Welcoming Interfaith Families
February 7, 2011.
My grandmother, in just a little more than two months, will be 99 years old. She still lives on her own, more or less independently. My grandfather passed away back in the spring of 2003. When he died, they had been married for over seventy years. That's the first uncommon fact about them. The second uncommon fact about them is that they were an interfaith couple. He was from an Orthodox Jewish family and she was from an Italian Roman Catholic. That is not as rare today, but when they married, now closer to eighty years ago, it was quite uncommon. After the wedding, much of his family wanted nothing to do with him. His father disowned him. For me, I have had almost no contact at all with my grandfather's family of origin. Looking back, I sometimes wonder what might have been if his family was a bit more accepting. What sort of relationships would I have with cousins that I don't know even exist? What family memories would there have been?
This week, I'd like to talk to you about interfaith marriage. It actually comes in this week's Torah portion.
We are in the middle of reading the life story of Joseph. Joseph was born to Jacob, the third patriarch of the Jewish people. He had what might be described as a rough childhood: he was thrown into a pit and sold off into slavery by his brothers, and his father believed that he had died. Despite the poor beginning, he ends up in Egypt and after some time finds himself not a slave, but rather the second most powerful person in Egypt, right under the Pharaoh. But Egypt is not Canaan, where his family is from. As time goes on, Joseph gets married and has kids. But who he marries is interesting. The Torah tells us, "Born to Joseph in the land of Egypt, whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore to him, were Manasseh and Ephraim" (Genesis 46:20).
So not only does Joseph marry an outsider to the family, an Egyptian woman, but he marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphera the priest of On. He married a non-Jewish preacher's daughter! This is certainly an interfaith marriage if ever there was one.
Now, for some time, the family had the principle that it was best to marry-in, not to marry-out. It is said that Esau, who is Joseph's uncle, gets into trouble with his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, for marrying out. Even before that, Abraham is careful to find someone from the right family for Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph's father, heads off to Laban's house, another relation, to find a wife for himself. So Joseph would know all about how important it was to some members of his family to in-marry.
But, he didn't. He married an Egyptian woman who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest. For years, Joseph had no contact with his family. After all, his brothers had sold him into slavery. Eventually though, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and his father. Early on when Joseph sees his brothers again, one of Joseph's first questions is about his father, whether or not he is alive and well. Joseph married an Egyptian woman, but he still cared about his family of origin.
Sometimes intermarriage is seen as a choice between either an old tradition or a new one, either an old family or the new one. Some Jewish parents have a tendency, when their children marry non-Jews, to see that marriage as a rejection of themselves, of the type of home they raised their children in. But the adult children who are intermarrying may not see it that way at all.
For Joseph, he very much wanted a relationship with his father, and when Joseph saw his brothers' remorse and regret over having treated him so poorly years earlier, Joseph strove for a better relationship with them as well. Not only that, but Joseph retained his fidelity to the God of Israel. He remained a monotheist in a land and a world that didn't know anything at all about a belief in one God. When Pharaoh enlists the assistance of Joseph, Joseph responds to Pharaoh by saying: "Not I—it is God who will account for Pharaoh's well-being" (Genesis 41:16). Joseph retains not only his affection for his family of origin, he also retains his commitment to the unique beliefs and values of his family.
One obvious question to ask is what was Joseph's relationship with his wife, Asenath, like? It's an obvious question, but it's one that the Torah doesn't provide an answer to. But you know, just because the Torah doesn't have an answer, doesn't mean that some Jew, somewhere in time, didn't write their own answer. Sherry Blumberg, a contemporary Jewish educator, wrote a wonderful poem called "Asenath's Plea to Her Husband Joseph." It's about how she, Asenath, feels about Joseph reuniting with his own family of origin. Allow me to share the last stanza of the poem:
And Joseph, when in the future
Your sons are remembered
Please do not deny me—
Else the love that we shared
The lives we've created
Will be lessened by it.
I am the daughter of a priest
And I am your wife.
When we talk of interfaith marriage, another reality is that we do not want to ignore the new person who comes into our lives. In this modern midrash, this poem, Asenath has a fair point—she built a home and a life with Joseph. When the time comes for him to reunite with his family of origin, she does not want to denied.
And in the story, how does Jacob, Joseph's father, react when he meets his son's new family? He actually has an interesting and instructive reaction. He doesn't say much about Asenath, but he does have something to say about his own grandchildren, who also are the grandchildren of an Egyptian priest. The Torah states: "When Israel [Jacob] saw Joseph's sons, he asked, ‘Who are these?' And Joseph said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom God has given me here.' He [Israel] said, ‘Bring them to me, pray, that I may bless them'….So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall the people of Israel give their blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh'" (Genesis 48:8-9; 20).
Jacob does not disown his son and his family for intermarrying, he blesses them. And it is not just any blessing, but the blessing that all of Israel might be like them. That's why there is a Jewish custom of blessing our children, saying, "May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." For thousands of years, Jews have been blessing their boys by saying, effectively, May God make you like the children of an interfaith couple.
Let me move away from the biblical foundation to talk about interfaith families in a more current setting.
This is certainly one issue that evokes high emotion. And it's not an issue that can easily be broken down into "sides" either. It is too simplistic to say that there are two basic approaches and or feelings about interfaith marriage and sum them up in a line or two. It's complicated.
I do believe this: that when a Jew and a non-Jew fall in love, the Jew isn't doing it to spite his or her family, or to spite his or her people and heritage. They do it because they fell in love and it happened that way! To them, I say mazal tov, congratulations, and I'm very happy for both of you.
Do I believe then that intermarriage doesn't matter? Of course not. It matters. Trust me, I'm the grandson of a Jew and a Catholic. Sometimes it makes family life confusing and difficult. Sometimes it makes Jewish communal life difficult. I remember teaching Hebrew school when I was a 19-year-old college student and about half the kids in my class told me they were raised in a home with a Christmas tree. That made it a bit difficult for me, as a teacher, to teach why Jews don't celebrate Christmas when half of them did! So interfaith marriages do matter—they matter a lot!
But they are not tragedies. They are simchas, joyous events. For that reason, for couples of different faiths who are about to get married, my advice is to talk about everything ahead of time. It'll be a long and ongoing conversation, but it's one that is very important. An important question for us in the Jewish community though is how do we react to intermarriage? My suggestion: We welcome everyone with open arms. Our synagogues and temples should be warm places and, as best as we are able to, we ought to strive to make everyone feel as welcome as possible. Not only that, but we should strive to make the non-Jewish family members feel not like welcomed guests, but like family because that is what they are.