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Jewish Mixed Marriages

Introduction

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Background Information

Over the last 20 years, I have been working with mixed faith couples, which has included offering religious services to families from the UK, Western Europe, USA, Israel, Poland, Russia, India, Japan, Thailand, and some Islamic states. There is a need for at least one rabbi who is prepared to celebrate mixed faith unions, civil partnerships, commitment ceremonies, as well as baby-naming, coming of age, burial, or cremation ceremonies. The benefit of such rituals can be judged by whether those involved find them to have been of religious significance. I have worked and sometimes co-officiated with Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Agnostics and Atheists.

One of the a problems that all religions face nowadays is how to reconcile inherited tradition with the demands of their communities. Most faiths begin with a presumption that they must guard the knowledge of what has been received through divine revelation and historical experience. People are expected to conform, or change their behaviour to fit in with what is usually labelled Tradition. This is often accepted as being beyond question. Yet as Fiddler on the Roof showed, even in the shtetl, tradition was of limited value when it came to facing new challenges. The opposite is of greater help. Religious leaders could start off with being honest about the realities of people's lives. While, religion could adjust to these fresh situations. The rabbinic authorities of the past are not a helpful guide to finding solutions to problems in the present. Partly this is because, not all knowledge is within Judaism. Increasingly it is necessary to learn from outside and to take into account the insights of other disciplines. Working single parents, multiple step-parents, and gay parents are beyond the remit envisaged in rabbinic codes.Not everything inherited from the past is of value today. Providing there are good reasons for doing so, much can be discarded. It is permissible to use our intelligence and conscience to pick and choose. The observance of ritual and customs only has value if it enhances the spiritual life of those involved. The idea that Judaism is something fixed and unchangeable is an illusion. If unacknowledged it can lead to the conclusion that we are wiser, more understanding that the God we worship.

Religions no longer have control over what adherents think, or the way they behave. Statements may be put out by religious authorities which however worthy, or supported by religious law have little impact. This effects Christianity and Islam, as much as it effects Judaism. The result of entrenched religious views not being matched by the actuality of people's daily existence, leads both sides to react with disaffection, hypocrisy or, hysteria. Rabbis can not on the one hand complain about people leaving their communities, while on the other hand they are either unable, or unwilling to meet their religious needs. It is hardly surprising if people abandon a community, when they are left feeling rejected, or treated insensitively over their choice of long-term partner. Rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law is not the criteria by which a significant part of the community expresses their religious identity. Instead they rely on a combination of memory, symbolism and solidarity. Like many other times in history, new forms of religious expression have to be developed to sanctify special times that reflect upon our experiences. While they may be based on ancient customs they may also include other contemporary secular values, such as pluralism, anti-discriminatory attitudes, sexual equality, tolerance and democracy.

Most religious authorities recognise that the number of Jews with non-Jewish partners are increasing, but the majority are unwilling to adapt. One might wonder how many mixed faith couples do there need to be, before such attitudes change? Many couples want a religious ceremony, at which at least a rabbi, (but sometimes also a priest, or pastor,) officiates and which contains  elements that both faiths recognise as part of a wedding ceremony. If interfaith dialogue is to be taken seriously, then the consequences must be greater then occasional encounters, educational courses and academic papers. It must effect and change theology, the prayer book. and our lives.

The Torah (Deuteronmomy 7:1) only bans unions with seven defeated pagan tribes, who can no longer be identified. The rest of the Bible is more ambivalent. Ezra and Nehemiah  speak out strongly against it. Ruth, long considered the  origninator of Davidic line, including the Messiah is not Jewish. Yet, she marries two Jewish men without converting to Judaism. The implication given, is that the Messiah may not be Jewish. Ester is able to save her community, because she has intermarried with King Ahasuerus. Each year at Purim we happily celebrate this story. More significantly, Moses the greatest prophet of Judaism, marries out not once, but twice. Jewish commentators have offered unconvincing apologetic explanations, mainly in the midrashim, for such behaviour. Rabbinic tradition has, by and large been against mixed faith marriages on the grounds that it may lead to idolatry. Today, such fears are misplaced, since the major world religions are monotheistic in nature. Survival of the Jewish people is a particularly important concern for a post Holocaust generation.. Fortunately, the State of Israel is now in a very strong and secure position. The number of Jews in the world is greater then the population of many European states. If someone from Norway marries someone from Switzerland, no-one worries about their children's sense of identity, or  the survival of those communities. Anxiety about whether parents will have Jewish grandchildren is an unhelpful question. It implies that having children is the definition of a successful marriage, which is rarely the case. Grandparents are often more concerned that any grandchildren are healthy, happy and can grow up in a safe environment. Judaism can certainly contribute to this, but it is does not have a monopoly.

Moreover, the expression of some values within it can be extremely problematic. (Agunot and Mamzerim would be a topical examples.) It has also been suggested that education will be the answer to weddings for mixed faith couples, but as Fiddler on the Roof also showed, there is little evidence that education can resist the power of hormones, or opportunity.

   

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