Interfaith Weddings

Love can't always conquer--couples have difficult decisions to make when they embark on an interfaith marriage.

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Although intermarriage was not common in the first half of the 20th century, since the 1960s the number of American Jews married to non-Jews has risen quite dramatically. According to the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, among the non-Orthodox, the intermarriage rate for couples is significant. Half of the non- Orthodox couples who were married between 2006 and 2011 are intermarried. What was once considered a traditional Jewish family--two Jewish parents and their children--is no longer the norm.

Citing statistics, though, provides little insight into the challenges interfaith couples confront as they navigate the terrain of Jewish life. The decision to marry may be the easiest step when set against the necessary choices that follow: the wedding ceremony, familial religious observances, relationships with in-laws, synagogue membership, and children's religious affiliations.

Prior to the Wedding

Not surprisingly, many interfaith couples find it extremely difficult to discuss their religious differences in much depth, especially after they decide to tie the knot. They worry that what starts as a passionate debate may disintegrate into a heated argument that threatens their survival as a couple.

wedding ringsOne painful topic of discussion is the response of each partner's parents and siblings. Even though both partners have accepted one another, gaining familial approval and tolerance can be an entirely separate matter. Many Jewish parents feel they have failed in some way if their child marries out of the religion--as if they have not done their part in ensuring Jewish survival. This can happen even in the least religious families, often surprising the Jewish partner, who did not fully appreciate his or her parents' convictions.

Another concern is the religion of potential children: Should the children be Jewish or Christian, for instance, or some combination of the two? Which holidays will the family celebrate, and how can they avoid offending their respective families?

A third issue is very personal: Should one partner consider conversion to the other spouse's religion? The question gets more complicated if neither partner is particularly religious but both feel a strong attachment to aspects of their own culture or heritage. Indeed, sometimes that connection becomes all the more tangible in light of the commitment to marry.

Planning the Wedding

Perhaps the easiest solution for some couples is to plan a civil marriage ceremony led by a judge or justice of the peace. Difference in religion is then not a divisive issue.

An interfaith couple planning a Jewish-style wedding, however, faces a number of obstacles, the first and foremost being that not all rabbis will not officiate at interfaith ceremonies. A Jewish wedding is by definition sectarian--its pivotal sentence requires the groom to marry the bride "according to the laws of Moses and Israel." If one partner is not Jewish, those laws don't apply, and the marriage is invalid in the eyes of halakhah [Jewish law]. Yet even if a rabbi explains this rationale clearly and sensitively, it is very hard for a couple not to feel a sense of rejection.

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.