Approach intermarried couples with welcome

In Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried’s column titled “Intermarriage breaks the chain of Judaism,” dated Aug. 16, Rodney, a Jewish man engaged to a Catholic woman, asked why marrying within the faith was so important. With all due respect to Rabbi Fried, I’d like to suggest an alternative way to approach this question.
Rabbi Fried begins by acknowledging that at this point in the couple’s relationship, there’s probably not much he could say that would change Rodney’s mind and points out that if Rodney’s parents had been more diligent about giving him a stronger Jewish foundation, Rodney wouldn’t even be asking this question. Perhaps that might have made some difference. Or not. I know parents who are doing their best every day to make Judaism a priority in their children’s lives and still have children who marry out of the faith. I also know families who raised their children in completely secular households, and those kids chose to become religiously observant later in life.
Rabbi Fried also argues that interfaith marriage significantly increases the risk of divorce and warns Rodney that “you are putting yourself at an extremely high risk of sacrificing your own happiness, as divorce can be one of the most devastating events ever experienced in one’s life.” Studies have shown that the divorce rate is, indeed, higher among interfaith marriages, but there are so many other factors involved as well. There are also major challenges that come from different levels of observance, even within the same religion. I fear that using this argument with an already-committed couple might only lead to defensive pushback. As the parent of three adult children, the “OK, go ahead and ruin your life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you” approach has never turned out well. I’m also wondering about interfaith families who raise their children as Jews. Are there divorce statistics on this group?
Rabbi Fried also declares that “our lineage through the matriarchs and patriarchs, coupled with our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, has elevated us and altered our spiritual makeup, making us different from the other nations forever.” I am afraid young adults raised in a world of inclusivity, one that is becoming an increasingly color-blind melting pot, one that is accepting of what all faiths and cultures can offer the world, will interpret this statement as touting our superiority over others and reject it outright.
Make no mistake, I believe that marrying within the faith is the ideal. And I do believe that raising a child in a home where both parents identify as Jewish does increase the probability that their children will follow suit. But it’s certainly not a given. Unless one is raised in an ultra-Orthodox community, there is an ever-increasing chance that our kids will meet and marry someone of a different religion, race or gender identity.
So perhaps there is another way to approach this issue other than saying, as Rabbi Fried does, “By intermarrying, with one fell swoop you detach yourself as a link in that holy chain and sever your future generations from being part of that timeless legacy.” Because that’s a pretty heavy load to carry, and experience has taught me that many just don’t want the weight of that burden. Not to mention the fact that this dire outcome is not always the case. There is plenty of good research on interfaith couples that shows how people in such marriages continue to feel deeply connected to their tradition and pass it on to their children, especially if we support their efforts to do so and welcome them into our homes and congregations.
So, here’s what I might say to Rodney and his fiancée: I would also acknowledge, as Rabbi Fried did, that guilt about the grandparents turning in their graves is not a helpful or compelling argument. I would argue that we are generationally connected through history, culture, ideals, faith and a practice and belief system that have sustained us and that has stood the test of time. I believe that the Torah was given to us to help show us how to navigate the broken world that we live in, has helped us sustain our longevity and given us a love of learning and scholarship that has led us to success in a number of fields. I also believe that there is an inherent familiarity we feel when we meet other Jews, an unspoken commonality that we share.
Like Rabbi Fried, I would also discourage Rodney from letting his future children choose “who they want to be” faith-wise, as I also believe that it is can be confusing and stressful. But I would also point out that if Rodney comes from a Reform background, his child would be considered Jewish if either parent were Jewish, as long as the child is raised in a Jewish home. So, if Rodney’s fiancée is comfortable with it, I would recommend them both taking an intro to Judaism class to learn about the beauty and complexity of our religion.
Who knows? It might just lead them to decide that they want to pass this rich heritage on to their future children, whether or not the fiancée chooses to convert. We have many interfaith families in our synagogue who are actively involved in our community. They have raised children who are strongly identified as Jewish, have had b’nai mitzvah, go to Jewish camps and are involved in Jewish youth groups. The non-Jewish partners have been completely supportive, and it’s been very important to our congregation that we are, in turn, welcoming and supportive of them.
I believe that we have to acknowledge the reality that our children are living in an increasingly interconnected, multicultural, diverse society, where interfaith, interracial and same-sex marriage is becoming normative. And some of the reasons Rabbi Fried offered for choosing a Jewish partner may not resonate strongly or be meaningful enough to this generation. Learning how to embrace those who intermarry and make their families part of the community is, in my opinion, the best way to help hold the links in our spiritual chain together.

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