Divorce and the Interfaith Family

By Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx


Let’s face it: relationships are hard work. In all marriages and commitments, two individuals enter into their relationship loaded with plenty of baggage–habits, values, opinions, likes and dislikes–all of which must be negotiated with the other. Many marriages fail, precisely because the partners are not able to compromise and trade off with one another.

Interfaith couples add yet an additional component to the compromise list: religious observance. For some couples, especially those whose religious attachments are not strong, their differences are easy to work out. Other couples, however, to reduce conflict in their lives, negotiate complex agreements concerning respect for one another’s religious backgrounds, the raising of their children with one religious identity, home observance, holiday celebrations with in-laws, displays of ritual objects, and the like. Other couples, rather than highlight their religious differences, develop unique, syncretistic home rituals (Hanukkah bushes, Easter eggs at the Passover Seder). Though these rituals wreak havoc with traditional religious symbols, they also arise from a desire not to rock the couple’s “relational boat.”

When separation and/or divorce occur, however, these negotiated compromises and creative solutions are often the first to break down. In the midst of the anger and pain which often are part of separation and divorce, the couple immediately go to their respective “corners.” With their relationship no longer intact, they feel that the religious compromises they have made are no longer necessary.

A common, initial reaction is for one partner to declare: “I agreed to help raise our kids as: Catholic/Jewish/Christian Scientist, but I’m done with that, now. You want your kids to be X,Y or Z, then you take them to services and religious school!” Or, knowing how it will hurt and anger the other, one partner declares: “O.K., now I’m going to raise them in my religion. I know we agreed to raise them in your religion, but that was then. Now, I’ll do as I please!”

Of course, the ones who suffer here are the children. Especially at a time when their accustomed structure has been suddenly ripped apart, at a time often filled with uncertainties and fears, children need as much of the structured and usual as we can give them. For children who have been raised with a particular set of beliefs and rituals, it does them no service, especially at this time of uncertainty, to remove yet another familiar set of structures. And, of course, asking children to now choose between two religions–in effect saying to them: choose one or the other parent–is to place them in an intolerable and unfair position.

For parents to make decisions which are truly in the best interest of their children, there are a number of issues which are important to address at the time of separation or when creating the divorce agreement. First of all, there needs to be a written affirmation that regardless of what will transpire between the parents, the child will be raised in a specified religion. Second, questions need to be settled as to how the children will spend holidays and festivals and with whom, in terms of parents and grandparents. (Rosh Hashanah and Passover with one, Christmas and Easter with the other, for example).

The issues of who will pay for religious instruction, church or synagogue dues, whether the children will attend religious school, and how they will be transported need to be addressed. If the Jewish partner keeps kosher or is shomer shabbos (Sabbath observant), compromises must be reached. (For example, a commitment that while each partner is free to make their own food choices, treif (unkosher) foods will not be send back and forth with the children. Often, separating or divorcing interfaith couples need to decide whether the other parent will have the freedom to attend religious lifecycle moments for the children: (Baptism, Confirmation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah).

It is important to remember that the courts are loathe to decide between the competing claims of parents concerning the religious instruction and upbringing of their children. Providing that a particular religious upbringing is not harmful to the children, the court will usually simply allow the children to be brought up in two different religions, rather than decide in favor of one parent over another.

The interfaith couple who has the best interests of their children in mind will keep them out of a religious tug-of-war. Rather, just as they made conscious decisions how to rear their children religiously in an interfaith marriage, now they must work together to make new decisions about raising them in an interfaith divorce.

About Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx is spiritual leader of Sha'arei Am, a Reform congregation, in Santa Monica, Calif. He is also a family mediator with Pulling Together Mediation Center in Los Angeles, specializing in interfaith pre-nuptial and marriage settlement agreements.