Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.
Negotiating Identities: Queer Interfaith Couples Share their Stories
Liz* was raised as a Reform Jew; her partner Dawn is Catholic. Neither of them is particularly observant. "I identify mainly as a lesbian," Liz explains. "Because of my moral system, I [also] identify as a Jew, even though I do not believe in God, or in practicing any of the rituals."
"I do not know if we are out as an interfaith couple," Liz muses. "Mostly, people we know don't concern themselves with religion as part of their daily lives. I do think that most people know I am Jewish... Dawn's last name is [clearly] Italian, and I think most people assume that she is Catholic."
Maybe because of the limited role religion plays in their lives, "other discrepancies in our relationship present greater difficulties" than their interfaith status, Liz says. The differences in their economic backgrounds impact their partnership more than the differences in their religious backgrounds do.
Liz and Dawn aren't alone in this. For many queer couples, religion just isn't an issue; they're more invested in queer identity issues than in religious ones. Take Michael and Steve, two doctors who live in Boston. Michael was raised Jewish, but feels little identification with it now; Steve is Christian, and considers himself "spiritual" but not religious. "Michael and I are very open about our interfaith partnership," Steve says. "Because neither of us is very observant, our different religions have never been an issue for either of us or our families."
Michael concurs. "The interfaith-ness of our relationship is not even an issue, although we're happy to talk about it if people want."
They don't intend to have children, so they don't anticipate any particular struggles, neither with raising children as gay men in their community nor with deciding what faith(s) to transmit. "No kids, just chihuahuas," Michael says, then jokes, "The girl dog seems Jewish. The boy, we think, doesn't observe."
Dan and Tom feel similarly. Dan's upbringing was Christian, in a variety of forms (baptized Unitarian, attended a Baptist Sunday school, of Catholic and Lutheran heritage) and his partner Tom is Jewish. "Neither of us is involved religiously now. Occasionally, we attend a bar/bat mitzvah of [one of] my partner's relatives and friends," Dan says.
Although Dan was involved with Integrity (a gay Episcopal movement) for a while, today neither man is religiously affiliated. They are "out" about their gayness, but agree that being "out" about their interfaith partnership is a non-issue. Like Michael and Steve, they don't plan on children.
Some of the people I interviewed considered religion an important part of their lives, but didn't mind the differences between their and their partners' faiths. Like Hanne, a writer who lives in Baltimore. She identifies as "a Reconstructionist Jew who also worships the Divine in the form of the Goddess," and says her partner "is a Taoist with modern-pagan-esque tendencies."
Within her Jewish community, Hanne says, people have a harder time with her multifaceted religious practices than with her interfaith relationship, although she sees the two issues as connected. "I've often been given the impression that interfaith relationships can be tolerated... but only if you insulate your Judaism and don't allow your partner's faith or community or philosophies to 'infect' you," she says. Openness to her partner, regardless of faith or gender-expression, goes hand-in-hand with openness to her own varied religious needs.
Hanne doesn't generally consider her partnership "interfaith" because she doesn't "experience a disjuncture" between her beliefs/practices and her partner's. "Although I know much of the rest of the world doesn't agree, it feels all of a piece to me." They're not certain yet whether they intend to have a child, but if they do, the child would be reared in both traditions because they consider themselves each to have been enriched by exposure to the other's faith.
Los Angeles-based lawyer Elinor finds exposure to other faiths enriching, too. Elinor is part of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); her girlfriend Becky, a student, is Jewish. "I think everyone who knows we're together knows we're of different faiths," Elinor muses. Since the relationship is fairly new, Elinor and Becky aren't talking about kids yet. Elinor is the daughter of an intermarriage herself, and treasures her own interfaith upbringing, so might be inclined to duplicate a dual-faith household for her own kids.
Sarah and her partner Karen also live on the West Coast. Sarah is Jewish; Karen, daughter of a pastor, is Presbyterian. "She's a fixture at Passover with my family, usually more happy to go to services than I am. She is a singer and has learned various songs in Hebrew... Because her Jewish knowledge and skills are so great, she is often mistaken for Jewish," Sarah explains. The pair were married under a chuppah (wedding canopy), with a rabbi present, although Sarah acknowledges that they had some "major high-level negotiations" before the ceremony was possible in a form that was comfortable both for them and for the rabbi. "We don't spend much time in our religious community now," she says. "Those who know Karen is not Jewish have been welcoming. Anyone who knows us at all knows that Karen made us join the temple and is the one who is more oriented towards being involved." Sarah and Karen plan to have a child, and plan to raise the child "as both" to reflect the child's two-part heritage, although they intend to stress Jewishness in their home, in part to balance the prevalence of Christianity in mainstream American culture.
Of the couples I interviewed who anticipate children, all expressed a firm commitment to rearing their kids with both heritages. No one seemed especially concerned with whether their Jewish communities would reject them for making that decision.
Maybe these queer couples, who tend to see gender and sexuality as relatively fluid, are more comfortable seeing faith and tradition that way, too: rather than the rigid categories of either/or, they embrace the possibilities of both/and. It's also possible that once queer couples have surmounted the social, familial, and communal hurdles of coming out as queer, religious differences (or the possibility of meeting with interfaith objections from their religious communities) just don't seem like that big a deal.
Do queer interfaith couples face a double gauntlet of prejudices? To what extent are coming out as queer and coming out as interfaith similar? And if queer couples plan to rear children, do they face a different kind of interfaith dilemma? No set of answers to these questions fits every couple. Some don't intend to rear children; some don't regard religion as relevant to their lives. Some acknowledge contradictions between their own beliefs and practices and those of their partner or their community, while others don't see any disjunction in a mixed-faith household.
Coming away from these interviews, the only certainty I have is that the rich and varied voices of queer interfaith couples and families will impact our communities, our congregations, and our traditions in more ways than I can count or predict.
* Some names have been changed at the request of the couples I interviewed.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. 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.