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Interfaith and Interfaithless Marriages

Reprinted on October 8, 2010.

Opponents of intermarriage often claim that interfaith marriages are really "interfaithless" marriages, devoid of any faith or religious commitment. While this may be true in some cases, it need not always be true. In reality, many interfaith couples infuse their marriage and family with rituals, traditions, and a strong religious faith.

For many couples this means choosing one religion as the family's primary religious tradition, establishing a clear religious identity for children. But even when a couple is not prepared to choose an exclusive religious tradition for the family, it is possible to create a faithful and religious home where awareness of God and God's blessings is affirmed and our responsibility to our fellow human beings is encouraged.

Here are a number of ways to bring faith and religion into your interfaith marriage.

Meal time: Reminding us to appreciate what we have is especially appropriate when we sit down to eat. Judaism begins a meal with Hamotzi, thanking God for "bringing forth bread from the earth" and concludes with the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after the meal. Many Christians begin their meal by saying grace to acknowledge God's role in bringing food to our table and often reminding us of our responsibility to provide food for all.

You can create your own appropriate blessing to begin the meal, or take turns in reciting a prayer before or after you eat. You may choose to use Hamotzi or parts of the Birkat Hamazon or find an appropriate poem or reading to regularly use as part of this ritual.

Even if one or both of you are agnostics or atheists and are uncomfortable offering a blessing that invokes God, you might still offer words of gratitude or thanksgiving, such as: We are grateful for the food we have to eat and for all those who helped provide it for us. We know that there are many people who do not have enough to eat, and we commit ourselves to help provide food for them.

Bedtime Rituals: Creating a bedtime ritual to help children settle down and prepare to fall asleep is an important part of every parenting arsenal. You can include appropriate Bible stories and other readings that reflect religious values you wish to impart to your children. Two excellent generic religious books for young children are God's Paintbrush and In God's Name, both by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Conclude with a prayer, such as the Sh'ma, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," (Deuteronomy 6:4), or personal prayers, reflecting on the day. A particularly good resource is Days of Wonder, Nights of Peace, a CD and booklet containing family prayers in song for bedtime and morning. Although these prayers and songs are written from a Jewish perspective, they are appropriate for interfaith families.

Shabbat/Sabbath: Taking the opportunity to celebrate a weekly Sabbath is an important gift that every family can give itself. Whether you choose to celebrate the Jewish Shabbat, which runs from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, or the Christian "Lord's Day" on Sunday, taking a break from the hectic pace of the rest of the week can be greatly rewarding for families that do so on a regular basis. The Jewish celebration of Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, blessing of one's children, blessing over wine to sanctify the day, and Hamotzi. Some families also include an opportunity to reflect on the week and look forward to the week ahead. Making a special meal, using the nicest tablecloth and finest dishes, and taking the time to eat a leisurely meal without the distractions of television or phone, are other ways to make this observance special. The rest of the Sabbath day can be geared toward activities which strengthen the family.

Tzedakah/Charity: Establishing regular formal opportunities for your family to help others less fortunate teaches your children important religious values, no matter what religion parents follow. Many Jewish homes have a Tzedakah box, a container set aside for money to be donated to charity. Contributions are traditionally made before Shabbat and holidays, to show thanksgiving or gratitude, as well as on other occasions. When the container is full, families decide on a recipient. Whenever possible, the funds should be delivered personally, so that family members see where their money is going. In addition, families of all religions can volunteer at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charitable organizations. Parents can point out to their children that such actions fulfill religious teachings that we should help the poor.

Celebrating Life's Special moments: Every religion has special rituals for celebrating important moments in the life cycle, such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. If you have chosen a particular religion for your family, then its traditions can help you observe these important moments in the life of your family. Even if you haven't decided on one religion, you can create your own family rituals. Furthermore, in recent years, families have also created rituals for not-so-traditional life-cycle passages, such as coming home from the hospital with a newborn, going from a crib to a bed, the first day of school, moving into a new home, the loss of a pet, etc. Each of these transitions offers your family the opportunity to bring greater meaning to your life.

Will your marriage be an interfaith or an interfaithless one? By incorporating rituals from the religious tradition(s) of your choice and creating new rituals, you can infuse your marriage and family with a sense of faith and add greater meaning to your life.

Hebrew for "Blessing on Nourishment," the blessing after meals. Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden
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