Although intermarriage was not common in the first half of the 20th century, since the 1960s the number of American Jews married to non-Jews has risen quite dramatically. According to the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, among the non-Orthodox, the intermarriage rate for couples is significant. Half of the non- Orthodox couples who were married between 2006 and 2011 are intermarried. What was once considered a traditional Jewish family–two Jewish parents and their children–is no longer the norm.
Citing statistics, though, provides little insight into the challenges interfaith couples confront as they navigate the terrain of Jewish life. The decision to marry may be the easiest step when set against the necessary choices that follow: the wedding ceremony, familial religious observances, relationships with in-laws, synagogue membership, and children’s religious affiliations.
Prior to the Wedding
Not surprisingly, many interfaith couples find it extremely difficult to discuss their religious differences in much depth, especially after they decide to tie the knot. They worry that what starts as a passionate debate may disintegrate into a heated argument that threatens their survival as a couple.
One painful topic of discussion is the response of each partner’s parents and siblings. Even though both partners have accepted one another, gaining familial approval and tolerance can be an entirely separate matter. Many Jewish parents feel they have failed in some way if their child marries out of the religion–as if they have not done their part in ensuring Jewish survival. This can happen even in the least religious families, often surprising the Jewish partner, who did not fully appreciate his or her parents’ convictions.
Another concern is the religion of potential children: Should the children be Jewish or Christian, for instance, or some combination of the two? Which holidays will the family celebrate, and how can they avoid offending their respective families?
A third issue is very personal: Should one partner consider conversion to the other spouse’s religion? The question gets more complicated if neither partner is particularly religious but both feel a strong attachment to aspects of their own culture or heritage. Indeed, sometimes that connection becomes all the more tangible in light of the commitment to marry.
Planning the Wedding
Perhaps the easiest solution for some couples is to plan a civil marriage ceremony led by a judge or justice of the peace. Difference in religion is then not a divisive issue.
An interfaith couple planning a Jewish-style wedding, however, faces a number of obstacles, the first and foremost being that not all rabbis will not officiate at interfaith ceremonies. A Jewish wedding is by definition sectarian–its pivotal sentence requires the groom to marry the bride “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” If one partner is not Jewish, those laws don’t apply, and the marriage is invalid in the eyes of halakhah [Jewish law]. Yet even if a rabbi explains this rationale clearly and sensitively, it is very hard for a couple not to feel a sense of rejection.
Some alternatives exist, however, for couples who wish to incorporate elements of Jewish tradition into their wedding ceremonies. Many Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and unaffiliated rabbis do officiate at Jewish weddings, usually if the couple makes a commitment to create a Jewish home. A few rabbis will co-officiate with a religious leader of the non-Jewish partner’s faith. A third option is to have a friend petition to be deputized for the day to perform the wedding ceremony. (It is not legally necessary to have a rabbi officiate at a Jewish marriage, although this is by far the most common practice among Jewish couples.)
Rabbis of all the movements officiate when the non-Jewish spouse converts. However, this is a long and painstaking process that cannot be undertaken only for the sake of the marriage. Rather, most rabbis insist that the non-Jewish partner study over a lengthy period of time and very carefully consider his or her decision.
Interfaith couples also face many choices regarding the content of their ceremonies and the style of their wedding receptions. Some write or purchase documents resembling ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) that reflect their commitment to each other. Others work with clergy to incorporate into the ceremony both religious traditions, or at least religious language that is common to both faiths. Some couples include aspects of each culture in their receptions, choosing music or rituals that help both sides of the family to feel included.
Entering the Jewish Community as an Intermarried Couple
In the past 10 to 15 years, many synagogues have made a significant effort to open their doors to intermarried couples. While the non-Jewish spouse is not typically accorded the same membership status and religious roles as the Jewish partner, a good number of rabbis across the movements believe it is important to welcome interfaith couples into their congregations. Interfaith groups have formed in some synagogues to help couples feel a stronger sense of belonging. Thre are even programs like “The Mother’s Circle” which is a support and education group for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children.
Despite the community’s approach to “Big Tent Judaism,” problems remain. It is very easy for an interfaith couple to feel isolated and discouraged from participating in synagogue activities. Jewish life has continued because of “in-marriage”–marriage between Jews only. Some Jews have always established “in-marriage”–marriage between Jews only–as a priority, and looks askance at those who don’t conform to this behavioral norm.
A concern about boundaries underlies the relationships between synagogues and their non-Jewish participants. Rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders worry that allowing non-Jewish spouses to feel too welcome will ultimately lessen the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and discourage prospective converts from engaging in serious study. Such loosening of the reins can be a slippery slope, some feel, which will do Judaism no favors in the long term.
Relating to Parents and Family
Almost invariably, the newly married couple faces a number of challenges and potential obstacles as they decide how to approach their parents, siblings, and extended family. Each spouse might feel somewhat isolated from his or her birth family as a result of the decision to “marry out,” and it might take quite a while for both partners to feel accepted by their new in-laws.
Holiday celebrations pose an entirely different set of concerns, as each partner must be true to his or her own needs while also compromising for the sake of the relationship. And of course, they need to deal with the consequences of those decisions, as difficult as they might be. A decision not to visit for a holiday celebration, for instance, may be regarded as offensive even when it is not intended to be so. Welcoming family as guests in their own home can also be especially tricky: the couple needs to maintain the integrity of their religious choices but also help family members feel welcome. This can be a tough balance to strike.
Sometimes, intermarried couples deal with issues such as holidays by not dealing with them until they come up. Wishing to avoid confrontation with parents at all costs, no one starts the conversation. Despite the couple’s desire to spare themselves and their families these difficult discussions, the “silence and avoidance” method usually backfires.
Choosing a Religion for the Children
Decisions about how to raise and educate children with regard to religion are probably the most difficult ones that intermarried couples face. Most experts agree that what might seem like the “perfect compromise”–raising children in both religions and allowing them to choose their faiths as adults–usually doesn’t work. Rather, this approach generally leaves the child confused and ambivalent about religion altogether. Typically, these families observe only the most superficial elements of each religion, failing to instill a true sense of either heritage in their children.
Obstacles also arise if the couple chooses to raise their children as Jews. The non-Jewish spouse’s family may feel that their child has betrayed them, that they have lost their child’s respect and love, or that they have failed in some way. Only careful explanation and time will help to ease the tension.
Again, holidays and lifecycle events pose dilemmas. Should this couple celebrate Christmas with Dad’s parents if they are raising their children as Jews? What about decorating Easter eggs, as a cultural but not religious activity? What role can the non-Jewish grandparents play in the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony?
Ultimately, intermarried couples’ love for one another must withstand some very daunting conflicts and conundrums. The religious identity they create as a couple will be molded, yet also challenged repeatedly, as they begin their lives together. Supportive families, and caring religious leaders from all faiths, will help make their life journeys as smooth as possible.
For more information regarding interfaith marriages, visit our partner, Interfaithfamily.com.
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.