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Advice for Separated Interfaith Couples

July 31, 2007

Something deep inside told me that it wouldn't work. Five years and two children later, it was sad but not too surprising to see her in my study, tears streaking her face. The words barely escaped between sobs. Eventually, the story emerged.

Sam and Sandi thought they were deeply in love. That is why Sandi took our Introduction to Judaism course… to learn how to raise a Jewish family. Sam wanted that so badly. And Sandi figured that having the same faith in the home--even though she still believed in Jesus--would strengthen their relationship. However, from the day after their honeymoon--which just happened to be Christmas, and Sam wouldn't go to church with her--things were never right. When Max and Sophie were born, she hoped children would strengthen their marriage. But there were too many fights. Unfortunately, it was always about religion.

When Max was born, Sandi couldn't accept the trauma of circumcision. Sam insisted on it, and by a mohel (one who performs circumcision according to Jewish tradition) no less. She finally agreed to it being done in the hospital, with no ceremony. But then, Sam wouldn't agree that she could baptize their son. Six months ago, Sophie was born and the arguments resumed.

She just couldn't take it and now she was sitting in front of me, asking me for help. She had promised she would raise Jewish children. But, in her heart of hearts, she couldn't. She had left Sam the week before and filed for divorce. She was a woman of honor. But this she could not do. She did not want her children to burn in Hell because they didn't know Jesus.

* * *

The struggle of divorce is painful for any couple. When interfaith couples separate, there are often unique and even more complicated issues involved. The differences in holidays and life-cycles, theological beliefs and family pressures, can be significant contributing factors to the break-up. That said, those interfaith couples whom I have counseled generally fall into one of three categories: a) those who, like Sandi and Sam, divorce because of their differences in faith; b) those who divorce because of "secular" relationship issues, yet for whom faith has become a battle ground, with their children being the wounded soldiers; and c) those who remain consistent in their commitments for raising the children in a particular faith, but because of divorce no longer have the support system to help in the process.

* * *

Regardless of the reasons for divorce, following are some suggestions for those couples with children who separate, as well as advice for extended family:

  • Be true to your heart. Are you truly committed to your current faith affiliation? Or are you hiding behind it to "get back" at your ex-spouse?
  • Practice what you preach. If religion has been the cause of your break-up, then become a devoted follower. You chose religion over relationship. Now understand why.
  • Religion should never be a source of prejudice or attack. You may not agree with your former spouse's faith or practices, but using religion as a sword by which you can attack him/her--such as having your child send her Jewish father a "Jesus loves you" birthday card--is not what religious faith is about.
  • Your word is your bond. If you can, it is important to keep your promise. If you agreed to raise your children as Christians, then learn to embrace those aspects of Christianity that are common to your faith, as well. Focus on what you can share.
  • Learn more. Especially if you are raising children in a faith other than your own, take the time to be a good teacher for your children. Understand their traditions, and help them feel connected to their faith community.
  • For grandparents and extended family: Love your grandchildren with your heart and with your mind. Respect what their parents want and support them. Inserting your religious views confuses at best and contaminates at worst.
  • Finally, remember that there are many paths towards God. Regardless of what you or your former spouse believes, help your child to see God as a friend, and faith as a comfort.

* * *

A number of years later, I received an invitation to the service at which Sandi's son was being called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. In it was a note, "Rabbi, I thought you would like to see this. As I have learned more about Judaism, I have come closer to my own faith. My children know they are Jewish and come to church just to support me. Thanks for helping me make a good 'Jewish' decision."

And what was that decision? To continue to raise her kids Jewish, even though her Jewish husband decided not to help once they divorced.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.

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