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Power and Passion in Interfaith Relationships

Many rabbis and other Jewish people view interfaith relationships as a stepping down from Jewish-Jewish relationships, as a kind of betrayal of the group. From the perspective of an oppressed minority group, that position is understandable, as to be "in bed with" the oppressive majority seems like a sell-out of some kind. Yet it is also difficult to understand the failure of tenderness and nurturing of interfaith relationships by some rabbis and Jewish people. Each Passover Jews are reminded to befriend the stranger, to feel that it is we who are coming out of the narrow straits of oppression. As I see it, interfaith relationships represent some of the essence of Judaism--an open mind and an open heart in action.

Often clergy, professionals, and paraprofessionals declare that two-religion families are confusing to children, and that children need their parents to decide on one religion. In thirty years of professional counseling, I have yet to hear of one person suffering because his parents were of different religions. What is harmful is a child's witnessing spoken or unspoken undermining of one parent or another by nuclear or extended family. But children are not confused. Children in interfaith households are enriched by being part of a mutually respectful appreciation of two approaches to the world. One can expect increased cognitive complexity and integration of thought.

Like in one-faith families, bridges about rituals and religion are crossed one at a time. Some decisions are black and white: A boy is either circumcised or he's not. An infant is either baptized or not. But a child's true sense of her/himself develops over time. A child does not begin to think seriously about right and wrong, or religion and God, until around age seven or eight, and the way children experience religion changes as they mature. They may say things at age four, such as "I wish Daddy were Jewish so he could wear a yarmulke" (head covering), that are different from what they would say at age fourteen: "I wish I was Catholic like Daddy so I didn't have to wear a yarmulke."

Interfaith relationships, like heterosexual relationships, are a cross-cultural experience. And like heterosexual relationships, where one gender is more valued than another, Christian-Jewish relationships may be characterized as majority-minority relationships. Some Jewish people speak about "passing" as Christians, as light-skinned African-Americans speak about passing as whites. The flavor of the interfaith relationship may have very much to do with which religion is represented by which gender. Women tend to be the more powerful religion-holder.

Some parents--stepparents especially--feel more left out at holidays. A Jewish partner may quietly ache for Hanukkah when the rest of the family is celebrating Christmas, or a Catholic partner may be silently longing for an Easter ham and egg hunt while sitting politely at Passover seder.

The worst difficulties in interfaith relationships usually come from the extended family, which may not appreciate the growth or turn-on experience you have with your partner. We who are in interfaith couples are the translators--we often are in the position to explain/defend/translate some things we enjoy about our partner. When there is a serious struggle in an extended family concerning an interfaith marriage, one does well to sort out whose problem it is. Is this a disappointment for the parent? There are support groups available and create-able, for parents whose children have married outside of their religion. Is this a problem for children? There are support groups for children of interfaith couples (the problem is not the religion, but the competition ).

People new to interfaith relationships do well to listen to their partner and to discuss with their partner what they will and will not compromise. But personalities change as we get older and our children mature. Some people feel more strongly about their religion as they age. When children leave home, one parent may feel more lonely about setting up the menorah or Christmas tree alone.

Each person in a relationship is part of a tribe. Each of us is a package deal: we come with a history of connections, obligations, debts, liabilities, strengths, successes, failures, and longings to do things better this time. We want to keep many of our traditions and cherish parts of the package. We are embarrassed by other parts of the package. We don't want to advertise everything about our past. We want and need both to be understood and appreciated as we are. We also want and need to be pleasantly surprised. Novelty--including the novelty of a partner of a different religious tradition--is opportunity for growth--and it's a turn-on.

Individuals in interfaith relationships often find that their religion takes on more meaning when they describe and/or share their traditions and rituals with someone they love. They take their own religion less for granted.

Interfaith relationships are one way to think globally and act locally.


Carla Haimowitz is a licensed pychologist who has been in private practice in Oakland and Berkeley for thirty years. She writes the "Ask Carla" column for the Contra Costa County Jewish Community Center and also works for Jewish Family and Children's Services.

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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Carla Haimowitz

Carla Haimowitz is a licensed pychologist who has been in private practice in Oakland and Berkeley for thirty years. She writes the "Ask Carla" column for the Contra Costa County Jewish Community Center and also works for Jewish Family and Children's Services.

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