Reform Rabbis Attempt to Ride the Intermarriage Wave

Yesterday, the largest body of American rabbis inched closer to acknowledging that they cannot stop interfaith marriages from happening. The Associated Press headline reads: “U.S. Reform rabbis suggest welcoming interfaith couples.” It is astonishing, in a way, to think that such a timid suggestion could still be news in 2010. Instead of wailing and gnashing their teeth before the tidal wave of interfaith families, Reform rabbis now propose to make the best of the situation by putting their efforts into outreach to interfaith families.

I am all for anything that makes Jewish communities more welcoming. I want interfaith children to have the opportunity to experience authentic Judaism, and become knowledgeable and passionate about their Jewish roots. Rabbis engaging with interfaith families is good for the Jews, and good for interfaith children. Especially if the alternative is ignorant children, or negative and bitter feelings about Judaism.

Unfortunately, the task force from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (representing over 2000 Reform rabbis), releasing their report at an annual convention in San Francisco, did not suggest overturning the Reform movement’s formal opposition to rabbis performing interfaith marriages, according to the Associated Press (the report is not yet up online). Instead, they continued to maintain that it is up to each rabbi to decide whether or not to perform such ceremonies. Instead, they proposed creating special rituals to bless interfaith couples.

Okay, I’m sorry, but there is so much irony in welcoming an interfaith family by offering them a separate but unequal ceremony. I suspect my gay and lesbian friends can relate here. I try not to get exasperated about the fact that there are rabbis who will perform gay or lesbian marriages but not interfaith marriages. There’s enough pain to go around here.

And yes, I am someone who has never forgotten that our family rabbi refused to perform my marriage. I realize I was a generation ahead of the trend, since I’m only “half-Jewish by blood,” and my husband is Jewish only in spirit. Some will say we had chutzpah to even ask a rabbi to perform such a union. Others will wonder why we wanted to even be members of this club. If our rabbi had offered us a “special blessing” that was not a legal marriage, as the panel now suggests, would we have had any interest in such a thing? Or would we have gone ahead, as we did, and found a rabbi and minister willing to co-officiate? It is clear to me that we would have done the latter.

And, having experienced the beauty, the affirmation, the resonance of a completely balanced and inclusive ceremony, we went on to seek out this balance for our children, by joining an interfaith families community.

Purim: Celebrating Interfaith Marriage?

Apricot Hamentasch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I don some festive garb, and head to our interfaith community‘s Purim celebration. It has been said that most Jewish holidays fit one recurring theme: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Purim certainly fits that template (along with Passover and Hanukkah). Growing up in a Reform temple, the notion that Purim also celebrates an interfaith marriage somehow never came up. Now, celebrating the holiday with my interfaith community seems particularly appropriate.

In the Purim story, Persian King Ahasuerus (apparently a Zoroastrian) chooses Esther in a beauty contest, not realizing that she is Jewish. When the Jews of the land are threatened with genocide, Esther outs herself to the King as Jewish, and convinces him to save her people.

The Purim story intrigues for many reasons. The Book of Esther, while part of the Jewish Bible, is not in the Torah, (the most holy Jewish text comprising the first five books of the Bible), but is thought to date from a much later period, with the story taking place somewhere between 600 and 400 BCE. In fact, oddly enough, the Book of Esther does not mention God. Esther, the heroine, with the help of her Uncle Mordecai, uses politics, diplomacy, and and her access to the king, to save her people. God gets no credit whatsoever. This, along with the fact that the celebration includes drinking, dressing in costumes, loud noise, and games, makes it a popular holiday with the growing secular, atheist and agnostic Jewish demographic, as well as with children. Purim shares a sense of rowdy release from social norms with Christian pre-Lenten Carnival festivities, and both holidays seem to trace their origins to “pagan”  spring fertility rites.

But peering through an interfaith lens, the most radical and transgressive aspect of Purim is the fact that the Jewish community in Persia would have been doomed if Esther had not intermarried. It was only because of her marriage to the Persian king that she was in a place to step up and save her people. What would have happened if she had refused to marry him because he wasn’t Jewish?

Many have tried to explain away the fact of Esther’s interfaith marriage. Some speculate that she intermarried only because it enabled her to save her people:  exceptional circumstances. Others argue that her interfaith marriage was acceptable because she was a woman, and Jewish law respects matrilinial descent. Another argument is that she had no choice in the matter (refusing the King could have meant death). More recently, the Purim story has been used as a cautionary tale–the problem is not the interfaith marriage, per se, but the secular lifestyle and “disengagement” that led to the interfaith marriage. One group of academics acknowledged that Esther’s marriage saved her people but was somehow able to conclude:  “But the lesson is not that intermarriage is good.”

Interfaith marriage occurs throughout the Bible: it drives the plot line in many a Biblical story, and not all those who intermarry are women. As a “patrilinial Jew” and an interfaith person, I take issue with the idea that Esther’s interfaith marriage was acceptable only because she was a woman, or because of extenuating political circumstances. Or that she is somehow a heroine in spite of, and not because of, her immersion in Persian culture. It was, precisely, Esther’s cultural fluidity and willingness to intermarry that saved the Jews.

I cannot help hoping that when Jews across the world celebrate Purim, they may, perhaps in a moment of tipsy revelry, open their minds just a little bit more to all that is positive about interfaith marriages: not just ancient, allegorical interfaith marriages taking place in exotic far-off lands, but real, contemporary interfaith marriages.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Salinger, and Zinn: Interfaith Connections


Two American cultural icons died this week–author J.D. Salinger and historian and social activist Howard Zinn–and both of them had interfaith connections. Salinger perches near the top of any list of prominent “half-Jewish” writers–along with Marcel Proust, Gabriela Mistral, Dorothy Parker, Adrienne Rich and Mary Gordon. The fictional Glass family depicted in many of Salinger’s works, including Franny and Zooey, mirrored his own family: a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. Salinger created what may have been the first important fictional treatment of an interfaith family: the theme of half-Jewishness was clearly resonant for him, if also troubling.

Zinn, on the other hand, was culturally Jewish, though his work for peace and justice put him in the vanguard of those working across religious boundaries, starting in the Civil Rights era. “I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism,” Zinn told Tikkun magazine.

Zinn had an important connection to two prominent black/Jewish interfaith families. Author of the essential People’s History of the United States, Zinn spent most of his career as a history professor at Boston University. But from 1956 to 1963, he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he mentored both Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, both of whom went on to marry Jewish men.

Alice Walker called Zinn “the best teacher I ever had.” Her later marriage to a Jewish lawyer was brief, but her daughter Rebecca Walker has written an important memoir on being a biracial, interfaith child. Marian Wright Edelman has had a long and happy marriage to law professor Peter Edelman. In her book Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, Edelman wrote about the profound effect Zinn had on her, an impression that I cannot help but think opened her mind to the eventual possibility of interfaith marriage. “Howie not only lived what he taught in history class by breaching Atlanta’s segregated boundaries, but stretched my religious tolerance beyond childhood limits,”  wrote Edelman, a minister’s daughter. “I felt shock and confusion when he announced in class that he did not believe in Jesus Christ. There were few Jewish citizens in my small South Carolina hometown. Through him I began to discern that goodness comes in many faiths and forms which must be respected and honored.”

The admiration was mutual. In 2006, when asked to assess the possible candidates for President, Zinn described Barack Obama as “cautious.” His suggested candidate, he said, would be Marian Wright Edelman.

Five Quirky Picks: Interfaith Religion Books of 2009

My touchstone topics on this blog:  interfaith identity, spirituality, ritual, music, nature, culture, family, community. Two topics I don’t mention very often: God, and the Bible.

I am not very comfortable with either one. I am open to the idea that some sort of energy infuses the world, and that human brains subconsciously tap into this energy or spirit, but I don’t refer to it as a “higher power” or believe that this spirit listens or responds to us. My problem with calling this energy “God” is that the word has been so abused by fanatical, narrow-minded, exclusivist clergy and followers that it still makes me squirm a little. And the Bible? I find it often delightfully inscrutable, resonant with the rich imagery of my Jewish and Christian cultures. But also: filled with nonsense and anachronisms which have inspired hatred and violence. So mention of the Bible often makes me squirm as well.

But I’m pushing myself outside my own box a little bit here in picking five books from the past year, all of which mention God or the Bible in their titles. None of these books is fanatical, narrow-minded or exclusivist. In fact, they are iconoclastic, open-minded and daring, and each has some connection to the interfaith world.

It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim, Atheist, Jewish Christian (Samir Selmanovic). When my husband met the author at an interfaith conference this year and came home with this book, I was tremendously excited by the title. I was a little bit disappointed to discover that Selmanovic is now, in fact, a passionately Christian minister—the other religions are indeed adjectival, describing phases of his life and influences as much as they represent a true multifaith identity. But as I read on, I was seduced by this book—the story of his journey from an atheist Muslim Croatian family (with some Christian roots) to becoming the founder of Faith House, a unique New York City meeting place where Jews, Christians and Muslims talk and mingle. This funny and revealing book has helped me towards appreciating that not all Christian clergy are out to convert or condemn me. Selmanovic is a mensch of the first order, with an extraordinary desire to “embrace the other.”

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (R. Crumb). The text here is straight Bible, the words of Genesis without commentary or midrash, and so I guess this is the most traditional book on this list. Except that it is, if we concede that the Bible is fiction, a graphic novel, created by the provocative hippie-era comics artist Robert Crumb. For me, his devotion to this huge project is even more interesting because of his long, creatively fertile interfaith marriage to Aline Kominsky. Crumb grew up Catholic, Kominsky has a very strong Jewish cultural identity but has called herself a pagan. This book confirms my theory that interfaith marriages sometimes produce great artistic and intellectual engagement with religion, even among people who straddle religious categories.

The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths (Charlotte Gordon). I stumbled on Gordon and her book because she has written a blog post on her marvelously personal  and readable blog about being a “half-Jew.” We share paternal Jewish status, and of course I like to believe that her interfaithness (though she is now a practicing Jew) led her to the marvelous idea of bringing to life the story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the story of Abraham and his two partners: Sarah (the mother of Isaac, and thus Judaism) and Hagar (the mother of Ishmael, and thus Islam).  Drawing on sources from all three religions, this is non-fiction that reads at times with the pace and poetry of fiction.

Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible (David Plotz) Written by a secular Jew (and Slate editor), this book is, to borrow a phrase, “bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous and inspiring.” I’ve been slogging through some heavy prose by theologians this year in my quest to understand what the heck I’m talking about on this blog. Plotz’s book is an antidote to all that: a refreshingly and frankly disbelieving reader gives his cynical spin on the jumble of tall-tales, non-sequiturs and poetry he encounters.

The Case for God (Karen Armstrong). Armstrong is the interfaith goddess: a prolific, compelling and deep writer who has chronicled each phase of her own journey from Catholic nun to atheist to ardent intellectual engagement with religion, as well as illuminating the history of all of the world’s religions, and the way they have evolved from and influenced each other. In this book, she explains why the term “God” makes me and a lot of other people squirm, and she makes the case for both God and religion, at a time when atheism appears to be gaining momentum. Even if you really don’t want to hear the case for God, you will find Armstrong’s nimble arguments and vast knowledge of Eastern and Western spirituality worth the read.

Rosh Hashanah, Interfaith Style

Rosh Hashanah apple--photo by Susan Katz MillerYesterday, our interfaith community celebrated the Jewish New Year. Yes, we are early by a week. We want our members to be able to go to synagogues next weekend with their extended Jewish families, with parents and grandparents.

As it happens, my own parents were visiting yesterday and came to our early Rosh Hashanah. They stood up as I introduced them to our community as interfaith pioneers. At ages 85 and 79, they are celebrating 50 years of interfaith marriage this year, proof that it can be done, and done with incredible depth and style.

The presence of my own personal wise elders was fortuitous. Our Rabbi, Harold White, reflected on Jewish respect for old age as a thread that runs through the Jewish New Year. We read about Abraham and Sarah, delighted in old age by the birth of their son Isaac. The rabbi pointed out that we celebrate the New Year, not in spring as one might expect, but at the end of the agricultural cycle, in fall. The autumn of our years, he explained, is just as important to Jews, just as much an integral part of life, as birth.

Yesterday, my Jewish father got to sit next to his grandchildren while singing “Oseh Shalom” and “Adon Olam” hearing the call of the shofar, reciting the Shehecheyanu, and the Reader’s Kaddish.

And my Christian mother got to sit next to her grandchildren as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Why the Lord’s Prayer at a Rosh Hashanah celebration? The Rabbi pointed out that this Christian prayer appears to be based on the Kaddish. And that the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in the streets of Jerusalem.

My Jewish father recited the Lord’s Prayer along with us—it happens to be lodged deep in his memory. In small town Pennsylvania in the 1930s, children recited the prayer each day in his public schools. There is no mention of Jesus in the prayer. Dad says, “I didn’t know it was a Christian prayer until about ten years ago.”

Celebrating the New Year a week early may seem like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. But an interfaith celebration, while it may be devoted to a particular Jewish or Christian holiday, has unique flavor because it inevitably touches on the historical reality of the interplay between the two religions. And it creates a way to celebrate these connections—whether we are interfaith children, interfaith parents, or interfaith grandparents.