Intermarriage After Thirty Years

jewish-christian-intermarriageFirstly, I must tell you how impressed I was by your honesty and sensitivity – especially, by what you wrote at the end about not wanting to convert just for him.

Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First of all, even though it is most gracious of you to agree to raise his children as Jews, there really wouldn’t be any point in it, for the children of a non-Jewish mother, (as wonderful as you may be) are not Jewish, even if the father is Jewish. This is the law of Judaism as has been handed down to us generation to generation for thousands of years.

So there is really only one of two choices.

A sincere conversion on your part, or breaking up as difficult as that may be.

From the “Ask the Rabbi” series
“Intermarriage Correspondence from a Non-Jew”
Aish.com

If you’ve been reading my blog for more than a day or two, you know that I often quote from Jewish religious or philosophical sources (and often from Aish.com) to create a foundation from which I then “dovetail” and expand upon to make some sort of daily commentary. As an intermarried Christian (my wife is Jewish), I have an attraction to Jewish thought and perspective as they apply (surprisingly enough) to my faith.

But that doesn’t mean Judaism and I don’t butt heads more than once in a while. The Rabbi’s suggestion to the (formerly) Catholic young woman about possibly marrying her Jewish boyfriend is just one of those “head butting” occasions.

But it’s a difficult discussion. I know the dangers intermarriage and assimilation pose to Jewish continuation and particularly on the children produced in such a marriage. The journey my own children have had to negotiate has not been an easy one and although they all self-identify as Jews (and are Jews according to halachah because their mother is Jewish), they are barely, if at all, observant of the mitzvot. I can’t say that my own home is observant either, through I’d like to support and encourage my spouse to live a more traditionally religious Jewish life. I can’t though, because she is “in charge” of her Jewishness, I’m not.

But when I read the “Ask the Rabbi’s” comment regarding the setting aside of a relationship between a Jewish and non-Jewish couple, I began to see red. My wife and I have been married for over thirty years and I have no intention of disrupting our relationship for the sake of a string of advice, even though it is dedicated to Jewish survival.

Hillel the Sage was able to remain patient even when someone purposely tried to provoke him. He felt no irritation whatsoever about any matter. There was no arousal of anger at all. This is what it means to be completely free from anger.

The level of Hillel is the level we should each strive for as regards to not getting angry. Of course it is not easy. But the first step is to increase your motivation and be totally resolved to conquer anger. Then feel joy with every drop of improvement!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #755: Being Free From Anger”
Aish.com

It can be tough enough being intermarried and interfaith without reminders of what could have gone better and how many Jews are less than thrilled about our union. It’s not particularly apparent that we’re intermarried when we’re in public together, but I sometimes get the same feelings that an interracial couple might get when they receive stares from people who disapprove of “mixing the races” (and yes, it still happens). While I understand the perspectives of the Rabbis and realize the pitfalls of intermarriage, this is still my family and she is still my wife and all this is personal, not just some theoretical or theological puzzle to solve.

The irony is that it is because I’m intermarried that I dearly cling to my current perspective on the relationship of believing Jews and Gentiles in the body of Messiah, what we mean to each other, our roles, our understanding of Torah, and who we are in God. I’ve written whole commentaries based on our marriage such as Being Married to the Girl with the Jewish Soul and Cherishing Her Yiddisher Neshamah. Being a couple isn’t just a marital status, it is part of my very identity and woven into the fabric of my being.

julie-wienerThis isn’t to say that we don’t argue or that we have a perfect marriage. We aren’t perfect. We get on each other’s nerves and we both have our “moods,” but after over three decades of living together, sleeping together, raising three children together, playing with our grandson together, eating, cleaning, fighting, traveling, and making a home together, we’re together.

Among other resources, I follow Julie Wiener’s (her photo is on the left) In the Mix blog at The Jewish Week. Although I don’t have anything like the same intermarried experience Ms. Wiener and her husband (and children) have, it sometimes helps to realize that not only are there other intermarried couples out there, but that they’re not doing so badly either. Nearly a year ago, Wiener wrote a blog post called Shiny Happy Intermarried People.

The ending of that article goes like this:

Reminds me of when my “In the Mix” column first came out six years ago and a woman wrote to complain that it was bad enough I was writing in The Jewish Week about being intermarried, but the fact that I was happy — and actually smiling in my photo — was truly offensive.

Now, as you can imagine, I took issue with Alina using The Jewish Week as an example of media writing only negative things about intermarriage. Especially because the column she links to is Jack Wertheimer’s, which was a guest column and which I, a Jewish Week editor, responded to on The Jewish Week website, on THIS BLOG, which has as its sole focus realistically depicting intermarried life.

Not that I’m offended or anything, Alina. Just intrigued.

For any of you readers, Jewish or Christian (or anyone else) who are offended that I’m intermarried, have been intermarried for thirty years, and plan to stay intermarried to the same Jewish woman for the rest of my life, I am truly sorry. When we got married, neither one of us were religious and we didn’t give a second thought to what it would all mean ten, twenty, thirty or more years down the road. Maybe we should have, but we didn’t. Who knew?

But we are who we are and while you may complain about us, I insist that you don’t dismiss us. We’re here and we’re real. There are a lot of us and what was done cannot be undone, for good or for ill. Hopefully, we’ll have a seder in our home this year. I plan on going to Easter services at my church for the first time in many years. That may seem like a strange combination or an awful contradiction but it’s not. A Christian/Jewish intermarriage may not be the ideal circumstance and you may not want to experience it yourself. Our intermarriage has its pitfalls and trapdoors, but our marriage and our family isn’t strange or bizarre or bad. It’s just our life and its just who we are.

And God is still her God and my God and what He has brought together let no one tear apart.

Oh, and our thirty-first wedding anniversary is on Wednesday, April 3rd. Deal with it.

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17 thoughts on “Intermarriage After Thirty Years”

  1. “So there is really only one of two choices. A sincere conversion on your part, or breaking up as difficult as that may be.”

    Of course there are other choices, not just the above two, simply because this world we live in is a very “messy”, very imperfect world. While it may not make other choices equally legitimate or even beneficial, no one could stand against a perfect standard.

    However, let’s ask these question, which are not hypothetical, but certainly can and probably do occur in real life. You are a Protestant (at least by association, if not by choice or confession), so while from a Jewish point of view your may still practice a form of idolatry (e.g. if you consider Jesus to be G-d), you don’t worship idols outright . However, suppose a (newly) devout Jew lives with a devout Catholic. This devout Catholic insists on having a statue of Mary, figurines of assorted saints and a nice crucifix next somewhere in the house, before which the devout Catholic kneels, lights candles, venerates and prays regularly to and holds sacred enough to not allow ridding the house of them. Or, let’s say a (newly) devout Jew is married to a devout Hindu who insists on having idols of various multi-limbed deities throughout, and will not part with them for anything. What should a Jew do in such cases when it comes to marriage?

  2. Well that’s an amazingly tough question to respond to, Gene. I can’t speak to those situations because I haven’t been in them (assuming we’re staying away from the hypothetical). If the Jewish person was observant at the point of getting married and so what the Catholic or Hindu person, the question is, how did they get that far and what will it mean going forward. Any sufficiently religious Jew would probably not enter a romantic relationship with a devout Hindu or practicing Catholic in the first place.

    On the other hand, if you had to people, a Jew and non-Jew, who only became religious many years after getting married, then it becomes interesting, and that’s exactly my personal situation.

    I periodically read a blog called On Being Both which addresses intermarriage along a wide spectrum of religious “combinations.” Certainly they are not all ideal…probably none of them are ideal, but the fact remains that these families exist, they are real, and they are functioning. Heaven help them, but some of these families are even happy.

    In a perfect world, maybe we’d never make the decision to intermarry, but it’s not a perfect world. Families can try to talk their kids out of marrying someone from another faith but that doesn’t always work. In my case, there was no “mix” to be concerned about at the time, and I’d only ever met one of my wife’s Jewish relatives, a cousin, before we married and he wasn’t observant to any obvious degree.

    But thirty years later, here we are. We can’t undo what was done nor to I want to try (if you love your spouse, do you ever want to “undo” your marriage and never make it and your children happen?). We are here. We are a reality. What’s there to be done?

  3. “We are here. We are a reality. What’s there to be done?”

    James, in your particular case, some unyielding rabbi’s advice notwithstanding, nothing. However, having idols all over my house with no way to rid of them would have given me, as a Jew, lots to think about.

  4. True, and I assume you don’t have a spouse who litters your shelves with idols. 😉

    Yes, and I said this above, if we had it to do over again, who knows? Maybe we should have looked into the future, but two atheists never imagine they’ll one day become “religious” and especially in different directions. Marriage travels in funny directions sometimes.

  5. James, as I noted, real life is very messy. Look at the life of the most righteous and virtuous men (and women) in the Bible, some of the imperfect choices they made (or believed they had to make or were forced to make). Yet G-d, in His mercy, looked beyond their human frailties. May He forgive and overlook our own, as well.

  6. I too am an intermarried and it hasn’t always been a piece of cake “sojourning” with my Jewish husband. However, I’ve also seen life from the dead, which many are resistant to acknowledge, unless they know us personally and our “stories.”
    Regarding the conversion and the response of the rabbi that her children wouldn’t be Jewish. This is so unfortunate that some of Judaism holds this definition which is certainly not to be found anywhere in the Bible and is a much later development. All it really means is that you can’t join their particular ranks, so to speak, but I would argue there is still a responsibility before God for that Jewish child to understand themselves via God’s particular distinction, as found in the Bible.

  7. @Gene: Agreed!

    @Ruth: Like Gene said, it’s messy. I agree that life isn’t as “tidy” as the Aish “Ask the Rabbi” suggests.

  8. “This is so unfortunate that some of Judaism holds this definition which is certainly not to be found anywhere in the Bible and is a much later development.”

    Sojourning With Jews, actually, there’s no “definition” for descent of Jewishness in the Bible at all – it’s however one interprets the material. However, matrilineal descent (i.e. who is a Jew), is not so late a development. One could point to Abraham, where Sarrah’s son Isaac was considered Abraham’s “only” son but Abraham’s son through Hagar was not. Same father, different mothers, but only Sarrah’s son Isaac was the son of promise who inherited the covenant. The mother mattered very much, apparently.

    At the same time, whenever Jews of the Bible were said to be marred to women from the nations, the women are considered converts to Judaism (in as much as they followed the G-d of Israel, Torah and lived among Jews, married Jews and left their own people and gods behind). Ruth is a prime example of that. Jews were forbidden to marry worshipers of idols.

  9. @Gene: “At the same time, whenever Jews of the Bible were said to be marred to women from the nations, the women are considered converts to Judaism (in as much as they followed the G-d of Israel, Torah and lived among Jews, married Jews and left their own people and gods behind). Ruth is a prime example of that. Jews were forbidden to marry worshipers of idols.”

    Amen…

  10. It’s OK. Actually, I meant to comment on it but I was waiting for Shabbat to end. Then I forgot. My middle aged mind is very ADHD (Look! Squirrel!). 😉

  11. Vacuuming your backyard? Not as crazy as it sounds. My parents live in St. George, Utah and due to the heat in summer (and the fact that they’re 80), my Dad had artificial turf put in instead of grass. When the leaves drop in the fall, he just uses a shop vac to vacuum them up.

    Me? I use a rake, but what do I know? 😛

  12. Haha, THANK you! Now I don’t feel so “judged”, by my neighbors! Although now when they come over for a B-B-Q, they ask me if they should remove their shoes when they step outside! 🙂

  13. James, I agree that none of this is simple, on any end of this equation. My wife and I recently wrote about our own journey in a book called “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope.” Although in our case, our journey ultimately involved a conversion to Judaism, we lived as an intermarried family for many years and dealt with many of the same issues that other intermarried families do. The decision to become a Jewish family was not one taken lightly or without struggle.

    To Sojourning with Jews-whatever one thinks of matrilineal descent, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it’s found nowhere in the Bible. Following the narrative of Ezra, it’s pretty clear that matrilineal descent was either in the picture or at the very least a strong possibility at that time (how else to explain Ezra sending the “foreign wives” and their children away permanently – would have been inconceivable had they been considered Jewish); and as Gene has mentioned, there are also echoes of matrilineal descent in several places as early as the stories of the patriarchs/matriarchs.

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