Intermarriage is among the most contentious issues in the Jewish communities. Treatises are published on the ills of intermarriage, rabbis preach against it from the pulpit, and demographers decry the decreasing Jewish populations as more and more Jews marry out of the fold. Still, intermarriage rates today are over 50% with no expectation that that number will diminish anytime soon. How do we understand these disparate facts and what should an interfaith couple contemplating marrriage know and do?
From the perspective of halakhah (Jewish law), a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is not recognized as a valid Jewish marriage. Nonetheless, this legal fact can hardly explain the distress in the Jewish community on this matter, in as much as other serious violations of halakhah—eating unkosher food, failing to keep the Sabbath—inspire less reaction.
At the most basic level, the Jewish community is afraid. Having lost almost half of its population to Hitler just over half a century ago, Jews fear the possibility of future losses. Although intermarriage is usually a symptom of assimilation (many Jews who intermarry have long ago lost interest in Jewish practice) and not its cause, for many Jews it is seen as the last chance and the most visible sign of what has gone wrong. Intermarrying couples are sometimes talked about as if they themselves were responsible for all the ills of assimilation.
Although it is certainly worthwhile for the Jewish community to continue to investigate its failings and to reinvigorate itself so as to retain its members, assimilation is a fact of modern, secular life. We live in the midst of an attractive, all-encompassing, and welcoming secular culture, and Jews, like almost every other ethnic group, will intermarry and assimilate. Some of us believe that it is best to respond to intermarriage as a reality that is here to stay.
That said, most rabbis, out of a sense of obligation to what they believe is best for the community as a whole, will not perform intermarriages. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are disallowed from performing intermarriages, and while Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are allowed to make their own choices, few perform intermarriages at all, and many of those who do, do so only on a case-by-case basis. For most rabbis, it is a difficult choice. On the one hand, they know full well that the couple will marry with or without their approval. On the other hand, studies show that most children of intermarriage do not end up practicing Judaism. Could this be changed if rabbis did a better job welcoming intermarrying couples and helping them find their way into the Jewish community? This is a subject of rigorous debate with no clear answer.
In some cases, the couple is disengaged from Judaism and seeks rabbinic officiation either to please parents or grandparents or to get a Jewish stamp of approval on an event which Judaism ipso facto does not approve. It is understandable that most rabbis would not choose to officiate at such weddings.
It might also be noted that "interfaith" marriage is something of a misnomer. Few individuals who are seriously committed to different faiths choose to marry one another, although occasionally they do. More often, one or both of the pair has long ago abandoned his or her religion of origin (many people today are not raised with any faith) and the marriage is more properly an "interfaithless" one. Although rabbis are often not sympathetic to promises to raise Jewish children from Jews who have little to no idea what that might mean, it is worth exploring how, when there is interest, the Jewish side of the equation can be strengthened.
What an Intermarrying Couple Should Know and Expect
Because of the fear of disappearing, mainstream Jewish institutions sometimes appear hostile to intermarrying couples. Families, even parents who have not themselves been particularly religiously observant, can become surprisingly angry or upset. Rabbis and Jewish institutions can be disapproving, and a couple seeking rabbinic officiation often gets the run-around. If possible, the couple should try not to take it personally. It is really not about you—it is about Jewish fear.
Although family may disagree with your choice, the best option is usually to stay connected. Bring them into your decisions, listen to their concerns, and assure them of ways you will include them—both in the wedding ceremony and in your future life. If your family is unhappy, do try to be open to the possibility that the tensions will ease with time, and try to keep channels of communication open in the meantime.
When seeking a rabbi, contact the local board of rabbis in your community and also seek recommendations from other couples who have intermarried. This strategy will help you more easily find a rabbi suited to your needs. Few rabbis will jointly officiate with other clergy, and many will require some formal period of study and a commitment to establishing a Jewish home. Beware of "rabbis" (many of whom are not ordained) who require nothing of the couple (meetings in advance of the wedding, Jewish commitment) but charge large fees.
Of course, if you really are not interested in pursuing a Jewish life, a justice of the peace might be a better option. Often one can have a civil wedding with a few Jewish symbols such as a huppah or breaking the glass.
While some couples will elect a modified version of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, others do not feel that the language of the ceremony is really appropriate to the situation. New ceremonies have been written incorporating elements from two faiths as well as Jewish ceremonies that speak more directly to the marriage of Jew and non-Jew.
Before you get married, it is important to think through what your differences will mean to you. Discuss which religious ceremonies, rituals, holidays, rites, and customs are still meaningful to you. Some differences are cultural—willingness to stay with an argument, how much food should be in the refrigerator—and while they can often be negotiated, couples are sometimes blind to such issues until they erupt. Religious issues can sometimes also take a couple by surprise. It is relatively easy to respect or ignore religious differences in the heat of new love and before marriage and children. But sometimes these happy events become occasions for great angst: a non-practicing Jew suddenly feels strongly that his newborn baby be circumcised or conversely a Christian insists on baptism. This is sometimes deeply threatening to the other member of the couple who thought of his or her partner as essentially non-religious. Having these difficult discussions beforehand will go a long way toward preventing irresolvable conflict after you are already married or pregnant.
Negotiating the Jewish Community
For better or worse, the same rabbi who absolutely will not perform your wedding is usually eager to reach out and invite you to join the congregation and participate in an active Jewish life. Although this can smack of hypocrisy, if you are able to overcome your anger and dissappointment, you will find most liberal Jewish communities to be welcoming places. Synagogues, JCC's, and Hebrew schools today are filled with intermarried families.
While Reform and Reconstructionist Jews will regard your children as Jewish, Conservative and Orthodox Jews recognize as Jewish only children born of a Jewish mother. Conservative rabbis will arrange for the children of a non-Jewish mother to be converted to Judaism prior to their bar or bat mitzvah. This is a simple procedure and can be a meaningful affirmation of identity for a child.
Even if some Jewish individuals have treated you inhospitably, if you want to be part of the Jewish community and the riches it affords, don't let a few misspoken words stand in your way.
Some non-Jews marrying Jews will sooner or later decide to convert to Judaism. Usually conversion is conducted under the auspices of an individual rabbi whom you choose as your teacher and mentor. Rabbis will require anywhere from a few months to two years of study depending on the stringency of the rabbi and the eagerness of the student. You will also be expected to take on the practice of Judaism as defined in the particular community to which you are converting. Ultimately, converts appear before a beit din (rabbinic court) that examines the candidate about his or her Jewish knowledge and commitment. (Candidates almost never "fail" since rabbis only bring qualified individuals to the beit din.) Following the beit din, women immerse themselves in the mikveh (ritual bath). Men most undergo circumcision or, in the case of already circumcised men, the drawing of a drop of blood from the circumcised foreskin, as well as mikveh.
Once a person has converted to Judaism they are a Jews for all intents and purposes and they are treated no differently than any other Jew.
For more information about intermarriage and what to expect, visit InterfaithFamily.