The challenge of marrying ‘in’

'Most mixed-faith couples stay together, have children and grandchildren. It poses a challenge to us: do we find ways to include them or exclude them?'

December 11, 2020 11:35

It is time to be more realistic about mixed-faith marriage. The debate has raged not just in the pages of the JC recently but in the community at large over the past 70 years.

Ever since then, communal leaders have been trying to work out how to combat it with a variety of techniques — sermons condemning it, family pressure, invigorating youth clubs, student tours to Israel, the growth in Jewish day schools — but none has had great effect.

The thousands of couples who came to my seminars, “I’m Jewish, My Partner Isn’t” never asked “Rabbi, shall we get married?”, but said, “Rabbi, we are getting married — can you help?”

While there are many advantages to marrying within one’s faith, and rabbis of all denominations still see it as the best option, if one lives in an open society like modern Britain, a significant degree of intermarriage is always likely.

Meanwhile, certain trends have become clear. First, most Jews do not intend to marry out; it just happens that way by chance when they come across someone at university, the gym or in the office.

This is crucial, as marrying out is not seen by them as rejecting Judaism — they still feel Jewish, want to practise Judaism and wish to pass it on to their children. This is what rabbis need to recognise and build upon constructively.

At the same time, dire warnings about “it’ll end in divorce” have proved wrong. Most mixed-faith couples stay together, have children and grandchildren. It poses a challenge to us: do we find ways to include them or exclude them?

It has also become apparent that many of the non-Jewish partners are not Christian, or another faith, but have no religious affiliation. Often they are philo-Jewish, while even those who have no prior Jewish knowledge, once introduced to Jewish family life, find it very attractive.

It is time to try other approaches. One is a mindset change. In many cases, the reality is that it is not the Jew who is marrying out, but the non-Jew who is marrying in. We need to wake up, recognise the positives and seize the opportunity to welcome, educate and integrate them. Done properly, we do not lose anyone, and instead double our numbers.

Synagogues need to make conversion much more possible for those who wish it. Most shul magazines advertise their bridge club and cookery group, but not their conversion class. What message does that give?

Instead, the options for conversion should be highlighted and celebrated, while the course should be limited to a year, covering the cycle of the seasons. Learning can still continue, as it does for all of us, but the certification should be given after the basics have been covered.

The “marriage motive” should no longer be seen as a sign of insincerity, but be an automatic qualification: if marriage is planned, let’s make sure it is a Jewish one. In whose interest is it to make it so hard they opt out or do not even start?

For those who wish to stay as they are, every synagogue should have Introduction to Judaism courses, providing the “ABC” of Judaism, so that they feel at ease in both Jewish family life and communal activities.

The more they are comfortable with Shabbat, Seder, Chanukah and other domestic rituals, the more it allows the Jewish partner to fill the home with Jewish traditions and pass them on to the next generation.

It is also time to end the rule about the status of children being dependent on the mother. Why disenfranchise the offspring of Jewish fathers who may be knowledgeable and committed? Why lose 50 per cent without blinking?

The matrilineal line may be traditional, but only for the past 2,000 years. In the 1,800 years before that, Judaism was patrilineal. If it can change once, it can change again — this time to equilineal, so that the child of one Jewish parent, whatever their gender, is considered Jewish (as is now the case in Reform and Liberal synagogues).

Mixed-faith marriage is here to stay, and the only question is whether those couples are added to the community, or needlessly lost.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of ‘Confessions of a Rabbi ‘

December 11, 2020 11:35

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