“[Young people] are meeting their mates at a point in life when they have been away from religion for a long time. And while they may not mean to misrepresent themselves, they may not realize that someday they will want to return to faith.” – From Til Faith Do Us Part
I know that many of you will want to judge couples who find themselves in interfaith conflict after years of avoidance; I certainly did. And then I thought about my own marriage, with its own peculiarities, unexpected turns, unspoken questions. As a rabbi, I sat with couples in conflict over religion in their household, people with deep integrity and thoughtfulness yet also deeply in love and invested in their relationship.
Once you get to a space where you can refrain from judging (“those in glass houses” and all that), consider the following case study, taken from a couple who participated in Sixth & I’s Interfaith Couples Workshop.
Pat and Nat dated for 7.5 years before they started discussing marriage. Until then, religion had never been an issue. They respected each other’s traditions and enjoyed time spent celebrating holidays with each other’s families. And then, four months ago Nat said to Pat, “Whoever I marry has to be okay with having Jewish babies – that’s a non-negotiable for me.” Instead of agreeing like Nat expected, Pat shook her head and said, “Nope.”
Nat has always felt very connected to Judaism. Nat attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, and observed all Jewish holidays. When Nat met Pat, Nat was attending regular Shabbat services. After graduation Nat became less outwardly observant, but never felt less Jewish. Nat took it for granted that Nat was more connected to Judaism than Pat was to Catholicism, and Nat thought Pat would accept Nat’s statement about Jewish babies without question. Nat was surprised and dismayed when Pat didn’t.
Pat has asked Nat repeatedly why Nat thinks Judaism is more important than Pat’s Catholicism. Nat has tried to explain – citing the ideas of community, tolerance of personal beliefs, and intellectual debate. Judaism is a major part of Nat’s identity, and Nat can’t believe Pat doesn’t just get that.
Pat was blown away by Nat’s comment. Pat could not believe that after years of being together, Nat had not mentioned something that was apparently a deal-breaker. Pat felt trapped between accepting Nat’s ultimatum and effectively ending their relationship.
Pat grew up in a Catholic family. Pat attended mass every Sunday and participated in all of the sacraments and traditions of a Catholic upbringing. Though Pat never developed a deep relationship with religion, Pat went through the motions out of a sense of filial duty. Pat does realize that the teachings of the Catholic Church were formative to Pat’s character and are a significant part of Pat’s family’s traditions.
Although Nat has explained that his religious traditions are important, Pat does not see much evidence of these traditions in Nat’s day-to-day life. Pat does not understand why Nat’s religious beliefs should take precedence over Pat’s own. Pat thinks they are equals in their relationship, and both their faiths should have equal weight. Perhaps when Pat starts raising children, Pat will want them to experience some of Pat’s family’s religious traditions.
These are the questions that I witness couples struggle with every day. I try to give advice, guidance, referrals to Jewish text and to therapists, serve as a non-anxious presence (even though I, a rabbi, am anxious). I try to be honest about the challenges ahead for an interfaith couple like this one. For instance, when I mention that the #1 indicator of whether someone will marry a Jew is if his or her parents are intermarried, Nat says, “oh, I wouldn’t want my child to marry someone not Jewish.” And Pat looks like she might cry.
Ultimately, though, in situations like these even I am stumped. Who deserves to “win” this one? Nat, because Nat is more committed to Judaism now? Or because Judaism is a minority religion—or “better” than Catholicism? Does it matter if Nat is a woman or a man? Or Pat, because let’s be honest, in a household like this, statistics show that the children will end up at the very least nominally Christian in any case? Or both, because both parents have a right to have their religion reflected in the home? What if one can articulate his/her case better than the other one? For a cheeseburger-eating, Sabbath-ignoring Jew, it often is incredibly difficult to articulate exactly why the children should be Jewish. If you take out the Holocaust, forget about it.
You may want to look away because this case reads extreme. It is not. (I have about 70 other case studies, many equally complicated. Happy to share.) Every single day I deal with couples who have been together 2, 3, 4 years but are only now—once they live together, once they share a bank account, once they have become a part of the other’s family life—starting to talk about religion. I try to walk with them with integrity, compassion, and with a deep desire to witness the Jewish people grow and flourish. Sometimes, it’s the best I can do.
I would love to continue the conversation with Wexner alumni who are interested in discussing further. Please post any comments below, and also indicate if you are interested in continuing the conversation and I will set something up.
Rabbi Shira Stutman, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Class 14, is director of Jewish Programming at Washington, DC’s historic and innovative Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Her focus is to make Jewish meaning and build Jewish community for young professionals throughout the DC metropolitan area. With that always in mind, she strives to infuse Sixth & I’s diverse programs with Jewish context and content by supporting a number of “boutique” communities, including a seminar for those interested in joining the Jewish community and programming for interfaith couples. When not at Sixth & I, Rabbi Stutman serves as the scholar-in-residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy program at the Jewish Federations of North America. She is a member of the board of directors of Jews United for Justice and on the J Street rabbinic cabinet. Shira can be reached at email@example.com.