What about “Interfaithless” Marriage?

By Rabbi Adam Chalom

If a secular Jew marries an Irish atheist, is that really an “interfaith” marriage? As one Jewish comedian put it, they might argue over what religion NOT to raise the children.

The general Jewish community is finally beginning to understand what some have lived for a generation: welcoming intermarried families is both prudent and ethical, and officiation at intermarriage ceremonies can support future Jewish choices. Rejection of these families will not stop intermarriage; rather, it will discourage Jewish connection. In a 2000 American Jewish Committee survey, 80% of the Jewish public agreed that “intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.” Today Jewish organizations and foundations are responding to this truth rather than living in denial. National conferences, public conversations, welcoming initiatives by federations and congregations, and even dialogue within the Conservative movement are all progress.

But we still misunderstand a key side of Jews marrying those of other backgrounds – the “faith” part of “interfaith” marriage. According to Pew’s 2013 study of Jewish Americans, a quarter of all Jews claim no religion. A third of Jewish millennials, the generation most likely to have children, claim no religion. Over half of “Jews of no religion” had only one Jewish parent, and 79% of married Jews of no religion have a non-Jewish spouse.

I fear that we treat Jews of no religion today like intermarriage twenty five years ago: prevention and denial, assuming Jews of no religion will not make Jewish-enough choices (i.e., raise religious Jews). Given the growing secularization of Jews and the general American population, we must learn on a steeper curve this time. There are and there will be non-religious Jews, and we need to speak to them where they are and for who they are to help them to find meaning and integrity in their Jewishness.

Most Jews of no religion, especially those with secular partners, are not interested in religious Judaism. 82% say religion is not important in their lives. 47% do not believe in a god or universal spirit (compared to 16% of religious Jews and 7% of the general public). Three quarters of them seldom or never attend Jewish religious services, even High Holidays. Intermarriage outreach that emphasizes saying traditional blessings, reciting a bedtime Shema, or theological parallels between Christianity and Judaism will not speak to this particular population. Indeed, if the only ways to be Jewish they see are religious, they may sign out and go their own way.

What can we do differently? A few suggestions:

  • We must accept the true range of Jewish intellectual diversity. If you want to speak to cultural Jews, or to feminist Jews who object to male god language, our materials need to broaden possibilities: not “these are THE Hanukkah blessings,” but rather “here are traditional Hanukkah blessings, and here are some alternatives.” MUST one say something one does not believe to be allowed to light Hanukkah candles?
  • Over 80% of “Jews of no religion” (and 62% of all American Jews) define being Jewish as mainly ancestry or culture, not religion. For cultural Jews, Jewish holidays, like all culture, were made by people and for people. Culture changes over time to meet to new circumstances, it is available to pick and choose from, and culture may even be open to mixing with other cultures (think “fusion cuisine”). Concern over Jews in homes with Christmas trees will only alienate these families. An inclusive approach would explain that many cultures light lights in a winter festival, and Hanukkah is how Jewish culture meets that human need to resist darkness and cold. Why make a family choose between a loving equal partnership and Jewishness?
  • Intermarriage can be between believers in different religions, between believers and the secular, or between secular individuals from different religious backgrounds – an “interfaithless” marriage. When a household has at least one secular partner, pushing religious activities or conversion can create family tension, where cultural or secular Jewish options might be a more acceptable compromise. We need opportunities, communities, and rabbis open to celebrating all of the cultures represented in these families in ways that respect their beliefs and values.
  • Jewish alternatives should not be a descending hierarchy of validity (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Secular Humanistic). Calling non-believing or non-attending Jews “bad Jews” will only push them further away. We need to respect even the wicked child at the Seder, and that begins by no longer calling them “wicked.” They may be raising their children differently Jewish, but they are still part of our extended Jewish family.

Susan Katz Miller raises important objections to the term “intermarried.” But calling them all “interfaith” doesn’t work either. Perhaps they are “intercultural.” Perhaps they are “of mixed religious heritage.” Perhaps there IS no one label that describes the phenomenon of Jewish people (whatever “Jewish” means to them) marrying those of other ethnicities, cultures and religious heritages.

Jewish life is more diverse than ever. To serve the secular and intercultural branch of the new Jewish family, we must accept that if we are one, we are also many.

Rabbi Adam Chalom is Dean – North America, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.