Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships: A Personal Response

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.

“Mixed-Up Love”: Interfaith Marriage Between a Rabbi and a Catholic

Mixed-Up Love

           It is long past time to abandon the idea that those who marry across lines of faith simply do not care about religion. The most obvious counter-examples have been the Christian clergy, including Harvey Cox, Donna Schaper, and J. Dana Trent, who have written memoirs about their interfaith marriages. And now, we finally get to read about how a rabbi and her Catholic husband stay deeply engaged in two religions, while embarking on an interfaith marriage.

            For many Jewish institutions, the idea of an intermarried rabbi is almost as controversial as, well, the idea of raising children with both religions. The major rabbinical schools all refuse to admit or ordain rabbinical students married to non-Jews. This has forced potential rabbis to live in the “interfaith closet” or abandon their studies, which in turn has finally forced official reconsideration of this policy, at least at one seminary.

            Rabbis are going to fall in love, and marry, people from other religions. Rabbi Michal Woll and her Catholic husband, Jon Sweeney, bring us the first dispatch from this new reality. Woll was already a Reconstructionist rabbi when she met Sweeney, an author and religion scholar raised as a Protestant but in the process of converting to Catholicism at the time they met. Together, they have written an intimate and revealing memoir about their courtship and marriage, entitled Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.  A lively read, Mixed-Up Love is most compelling as a textured and nuanced portrait of one brave interfaith marriage. (Those interested the broad, historical sweep of their ambitious subtitle might want to also read Erika Seamon’s recent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America.)

            The joint memoir is a particularly useful format for an interfaith couple. One of the earliest examples is Mixed Blessings by Rachel and Paul Cowan, which described an interfaith marriage in the 1960s. Rachel eventually converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi, and their book, while useful, heavily promotes the choice of Judaism, and conversion. In contrast, Mary and Ned Rosenbaum, in another early joint memoir, Celebrating Our Differences, testified to the fact that their marriage strengthened, rather than diminished, their own devotion to Catholicism, and Judaism, respectively. While Ned was not an ordained rabbi, he was a Jewish studies scholar and lay leader of Jewish communities. In their memoir, Mary and Ned recount their pioneering interfaith marriage with great wit and honesty and tenderness, and also describe how they gave their three children education in both religions.

            Woll and Sweeney have decided to raise their daughter Jewish, and some of the reasons for their choice are obvious. Woll describes one congregation that refused to hire her as a rabbi because she is married to a Catholic. It seems evident that at least for now, an intermarried rabbi will have to raise children “exclusively Jewish” in order to be accepted by most Jewish institutions.

            Nonetheless, Woll and Sweeney talked to couples who had made different choices for their interfaith children, and researched some of the communities designed to support families raising children with both religions. In their book, they are thoughtful and open-minded about the possibility of raising children with both, although they chose another path. I found myself agreeing with the authors on many points: the importance of community support for interfaith families, the idea that interfaith marriage can be inspiring as well as challenging, and the importance for children of religious ritual in the home. In their conclusion, Sweeney and Woll write that there are “so many possibilities for creating lives full of spiritual meaning and practice in the world.”

            As in Celebrating Our Differences, Woll and Sweeney each contributed their own thoughts to this book in alternating passages, so that we understand their separate perspectives. Both their marriage and their child are still very young, but I suspect, and hope, that a sequel will eventually follow. In the meantime, Mixed-Up Love, the first memoir by a rabbi and a Catholic who share a marriage, is an important addition to the literature, describing the rewards and challenges of one of the many inevitable love stories in our increasingly interfaith world.

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