Read an Excerpt
Celebrating Interfaith Marriages
* PART I *
On the Emotional Side
Creating your own ceremony can be fun and exciting. The process provides you as a couple with a unique opportunity to express your love in words that speak to your own hearts and souls. But the thought of creating such a ceremony scares many people. Few know where to begin, and many doubt their creative abilities. If you are feeling a bit uncertain, let me assure you that regardless of your background or level of religious education, you can craft a beautiful ceremony. All the information you need is in these pages. I will lead you step-by-step through this process, one that is easier than most imagine.
But before I begin talking about ceremonies, I want to address some of the emotional issues that often accompany wedding-day preparations.
Between You and Your Partner
When you announced your engagement, you were full of excitement and joy. Now, as you begin planning for your wedding day, you may feel a great deal of stress. This is normal. Planning any wedding, regardless of size, is stressful because of the endless number of details, including everything from choosing the color of your napkins, to deciding who will preside over your service, to managing the wishes and feelings of two different families. These details consume more time and energy than most couples anticipate, even when they have a wedding coordinator; so try to give yourselves enough space between your engagement and your wedding day to handle all of the arrangements. For most couples, this meansstarting the wedding planning at least a year in advance. Many popular wedding sites, bands, caterers, photographers, etc., book their calendars this early, if not earlier. If you have a year between your engagement and your wedding, you will also have enough time to make decisions about many other details without feeling too pressured. Be aware, however, that regardless of how much advanced planning you do, you will be spending a significant amount of time on last-minute details during the months just before your wedding, such as addressing your invitations, going to dress fittings, and determining the seating arrangements for your guests. In every stage of your planning, try to focus on the purpose of your gathering, which is the celebration of your love and marriage. This may sound like an obvious goal, but you can easily lose yourselves in the flurry of all the details. One way to keep your focus is to work on planning your ceremony.
In addition to the normal wedding preparations, you, as an interfaith couple, must ask yourselves questions that same-faith couples do not, such as: What does my faith mean to me? How comfortable or uncomfortable am I with my partner's faith and traditions? If we choose to have children, how will we raise them? How will our parents respond to our marriage and to our religious choices? If we choose one faith for the children, will the partner whose religion was not chosen feel left out? How will we celebrate the holidays in our home?
These are difficult questions to answer because they reach into our hearts in ways that defy logic. I have never met a couple, for example, who lost sleep over their theological differences about the nature of God. But I have met many couples who cannot decide how they will raise the children, not because they are observant Jews and Christians, but because they feel guilty or just uneasy about choosing one faith over the other.
If you are struggling over this question about how you will raise your children, you are not alone. This is usually the most difficult question that interfaith couples must answer. It is especially difficult when both partners are strongly identified with their traditions and faith. If you choose one faith for your children, one of you must accept the fact that your children will not be raised with the traditions and beliefs so familiar and dear to you. How, for example, will you feel if your child has a bat mitzvah, but no first communion? What will happen if you have a Christmastree in your home? How would you feel about bringing Jesus into your children's lives? How would you feel if you children did not know Jesus in the way you do? Whatever decision you make, it is certain that holidays will not be exactly the same as they were when you were growing up.
Many couples want to postpone the decision of faith for their family until their first child is born. I urge you not to do this. In my experience this decision gets more, not less, difficult over time. The real issue is not the children but your relationship. Ultimately, your children will follow whatever path you choose for them, at least for the first several years of their lives. What is it that is preventing you from coming to terms with this decision now? Are you afraid of your partner's or your family's reactions, or are you simply not sure what you yourself want? It is important to answer these and related questions so that you do not begin your marriage with a major unresolved issue.
If you do choose one faith for your children and that faith is not yours, you will experience a sense of loss, and you may fear, as many do, that this choice will leave you out of a major part of your family's life. While it is true that you will not share in the religious life of your children in the same way as your partner, it is also true that your children will not love you less because of this difference. Show them and teach them about your beliefs and traditions. They will enjoy learning and feel closer to you for sharing this time with them. You will also be teaching your children, through your example, that people of different faiths can live happy, full, and shared family lives.
Of course, raising your children in one faith is not your only option. You may decide to raise them in both traditions or to let them make their own choice as they grow older. While I have my own biases about each option, I know that any one of these choices can lead to a very close and happy family life, if both you and your partner fully support the decision you make.
For more information and help dealing with this and other interfaith family life issues, I recommend that you talk to other interfaith couples and that you read some books on interfaith families. The Intermarriage Handbook, by Jim Remsen and Judy Petsonk (New York: Morrow, 1998), has been particularly helpful for some couples I have married and counseled. Many Reform Jewish congregations and organizations also sponsorinterfaith programs for couples who want to explore these issues. Check with your local Reform rabbis and Jewish community organizations for information about programs in your area. If you like surfing the Internet, I also recommend that you visit some interfaith Web sites. They will lead you to some additional interfaith resources.
As you read and talk with others, you will discover that your conversations about interfaith issues will not end with your decision about the children or with the end of your wedding. This is not something to be feared, but welcomed as a normal part of your life. You may celebrate holidays one way this year and a different way next year. You will continue to explore and experiment until you find just the right expression for you. Remember that all of life is an ongoing process
From Your Parents' Perspective
Your wedding day is as emotional for your parents as it is for you, but for obviously different reasons. They will rejoice in your happiness, but they may feel some nostalgia and some sense of loss as they watch you pledge your love to your partner, confirming that you are not a child anymore. They will remember their own wedding day and reflect on their life together, on the good and the bad. They will be anxious about all the details of the wedding; if they are divorced, they may feel anxious about seeing each other. And the list goes on. With so much stress, it is not unusual for tensions to rise and for family members to behave in ways that you have never seen before. Try to keep in mind that this is mostly situational stress and will likely subside immediately following the wedding.
One wedding stress you can alleviate is your parents' anxiety about the ceremony itself. Both families are usually anxious about the ceremony because they do not know what to expect. They wonder: Will the ceremony be balanced, representing both sides equally? Will the unfamiliar elements be explained so we don't feel alienated? Will the rabbi, priest, minister, or officiant say something that will offend us? Will the ceremony honor us and be sensitive to our history, customs, and beliefs? These are normal questions and concerns. You can calm your parents' fears by showing them a draft of your ceremony. They almost always feel relieved when they see the text because now they know there will be nosurprises; and in the very rare event that your parents do object strongly to some part of the service, you have time to edit, if you wish.
Understanding the Jewish Response to Jesus
One element that is not usually included in interfaith ceremonies are prayers said in Jesus' name. It is not easy for many Christians to understand why many Jews react so negatively to these prayers. After all, wasn't Jesus Jewish? Do we not all pray to the same God? Of course the answer to both of these questions is yes, but the problem is more complex. It involves issues of history as well as theology.
For Christians, Jesus is the foundation and focus of their faith. He was and is the messiah, God, and their savior. His teachings, as recorded in the New Testament, are the focus of worship, study, and prayer. But for Jews, Jesus was not a messiah or God, but rather a very human prophet; so, for Jews, it is inappropriate, and even sacrilegious, to say prayers in his name.
In addition to the theological differences, a painful history of Jewish-Christian relations influences the Jewish response to Jesus. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been killed in the name of Jesus Christ. While this is no longer happening, there are still a few churches teaching their children that Jews are responsible for Jesus' death and that Jews will go to hell because they do not accept Jesus as their savior. There are still churches that tell their children that Jews are lesser human beings, and sometimes evil human beings, because of their different faith. These associations of Jesus with persecution make many Jews feel uncomfortable when hearing his name and when seeing a cross.
If you are a Christian, you may be angry or upset after reading this last paragraph. You might be thinking what many devout Christians have said to me: "But I had nothing to do with the atrocities of the past. My family and my church did not teach me to hate or discriminate against the Jewish people. They taught me to love all people: the essence of Jesus' teaching is love and kindness. Why can't you accept me for my beliefs?"
Your Jewish partner can and does accept you for who you are and what you believe, or you would not be getting married. His/her request to exclude Jesus from the service is truly not personal. Many Jews simply cannot separate Jesus' name from the painful images and memories of thepast, because Jewish identity, more so than Christian identity, is tied to history and culture as well as theology. To be Jewish means to feel a part of a family whose roots and loyalties date back to biblical times, and this familial, or cultural, connection is often stronger than any connection they feel toward Jewish theology or religious practice. This explains how and why many men and women proudly identify themselves as Jews even when they rarely attend a synagogue.
As Jewish-Christian relations and understanding continue to improve, as they have over the last few decades, the wounds of the past may heal and Jews and Christians alike will be able to respect and honor each other's traditions without experiencing any lingering discomfort. Until then, the unpleasant fact remains that many Jews feel uneasy seeing a cross or hearing Jesus' name, even when these symbols are important to ones they love.
Most interfaith couples resolve this problem by agreeing to say all prayers in God's name, not in Jesus' name, and by agreeing to hold the ceremony in a chapel or sanctuary in which no crosses are visible. This is acceptable to the Catholic Church and to most ministers who officiate at interfaith ceremonies.
Even though this compromise is common practice, it is important for the Jewish partner to understand what a sacrifice this may be for his or her partner.
Focus on the Celebration of Your Love
Remember, your wedding day is a celebration of your love and your commitment. It is a time of sharing and rejoicing with family and friends. In preparation for your special day, I strongly recommend that during the week before the ceremony you spend some time away from all the details and decisions surrounding your wedding. One couple I married took a weekend trip away the weekend before their wedding. Another couple, who planned their wedding at an out-of-state resort, arrived a couple of days before their guests and used this time to relax and enjoy the sights. If taking time away is not an option for you, consider a simple evening out, with the understanding that you will not talk about any wedding details. Even small, simple breaks from wedding planning can help you be more present and more centered for your wedding day and celebration.
Copyright © 1999 by Devon Lerner