Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish:
Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium
by Reeve Robert Brenner
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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved
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CHAPTER THREE: MARRIAGE, FAMILY, CHILDREN’S IDENTITY - TOWARD REWORKING DEFINITIONS
It is important to be reminded that the interfaith marriage controversy has been dividing the American Jewish community for decades, and is likely to continue to do so. For a large majority of rabbis and Jewish professionals there is no need to draw subtle distinctions or to provide fine-tuned definitions for the various categories of American marriages and homes - non-Jewish as well as Jewish households - in which you will find Jews. For these authorities there is no justification for reworking definitions - which is the title and the intent of this chapter.
It is therefore to engage only a small minority of the Jewish minority that the critical marital categories are here spelled out, reconsidered and re-evaluated to better address present day realities – and for their inherent implications and significance. They are therefore presented and expanded upon in these pages not necessarily to influence or instruct Jewish professionals and rabbis. After all, they have their own teachings and understandings of the traditions and rulings to transmit to their own students and congregational members. Some few may nevertheless find these classifications of contemporary households useful and perhaps even valuable. Of the many books and various approaches to these subjects, they may select this presentation among others to recommend and distribute to couples they counsel.
The primary purpose of this chapter is to orient, counsel and illuminate the way for others, – non-professionals for the most part - particularly those who are approaching status changing crossroads in their personal lives such as marriage. It is also intended for their families and friends who love them. Many of them are sincerely and seriously seeking credible contemporary clarifications of the terminology applied to the various complicated issues. They wish to understand the deeper meanings of the “arcane nomenclature bandied about.” They wish to know the affect this “nomenclature” has on the lives of all their loved ones and what ramifications can be anticipated. Some are moved at once to ask, “given that they will be seeing themselves and acting in ways that are unfamiliar to many of us, what if any restrictions down the road can we expect to face?” And family and friends also wish to be provided with convincing answers to the many relevant questions touching upon, and arising from, these definitions and classifications.
The reasoning followed by the nearly overwhelming majority of rabbis adhering to traditional definitions and formulas is that if a non-Jew is one of the parties to a marriage with a Jew then, regardless of all other considerations, the Jewish community should withdraw its official and officiating presence. From their point of view, these nuptials should not be performed by a rabbi in the first place. For them, it is not “kedushin,” – meaning sanctified by Judaism as establishing the holy covenant of marriage (brit nesuim kedushah) since it is not between two Jews.
We will now digress from the main theme of this chapter to define and reconsider the meaning of kiddushin. In a chapter devoted to reworking definitions, the importance of the interpretation of this concept in Jewish tradition, however lacking in consensus, cannot be exaggerated.
Kedushin is derived from kadosh, a ubiquitous term in Judaism, appearing in various forms in every synagogue service. Kiddush, the wine ceremony; kaddish, a doxology praising God, written in Aramaic and recited after study, read in unison by mourners in memory of a beloved and in synagogue worship concluding certain liturgical segments of a service; the kedushah, recited responsively during the repetition of the lengthy Standing (Amidah) stanzas of most prayer services, serve to exemplify the centrality and importance of the term.
Kadosh is often translated as sacred or holy. But “altogether other,” separate, distinct and apart are more correct, comprehensive, and comprehensible definitions. Kedushin, marriage, unites a couple as one and renders the married parties altogether off limits to others. They are detached, severed and removed from any other intimate relationships; apart from others, they are devoted exclusively to one another.
Kedushin is often rendered as sanctification. It refers to a state of holiness or distinctiveness in which a couple unites as one in a religious union, that is, a status change of ultimate consequence - and profoundly transformative. The man and woman undergoing the matrimonial rite of passage have, in an instant, experienced a transformation of the “me” into the “we” in the presence of official on-lookers representing the community. They have “acquired” each other by legal written covenant – a ketubah document spelling out the terms and their mutual understanding of the unifying conditions of their marriage or, put a smidgen differently, the conditions of their marital union. A contract is authenticated and established as legally valid and binding when a consideration of some worth, a ring usually, an object representing value as well as shared values, is conveyed and accepted by the contracting parties in the presence of a minimum of two bona fide witnesses over the age of thirteen.
The classic formula, “With this ring be thou consecrated (whose Hebrew root word is kadosh and pronounced mikudeshet when addressed to the bride; mekudash, addressed to her groom) unto me (as my wife/husband)” establishes their marriage. The second part of the formulaic statement, “according to the traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel,” constitutes a pledge of allegiance, usually recited beneath a flag/canopy (chupa), declaring publicly the Jewish character of the home they will establish and the way of life they intend to follow.
A couple of Jewish descent having no intention of following the pathway representing the Jewish way of life shaped by Torah/Judaism and Commandments/Mitzvot would not wish to recite the formula. Nor would it be appropriate for a rabbi – enlisted to officiate, perhaps for the sake of family – to have them do so. A generic statement such as “With this ring I do thee wed,” or “With this ring be thou my wife/husband” would be far more appropriate. They might wish to add a generic tag line, a neutral ending, such as “according to the love we share and the will of God” or “according to the ideals we value” or “according to the wisdom and customs, or traditions, we cherish” or the like. But “traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” is a pronouncement of intent publicly made of the Jewish pathway of life the newly created family will follow.
A Jewish man or woman marrying another Jewish person - or a Settled Sojourner - committed to participate in establishing a Jewish household and raising self identifying Jewish children would consciously and deliberately employ the classic formula precisely for the purpose of declaring publicly that intention. The phrase “according to the traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel,” in consonance with this view, establishes their marriage as kedushin. They have contracted openly to look upon themselves as links in the chain of Jewish continuity, to usher their children into the covenant, to see themselves as the current custodians of the culture with all that implies. By kedushin they have consecrated themselves to the Jewish way of life and to each other.
Rabbi Leon A. Morris explains the majority view on interfaith marriages. He provides the essential reasons why rabbis turn aside from involvement in these nuptials: “The high rate of interfaith marriage is alarming to the Jewish community not only because it ‘threatens to diminish the ranks of American Jewry,’ but also because of the challenges this open American Diaspora poses for the transmission of Judaism…
“Most American Jews have had too few opportunities to fully experience the depths of Jewish life, its sacred texts and traditions. While interfaith marriages should be discouraged (even as we continue to reach out to interfaith families), most of our energies and resources must be devoted to making Jewish life more meaningful in the lives of Jews.”
The level and degree of Jewish education and exposure to Jewish life are obviously of the greatest importance for an interfaith as for an intra-faith couple. After all, loving couples are about to begin a new life together. They are unsure as to what their future will be like. For some rabbis uncertainty begets opportunity: to educate, influence and help the couple on their way - the best way according to their most considered judgment - regardless of the path they ultimately take. How, therefore, should rabbis and Jewish professionals relate to a couple planning to enter an inter-faith marriage and ardently requesting a wedding ceremony incorporating Jewish traditional elements conducted by a rabbi?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, an eminent and acclaimed Conservative rabbi who would not officiate at an interfaith wedding, in a sermon addressing the anguish experienced by certain family members who are facing an interfaith marriage “where it threatens family relationships,” writes:
“You know how strongly I feel about intermarriage and about the right of parents to feel hurt and saddened at the prospect, because it threatens to mean the end of a hundred generations of Jewish identity, because it makes it harder for their children and their grandchildren to know the special grace and beauty of a Jewish home, of Jewish holiday celebrations, and because it will be so tempting for a young family to say, ‘let’s have no religion in our home, since there is no religion we agree on.’
“But still, the fact that a young person has done something that hurts you is no reason for you to feel religiously justified, to feel you are doing God’s will, by hurting that person back. Are you familiar with the custom of sitting shiva for a child who intermarries? Do you know where the mourning custom comes from? I found out one day.
“There is a story in the Talmud about one of the prominent rabbinic sages whose son converted to another religion, and the father sat shiva for him. But as I thought about the story, it occurred to me that we’ve probably been misunderstanding it for all these years. I suspect that what happened is that the child who converted died, and people said to his father, the Rabbi, ‘will you mourn for him as one mourns for a family member, or because of what he did, do you no longer consider him your child?’ And the father answered, ‘what he did hurt me very deeply and I will never understand why he did it, but he is still my son and I will mourn him.” 
Furthermore, distinguished and outstanding rabbis such as Kushner and Morris who do not differentiate among the varieties of interfaith marriages – the purpose at the epicenter of this presentation - and who will not participate in any interfaith weddings, would ask, why support a union in marriage of a couple so unlikely to create a Jewish home? The couple should be first discouraged from marrying each other and then, failing that, referred to a Justice of the Peace for a wedding lacking Jewish content. For rabbis of that opinion, Jewish wedding elements would do no more than serve to perpetrate a sham event to which they will not lend themselves.
After their wedding, the couple can come knocking on the synagogue door again if they are still interested and if they express resolve to take the Jewish path. It is my experience, however, that many couples will tell you that they would not be inclined to do so and probably – some couples say they definitely - will not do so, once they have experienced “being rebuffed” by the rabbis to whom they had turned at such a crucial time in their lives.
On the other hand, if a relationship is established with the marrying rabbi and the members of his or her synagogue – representing as they do Jews, Jewishness and Judaism - the new family can be influenced to give profound and serious consideration to becoming a part of Jewish continuity. They may be encouraged to begin a lifetime of incremental participation in the Jewish way of life, and in the Jewish community, even if a traditional Jewish home is not necessarily created.
I have often seen this pattern of gradually acquired Jewish commitment develop over time among interfaith couples. Especially when children begin to arrive. I think of this process as the raising of Jewish consciousness in “installments.” Commitment builds and grows stronger as life cycle milestones begin to be observed and as a family celebrates these events, to whatever extent, in the Jewish tradition.
Moreover many of my rabbinic colleagues, deeply committed Jews or they would not have gone on to study for the rabbinate, were raised with only a modicum of Jewish consciousness. Jewish identity was undeniably acknowledged in their homes but it was expressed with few forays into the mitzvah system of festivals and life cycle celebrations. More than a few rabbis describe their childhood as “faintly Jewish”. They embraced their heritage later in life and have gone on to serve Jewish congregations with distinction.
A significant percentage of intermarried families will joyously and at once “go the Jewish route” and will establish astonishingly strong Jewish homes. Others will be brought along slowly - with the help of a synagogue, the Jewish community, its multi-faceted support systems, and outreach - kiruv – (that term, again) agencies. Especially likely will steps be taken when children are about to be brought into the equation. Others still, of course, will take another way entirely selecting among the Eschewish, the Chewish and the Christian or Muslim paths.
Interfaith couples that do not invite a rabbi to officiate and become involved in their lives almost invariably have decided to join the ranks of the Eschewish or they will take another trek. They will intermix with those walking along one of the several non-Jewish pathways insofar as establishing a religiously identified home and raising children. They can be just as happy and live faithfully moral and ethical lives, to be sure.
And yet, many very strongly committed Jews emerge from homes that did not have two Jewish parents. Time and time again I have witnessed its occurrence. It is quite impossible to predict with confidence a “return to roots” (one who is called in Hebrew, a baal tshuvah) by any self-identified Jew. It is also quite impossible to predict the particular circumstances that motivate a deep devotion to the Jewish way-of-life on the part of an offspring of an inter-marriage.
What’s more, circumstances vary so widely from person to person and couple to couple. It is always best to leave the door to the mansion opened invitingly and most certainly never slammed shut in the face or behind anyone.
A poignant example of the destructive nature of the exclusionary approach to Jewish descent is seen in the experience of William Cohen, the former Secretary of Defense with a name going back to the pages of the Bible. He was told when he was a child to withdraw from the synagogue by a rabbi who would not recognize Patrilineal descent or any of the other interfaith categories defined in these pages. The door was sealed tight behind the family as they departed and they never again returned to revisit the mansion of Jewish identity.
In an Inter-marriage, defined as a marriage of Jewish continuity with a non-Jewish spouse, the Gentile partner may or may not decide later to convert to Judaism. But s/he is willing and even proud to raise Jewish children as a Ger Toshav - a Settled Sojourner or friend of the folk. The Ger Toshav was once, during biblical times, understood to mean a "resident alien," a non-Jew who lives among, and participates with, Jews in a Jewish community. In the 21st century there is much wisdom in accentuating the positive. After all, the Settled Sojourner augments the Jewish ranks and strengthens the people. As I have seen numerous times, this contemporary understanding of the ancient concept ushers many Gentile family members into the supporting orbit of Jewish life and commitment. They feel themselves to have been embraced and warmly welcomed to the mansion
Today a growing number of 21st century rabbis take this ancient term to mean that a Settled Sojourner is one who has “converged” by having “thrown in his/her lot with the people Israel.” In other words, the Ger Toshav is seen as a Gentile who has become a “friend of the folk,” or an “extension of the folk,” one who may become, or who already has become, a parent of Jewish children living in a Jewish household. Therefore the Ger Toshav is to be regarded differently than other Gentiles by the Jewish community since s/he has become a faithfully committed component of a building-block Jewish family.
The Settled Sojourners are expected to do more than simply obey the minimum seven commandments (called the Noachide commandments) of ethical conduct which apply to all human beings. Because they live in a Jewish household, they understand that more is required of them. Rachel, a Jewish partner in one of the many intermarriages I have worked with, observed, “I am so lucky to have married someone who implicitly understood this. Many Christians (or Muslims or Buddhists) would not desire such deep involvement.”
We will now define more precisely and systematically and, in so doing, distinguish among the four kinds of marriages that exist, in fact as well as in theory, within the American Jewish community (and to a certain extent beyond its borders): 1) Intra-Marriages, 2) Inter-Marriages, 3) Mixed Marriages and 4) Mitzvah Marriages.
1) A Jewish Intra-Marriage is a marriage between a) two individuals who were born Jews, b) between a born Jew and one who has converted to Judaism, or c) between two people who have converted to Judaism. (Once converted there is nothing in the eyes of Jewish law distinguishing the newcomers who have boarded the train of Jewish history and identity at a later station in life from those embarked previously or at birth.) Jews everywhere would regard these categories – a, b, and c - as conveying the designation we know as Jewish identity.
All Rabbinic authorities would add that these categories allow for no dual allegiances – as in “Jewish-Christians” or “Messianic Jews”. The non-Orthodox would insist upon attaching the following clause: "providing no conversion informally and unofficially out-of-the-people, such as to Jews for Jesus, has taken place, or formally and officially, as when someone born and raised Jewish joins a conventional Christian or a messianic congregation.”
In contrast, Orthodox authorities would insist that once a Jew, always a Jew. However, the vast majority of Jews of Reform or Reconstructionist congregations would disagree vigorously. They would say: By stepping out of the mansion, regardless of one’s Jewish origins at birth, and given the fact that their children will not be raised as Jews, therefore, for them, Jewishness and Jewish continuity will have come to an end. They are of Jewish descent to be sure but they are no longer Jews. Should they wish to return, a formal process of Returning, including course work and living a Jewish life would be first required before they could (again) be considered Jews.
When an intra-marriage is being planned, a rabbi would not refuse to officiate at the wedding unless there were other considerations such as a questionable (on religious or other grounds) previous divorce. For some rabbinical authorities (mostly Reform), a civil divorce takes on the force of Jewish law and is acceptable. For them a civil divorce is seen as valid as a religious divorce (a "get," in Hebrew). There would be no further rabbinical procedures required. Even so, many Reform rabbis would wish to see Judaism reflected, and Jewish practices playing a role, in the dissolution as in the binding of the marital bonds. In addition to a secular divorce, they would urge that a religious divorce be granted/issued/effected.
An Orthodox rabbi would likely question the credentials, if not the procedures, of a non-Orthodox rabbi who presided over a conversion, and would likely not recognize it. While Orthodox rabbis would investigate the Jewish bona fides of individuals who identify themselves as Jews, non-Orthodox rabbis would recognize as Jewish anyone who willfully identifies as a Jew, was born a Jew (or converted) and lives a Jewish life providing such individuals do not profess another religion simultaneously. The Reform rabbi will focus less on their past and more on the future Jewish home the Intra-married couple intends to establish.
A MITZVAH MARRIAGE
2) A Mitzvah Marriage is a recently coined term to signify that a conversion to Judaism has taken place prior to the marriage. Should the conversion have taken place years earlier and not for the sake of uniting the family-to-be in one faith, Judaism, the marriage would not be defined as a Mitzvah Marriage. A Mitzvah Marriage is a Jewish intra-marriage and is, in reality, no different than any other Jewish marriage. The term Mitzvah means a worthy, positive act, one that may be experienced as a commandment, motivated by a desire to live a way of life in accord with the Jewish heritage. The category Mitzvah Marriage - also called a Conversionary Marriage - is useful only sociologically and not legally (in Hebrew: halachically), since both parties are Jews at the time of the wedding.
However, Orthodox and some few Conservative rabbis (approximately 10% of the United States rabbinic community altogether – and larger by percentage elsewhere in the rest of the Jewish world including the modern state of Israel) would not recognize a conversion that was not executed precisely according to their strictest rules. Just as important, the conversion would have had to have been conducted under their own supervision or under the provenance of rabbinical authorities to their right, that is, more conservative than themselves. Otherwise, they would not agree to officiate at a wedding between that convert and a born Jew.
They will say to this couple that all is not lost. The non-Jewish partner must simply convert (again) to Judaism under their supervision with no ulterior motives and not for the sake of marriage! They would say that they were not, in principle, opposed to conversion, but require that the convert be sincerely committed to living a "Torah-true" lifestyle. Torah-true ("Judaism-true”) means that theirs is the only true Judaism, others are not correct, not Orthodox.
Reform, Reconstructionist, and most Conservative authorities recognize conversions performed correctly and according to Jewish law and precedent that are properly witnessed, regardless of who presides (including a lay person). Jewish law does not require a rabbi to officiate at life cycle or other transformative events – only that the signatories and testifiers be knowledgeable of the procedure and deemed trustworthy.
A MIXED MARRIAGE
3) A Mixed Marriage is here defined as a marriage between a born or converted Jew and a non-Jew. No Jewish continuity is planned or intended. Their households might be Muslim, Christian, multi-faith, mixed or mixed-up, or none-of-the-above, or "whatever" – anywhere along the entire range of "other" options. But not Jewish! In those infrequent, if not quite rare, cases where a rabbi is asked to officiate or act as “co-officiant" (that there is really no such thing as co-officiation, will be explained below), it is generally for the sake of a family member such as a parent or grandparent.
There are instances when a couple invites a rabbi to participate in a minor role at their nuptials more from of a sense of equity and balance than from religious convictions or because they wish to affirm some sort of a Jewish dimension in their future lives. I have found that this invitation for participation in an event so momentous in the lives of a couple offers ongoing opportunities for the skillfulness of the Jewish community to come into play starting with the rabbi. The experience and dedication of Jewish professionals and institutions can then be mobilized “to outreach and to bring them closer” (l’karev otam).
Nonetheless, many Jews would say that the rabbi should not be there. A rabbi's presence at a wedding of a couple embarking upon a Mixed Marriage might suggest approval. A Mixed Marriage is, after all, an out-marriage, as in “out-of-the-faith” and “out-of-the-Mansion”. I am of the school of thought that maintains that a rabbi should be there – counseling, advising, interacting - to keep the door open even if it is but a crack. Frequently couples later reconsider their initial decisions. Most divorce. Some are seen later as “starter marriages.” A few shed their spouses but keep their rabbi.
The rabbi would not, in any event, be designated as the officiating minister. That is, at a Mixed marriage, a rabbi would not preside over the exchange of rings and declarations uniting the couples that are the defining moments of a wedding. The word “wedding” is an ancient Anglo-Saxon term referring to sealing a contract. A rabbi would not be asked to witness such a contract. If asked by the couple as a courtesy and as a gesture of respect, the rabbi would likely decline by suggesting that a close friend be honored as the official witness.
The exchange of “considerations” (items of value – rings) by the couple that is witnessed by a minimum of two others over the age of thirteen chosen to sign the contract (a ketubah) constitutes a Jewish marriage. Today it is not a business contract that the couple draws up establishing their new status as husband and wife; it is understood as a love covenant, a marriage covenant. But it is a contract nevertheless. The newly weds “acquire” one another by transitioning together to a newly defined standing as husband and wife.
Most congregational rabbis I have known would readily agree to invite a non-Jewish person to participate in some appropriate way at a synagogue service and with certain circumscribed duties, remaining always sensitive to the feelings of that guest and visitor.
Furthermore, most rabbis would, with respect and esteem, have no reluctance to stand alongside a Christian clergy person - parson, minister, priest - or a Muslim Imam, at various religious functions as in the American military chaplaincy, at interfaith Thanksgiving worship services, in hospital settings, and at community social and political events.
As rabbi at the National Institutes of Health I function and interact with the entire sweep of religious and spiritual leaders of all denominations and persuasions. The chapel is shared. A revolving stage composed of several segments, each outfitted with the appropriate required ritual accoutrements of the respective traditions, serves all chaplains and visiting clergy equally.
Rabbis everywhere would extend an invitation, if asked by the family, to any Jew or non-Jew to participate in a wedding that is characterized as an Inter-marriage or as an Intra-marriage. This offer of inclusion would be extended to a non-Jewish friend or relative as a sign of respect, courtesy, and consideration.
It is my considered conviction that when a couple is leaving (as when entering) the Mansion, a fellow Jew - preferably a rabbi - should be standing at the doorway welcoming or bidding “adieu dear Jew” as the case may be. When the door swings inward to the Jewish Mansion of continuity a rabbi should be there. So should a rabbi participate (not necessarily officiate by presiding over the exchange of rings) by being there in friendship and by showing solidarity even when the door swings outward the other way.
Anyone attending a wedding ceremony could readily determine the distinction between the times when the door swings one way or the other, by the formula recited by a couple in the exchange of rings and vows. As has been noted, in a wedding signifying Jewish continuity the words “according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” would likely be recited by the bride and groom at that status changing defining moment of transaction and of transition.
Hearing the words “traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel” communicates to everyone in attendance – and a wedding is a public not a private event - that a Jewish household will be established by the newly- weds, and that their children will be brought up as Jews. This ancient formula would obviously not be invoked at a Mixed marriage. “With this ring I do thee wed,” or “with this ring be thou consecrated to me as my wife/husband according to the love we share and the will of God” or some other neutral language would likely be employed signifying the selection by the couple choosing an altogether different path.
In a Mixed Marriage, by definition, the decision has been made not to establish a Jewish household or to go the Jewish route with the children, even if the Jewish parent decides to remain a Jew, sometimes even a practicing Jew although that is quite rare. They will instead identify the family with another faith (Christianity usually, Unitarian, Ethical Culture, none of the above, etc.)
In short, very few rabbis would officiate (or participate) with non-Jewish clergy at an avowed Mixed marriage, but there are those who would, depending on the situation. Those who do would say that there is no such thing as co-officiation. Whoever presides over the exchange of rings and vows is the officiant, and anyone else standing alongside of them - rabbi, minister, priest, or friend - regardless of their religious orientation, is no more than a participant. No statement of advocacy or endorsement is implied other than sympathetic understanding and on-going friendship. After all, the Jewish partner remains a Jew and a rabbi’s calling is to reach out and undertake to bring that individual ever deeper into Judaism and Jewish identity.
Being there, at a wedding, the rabbi may later be called upon in a variety of ways to strengthen and reinforce the Jewish partner’s Jewish commitment. He or she might even join the rabbi’s congregation and on occasion bring family to experience the Jewish way of life. Time after time I have seen non-Jewish children of a Jewish parent discover and reclaim their Jewish roots. More frequently than statistics would suggest they choose Jewish loved ones to marry and find that raising Jewish children is very agreeable particularly since their children will have Jewish grandparents with whom to bond at life cycle events and festivals.
It has been pointed out that some rabbis are willing to participate in a Mixed Marriage ceremony so long as clarity and integrity are preserved. They do so to indicate that the door of the Jewish Mansion can be reopened if the couple's first choice does not work out or if their beliefs and disbeliefs change in the years ahead. In many ways, the rabbi is the doorkeeper and how he or she minds the post influences, in large measure, who goes in and who goes out.
Still, most rabbis would not participate at a wedding ceremony alongside a non-Jewish clergy. Their understanding is that the tradition forbids it. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) has stated its flat out opposition to rabbis co-officiating with Christian clergy at mixed marriages in its many publications. That would also apply to two separate ceremonies, one presided over by a Christian minister and the other conducted by a rabbi: “We vigorously reject this attempt at religious syncretism.” 
Rabbis who do stand alongside other clergy at interfaith weddings establishing a Mixed marriage may choose to read a blessing, sing a song, deliver a brief address and prayer or read from Scripture but the rabbi does not act as the authority conducting the service uniting the couple.
Virtually all Jewish movements strongly discourage Mixed marriages. Such marriages, by definition, do not lead to Jewish continuity. Moreover, fifty percent of all marriages, but only twenty five percent of Mixed marriages succeed. That means that about three out of four end in divorce, broken homes, confused and rightfully resentful children.
As will be shown below, a marriage that produces children who are brought up characterizing themselves as both Christian and Jewish ("Chewish"), is also designated here as a Mixed Marriage because Jewish continuity is not considered an overriding value or objective of the household. The kids can go either way, or try to remain an amalgam. But they are not Jews. Not until - if they so decide - they drop Chewishness for Jewishness.
The phrases “Christian Jew” and “Jewish Christian” are contradictions in terms. Jews, Christians and Muslims see themselves as holding mutually exclusive religious propositions and conscientiously circumscribed identities. Youngsters who are taught by well meaning parents to see themselves as a combination of religious identities are neither Christian nor Jewish. They are de facto another category, proclaiming another self-identification, or another religion altogether. Irrespective of their numbers, and the fact that few stay that way as adults, they – here referred to as Chews - constitute a separate designation or subdivision in the group of families with mixed religious status. As they grow up they almost invariably are inclined to see themselves as not fully Jewish, not fully Christian.
A home in which a born Jew (man or woman) has converted to Christianity and is raising Christian children is not a home of a mixed marriage but an Intra-marriage between two Christians. A marriage between two Muslims one of whom had been Jewish or Christian previously is also to be identified as an Intra-marriage. Orthodox Jews would say that a born Jew always remains a Jew (sinful at times, to be sure). Therefore if it is the woman who converts, and since she is still considered a Jew, her children are Jewish even if they attend mass every Sunday or a mosque every Friday.
All the other branches of Judaism – about ninety percent of American Jewry - roundly reject this concept. Even were the couple, for any reason, to continue to refer to themselves as Jews (who are or have become Christian) or as Christians (but still somehow Jews) they would not be considered Jews by any of the movements of Judaism except for matrilineal, “you can’t convert out” orthodox authorities.
Individuals with Jewish ancestry, who wish to affirm that fact, reclaim their Jewish lineage and think of themselves as Jews, generally assert their Jewish identities by beginning to live as a Jew. They would also undertake a suitable course of study culminating in being called to the Torah and reciting the blessings as a self-identifying Jew. These “returnees” include “hidden Jews” from various European, South American and African lands - descendants of Jews - brought up as non-Jews. Now they are seeking to reclaim their Jewish roots and their self- recognition.
4) An Inter-Marriage, in contrast to a Mixed Marriage, is a marriage between a born or converted Jew and a non-Jew in which the decision has been made to take the Jewish pathway. They have elected in favor of establishing a Jewish household, one in which Judaism will be practiced and Jewish identity transmitted; the Jewish life cycle and Jewish festivals will be observed. In certain instances as when a second marriage merges children of different faiths, a Jewish household may not necessarily require all members to be practicing a single faith. Although some members are not Jewish, a Jewish household may nevertheless be established.
I have observed Jewish households in which Christian children reside. They are not marginalized because, in the words of one such non-Jewish eighteen-year-old, “all the Christian things came from the Jewish people so I’m an extension of the Jewish people and I get to participate in lots of fun Jewish celebrations and besides everybody Jewish in my family encourages me to be a good practicing Christian even when I don’t feel like it.”
To be precise in our use of definitions it should be again pointed out that many people, rabbis and other professionals among them, use the terms intermarriage and mixed-marriages interchangeably and without distinction. In this essay, however, we wish to convey that an “Inter”-marriage is to be understood as an “in marriage” and a “Mixed”-marriage represents an “out marriage,” out from Jewish community and continuity, that is.
Mixed refers to all the other “mixtures” which signify Jewish discontinuity. Christian, Muslim, Unitarianism, Chewish and Eschewish marriages are “out,” from this perspective. They are Mixed Marriages. “Inter” and “Intra” are in-faith marriages signaling continuity. In this context, faith - Judaism (Torah) and Jewish practices (Mitzvot) – suggests folk as well because many newcomers to Judaism seek a folk – that is, a community – as much as a faith.
Conversion to Judaism is not a pre-requisite of an Intermarriage – which would, in any event, change that marriage into an Intra-marriage. As Elizabeth Marincola points out, “just because a spouse does not wish to convert to Judaism doesn’t mean s/he does not wish to establish a Jewish household and raise Jewish children. One can respect Judaism and appreciate its positive effects on his/her children without (yet - or ever) feeling committed enough to personally convert.”
Many non-Jewish parties in an Inter-marriage are not prepared to deal with the feelings of their own parents, some of whom may interpret conversion as having their child turning away from them and their family’s past. Here is where the often lengthy and sensitive educational process begins. As with one’s children, it is important that the non-Jewish parents of the newly Inter-married be helped to understand that “Christianity is an offshoot of the Jewish religion.” They may be brought to see themselves as extended limbs and branches emerging from (and perhaps defending or safeguarding) the core stem upon which their own offspring take their stand. They certainly need not see themselves as marginalized or excluded from the new family’s religious life. This important point will be developed in greater depth further on in these chapters.
The Jewish side of the new family should be helped to understand the value and importance of the role of the non-Jewish family members. And, in Elizabeth Marincola’s words, they should be seen “as loving constituents of a supportive ‘fifth column,’ upholding Jewish continuity and the unity of the new family.”
Even without formal conversion, and just as when the Christian route is taken, the Intermarried couple has elected the clarity of a single faith and identity rather than the various amalgamated alternatives. They will see themselves as belonging to the Jewish community. "Belonging" and “behaving” will precede "believing" for their family and the decision will serve to strengthen the "folk" - which precedes the "faith." The couple will establish a Jewish home in some form and will affiliate with a synagogue, when the time is right, to help raise and educate their children proudly as Jews. A rabbi will almost certainly be engaged to officiate at the wedding ceremony.
Since Jews have no interest in ritual victories – they are devoted instead to ethical Jewish living and historical continuity - some rabbis (mostly Reform) would permit non-Jewish clergy to participate in this ceremony, showing respect for the religious sensibilities of the non-Jewish family members. Other rabbis, as has been pointed out, would not agree to this, feeling that they would be sending out "mixed messages." From the perspective of this presentation such a view is to be respected although an opportunity for expressing thoughtful magnanimity and high-minded generosity will not be seized.
As has been pointed out, couples deciding to go the Jewish route will usually choose a ceremony in which they solemnize their marriage with the words "according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel." They also usually marry under a chupa (canopy) which does not stand for a home in the general sense but represents for them the Jewish home in the particular they plan to establish.
These precious and powerful words – “traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” – are the core formula indicative of the pathway to the Jewish Mansion the family will traverse for a lifetime and the cultural character of the new household-to-be. This is the case regardless of the religious upbringing or background of the one or the other of them.
The first part of the centuries-old formula of acquisition, “with this ring be thou consecrated unto me as my wife…husband…” is equivalent to “with this ring I do thee wed” or “I take you as husband/wife with this ring.” The second part, “according to the tradition of Moses and the heritage of Israel” is equally powerful: the community witnesses the publicly declared intent of the newly married couple to select the Jewish way of life over all other options and bi-ways. With those words, the non-Jewish partner has publicly assumed the status of a ger toshav – a Settled Sojourner. Some see it as a kind of “coming out of the closet,” revealing an identity not previously fully disclosed.
It has been pointed out that the phrase "according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel" is the Jewish pledge of allegiance, and the chupa serves as the flag representing that commitment. These symbols and the recitation of this ancient formula notify the Jewish community and everyone in attendance that a home is being planned where the traditions and heritage of Judaism will be passed on. The family members and friends in attendance at the nuptial ceremony serve as witnesses to that pledge.
It is useful here to be reminded of the definitions operative in our presentation: Inter-marriages, Mitzvah-marriages, and Jewish Intra-marriages are “in-faith” marriages, signifying Jewish continuity. Mixed Marriages are out-marriages, signifying Jewish discontinuity. Both Mixed marriages and Inter-marriages are designated as "interfaith" marriages.
No suitable term has yet been coined to identify a marriage between two born Jews who have no intention of establishing a Jewish home or raising a Jewish family. Not taking their stand with the minority culture, they blend by default into the majority and are lost to the Jewish community and Jewish history. Based on over 40 years of experience, I can safely say that there are indeed many Jews I have come to know who choose not to transmit Jewish identity and Judaism to their children. And there are many non-Jews married to Jews who do transmit that heritage. And many of them do so proudly, lovingly and admirably.
Furthermore, and as elaborated more fully below, some 20 percent of the members of Jewish households today are themselves non-Jews. Nearly all, judging from experience alone (for want of attitudinal surveys), would be pleased to identify themselves as Settled Sojourners. For them the additional responsibilities “which comes with the job when you get with the program” – to cite a remark by one such man at the bar mitzvah of his son – are important, esteemed and appreciated in their lives.
For a non-Jew to support or affirm Jewish identity for his or her own children obviously signifies that the person has begun to care enough about Judaism and the Jewish heritage to willingly assume the burdens of an altogether unfamiliar way of life and to participate in a culture which is often “counter” to the values of the mainstream. This – the Jewish path - is not the easiest or most convenient path to take. It requires a special commitment and a readiness to be different. On the positive side, for some few, the Jewish way of life also offers a cachet similar to that of belonging to a rather prestigious private club of cognoscenti boasting centuries of history and impressive, unparalleled, contributions to the betterment of humanity.
Jennifer and Michael, A Settled Sojourner’s Story:
Jennifer always wanted to marry a Jewish man and now she is about to marry Michael who is a committed Jew. She was brought up and describes that upbringing as "kind of Christian Eschewish" that is, without doctrinal affirmations. Her family celebrated Christmas and Easter as family festivals, not religious holy days, and she was also introduced to what she calls “Jewish icons” such as dreidles and Hanukah gelt. It was relatively easy for Jennifer to move into the Jewish Mansion, which she refers to as the "Jewish camp." Indeed she sought it out by her determination to marry a Jewish man in order to gain entrée into that camp. She had a strong preference for dating Jewish men, knowing that it was important to initiate relationships that she could envision leading down the Jewish path.
Jennifer intends to convert after experiencing the entire cycle of the Jewish year and its observances as a married woman to a Jewish man. Michael encourages Jennifer to keep her cultural roots and childhood religious practices, but she is more inclined to set these aside and observe a fully Jewish household. "We'll bring our children to my family's holiday celebrations and they will get plenty of exposure through my family. Secular Christians is what I'd call our family since they put up a Christmas tree and decorate eggs. Mike and I will keep a fully Jewish home, but we will visit my family on Christian holidays to give our kids exposure to the majority culture.
“Still, we are also seriously considering taking an altogether new family name for our new lives together. We don't want to hurt our families - specifically the paternal side of Mike's family - or make it difficult for relatives to trace our genealogy when mapping out the family tree. But it seems like a slap in every woman's face for society to expect marrying women to shed their identities without some sort of patrilineal compromise. When a man and a woman decide to form a marital bond, their new family should be marked by a common name - one that is unique to their family unit. Keeping both father’s and mother’s surnames as a hyphenated unit would be too cumbersome for all involved.
"Another of Mike's concerns is that our expectations coming into marriage were different in terms of who would sacrifice the surname. While I have always felt strongly about making a more radical nomenclature compromise, Mike has always expected to keep his name throughout his life. My thoughts on this are that ignorance of gender insensitivity does not make right maintaining a static position once the issue comes to light. I truly believe that this outmoded societal custom reinforces gender biases. It should not be tolerable to anyone in the 21st century to view women as the weaker sex without the right to have a voice. Women have careers and own property but are subliminally instructed that they are not empowered to forge their own way or to contribute to a new way.
"These are issues we have to work through together. Unfortunately, the engagement period flies by, so we have to work quickly. If we were to take a new name, our preference would be to take a new Hebrew name as an indication of roots and cultural/historical continuity.
"But the matter is still up for grabs."
Pearl was raised without a Jewish education and with virtually no festival or life cycle events such as bat mitzvah. Furthermore, women’s issues such as reproductive rights do not resonate deeply within her. Her fiancée was brought up as a believing, well-educated, church going Catholic. Their children will be baptized and brought up Catholic and Pearl will do her best to be supportive of this decision which she feels is the right one given the strength of Anthony’s faith and commitment to the church.
She will be the Jewish member of a Catholic household. Her responsibilities are essentially twofold: First she must educate herself through course work and readings on the fundamentals of Catholicism to know and understand what her children will be brought up to believe. Secondly she must play catch up on Judaism, Jewish culture and where Judaism differs from Christianity.
She must become an informed, proud, practicing Jew – no less committed to her identity than her family will be devoted to the Catholic faith. She should celebrate her family’s religious holidays and life cycle milestones with their clear understanding that her allegiance is to the Jewish way of life, Torah and mitzvot. She should not shortchange her children by depriving them of exposure to the richness of their mother’s Jewish culture and heritage from which their own sprung.
Exposure in this setting does not lead to confusion: the children will know who they are, Christians fully; they will learn to respect different cultures and to experience the advantages of a do-able dual faith household: without inner conflict or having to choose between parents. Conveying the correspondence as well as the contrasts of the two religions of their household takes on far-reaching importance, of course. Her responsibilities as a Jew, rather than diminishing have increased. She owes her children an authentic representation of the several thousand years Jewish journey through world history that she embodies.
Sarah Anne, also raising Christian children as a Jewish parent, fully understands and willingly embraces this responsibility. She has radically modified her own personal dietary practices by eliminating ham, pork and bacon in addition to observing Jewish festivals at home. “I will never deny my heritage. My Jewishness is not a sidebar that lies apart, boxed out and separate from my family.”
She has joined a synagogue, enrolled in Basic Judaism classes and plans to visit Israel with her family one day that her family may experience “where I’m coming from and what Jews are all about.” Her children are not self identifying Jews. They will self identify as faithful, practicing Christians. They will be taught beliefs she does not hold. But they will not be deprived of an upbringing witnessing the informed practices of the religion underlying their own.
Jewish mothers of Christian children no less than other parents raising children in professions other than their own must see themselves as serious and responsible followers of their faith for their own self esteem and for the sake of their children.
Now what kinds of identity have the offspring of these various types of marriage?
The child of a Jewish Intra-marriage, including a Mitzvah-marriage, will be considered a Jew by everyone. Both parents are, after all, Jews. As has been noted, a Mitzvah-marriage refers to the fact that one of the parties converted to Judaism before marriage. The Orthodox would add the proviso that their own rabbinical authorities must authenticate prenuptial conversions. Otherwise an Orthodox rabbi would decline to preside at a convert’s wedding. They would not consider that person a Jew.
It has also been noted that Orthodox Judaism will not regard as Jews the children of a non-converted woman married to a Jewish husband regardless of how the children were raised - even if they were brought up practicing Judaism within a Jewish community and have had synagogue affiliation their entire lives. The Orthodox rabbi would, however, view the children of a born Jewish mother as Jewish regardless of the religious identity of the father or how they were raised. Even were the mother to have converted to Christianity, Jewish Orthodoxy would consider her and her children Jews.
Moreover, for the Orthodox, not only are the precise halachic (“according to Jewish law”) conversion procedures critical in establishing Jewish identity for people not born of a Jewish mother (as they are for Polydox - non-Orthodox - Jewish authorities as well), but the officiant must possess impeccable Orthodox credentials. Orthodox authorities will often not recognize the credentials of other Orthodox authorities, and certainly not of non-Orthodox authorities. The perennial confrontation over the issue of authority is concerned as much with the power politics of who is a rabbi as it is with the question of who is a Jew.
In this context, from a Polydox, non-orthodox perspective, the logic of willful self-identification is incontrovertible: anyone who does not consider himself or herself a Jew is not a Jew. Madeline Albright is a good example mentioned before. She was born to Jewish parents so she has lineality, but she calls herself a Christian. She has Jewish ancestry, to be sure, but she is not a Jew because that is not how she sees herself. She is not a self-declared Jew; she is a Christian of Jewish descent.
A nun, born of a Jewish mother who later converted to Catholicism, is a Jew to Orthodox rabbis but to virtually no one else. Conversely, a child who is raised scrupulously as a Jew from birth with a brit, Consecration, bar/bat mitzvah, and Confirmation, and who then becomes a rabbi, would not be considered a Jew by this group if born of a Jewish father and an unconverted non-Jewish mother.
Value decisions - such as parental roles, what professional goals to strive for, how to spend discretionary income, what causes to support, whether and how to participate in social action and community service, and what it means to "use" others in a relationship – are in certain ways similar to religious decisions. Inter-value marriages do take place but they invariably fail, whether or not the couple divorces. Interfaith marriages, by contrast, can succeed, providing the couple’s values converge rather than conflict and providing that the understanding between them is relatively free from uncertainties and ambiguities about important life decisions such as in what religion to raise the children.
Being raised as a Jew starts with a brit (covenant) ceremony, which for a baby girl involves a Jewish name-giving ceremony and, for a boy, a name giving ceremony plus circumcision. It also includes enrollment in a Jewish religious school with a Consecration celebration; the celebration of life cycle rituals such as bar/bat mitzvah and Confirmation; membership in a synagogue; and similar acts of Jewish commitment.
We have referred to the life cycle events of the Mitzvah System – the private and community shared acts of Jewish commitment - as a pillar of the Mansion of Jewish identity. A single pillar yanked out from under brings about a doubtful stability for the building left standing. Conversely, substantiating and reinforcing the pillar upholding the Mansion are the actions, many performed while marking personal biographical milestones, celebrated in the presence of friends and loved ones, performed to clearly signify that the parents have conferred Jewish identity on their child. Observing Jewish holidays, Holy days, Sabbaths, festivals and other observances as well as fulfilling the many ethical, non-ritual commandments, represent the further requirements of the Mitzvah System for the conduct of a Jewish lifetime.
Absent all acts of Jewish observance it is difficult to imagine that the other pillars of the Mansion of Jewish identity can stand securely in place. More likely only the self-identification (they do not deny they were born Jews) and lineage columns remain upright. The building cannot keep from falling.
There are, however, no Mitzvah minimums. Adult single Jews, for example, might do no more than attend a seder on Passover or a High Holiday service, for that pillar to be in place, however much it can do with further reinforcements when the time is right. On the other hand, neglecting or dropping all Jewish acts may be a conscious and deliberate turn of the doorknob out of the Mansion. Many unmarried individuals keep the latchkey in their pockets for a future return to their moorings in the mansion, if we can resort to so obvious an image.
Some Jews, however, would take exception to the requirements of Jewish commandments, i.e. mitzvot or obligatory deeds. In their opinion these obligations - self-imposed or imposed by the imperatives of history and ancestry – may appear, in the words of Dr. Wendy Plotkin, as “excessively literal and alienating to those who are ‘passive’ Jews -- that is, to those who claim a Jewish ‘identity’ through parentage or self-perception but who are not ‘ritualized’ through, for example, belonging to a synagogue.” But absent Jewish acts of observance of life-cycle events, rites of passage, festivals and holy days observed in the synagogue alongside like-minded others, a column upholding the mansion of Jewish Identity has been removed threatening its stability.
In this connection it is worth noting that there are a great many reasons for joining and supporting a synagogue. These include: affirming faithful Jewish identity, studying Torah, becoming increasingly informed about the teachings of Judaism and Jewish history, participating in the fellowship of Jewish association, observing the cycle of Jewish festivals, and supporting the education of all people – young and old - of a Jewish community. Therefore joining a synagogue is unquestionably of utmost importance for the fulfillment of the mitzvah of strengthening one of the four pillars upholding the Mansion.
There are, as well, other commandments to observe outside the synagogue. Among them are: participating in home based celebrations, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, attending Jewish cultural events, visiting and supporting Israel as a homeland for any Jew who needs or wants to live there, keeping certain dietary practices and many other acts of self-identification which signify a Jewish life or “a life as a Jew.” Keeping informed about Jewish issues and current events also falls within the category of observing the commandments. We have been referring to these many and various acts of Jewish commitment as engaging and fulfilling the Mitzvah system. Polydox Judaism would wish to underscore the importance of the “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.”
Most Reform rabbis would be inclined, however reluctantly, to deny Jewish identity to anyone who, though born of a Jewish mother, was not raised as a Jew and did not keep any life cycle or holy day observances. Reform Jews and other Polydox Jews will not recognize as Jews the child of a Mixed Marriage or a child raised as a "Both" which we have termed “Chewish,” or a child raised as none-of-the-above which we have termed as “Eschewish”-- even if the mother was born Jewish. From their point of view, a “Chew” should not even be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Their position is that without a Jewish upbringing (as defined in previous paragraphs as, at the least, observing Jewish life cycle events even if the various celebrations and commemorations of the Jewish year are neglected), a child is not Jewish.
Were such a child to begin to see her/himself as Jewish and as “one of the folk;” were such a child to choose to affirm that identity by referring to him/herself as Jewish; were such a child to elect to celebrate bar/bat mitzvah (as well as to take on the education required for that milestone); were such a child to renounce other religious allegiances, that youngster would not necessarily require a conversion. The bar/bat mitzvah event of being called to recite the Torah blessings would publicly proclaim exclusive and unwavering Jewish identity before the congregation.
Despite Orthodox Jewish law, Polydox authorities would also not recognize as Jewish the child of a born Jewish woman who has converted to another religion, unless somehow that child was brought up as a Jew. Their religious posture is often expressed as, "No one shall be considered a Jew who does not consider himself or herself a Jew."
Reform and other Polydox Jews, in agreement with the Israeli Knesset and Supreme Court interpretation of Jewish identity in the state's Law of Return, will refuse to recognize as a Jew anyone who converts to another faith. In this view, which is held overwhelmingly by contemporary Jews, a change of religious identity forfeits Jewish ethnicity as well.
That convert has made a decision to vacate the mansion. By electing to take another path that man or woman has departed from the Jewish community. That decision, however painful to family and others, must be respected and fully recognized as a binding change of status just as one would wish the decision by non-Jews to enter the mansion of Jewish identity be likewise honored and respected.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that conversions, both out and in, serve – among other functions – to detach, withdraw, out-filtrate, a born Jew from the Jewish community and from Jewish identity, or conversely, when a Gentile becomes a Jew, to energize, regenerate, enrich, and bolster Jewish continuity. And certain spiritually enlightened individuals may find the place where they feel they belong. Most Jews-by-choice I have known relate that they have not so much converted as come home to the place they always knew to be theirs. My friends who are ministers and priests tell similar stories about non-Christians who have come to know and experience Christ in their lives. Indeed, both religious communities will most likely be advanced and gain strength by welcoming a sincere newcomer into their midst and by releasing one who chooses to leave to live in another mansion.
While they may not all be in agreement about how to determine who is a Jew, Polydox and Orthodox authorities agree that the burden of defining Jewish identity does not belong to non-Jews. Hitler's racial interpretations and Arab Knesset members' voting records on Israel's Law of Return, for example, are not relevant to the issue of Jewish identity. Jews define themselves.
It will likely always remain difficult to render an adequate definition of What is a Jew and Who is a Jew because Jews and the Jewish community are not quite comparable, in their fundamentals, to other groups of people. This may explain why encyclopedias and dictionaries have such trouble establishing a precise way of formally labeling or designating what is meant by the word Jew.
Classification, in this instance, is no easy thing. Are Jews a religious group and if so what of the non-religious? They are never excluded from Jewish identity. Are Jews a racial or ethnic group? Any visit to Israel, or indeed to most American Jewish congregations, testifies to the wide diversity of Jews and quickly renders the racial and color oriented definitions or ethnic designations as useless. A national group? Jews have always been loyal citizens of whatever country wherein they reside. No less than others, they have served their adopted lands often with uncommon distinction. Many Jews are not Zionists and have no intention to leave the Diaspora and settle in the Promised Land. A linguistic group? Which language, Hebrew unspoken for centuries until its rebirth in the land of Israel, Yiddish, Ladino? In short, Jews have always and will always see themselves as Jews regardless of the dilemma dictionaries and encyclopedias encounter detailing and disseminating their appropriate categorizations.
Some historians and students of religion classify Jews along with other ostensibly similar “religious” faith communities as in the phrase “Protestants, Catholics and Jews,” or “Jews, Christians and Muslims.” Other scholars prefer non-religious societal categories such as, “Native American (Indian) tribes, Gypsies and Jews.” But Jews are more unlike than like "whatever" is presented as similar or parallel. In this instance, it is best not to be focusing upon definitions- despite the definitions and classifications rampant in this book. Perhaps, in the spirit of the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, the conclusion to be reached is that “Defining restricts; relating deepens.” It is better to relate to people than to try to define them.
Joanne and Adam, an example of identity building:
Adam spent a good deal of his childhood at an Episcopalian church school. As he puts it, his parents had him thinking “that there were no other Jews in the world." That's why, when he met his soon-to-be-spouse, Christian-born Joanne, he knew quite a bit about her religion.
It was quite another thing, however, to form a basic belief in it. Early on, he knew he could not raise his children as Christian. He emphasizes that this decision is based on his convictions and his unwillingness to pretend to believe doctrines he cannot uphold, as well as the feeling that "Christianity came from Judaism; [they] just added this extra person to worship."
And despite some doubts, Joanne, never having been religious, supported these convictions. She recalls her friends who eagerly married Jewish spouses but felt they were never fully embraced by their Jewish families. So she was initially worried about meeting Adam's family. However, once they met, she says, things went well.
Even though she was never particularly religious, Joanne says traditional celebrations such as Christmas remain touchy. The couple has spent every Christmas with her parents, but in terms of children, she says that they are "headed for major discussions" about this issue. She says the holiday is hard to give up less because of religious conviction than the family traditions that surround it.
Adam agrees that the Christmas issue "may be confusing" for future offspring, especially because, being a vocalist and musician, he sings in some Christmas services. However, he says, the couple will deal with it "not in a particularly religious way," and when the children are exposed to Christmas he doesn't “see it as exposing them to something that can't be explained and reconciled."
Joanne adds that if they did want to incorporate elements like the Christmas tree into their children's lives, they would do so outside their own home, and involve her family. They would regard these customs as "part of a broader thing," and “not as specifically crucial elements of their own immediate family, thereby downplaying their religious significance."
Through marriage to Adam who is a knowledgeable and committed Jew, proud of his identity, Joanne has learned a good deal about the Jewish religion, the Jewish way of life and culture. She has also learned through reading about it, by taking classes as well as by actively participating in such Jewish traditions as the Passover Seder and Yom Kippur services. However Adam and Joanne plan to be more Jewishly observant once they have children.
Both she and Adam agree that along with observances should come some sort of Jewish cultural education. Adam is slightly skeptical about his children having a Hebrew school education that is based solely in the Hebrew language. He'd like his children to be familiar with the culturally Jewish Yiddish language in addition to learning about the religion itself.
Adam and Joanne constitute a unique couple in that amid all talk of raising children, they have not been able to conceive yet. Consequently, they see themselves as faced with a unique issue that most interfaith couples do not confront. If they choose to involve an egg donor in the conception of their first child, they will also have to decide whether or not the donor will be Jewish.
A Friendly Copyright Notice
© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved
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