doesn't have his own deck of these cards and he's not particularly invested in communal religious rituals as anything other than intriguing and important cultural practices that he views from the outside.

It's hard to find the energy to engage in a Jewish community and engage in a Jewish life, when I realize that I don't know how to make space for a real Jewish life within my relationship. I have no desire to make him practice things he doesn't believe. And I have no lust to change his fundamental approach to the world. One of the things I love about him is his open acceptance of others, tempered by a magnanimous skepticism. When it comes to culture and aesthetics, he's quick to appreciate, slow to dislike and always asking another question. I cannot really imagine him being anything but an agnostic--it seems like it is as fundamental a part of his identity as my Judaism is a part of mine.

Yet, I have equally little desire to perform rituals and practices that I am not sharing. For me, the wonder of Shabbat candles is the space of peace and love they always seem to make in a home, bringing everyone together in a simple, shared moment of calm and gratitude. They shine in the eyes of all who will sit together to affirm the presence of each other and of that ineffable other presence that fills all my days in ways large and small.

It hurts me to think that I might light Shabbat candles only for myself. That I might light them just to increase my sense of pleasure in maintaining a tradition. A tradition that is not shared in my home by anyone else. And so, most weeks, I don't light them. We find other things to do, things we both enjoy sharing with each other: seeing our friends perform live music, cooking food and discussing the news of the world, watching a new film and dissecting its meaning, et cetera ad infinitem. There are so many ways to mutually enjoy the world around us. It's just that sometimes, I really miss being able to share my larger sense of wonder and awe through the words that have been passed down l'dor v'dor.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Jannon Stein

Jannon Stein works in publishing and lives in Los Angeles.

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