A teacher at a progressive suburban synagogue in the United States was discussing intermarriage with her ninth-grade class. One student declared that she would never marry a Muslim. Eager to hear the reason for this assertion, the teacher asked: "Why?" The girl responded: "Because Muslims don't eat pork!"
I am reminded of a conversation that took place between a rabbi and a former member of his synagogue, who married a non-Jew. Rabbi: "Steven, your parents told me that you ate on Yom Kippur?" Student: "I forgot it was Yom Kippur." Rabbi: "They said that you ate a ham and cheese sandwich." Student: "I forgot that it wasn't kosher." Rabbi: "So, Steven, what happened?" Student: "I forgot I was Jewish."
On my recent travels to the States, I was struck by how interfaith-married or mixed-married is the American Jewish community. An interfaith marriage is one in which one partner is not Jewish. A mixed-marriage is one in which the non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism.
Within the Reform Movement, and now even within the Conservative Movement, the argument is that a rabbi who does not perform a wedding of an interfaith couple will drive both the Jew and the non-Jew away from Judaism. But, how can one turn off someone from living a Jewish life that holds onto another religion? More so, there is no statistical support for such a claim. In fact, a rabbi's decision to perform such a wedding plays little, if any role in determining what the couple will do. That a Jew chooses to marry someone who is not Jewish, even if a conversion takes place, is a clear indication that the Jew already has one foot out the Jewish door.
WE ARE TOLD that once such a marriage takes place, the synagogue should welcome the non-Jewish spouse into the life of the congregation - the assumption being that there is a family decision to raise the child Jewish. This definitely makes good sense, but at the same time it raises some thorny issues. Should a non-Jew sit on the board of the synagogue, teach in the religious school, stand with the child at the bar or bat mitzva?
I heard a rabbi being criticized for not letting the non-Jewish partner recite the blessing over the Torah at her son's bar mitzva, that such an act was insulting. Yet, how can a non-Jew recite the words that he belongs to the "chosen people?" I understand tiptoeing around someone else's house, but are we to tiptoe around our own?
There may be a genuine desire on the part of the non-Jew to accede to the wishes of the Jewish partner and raise their child Jewish. But, what happens on Christian holidays? Does raising the child Jewish mean that the kids must forgo attending Christmas and Easter at the Christian grandparents? This dilemma is the same for a mixed-married couple. Are we to believe that acknowledging the non-Jewish ancestry of either the converted Jew or the non-Jew will have no impact on the child of such a marriage?
For certain, one's religious identity can become confused, as was the case when a child of an interfaith marriage asked his tour guide as he was about to climb Masada: "Is this where my mother's ancestors fought my father's ancestors?"
We all know many mixed-married and interfaith couples where Judaism is the dominant and sometimes only influence within the family's religious constellation. But they make up a fraction of the percentage of such couples. What is missing from all the conflicting sociological studies that have been conducted on these marriages is the simple fact that the vast majority of them are not accessible for scrutiny because they have melded into the woodwork of the non-Jewish world.
The message of mixed couples to their children is: You can marry whomever you want. For those who argue vociferously for inclusion of the non-Jew in public Jewish life, the message is more powerful: You can marry whomever you want and still be part of the Jewish community. So, why marry someone Jewish?
Mixed and interfaith marriage has become so endemic that the phenomenon also affects those families that raise and educate their children in a supportive Jewish environment. Even for these families, the chances of maintaining Jewish continuity are limited. It is the price one pays living as a minority in an open and free society.
THERE IS LITTLE one can do to prevent interfaith and mixed-married unions. While there is no hard-clad prescription to deal with such a religiously convoluted reality, there are a few things that can be done by the parents of such couples:
1. If your child lives closer to the Christian parents than to you, then you have to encourage your children not to rely on your grandchildren receiving their injection of Judaism only when they visit you for Hanukka and Passover. Beyond sending your grandchildren to supplemental Jewish schools at a local synagogue - a generally dismal experience - your own children have to establish in their homes Jewish customs that are part of their daily routine.
2. Jewish learning should be a shared experience - that is, your child discussing with his child Shabbat, holidays, life-cycle events and their meanings. When your grandchildren are little, your children should read them Jewish stories. Also, there is a wealth of Jewish-themed DVDs and video games.
3. Since Jewish life will not be a 24-hour-a-day happening, then, at the very least, your children should send their children to overnight Jewish camps - not secular ones, but movement ones, like Reform and Conservative camps, or Young Judaea and Habonim camps that create positive Jewish environments.
4. A family trip to Israel is particularly significant because it will help not only your grandchildren, but hopefully the converted as well as the non-Jewish partner (even if he or she will insist upon visiting Christian holy sites) understand that Jewish identity is not just faith-based, but one that incorporates history, people, land, language and culture.
Multiblended religious families are a fact of Diaspora life. Therefore, it makes no sense beating oneself up about it. At the same time, parents of a mixed-married or interfaith couple must not compromise their own Jewish practices and beliefs, watering down their Judaism so that the convert or non-Jew won't feel uncomfortable when visiting. Quite the opposite - one should explain Jewish traditions and observances, which, more than likely, will be appreciated. Within the context of runaway assimilation, which is partly a direct result of interfaith and mixed-marriages, and which is so terribly difficult to combat, one must still try to encourage one's children to create positive and ongoing Jewish experiences for their children. The odds of success in doing so are unenviable, but an effort must be made.