The Pain of the Outsider

By Rabbi Elias Lieberman


The credits for the film  had just disappeared from the television screen and the assembled group of a dozen or more people sat silently. It was that familiarly awkward moment when people glance left and right to see who will be brave enough to offer the first comment.

Having facilitated many a discussion surrounding the manifold issues which revolve around interfaith relationships, I tried to break the silence with a question or two, eliciting reactions to what we had seen and heard in the film. Before long those present began to share their reactions and insights–both humorous and painful–into the realities of their own interfaith families. It was exactly the kind of conversation we were hoping would unfold.

And then it happened … and, for some reason, it made me think of Rabbi ben Bag Bag’s comment in the Talmud, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is to be found in it!” That ancient rabbi with the peculiar name was speaking, of course, of Torah… but his comment came to mind because I realized that, as many times as I have engaged couples in conversation about the challenges of interfaith relationships, I am sometimes brought up short when I hear a comment with new ears, in a way I never had before.

This particular morning it was a message about pain–the pain of the outsider–and it brought knowing nods from the heads of many of the non-Jews in the room. The person who articulated this experience–I’ll call her Megan–is the Christian partner of a man who is strongly self-identified as a Jew. He is, in fact, a caring teacher of primary grade students in our religious school. Their two beautiful children are being raised as Jews, a decision made early in this couple’s marriage. Megan has faithfully and wholeheartedly supported this decision. She and her husband are very much on the same page with respect to what they wish for their children and their family.

Megan spoke of the emotional toll of consciously deciding, for the sake of the Jewish family she was helping to shape, to distance herself from the religious traditions of her upbringing. She shared her feeling that she was, to some extent, an outsider in her own family constellation. Her words, and the slight tremor in her voice as she articulated them, revealed a measure of pain and loss that all of us would do well to acknowledge and to try and understand. Non-Jews who agree to raise a child as a Jew are often choosing to forgo attachments to experiences and emotional connections deeply rooted in their past which are formative and constituent elements of who they know themselves to be. And yet, to their enormous credit, many are willing to set aside the very things which bind them to their pasts and to their families of origin for what they perceive as a greater good: the creation of a Jewish home and a Jewish future for their children.

To the Jewish partner, a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, freighted with more or less “baggage” because it is viewed through Jewish eyes and the filters of Jewish sensibilities about being a minority in a Christmas-dominated society. Even for the Christian who acknowledges that the Christmas tree holds little or no religious meaning for him, that decorated evergreen may well be laden with far more than tinsel and cherished ornaments.

Jewish partners, spouses and grandparents might try the following experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that your love for your partner and your children leads you to the decision to give up forever the lighting of your Hanukkah menorah or the enjoyment of a Passover seder in your home. If, as I do, you find that exercise profoundly unsettling, then you may begin to have some insight into the emotional reality of thousands of non-Jews in interfaith relationships. One can consciously and willingly choose to give something up and still feel great pain and loss as a consequence of that decision.

This is not a pitch for keeping–or removing–Christmas trees from the homes of interfaith families! Every family is unique and needs to arrive at decisions through a process that requires respectful and thoughtful conversation. It is, however, a reminder to Jews who are bound to non-Jews in bonds of love and family that we must acknowledge and honor the painful sacrifices that are often made for the sake of Jewish choices.


About Rabbi Elias Lieberman

Rabbi Elias Lieberman has served the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Falmouth, Mass., since 1990.