Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships: A Personal Response

October 2, 2015

Torah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

As an interfaith child, an interfaith partner, and a parent of two grown interfaith children, I celebrate the announcement this week that Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the fourth largest Jewish movement, will now admit and ordain rabbinical students in interfaith relationships.

I am informally connected to a growing network of clergy partnered with people from other (or no) religions. These brave souls prove every day that you can be a passionate leader in your own religion, and love someone from another religion. These clergy often have felt closeted, to one degree or another. The change in Reconstructionist policy (following the longtime policy of the smaller Secular Humanistic Jewish and Jewish Renewal movements) will bring about real change in the ability of rabbis to love across religious boundaries, and will bring broader acceptance for interfaith families in general.

I also know many passionate Jewish leaders in interfaith relationships who assumed they could never be rabbis. Some will be inspired to enter the Reconstructionist movement, and rabbinical school, in the wake of this historic shift. The Reconstructionists will benefit, those who want to become rabbis will benefit, but most importantly, interfaith families who want to engage with Judaism will benefit. It’s a win, win, win. And yes, I expect Reform Judaism, my own movement, to follow the Reconstructionists down this pathway.

So, now that we will have rabbis in interfaith partnerships, those rabbis will have interfaith children. In the Jewish community, much has been written, and will be written, about how interfaith families can (and should) raise children “exclusively Jewish,” whether or not the partner converts to Judaism. And it is absolutely true that children with interfaith parents can grow up to become committed Jewish professionals: the growing number of rabbis and rabbinical students born into interfaith families is a testament to that fact.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College also released this week new “Desired Attributes” for admission, including this: “Models commitment to Jewish community and continuity in one’s personal, familial, and communal life.” With the code word “continuity,” this sentence hints at, but does not state, an expectation that applicants would need to convince partners to commit to raising “exclusively Jewish” children. And this kind of commitment would certainly be necessary for a rabbi to obtain a pulpit position in almost any synagogue. At least for now. But read on.

Exactly two years ago this week, Pew Research released their report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” documenting 25% of Jewish parents with interfaith partners raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” Just days later, my book Being Both hit the shelves—a book dedicated to describing why and how so many of us have chosen this interfaith pathway. We are not people who are choosing to be religious nones. We are people deeply engaged with Judaism. We want and need rabbis.

And we look forward to having rabbis who understand us on a whole new level: rabbis with committed Christian or Buddhist or Hindu partners. And eventually, rabbis with children who are learning about their interfaith heritage, by osmosis, and more formally. Based on my research with hundreds of interfaith families, and my lifetime of experience, I don’t believe any child born into an interfaith family can ever feel solely connected to one religion or another. I see this as an inspiring revelation, not a grave problem. And interfaith children testify to the benefits of interfaith education. Listen to the words of a college student raised with Catholicism and Judaism, who ultimately chose Judaism, as described in Being Both: “I feel even closer to the religion I ended up going with because I was able to choose it.”

Going forward, it is going to become more and more difficult to characterize the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children as somehow beyond the pale. While many Jewish leaders insist on continuing to oppose and denigrate “intermarriage,” the growing majority of young people with Jewish heritage have simply moved on. Many of us come from interfaith families. We are loving each other. We are marrying each other. We are having children. And at least a quarter of us are engaging with Judaism by giving our interfaith children an interfaith education. We look forward to embracing the pioneering rabbis who will, inevitably, join us on this inspiring journey.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

O Rabbi! My Rabbi! Rabbi Harold White, Interfaith Pioneer (1932-2015)

September 1, 2015

@stephaniewilliamsimages

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I did not expect to ever want or need a rabbi in my life again. After years of defending my Jewish identity as the child of an interfaith family, I thought I was done with Jewish institutions and clergy. I joined a community created by and for interfaith families, filled with families that spurned religious dogma, labels, and litmus tests. And I was happy.

And then, Rabbi Harold Saul White swept into my life, like some kind of mystical wind, simultaneously fresh and ancient, revealing a new way to connect back to Judaism. Here was a rabbi so radical, so confident, that he was willing to become the spiritual advisor of a community of interfaith families—and share leadership of this interfaith community with Reverend Julia Jarvis. He worked with ministers and priests, marrying generations of interfaith couples, and welcoming their babies, and helping their children come of age, and conducting their funerals.

Rabbi White helped families to see Judaism as inclusive rather than exclusive, decades before most other rabbis understood the importance of this work. This rabbi, who was already old and wise in years when I met him, but perennially young in his iconoclastic spirit, convinced me that I still needed a rabbi as a counselor and friend. He restored my confidence in the idea that a rabbi could be relevant, even essential, to interfaith families like mine.

At my son's bar mitzvah. @stephaniewilliamsimages

In his final decade, as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Rabbi White preached most weeks at our Gatherings, lavishing on us his tremendous erudition, based on his studies with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, and on his forty years as the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, and on his work in the Civil Rights movement. He gave brilliant sermons on the Days of Awe and Sukkoth, on Passover, on Shavuot. And he gave brilliant sermons on the Jewish roots and resonance of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter.

And now, I am left with a strange and frustrated longing to hear the Rabbi’s own inevitably brilliant thoughts on the idea that his irrepressible energy shifted into some new form at the moment of his death yesterday.

My family was blessed to have Rabbi White co-officiate with Reverend Jarvis at the interfaith bar mitzvah ceremonies of both of my children, now 21 and 18. I realize that for many people in the Jewish community, that sentence reads like shocking gibberish. But we could always count on Rabbi White to be more revolutionary, more deeply ecumenical, than any of the rest of us. As an illustration of this, when planning my son’s bar mitzvah, we had the following conversation:

Me: “So we will have the Torah portion. We want to also acknowledge the Christianity in our extended family, but I don’t know about reading from the New Testament. I think that would be beyond the pale. What do you think, rabbi?”

Rabbi White, “Ah, but I think we should include the reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is coming of age, getting quizzed by his teachers about the commandments, finding his Jewish voice, as if he’s at his own bar mitzvah. It’s a perfect reading for this occasion!”

Me: Eyes wide. Mind silently blown.

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In his last years, Rabbi White had an octogenarian exterior and the wild soul of a youth. He impressed my teenagers by wearing his black velvet opera cape on Halloween and Purim, and bragging about traveling the world, and staying up all night at parties. When my son had trouble relating to his Torah portion from Leviticus, Rabbi White completely re-framed the text for him as a compelling call to environmentalism. He was honest with young people about his own atheism in adolescence, and his longstanding contempt for most institutions. And when he retired from us last spring, we threw an ecstatic second bar mitzvah celebration for him, featuring his favorite Catholic gospel choir.

Like so many others, I cherished this singular and compassionate man. When he was laid up, I brought him matzoh ball soup and admired his beloved cats. I nominated him for the Forward’s list of Most Inspiring Rabbis. And over the past two years, as I traveled the country to speak about Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I had the privilege of appearing alongside Rabbi White, who is featured in the book, and who was happy to serve as my occasional wingman (or was I his?). At the book launch at Politics & Prose, he wore a bow tie and told stories from his life, lending his authority and experience. And when I was invited to speak to fifty rabbis on retreat–an intimidating prospect–Rabbi White went with me and we presented our work in conversation with each other.

Ceding the floor at my book launch. Classic Rabbi White hand gesture. @stephaniewilliamsimages

Politics & Prose book launch for Being Both, 2013

All photos @stephaniewilliamsimages

Through Rabbi White, I allowed the possibility of rabbis back into my life. I am radically amazed to realize that I now have a whole posse of rabbis I can call friends, advisors, and colleagues. They include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Jewish Renewal, and post-denominational rabbis, all seeking to help interfaith families stay connected to Judaism (whether or not those families also stay connected to other religions).

I am launching my son and daughter out into a world filled with rabbis who will embrace them as they are. But my children will always carry with them the great blessing of the memory of their first rabbi, the one who paved the way for all those other rabbis, the one who can never truly be replaced: Rabbi Harold Saul White.

 

(Note: There will be two Washington DC memorial services for Rabbi Harold White on Sunday September 20th. The first will be at 10:30am Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall at 10:30 A.M. The second service, with the rabbi’s favorite gospel choir and guest soloists, will be at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, 1908 N Capital Street, Washington, D.C. at 3:00 P.M.)

Deep Christian Roots, Interfaith Family Journey

July 20, 2015
Erika blog photo final

Callaway Kleiner family photo.

Today, we feature an essay from interfaith parent Erika Callaway Kleiner, MDiv. One persistent myth is that interfaith parents raising children with interfaith education must lack religious education or depth. Erika is someone with a rigorous religious education, who has thought long and hard about theology, and still chose (with her Jewish husband) to raise her children with both family religions. In this post, she explains how she got there.

Being a Christian has always been an important part of who I am. I grew up in a small United Methodist Church outside of Oklahoma City. The people there were our church family. I have many fond memories of Sunday School, youth group sleepovers, family camp, and Holy Week. Even in a very conservative area of the country where I did not see many women in religious leadership roles, I was encouraged by two male pastors to be a leader in my church. I served many Sundays as liturgist, sitting next to the altar across from the minister.

In college I decided to major in religion. My professors gently encouraged me to explore my religious beliefs. I remember one professor continually referring to God without using masculine (or feminine) pronouns. The idea that God is bigger than masculine (or feminine) had a motivating and inspiring impact.

Then, when I was a junior in college and my brother a sophomore in high school, my mom died of ovarian cancer. She was our best friend and a beautiful woman of faith. Many people took care of us and supported us. Everyone meant well. But a few people (not part of our church family) said some things I will never forget. “Trust that this is all part of God’s plan.” “It’s such a shame – your Mom was such a good person but she just couldn’t let go of her sin in order to heal.” Statements like these hurt and made me angry. What kind of God chooses to take a mother away from her children? Couldn’t let go of her sin?? She was always a generous, kind and loving person – a testament from everyone who knew her. My reaction was not to shun God or religion, however. I wanted to get to know God better and find a way out of this harmful, debilitating theology.

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and earned a Master of Divinity degree. There I met others struggling with questions of theodicy: Where is God in our suffering? What is our role as humans to ameliorate suffering and bring about justice? In divinity school, I had the space to live in these questions and gain some answers for myself (along with many more questions). I graduated with a different and deeper faith and also the realization that I wanted to join in the work towards creating social justice.

For me, God was not only bigger than masculine or feminine, God was also bigger than my Christian religion. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with a friend who eventually became my husband. He is Jewish. Neither of us intended to partner outside our religions. Still, what we discovered as we talked about how we were raised and what we believed is that we both wanted to help create a kinder and more compassionate world where people appreciate and respect diversity.

A rabbi and a minister married us on the Vanderbilt campus with our families and friends celebrating with us. We were intentional about every element of our ceremony, and we have been intentional about all the religious decisions we have made since then. In 2008, after attending several churches and belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue, we decided to join the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). We realized that this was a place where people truly understood our choices and situation.

Early on, we worried about how our children would identify. Is this confusing? Will they ultimately not feel included in either Judaism or Christianity? Will they have a spiritual home? Our children are still young — eight and six — so the answers to these questions remain to be seen. What we do see each week as we leave the Gathering at IFFP and Sunday School is our kids confidently living an interfaith life. They sing songs in Hebrew and also This Little Light of Mine. They are learning the similarities and connections between Judaism and Christianity as well as the differences and what this means for their lives. And they are already asking and finding their own answers to significant theological questions. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I have grown fond of the rhythm the practice of Judaism creates in my own life and that of my family. The ritual of Shabbat is a welcome part of my week. I look forward to the deep and cleansing time of the High Holy Days just as I look forward to the season of Advent.

The rituals and the theologies of both traditions now inform and inspire my thinking about the world and my place in it. I appreciate aspects of Judaism that encourage us to wrestle with theology and continue asking questions. In addition, from Jesus I hear the two greatest commandments reiterated. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The other day my kids asked me in the car if I see myself as Interfaith. I responded in a very Jewish way – with a question! I asked, “How do you see me?” They said, “Yes, Mom, you’re both!”

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Millennials: A Pagan and Atheist Couple

July 12, 2015

Pagan and Atheist Couple

Today, we feature a guest post by writer Camille Mellin, on her perspective as a Pagan married to an atheist. You can follow Camille on twitter @Camille_Mellin. For more on religious and atheist interfaith relationships, I highly recommend the recent book In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, by Dale McGowan.

I am a Pagan married to an atheist living in New England. We are a young couple and were both stunned at how much an interfaith relationship can affect the relationship, and especially planning for parenthood. My husband was inexperienced when it came to Paganism, and so from the start, I needed to clear up several common misconceptions, including what takes place during rituals, rites, and ceremonies. The frequency of these activities were perhaps a bit of a shock to him as well. As a Pagan, there are eight sabbats throughout the year that require a great deal of my attention, as well as daily, weekly, and even monthly blocks of time devoted to worship and reflection. As I am not a part of a coven, and worship independently, I found that I needed my own space dedicated for my religious practice, in our home. It took some time, but eventually we came up with a schedule that met both of our needs.

Luckily, my husband is an open-minded person, but of course there have been some tense moments that blossomed from my religion and his lack of one. Perhaps the biggest argument took place while discussing future children. Neither of us are interested in forcing our children to believe in (or not believe in) anything. However, I would be open to involving my children in some kid-friendly activities, crafts, recipes, and more every now and then. In contrast, he expressed his concerns with ‘cornering’ our children into one religion instead of letting them choose for themselves whether they wanted to go the religious route or not.

I understand his concern. Growing up, I was never taught any other religion but Christianity, and was in fact told that all other religions were false and were not worth learning. Conversely, my husband was brought up in an open atmosphere as pertains to religion. He learned about all the major religions and in the end decided he did not believe in any of them, however, at least he knew of them. Likewise, I would like to teach my children about as many religions as possible. I do not want my children to feel they are cornered into believing anything. They will of course see their mother practicing Paganism, and their father practicing atheism, and will therefore have more knowledge about these paths.

My husband and I are an interfaith, interracial couple, and my husband is transgender. Each one of these comes with a fair amount of culture shock. I believe religion to be extremely private, and so I don’t usually discuss it with people whom I know find it uncomfortable, including many family members. When it came to the wedding, my husband was adamant that we incorporate a Pagan handfasting ceremony, because he knew how important it was to me. And while I was grateful that my husband respected my religious beliefs so much that he wanted to merge my beliefs with a standard ceremony, I found it difficult to imagine participating in something so intimate in front of my family. In the end, we decided to have the handfasting separately, by ourselves.

Interfaith relationships, including Pagan interfaith relationships, aren’t all that uncommon these days. Some of the issues we face are specific to Pagan interfaith relationships. But regardless of the faiths involved, all relationships require open discussion and compromise.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

New Pew Data on Interfaith Marriage. And Coming Soon, on Interfaith Identities

May 13, 2015

Pew 2014 Intermarriage chart

For as long as I have been writing about interfaith families, for decades now, it has been hard to get good data on the overall increase in interfaith marriage in America. This week, Pew Research released the most comprehensive report on religion in America since their 2007 report. The new report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and much of the subsequent news reporting, focused on two angles: the rise of the “religious nones,” and the interlinking shift away from traditional forms of Christianity.

But of course, my first response was to comb through the report, looking for signs of those us who live in the complex, fluid, flexible, interfaith world. Pew began describing that world in a very good 2009 report on multiple religious practitioners (people celebrating more than one religion). And after speaking to one of the researchers today, I have exciting news to share on upcoming research on those raised with, or practicing, more than one religion.

“Interfaith Marriage Commonplace” –Pew Research, 2015

But first, let’s look at the important data on interfaith families in the new report. The researchers write that “people who have gotten married since 2000 are about twice as likely to be in religious intermarriages as are people who got married before 1960.” They found 28 percent of Americans living in an interfaith marriage or partnership (when we consider Protestants as one religion). That rises to 33 percent if we consider evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and historically black Protestant denominations, as separate religious groups.

For those in partnerships, rather than marriages, Pew found that interfaith relationships are much more common, at about 49 percent. And they are more common in younger generations. Overall, 19 percent of people married prior to 1960 reported that they were in an interfaith marriage, as compared to 39 percent of those married after 2010. (Although the researchers note that the low percentage of pre-1960 interfaith marriages may be skewed by the fact that those who divorced, or those who converted and now have one faith in the marriage, were not counted as interfaith marriages).

Here are some additional findings on interfaith families from the study:

  • The apparent rise of interfaith marriage is driven “in large part” by marriages between Christians and religiously unaffiliated spouses. Fully 18% of people surveyed who have gotten married since 2010 are in marriages between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse.
  • Buddhists are the most likely in this study to be in a mixed-faith relationship, at 61%.
  • The least likely in this study to be in an interfaith relationship were Hindus (9%), Mormons (18%) and Muslims (21%).
  • The interfaith marriage or partnership rates were 25% for Catholics, 35% for Jews, and 41% for mainline Protestants.

What About Interfaith Identity and Multiple Religious Belonging?

In this study, Pew asked respondents for the religion in which they had been raised, present religion, and the religion of the partner or spouse. So of course my first question was (as it is for every study of religious identity), “Could respondents claim more than one religion for their upbringing, or for their current identity (or the identity of their spouse)?”

The answer to my question was not obvious in over 200 pages of report and appendices. So I contacted Pew, and ended up in conversation with the very helpful sociologist Besheer Mohamed, a Research Associate who worked on the report. I learned a lot about how this survey recorded and classified people raised in, or currently claiming, more than one religion. The answers were intriguing.

First, the researchers did write down the verbatim responses of those practicing or raised in more than one religion, although less than one percent identified themselves this way. Mohamed agreed with me that some people who practice or were raised in more than one religion might not have identified themselves that way in the survey. After a lifetime of being faced with “only pick one box” religion surveys, we really do need specific permission in order to claim more than one religion. We need to hear, “You may choose one or more religions,” before it occurs to us that this is finally an option. I know those who practice more than one religion, who will self-identified as “nothing in particular,” or “agnostic,” or just pick one religion, when the reality is that they claim two.

In this initial report, although Pew did record them, the existence of these double-religious or multiple-religious practitioners was hidden. Because those claiming two religions including any form of Christianity, were counted by Pew in the “other Christians” category. So whether Jewish and Catholic, or Buddhist and Methodist, they were coded as Christian. This is a dramatic example of the Christian lens through which we see all discourse on American religion.

Even stranger, those who claimed two religions not including any form of Christianity, for instance Jewish and Buddhist, were counted in the “other world religions” category. This category was designed for single-faith practitioners including Sikhs, Baha’is, Jains, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians, Confucians and Druze. It does seem an unlikely place to park the many people I know who are Jewish Buddhists, or Buddhist Hindus.

To add to the complexity, the study had a separate category for “other faiths,” which Pew somehow distinguished from “other world religions.” The “other faiths,” included Unitarian-Universalists (UUs), those who practice Native American religions, and Pagans. But it’s not clear to me whether a Pagan UU (and there are plenty) was also coded under “other faiths,” or coded under “other world religions” because they claimed two non-Christian religions.

The excellent news is that Pew did get much more detailed data on people raised with or identifying with more than one religion. And a report on these folks (my interfaith people!) will be forthcoming from Pew, before the end of 2015. As interfaith relationships continue to become more common, interest will continue to grow in the relationship between interfaith relationships, the growth of the religious nones, and the new ways in which people are engaging (and disengaging) with traditional religious practices and institutions.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

The Identity of Interfaith Children: Downton Abbey Edition

March 2, 2015

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I don’t always blog about fictional interfaith families, but when I do, it’s because they’re discussing the identity of interfaith children. Season 5 of Downton Abbey, which concluded this week in the US, featured the courtship and interfaith marriage of Rose (niece of Lord and Lady Grantham) and Atticus (son of Lord and Lady Sinderby). But for me, the most interesting episode aired last week, when we witnessed the following conversation between Lord Sinderby and Atticus:

Lord Sinderby: “The second Lord Sinderby may be Jewish, but the third will not…”

Atticus: “Any children we may have will be brought up to know both sides of their heritage.”

Lord Sinderby: “Your children will not be Jewish. Don’t you understand that! Their mother will not be Jewish, and neither will they.”

Atticus: “They may choose to convert. Or are you implacably opposed to giving anyone a free choice.”

 Lord Sinderby, quietly: “How easy you make it sound…”

Although the episode takes place between the two World Wars, that conversation sounded very familiar, very modern, and possibly painful, to a lot of contemporary interfaith families. I was not surprised to learn that it was based on an experience the writer Julian Fellowes had himself, while dating a Jewish woman. Interfaith couples today still face worried and frustrated family members who try to discourage interfaith marriages based on the following myths:

1. The myth that the children cannot be Jewish, if their mother is not Jewish. This is no longer the policy of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, and it hasn’t been since 1983. We now have rabbis with mothers who never converted to Judaism, including Jewish luminaries such as Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.

2. The myth that you can’t raise children with both religions. I did it. Hundreds of families are providing interfaith education to interfaith children in organized interfaith family communities. And clergy and religious institutions are beginning to acknowledge this choice as part of the religious landscape. A Chicago rabbi recently told me that fully half of the interfaith couples he marries plan to raise children with both religions. And, I would argue that there is a level on which all interfaith children are exposed to both heritages, even if you give them a single religious label. So Atticus may have sounded naive to Lord Sinderby, but I would argue that he was simply ahead of his time.

3. The myth that Judaism is so strongly tribal that you cannot convert into it. Many people choose Judaism and convert. And some interfaith children can and do choose to convert in order to gain full membership in the movement of their choosing. Sadly, Lord Sinderby is right that it isn’t always easy, and Jews-by-choice still face exclusion, restrictions and prejudice in some Jewish communities. But that’s not a reason to avoid interfaith marriage, or avoid conversion. It is a reason to continue to press for policies that will include and welcome interfaith families.

Finally, Atticus makes reference to free choice in religious practice. In the US, we are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose our own religious identities and practices, to love across traditional boundaries, and to educate our children as we see fit. And our children, whether born into single-faith or interfaith families, will grow up to do the same.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage

February 4, 2015

Stange Wives, by Ned Rosenbaum

 

Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Samson, Joseph, Esther, Solomon.

What do they all have in common?

They were intermarried.

 

Thus begins Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage, a comprehensive and compelling exploration of the formative effects of intermarriage in Biblical times. This book provides a very readable guide to the history of intermarriage in the mixed multitude of cultures and practices and beliefs coalescing gradually, over centuries and millennia, into the people Israel. The authors conclude that the “early willingness to reach across tribal and ethnic boundaries was a source of strength, which Jews later forgot or chose not to remember.”

Here, I am glad to claim my relationship to the three people who created this long-awaited book. Strange Wives was written by Stanley Ned Rosebaum, with Rabbi Allen Secher, and edited by Mary Heléne Pottker Rosenbaum. Ned and Mary co-wrote Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage, a groundbreaking chronicle of a dual-faith family. Rabbi Allen was the first rabbi working with interfaith families communities in Chicago. I met Mary, Ned and Rabbi Allen at a series of national conferences to support interfaith families, through the Dovetail Institute.

Ned studied at Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, got his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis, published scholarly books on Biblical topics, and spent almost three decades as a beloved professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College. Then in 2011, he died in a tragic automobile accident, leaving Mary and Allen to get this book out into the world. Which they did, and for which I am very grateful.

As an interfaith child, and an interfaith parent, I have often faced the argument that Judaism has always prohibited intermarriage. This book puts that idea to rest, with deep erudition, wit, and aplomb. Strange Wives is nothing if not thorough, with footnotes, a full bibliography, and plenty of credit given to academics writing on this topic. But this is a book for all of us, with crystal clarity, and lively tone.

Strange Wives draws on both Scripture and archaeology to describe the Biblical setting as a cultural caravansary at the nexus of Africa and Europe, and of the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans. The authors document marriages of Israelites with Ammonites, Amalekites, Moabites, Midianites, Samaritans, Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Egyptians, and Babylonians. The women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops, and saw their God as competing with, incorporating, subsuming, and possibly even (inter)marrying other local gods. “Tradition has forgotten,” the authors write, “if it ever knew, how religiously diverse early Israel was.”

The authors argue that the fact that Ezra the Scribe, on his return from Babylonian exile, called on Jews to divorce their “strange wives,” is simply proof that such marriages were indeed common. Rather than seeing intermarriage as a threat to some essential or pure monotheism, they write, “Without the contribution of all these foreigners, mostly women, Judaism would have had a vastly different shape—or perhaps no shape at all.”

But didn’t the wives (for they were mainly wives) convert to Judaism? Like Ruth? While the idea of Ruth as the “first convert” is popular in contemporary Jewish culture, academics have long understood that, as the authors puts it, “there was no conversion in any meaningful sense” until two thousand years after Ruth.

Rosenbaum and Secher, towards the end of this book, write that they both “share the standard fear for the future of the Jewish community.” However, they also write, “We feel strongly that the very positive role so many intermarriages played in Israel’s formative centuries…ought not to be neglected or, worse, misrepresented for partisan purposes.” As we enter yet another period of extensive interfaith marriage in the Jewish community, Strange Wives asks us to study, and remember, this part of our past.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

 


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