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Old 02-13-2006, 06:24 AM   #1
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Interfaith (and "Interfaithless") Marriages

This New York Times story from yesterday, as well as an offhand comment of Irvine's in a recent post, got me to thinking about the decidely non-Valentiney subject of inter(faith)marriages.
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In this age of potpourri spirituality, Anique Olivier-Mason, 25, classifies herself generally as a Christian: she grew up Catholic and often attends a Presbyterian church near her home. But on a recent Friday night, she was attending Sabbath services at Larchmont Temple. Mrs. Olivier-Mason's husband, Joshua, is Jewish, and the couple became members of the synagogue, in Westchester County, last summer, committing to immersing themselves in the 800-family congregation. On this night, she stood by gamely as her husband, 25, bobbed, swayed and sang in enthusiastic Hebrew with others in the temple.

For the most part, concerted efforts to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert have been frowned upon. Now, however, in what would be a major shift of outlook for Reform Judaism — the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of American Judaism, with some 1.5 million members — that may be changing. Concerned about what intermarriage is doing to American Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization of the country's Reform Jewish congregations, recently called for Reform synagogues to increase their efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses. By welcoming and accepting gentile spouses, Reform congregations have "perhaps sent the message that we do not care if they convert," Rabbi Yoffie said at the union's most recent conference, in November. "But that is not our message. The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues."

Now, Reform congregations across the country are wrestling with how to respond. The push, which is accompanied by materials and initiatives on "inviting and supporting conversion," treads on emotionally fraught territory for thousands of interfaith families. It also clashes with a longstanding aversion among many Jews to anything resembling proselytizing. Rabbinic tradition dictates that when converts come forward, they should be rejected three times, said Rabbi Yoffie, in an interview. But he said it also says that if they persist and are truly interested, then they should be welcomed. In April, the Union for Reform Judaism's Greater New York Council plans to hold a seminar for its approximately 90 congregations in the region on how to raise the topic of conversion "in a way that's loving, not threatening," said Rabbi Eric B. Stark, the council's president.

Reform Jews are not alone in their efforts. A month after Rabbi Yoffie's comments, Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, the leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, made a similar call, urging Conservative Jews as well to be more aggressive in seeking converts among non-Jewish spouses. Together, Reform and Conservative Jews make up a majority of Jews in the United States.

In some ways, because the Olivier-Masons do not yet have children, they are prime candidates for the kind of encouragement that Jewish leaders are pitching. Yet they also embody many of the challenges. The couple's current plan is to raise their children steeped in both religions, a practice most Jewish leaders oppose. "We intend to instill in our children a feeling of spirituality in the sense that they can feel comfortable both in a Christian church and in a Jewish synagogue," Mrs. Olivier-Mason said.

Weighing heavily on many Jewish leaders is the continued high rate of intermarriage in Judaism. According to the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey, the intermarriage rate for Jews who have married since 1996 is 47 percent. [The Survey doesn't actually name this figure. I'm guessing what they did was average the intermarriage rate for Jews with 2 Jewish parents (22%) and Jews with 1 Jewish parent (74%).--yolland] Just as important to Jewish leaders is what happens to the children of those marriages. "The truth is, not more than about a third of the products of mixed marriage identify Jewishly," said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "There is a great fear that if a small Jewish community simply acquiesces to a situation of high intermarriage, that pretty soon, do the math, that a small community, which is really an endangered religious species, will simply disappear."

At Larchmont, the growing interfaith community is anchored by the temple's outreach committee, which caters to mixed-marriage families with discussion groups, educational events and get-togethers. Encouraging conversion is not part of the committee's mandate, nor should it be, said Anne Gittelman, co-chairwoman of the group, who converted to Judaism several years ago. She decided to convert, she said, only after her son, whom she and her husband had decided to raise as a Jew, started attending public schools and was suddenly exposed heavily to Christmas. The family had been spending Christmases with Mrs. Gittelman's mother and Easters with Mrs. Gittelman's sister. One day after school, her son, at age 5, blurted out, "I want to be like Mommy's family."

The outburst proved decisive. Intent on eliminating future confusion, Mrs. Gittelman approached Rabbi Sirkman, and the pair spent more than a year together studying and discussing conversion. Despite her personal decision, Mrs. Gittelman said she had mixed feelings about the push. "Where I would be uncomfortable is that we encourage the thought of conversion," she said. "I'm wary of that, because I don't think I would have appreciated that except from my 5-year-old son."

To Mrs. Olivier-Mason, whose husband often goes with her to the Presbyterian church, the worries about Judaism's future make sense. She is comfortable at Larchmont, but if leaders were noticeably to increase the pressure on her to convert, she said, "There might be a time when I feel like I don't want to go."
Most weeks we attend a Conservative synagogue in a nearby city, where the USCJ initiative (4th paragraph above) was announced back in December to a swell of shocked murmurs from the congregation. Our outreach committee is still hotly debating how to respond.

I myself am of a very mixed mind about it. On the one hand, like most Jews I'm deeply troubled by the decline in Jewish observance, and Jewish identity more generally, which has resulted from our high intermarriage rate. To that extent, I like the idea of actively encouraging non-Jewish spouses (especiallly nonreligious ones who are, or plan to be, parents) to take courses on running a Jewish household and family, send their kids to Camp Ramah, etc. After all, Conservative Jews by definition are supposed to be observant, and full observance does require some mutuality where running a household is concerned. (If you think this sounds unwelcoming, well a lot of intermarried Conservatives would agree with you, as they tend to depart for Reform synagogues in droves after marrying. Or to get married, period, since Conservative rabbis are forbidden to perform interfaith marriages. Our numbers are shrinking markedly relative to Reform Jews, and this is a big part of why. It will be interesting to see how the denomination-switchers react now that the Reform movement is taking a similar tack. I should qualify that not all Reform rabbis will perform intermarriages; however, it is not forbidden to them.)

On the other hand, I'm uncomfortable with actively encouraging anyone to actually convert, and pretty much dead-set against it in the case of practicing Christian spouses. (The USCJ announcement lamely ducks this issue by emphasizing that many interfaith marriages are in fact "interfaithless," never acknowledging that many aren't too). I worry that this could backfire and alienate non-Jewish spouses, damaging marriages and perhaps driving their Jewish spouses away as well. I worry that it could send an invasive, arm-twisting message to both partners: Come on now, you didn't really mean or know what you were doing when you freely chose to marry someone of a different religious background, did you?

Most of all, I have mixed feelings about where the children of interfaith marriages fall in all this. I must admit I really dislike the "we'll raise our children to feel equally at home in a church and a synagogue" philosophy, and have never met a product of such a home who feels like they chose the one they eventually did (or neither) for fully nonconflicted reasons. Besides, purely from a parenting perspective, I don't see how you can feel you truly gave your child a solid foundation in whichever religious community you belong to, when you're constantly shuffling them back and forth between peers who have their feet firmly planted in one or the other. And what about the points at which the two religions make conflicting claims? How can you expect your child, at 16 or 18 or whatever, to ultimately make a mature, intellectually robust, social-pressure-free assessment of which theology they prefer--don't you think the contradictions (and resulting identity crisis) will be painfully apparent to them long before that?

At the same time, again, I worry this sends an invasive and arm-twisting message to interfaith (or "interfaithless") couples that they themselves aren't the best judges of where their children fit into their respective religious destinies (or lack thereof). For the marriage's sake and the children's sake, parents really need to be holding the keys when it comes to these decisions--there is an inviolability of authority there that I feel must be respected. If they've decided to raise their kids Jewish, great--by all means, let's actively encourage family observance classes and the like to facilitate that. But if not--well, they've made that choice on the basis of some shared vision (integral to their marriage) of whom and what they wish their children to become or not become, and I worry it would be to everyone's detriment to insist, however subtly, that a different path would be superior.

-------------------------------------------------

I don't mean to make this a Jewish issues thread, though--interfaith(less) marriages is an issue relevant to everybody. And Jews are not alone in finding the dimension of preserving a strong historic/cultural legacy to be an additional aggravant here--Catholics, Mormons, Mennonites and some strongly ethnic-associated Christian communities, like LivLuv's I believe, have similar concerns.

If you're a mainline or "standard nonaffiliated" Protestant--how would you feel about, and how would you react, to your child's wishing to marry a Catholic? a Jew? a Mormon? a Muslim? If you're Catholic, how would you feel about and what would you tell your child who wishes to marry a Southern Baptist, say, or a Conservative Jew? If you aren't conventionally religious, how would you feel and what would you say about your child marrying into, for example, an observant Jewish, or Catholic, or Mormon community (and your grandchildren being raised in it)? What do you-all think about synagogues actively encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert, and/or to raise their children as Jews?
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Old 02-13-2006, 08:51 AM   #2
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Religion goes through times of "purity" (which I believe to be a misnomer anyway) and syncretism, which usually occurs during times of active outside recruitment. St. Augustine, for instance, ended up bringing in many tenets from Manicheanism into the Christian church, forever changing Christianity in ways that were never originally intended.

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Besides, purely from a parenting perspective, I don't see how you can feel you truly gave your child a solid foundation in whichever religious community you belong to, when you're constantly shuffling them back and forth between peers who have their feet firmly planted in one or the other. And what about the points at which the two religions make conflicting claims? How can you expect your child, at 16 or 18 or whatever, to ultimately make a mature, intellectually robust, social-pressure-free assessment of which theology they prefer--don't you think the contradictions (and resulting identity crisis) will be painfully apparent to them long before that?
All of it will depend on how well the parents encourage belief in both religions. If the parents do not genuinely engage in each others' belief systems and traditions, then there really won't be any incentive for the children to do the same themselves. But I guess this would be an easier proposition for me than for others, since I'm a theist that believes all religions are equally false.

I wish I had had another religion to fall back on. I had 13 years of religious education invested in Roman Catholicism, and now even thinking about that religion inspires nothing but complete revulsion. So, I guess, look at it that way; if parents feel that they have to brainwash their children at an early age like their parents before them, why not do it in a way where they have choices when they're old enough to break free?

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Old 02-13-2006, 09:29 AM   #3
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I think it is a really good thing to interfaith marriages, it is showing that the prejudice people feel to people of other beliefs is starting to fade away.

I am against trying to convert spouses, because to me that is the husband or wife saying that they can't be with the other unless they convert. If you can't see past a persons religion, then you shouldn't be with them. Religous differences are completely unimportant, my girlfriend is Atheist, I am Christian, does that make a difference to me? no. Would I ever try to convert her? No.

I am also against the raising of children with religous beliefs, if people want to find faith, they should find it themsleves and not be brainwashed into it
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Old 02-13-2006, 11:21 AM   #4
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There is a reason for the admonition of 2 Corinthians 6:14

Faith, if it is to be a central part of one's life, cannot go in differing directions and maintained as originally followed.

I'd say the message is not to convert someone, but realize that an important part of one's life should be discussed and dealt with as the relationship develops. One will need to face the prospects of compromising one's faith. Ask yourself "which will last longer - this relationship or my faith?"

This does not mean that people cannot learn about other faiths - there is a significant difference between academic understanding of a faith, and the practice of faith as a central part of one's life.
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Old 02-13-2006, 11:36 AM   #5
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i was always jealous of the kids who got to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.

i think i'd rather have two parents of different religions so i could be exposed to both and learn more and find similarities and parallels between two competing belief systems -- but then again, i seem to see most of my life as a sort of anthropological quest. i would view it as akin to having parents of two different nationalities. i tend to view faith and religious participation as little more than cultural affiliation. i remember being young and reading about skinheads or neo-Nazis or whatever and learning that they hatred of Jews is a standard for membership, and all i could think was, "geez, who cares? it's just religion." though when we step back, it's less hatred of the religon itslef, and more the culture and ethnicity around the religion.

but i understand that other people view faith in much different terms.
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Old 02-13-2006, 01:13 PM   #6
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As long as my significant other held a belief in God and that one is saved through Grace (not his own works) alone, I have nothing against an inter-faith/denominational marriage. My fiance is from the same background as me, but we do have different ideas about worship and theology. I'd like to let my hypothetical children choose their own path. Depending on the quality of education where we end up, I'm not against sending my kids to a private school of ANY denomination (Baptist, Presby, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, whatever), as long as it's a good, safe school. When it comes to a good education, I won't discriminate based on religion and I won't discriminate BECAUSE of religion (meaning I won't send my kids to a public school simply b/c I want them to have the most objective religious experience, unless the public school is better than the private schools).

To be brutally honest, it would be very hard for me to date someone Jewish or Muslim, because religion is so important to me. However, I have tremendous respect for others who have successful inter-faith relationships (as well as inter-race relationships). Does this mean I discriminate against Jews and Muslims? No. I'd also never go out with a guy that chain smoked or a guy that didn't have a college degree or that hated U2. It doesn't mean I hate or discriminate against people who do those things, I just can't be married to them. It would just be impossible for me to be so close to someone who opposed pretty much everything I believe in. It would also be hard because for me, religion and church is a source of accountability and community. Not being able to share that (practicing seperate religions - attending different churches) would really ruin it for me.
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Old 02-13-2006, 01:30 PM   #7
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I am, technically, in an inter-faith and inter-racial marriage (i'm from Pakistan, raised Moslem, my wife's a white, American raised Catholic), though i now consider myself a devout Athiest and my wife would consider herself generally God believing, but not specifically belonging to a Church.

We have two kids and we generally try to find what is common in our backgrounds to impart to our kids. So the kids do get to celebrate Christmas and Easter, but also Eid and couple other Moslem holy days. We go to the Mosque and Church on those special occasions. The education is mostly "God" focused, not specifically about Mohammad or Jesus, though the kids certainly know about the importance of the two. They're 6 and 4 years old and haven't asked "What are we?" (i.e. Christian or Moslem?) I'm not sure what our answer will be...i think it'll be "We're people."

Er, though, i'll have to work on that somewhat.

But, if the parents aren't hardcore about any specific religion, I think "mixed" kids can have faith and God in their lives (our kids always pray to God...whether it's for candy or for staying up late, or whatever), so that's encouraging to see.

Curiously, the people with the most hardcore opinions about this are our kids' grandparents. My mom would like the kids to be strictly Moslem, and my wife's mom would like the kids to be strictly Catholic.
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Old 02-13-2006, 05:43 PM   #8
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My dad's Jewish...when he married my mom (Episcopalian) it was very important to him that his children were raised to be Jewish. She didn't think the religions were all that different and so converted (to Reform Judaism)...it was a mistake for her as a lot of the Christian traditions are important to her. So in all practicality she is Christian. Both my brother and I were "raised" Jewish but I opted not to have a bat mitzvah and I'm agnostic at best.

My mom really hates that I don't positively believe in a god and blames my oh-so traumatic interfaith upbringing for this. But whatever. The only thing I regret is not having a bat mitzvah. Ultimately you have to act along with your beliefs, but I wish I would've done it for my grandparents. I selfishly didn't think about it, but it is hard for them to see their 4 children marry non-Jewish spouses, knowing that none of them really have any will to carry on the Jewish traditions when they're gone.

I'd marry someone of any faith as long as they were pretty open and tolerant and liberal about it. Despite feeling bad about contributing to the disappearance of the Jewish religion...I just don't want to force something on my kids, I think they should find their own beliefs.
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Old 02-13-2006, 05:54 PM   #9
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My wife was raised Jewish & I was raised Catholic. Neither of us really claims full allegiance to our faiths, she less so than I. Rather, we each have come to develop our own individual spirituality, and each of our own is pretty compatible with the other. Honestly, I kind of believe that a lot of folks come to their own conclusions & beliefs, and that not many people fully, 100% subscribe to whatever their faith's institution proclaims---I'd be that if you found two Baptists & put them in a room, they'd disagree on at least something....and the same if you put two folks of any one faith together. We plan on providing our kids with as much info from both of our childhood faiths as we can, as well as from the beleifs that we have developed ourselves...and letting them come to their own conclusions as they think & question things themselves. I started seriously thinking about faith & what I believed around 11 or so...

A friend's wise father once told me this: "All religions are but different paths to the same place."
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Old 02-13-2006, 06:07 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally posted by VertigoGal
I selfishly didn't think about it, but it is hard for them to see their 4 children marry non-Jewish spouses, knowing that none of them really have any will to carry on the Jewish traditions when they're gone.
It's not worth carrying the burden of the world over this. Religions that are historically unfriendly to the idea of converts tend to fade away, and religions that do accept converts are usually changed drastically over time.

Either way, "tradition" is nonsense. Everything changes.

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Old 02-13-2006, 06:20 PM   #11
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I would consider marrying a believer, but she'd have to be REALLY good in the sack.
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Old 02-13-2006, 07:24 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by Utoo

A friend's wise father once told me this: "All religions are but different paths to the same place."
You'd be surprised at how many people vehemently disagree with that. I'm always surprised at it because that statement just makes soooo much sense to me...and the idea that it's untrue makes no sense at all (again, to me).
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Old 02-13-2006, 07:51 PM   #13
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Originally posted by indra
You'd be surprised at how many people vehemently disagree with that. I'm always surprised at it because that statement just makes soooo much sense to me...and the idea that it's untrue makes no sense at all (again, to me).
That's because the right path is always the one that I believe in. Everyone else is wrong. It'll be quite lonely in heaven when all the rest of you are in hell.

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Old 02-13-2006, 09:02 PM   #14
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Originally posted by melon
It'll be quite lonely in heaven when all the rest of you are in hell.


ah, but as we've noted in all the other threads, all the FUN people will be in Hell.
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Old 02-13-2006, 09:28 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally posted by VertigoGal
The only thing I regret is not having a bat mitzvah.
The ceremony is just a marker, nothing more--you became Bat Mitzvah the day you turned 12, period. Meaning you were fully and autonomously invested on that day with the right to decide for yourself whether to be observant or not. The ceremony has no effect on that; it is just a celebration.

---------------------------

"Open-mindedness" to other religions, and a belief that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth, are one thing--the passing on of communal legacies, traditions, and a sense of what the Christian faith (or Jewish faith, or Islam, or whatever) looks and feels like in everyday practice is something else. The practice of faith is not an intellectual proposition. We certainly are not teaching our children that all other faiths are ultimately "wrong," nor that they would be shaming us and their people unforgivably should they make their own eventual decision in good conscience to not be observant, or to convert, for that matter. Sharing what we consider to be the beauty and meaningfulness of an observant Jewish life with them is not incompatible with acknowledging and cultivating their own freedom to ask questions, reject unsatisfactory answers, and explore other paths. But I can't hold my head upright as a believing Jew if I haven't shown my children, through my own example, what riches our tradition has to offer--whether that's teaching them Talmud as my father did with us, involving them in our community's charity work, sharing the rituals of Sabbath with them as a family, or engaging them in discussion about what our ethical tradition has to say about human rights, freedom (intellectual and otherwise), and a passion for justice.

Again--these are not abstract intellectual propositions. I care much less about whether my children ultimately choose to observe Jewish law, or take Jewish spouses, than whether they show Jewish soul in how they relate to their fellow human beings, gentile and otherwise. But I don't really know how to achieve that without raising them in the same path I was raised on. It gives me something very rich, vast, and palpably relevant to all arenas of life to bear and share witness to with them. Raising them "to be nice people" and "think for themselves" (which is built into it all anyway) just wouldn't provide the same kind of footing for me as a parent. I've no doubts that that can be done because I've seen it happen, but I've seen no evidence that it's ultimately a better and sounder way, either.
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