The Intermarried Couple and the Synagogue: A Response to Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield’s Article

By Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein


I read Rabbi Sternfield’s sermon with great interest and while there are some points on which we agree, I take exception to important assertions upon which he bases his proposal.

I agree that the make-up of the American Jewish community is changing, but the American Jewish community has been in a state of flux from the time Jews stepped on these shores. So, I neither observe present movements in the American Jewish community as a calamity nor as reason for ecstasy.

In the matter of “intermarriage” or “interfaith marriage” we have a difficulty of definition. What exactly do we mean? Is an “intermarriage” a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew (practicing no other religion) or is it a marriage between a Jew and a practicing Christian? (This seems to be the relationship upon which Rabbi Sternfield focuses.) We have no language for describing a person raised as a Christian but “unchurched,” that is a person who is not Jewish but also not defining him/herself as Christian or as an adherent of any religious community.

So, what is an “intermarriage”?

Consider a theoretical case. Two 30 year-olds are engaged to be married. The young man was raised as a Jew, the young woman as a Roman Catholic. In this theoretical model, these two young adults lived parallel lives. The Jew went to afternoon or weekend religious school, became Bar Mitzvah, perhaps confirmed. Once he left for college he did not participate in Jewish ritual observance except to return home to attend a seder and on the High Holidays if the academic calendar permitted.

His fiancée attended religious training in her family’s parish. She was baptized and confirmed. Leaving home after high school she didn’t attend church but returned home for Christmas, which her family celebrated as a family occasion. She may or may not have attended Christmas Mass. She also returned home for Easter (since it was school vacation) and celebrated it as a family occasion.

If this theoretical couple is asked, “How do you define yourselves religiously?” the person raised a Jew will almost always say without hesitation “I’m a Jew!” The person raised a Roman Catholic struggles for an answer and usually says “I was raised a Roman Catholic,” “I’m nothing,” or “my parents are Catholic.”

Pushed to explain what each means by religion, the Jew will usually connect Judaism to identity, history, culture, tradition and family. When defining religion the person raised a Roman Catholic will talk about God, ritual, faith and belief.

A Jew and a Christian typically have different concepts of religion and use different vocabularies. A Jew typically doesn’t believe he/she has to actively do anything in order to consider him/herself a Jew. The person raised a Roman Catholic believes that you can only call yourself a Roman Catholic if actively practicing by participating in the sacraments and attending Mass.

The Jew can affirm being a Jew and practice no ritual. The person raised a Roman Catholic cannot claim herself a Roman Catholic and do nothing. Otherwise she is “unchurched.” Thus the marriage between these two non-practitioners is not an interfaith marriage. It is not a marriage between individuals of different faiths.

So I usually don’t meet “interfaith couples.” Rather, most of the couples with whom we deal are a Jew and a non-Jew with no firm religious connection.

I believe that the synagogue should be a vehicle for a Jewish future for couples like this.

Generally, it is important for us to help couples establish the religious identity of their family and home. I firmly believe that children should be raised with a single religious identity, not a hybrid amalgam of different faiths as Rabbi Sternfield suggests. As he himself indicates, there is no way to overcome the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity. Christians believe in Jesus as the Christ. It is the core of their faith. Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Christ and no glorification of a human Jesus as a great teacher and man is going to make a difference. Jews should not degrade the importance a Christian’s faith in Jesus as the risen Christ by saying it doesn’t matter.

So, I don’t think there is room in the synagogue for children being raised with two religious identities. It would be more principled of us to help “interfaith” couples make a decision as to how to raise their children. We can help them in the synagogue if their decision is to raise their children as Jews. If their decision is otherwise, then we should point them to those who can help them on that road. There will always be a place for any Jew who chooses to attend a synagogue. We can affirm that some of our members are married to Christians. I am not prepared to suggest we shape our programs for these family constellations.

To my way of thinking a household without clarity as to its religious identity, especially in the raising of children, is dangerous and does not work well over time. Children brought up with two religious identities and practices in fact have no religious integrity to which to anchor themselves. One cannot adhere to conflicting belief systems. To do otherwise is to demean both religions. It would seem impossible to raise children “primarily as Jews, but with ‘Christian highlights.'” There is no Christian highlight that is not in conflict with fundamental Jewish principle.

Ultimately, one needs to ground oneself in a faith from which so many other decisions about life, death, and the in-between flow.

I believe that synagogues have room for Jews married to non-Jews who are supportive of Jewish life for their family. I also believe that there is room in the synagogue for Jews married to Christians if they have decided to raise their children as Jews and when both spouses respect the devotion and religious integrity of the other without attempting to blend their faiths and practices into a homogenous and insipid concoction.


About Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein is senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York.