Rabbi Elias Lieberman has served the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Falmouth, Mass., since 1990.
A Rabbi's Perspective on the Subtle Issues That Can Arise in an Interfaith Marriage
Interfaith couples heading towards marriage often have any number of hurdles to clear before they approach the altar or step beneath a chuppah (wedding canopy): dealing with family objections or disappointments over a choice of a mate; negotiating the details of a ceremony; securing the services of a member of the clergy; planning a celebration. It is tempting to think that, once the wedding is over, the duplicate gifts exchanged, and the last thank-you note written, interfaith married life will unfold smoothly and happily.
Certainly for some couples this is the case. But for many interfaith couples, the passing years of marriage often present unanticipated challenges for each faith partner. They can erupt with startling intensity or can simmer for years before percolating to the surface of a relationship.
While many couples are sexually active before marriage, attitudes towards sexuality may be overtly or subtly shaped by one's religious and cultural background. As a marriage unfolds, sexual intimacy may hold some challenging surprises. A simple request in the bedroom may trigger deeply internalized messages about what is permissible and what is "sinful," which are rooted in religious teachings. The ways in which we view our bodies and the role of sex in a marriage is often conditioned by messages we may have received from our parents and/or those who taught us the fundamentals of our faith tradition when we were young.
Some issues, not surprisingly, begin to surface when children arrive on the scene. What was once theoretical or part of a chapter in that book you read on making interfaith relationships work is now a beautiful little person, waiting to be welcomed into a life of faith... but how? With which rituals and honoring which faith tradition? The brit milah (covenantal circumcision) ceremony which Jewish Dad was assuming would take place on the eight day of his newborn son's life now strikes Christian Mom (and perhaps Mom's family) as archaically barbaric and hardly a cause for a celebration. The baptismal experience, much anticipated by one side of the family, becomes a bone of contention when the Jewish grandparents declare that they cannot celebrate a Christian grandchild.
What happens when Christian grandparents, knowing their grandchild is being raised as Jew, ignore Hanukkah completely and gift the child with presents only at Christmas? What happens when a Jewish spouse says nothing when his relatives utter pejorative remarks about Islam right in front of his Moslem wife?
Some issues fester. As one member of my congregation in an interfaith marriage told me, she never expected her Christian husband to actively celebrate Jewish life with her and their children, whom they had agreed to raise as Jews. But it rankled her greatly--and increasingly through the years of her marriage--that her husband chose not to refrain from eating bread in their house during Passover when she and their children could eat only matzah. His insensitivity on this issue was a subtle and corrosive surprise in her marriage.
For some Jews in interfaith marriages, the failure of a spouse to appreciate the "tribal" nature of Judaism can be a source of disappointment and tension. The almost instinctive love of Israel which many Jews feel or the pride they experience when they read of a newsworthy accomplishment by a Jew may be lost on the spouse. Conversely, the non-Jewish partner's assessment of the Israeli-Arab conflict may be at odds with that of the Jewish spouse. Middle Eastern politics, especially in an interfaith marriage, can make for estranged bedfellows!
And then there's money. There are people who would sooner discuss the intimate details of their sex lives than talk about money. To the extent that our attitudes towards money may be conditioned by the religious and cultural values in which we were steeped, the ways in which interfaith couples negotiate financial matters may reflect differences rooted in their respective faith backgrounds. Should we tithe? Is Christian tithing different than Jewish tithing? How do we go about estate planning? Is money a God-given tool to do God's work in this world or is it the root of all evil? Do our kids deserve allowances or should they earn their spending money?
Obviously, all of the potential issues I've cited can develop in any marriage, be it religiously endogamous or exogamous. Two people who share a common religious background may come from very different socio-economic backgrounds, and those differences can certainly introduce challenges into a marriage. Religion, however, adds an especially forceful element into the mix which two people bring to a marriage, precisely because religious beliefs are inherently emotional matters, not easily subject to calm and rational negotiation.
I know of no method to prepare any couple for the kinds of subtle and challenging issues which will arise in every marriage over the course of time. To the extent that partners can train themselves to listen to their beloved with a compassionate heart; be well informed about their partner's faith background, its important teachings, and its emotional meaning for their partner; and remember that a sense of humor is deemed a divine gift in every faith tradition, interfaith couples can hope to successfully negotiate every curve on the marital road.
Rabbi Elias Lieberman has served the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Falmouth, Massachusetts, since 1990.