Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
I feel like a fraud.
According to anecdotal wisdom, my husband and I should be on the verge of divorce. We should be arguing non-stop, divided about spiritual choices for our children, and in a general malaise. But anecdotal wisdom is wrong.
My husband is Jewish, I am not. We have, for all intents and purposes, a Jewish home (we worship at and are members of a local Reform temple; our children attend Jewish preschool; and we celebrate the Jewish holidays and Shabbat, the Sabbath). But still, I am not Jewish. I am on the path to conversion, a path that twists and turns and--who knows--may not even reach my stated goal (conversion to Judaism.)
I'm enjoying the trip, though. I'm loving the classes that I take, the weekly calmness of Shabbat, and the rich history that Judaism provides my children. But still, I am not Jewish. As I've said to friends, the reasons for completing a conversion are personal and difficult to delineate, but I don't want my children to pause on the path with me--I'd like them to run on ahead. I'll catch up.
This August will be our eighth wedding anniversary. Eight years have brought us two beautiful children, a couple of cats, two cars, a mortgage, 416 Shabbats, and almost as many ways to celebrate them. And yet, I'm not Jewish.
In my opinion we have a successful interfaith family. If there is a secret to our marital success, it is that we communicate with each other about our spiritual feelings. In this way neither of us feels blind-sided by a decision the other partner may make.
True, sometimes this communication comes in the form of a spirited discussion--a really, really LONG spirited discussion. But the fact that my husband and I are in agreement on many issues helps us when it is difficult to find common moral ground. We talk and talk, sounding like a public radio station, and then we talk some more.
It also helps that both my husband and I come from families in which honest discussion on the "why's" of our religion are as important as the "how-to's." It's vital to each of us that we understand the reasons behind certain traditions and that we then perhaps revise the traditions to reflect our own interpretations. I understand that not every couple has--or wants--this luxury of free interpretation of scripture, but every interfaith couple will have to find some way to open these discussions. It may not be vital that a Catholic couple agree on every aspect of transubstantiation or the validity of the concept of purgatory; or that a Jewish couple discuss the Sh'ma prayer or the need for High Holiday services tickets. But an interfaith couple made up of a Jew and a Catholic will probably have to deal with these issues. This is NOT a bad thing--in fact, it can be very good.
I get so tired of hearing the prophetic, "There is just too much to overcome for that marriage to work," especially when said about a new interfaith marriage. Has it never occurred to these nay-sayers that sometimes having something to overcome helps strengthen a relationship? A strong marriage between two committed partners can withstand a little soul searching. In fact, I believe one thing most strong marriages have in common is the passage through a period in which both partners have to face truths about themselves, each other, and their relationship for it to continue.
It takes a special kind of person to enter into an interfaith relationship. I like to think that those who attempt to navigate a path like ours are more hopeful, more questioning, and have a deep faith in the ability of humans to create a dialogue where previously there was diatribe. I've heard the statistics on the fragility of interfaith marriage, but I know of NO marriage that doesn't have its own share of problems. Some have said that without one single, unifying religion for a family there will be confusion and lack of a moral compass. I disagree.
The strong sense of morality within our family has evolved from the act of defining our beliefs as a family, the time it takes to delve into our own individual religious histories, and our commitment to creating a path that takes the best from both of our heritages. Kindness, a love of truth and learning, and patience and duty are the strongest moral lessons I try to teach my children--lessons I find in both my husband's and in my own childhood faiths.
My husband and I, being human, do not have a perfect marriage. I know of no one who does. But we have a great working relationship--a union that enhances both of us and allows us the freedom and security to grow as individuals and as a family.
I believe a large part of our success as an interfaith couple--a family that, after eight years, is still trying to decide if we will have a Christmas tree and whether an Easter basket is a bad idea on religious or health grounds--is our open attitude to learning as much as we can about each other's family faith. Gerry has accompanied me to my family's Methodist church in West Virginia, he's read about the Wesley brothers, and the start of the Methodist church in the United States. I have immersed myself in Jewish studies--as much for the delight of learning as for personal spiritual reasons.
We are also very lucky to have families who have not turned our interfaith status into a large issue. There may be some disappointment on both sides of the family that we have married out of our faiths. However, our families have kindly and wisely kept their fears to themselves. My family adores my husband. They love his intelligence, his kindness, and the fact that he loves me. I know that my in-laws were very happily surprised to find that, even though their daughter-in-law wasn't Jewish, their grandchildren would be raised with a strong Jewish identity.
My husband and I have been fortunate that our families have chosen to deal with our marriage as a match of human beings rather than a summit meeting between representatives of two different faiths. They, like our friends, see what makes our marriage work for us, and they don't try to fix something that's not broken.
Our families' hands-off attitude has been very helpful to us as a couple. Perhaps it's because we were older (mid-thirties) when we met and married, or perhaps our families are wiser and more generous than other families in similar situations. I'm certain that it has much to do with the fact that my husband and I have always presented a united front. We make it clear to all who know us that, in the final analysis, the only opinions about our marriage that truly matter are our own.
We're a team--an interfaith team.
Annie Modesitt lives with her husband and two children in New Jersey where she is a member of Temple Ner Tamid (nertamid.org) in Bloomfield. Formerly of Martha Stewart Living TV, she currently writes about crafts for children and is a Hand Knit designer. She has been a contributor to Parents, Family Life and Interweave Knits Magazine.