Friday, November 3, 2017

Love Knows No Boundaries: The Challenge of Intermarriage

Recently a Neveh Shalom congregant came to discuss his son's forthcoming marriage.  His son grew up here, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah here and continued in our high school program for some time.  His father reminded me that I was not here for the Bar Mitzvah, because I was sitting Shiva for my father who died almost immediately after our arrival in Portland.

Let me call him Avi.  Avi's father told me that Avi had fallen in love and they were now exploring wedding plans.  For work Avi was doing a great deal of international travel.  Along the way he met and fell in love with a lovely young woman who works for the United Nations.  Avi was hoping that I would officiate at their wedding.  The bride is a Muslim woman from Pakistan.  Their hopes were to have two ceremonies, the first a Muslim ceremony with the bride's family in Lahore and the second here in Portland with a rabbi and an imam.

Wow!  There is nothing more fulfilling for me than to officiate at a wedding of a young person I have known since he/she was young.  But this was the first time I had been confronted with so many obstacles all in one.  The fact that the bride was Muslim was irrelevant.  What was relevant was that she was not Jewish and would not consider converting..  Additionally the meaning of the ceremony in Pakistan raised issues, as well as the desire for me to officiate at a ceremony with clergy representing another faith.

I explained to the father that as a Conservative rabbi I could not officiate at an intermarriage.  Although I personally struggle with this requirement as do rabbis throughout the country, I agree with it.  Though it is a turnoff to many young couples, which I understand, I am in the business of creating Jewish homes and Jewish families, which have the prospect of Jewish learning and Jewish practice.

However I asked this dad for Avi's email address, so that I could explain to him and his bride my inability to fulfill his request directly and not through an intermediary.

With Avi's permission the following is my communication with him and his very lovely response:

Dear Avi and Sonia,

I met with your dad last week to talk about your plans for your forthcoming wedding.  He told me about you and your world-wide travels and about Sonia working for the U.N. in Geneva.  It's a new world when a Jewish young man from Portland, Oregon, falls in love with a Muslim young woman whose family comes from Pakistan.

Finding a life's companion with whom you want to spend the rest of your life is truly a blessing and I want to congratulate you both.  You have found a way into each other's hearts despite the gigantic distance that you are traveling to traverse your cultural, ethnic and religious differences.  Your dad told me about your plans to have a Muslim wedding ceremony in Lahore and a second Jewish/Muslim ceremony here in Portland.  Though that sounds easy enough on paper, I can't imagine the hurdles that need to be overcome in order to make either one of these events happen as you hope.

Partly the obstacles have to do with differences in our traditions.  Though I certainly know less about Islam than about Judaism, the more interactions I have with my Muslim friends here, the more I appreciate our many similaritiies.

Judaism historically only recognizes marriages between Jews and for centuries the number of marriages between Jews and non-Jews has been relatively small.  This is certainly not the case today.  However our insular the recognition, which may be similar in Islam, it had to do with a number of factors: the most important one being that creating a union between two people was assumed to be creating a link in Jewish tradition, that the newly formed family would create a Jewish home, celebrate Jewish holidays, raise Jewish children, transmit Jewish values.  That is the essence of the Jewish ceremony, from the blessings that are recited, the ring that is transmitted, the canopy beneath which bride and groom stand, to the glass that is broken at the end of the ceremony.  Though some intermarried couples choose to do all of the above, they are largely the exception.

Intermarriage has also been viewed as perhaps the supreme challenge to Jewish survival.  As a small people of only 14 million, we concern ourselves about critical mass.  That burden should not be placed on individual Jews like the two of you, but we are concerned from a macro-perspective as a people.  With considerable assimilation will we survive or continue to disintegrate?  Certainly in this area Islam does not have similar concerns.

For this reason, Alex Schindler, a reform rabbi, urged the Jewish community to love the intermarried at the same time that we discourage intermarriage.  By that he meant that though we confront the reality of intermarriage, we are obliged to do all we can to reach out to welcome those who have intermarried.

Although there are rabbis who officiate at intermarriages with hopes that a Jewish family can be salvaged, I have not done so.  The number of rabbis who will officiate at an intermarriage with clergy of another faith are significantly fewer since the symbolism of such a ceremony is that the emerging family will not connect with just one community.  Though idealistically identifying with both communities might seem as a positive, realistically it is exceedingly difficult.

Nevertheless I want to wish you much luck.  It's probably difficult right now with the two of you not only living in different cities, but different countries.  I hope that if and when you are both in Portland, you will make time for us to get together and perhaps go out for coffee..

If you have questions for me or want to continue our discussion, I hope you will not hesitate to write.


Rabbi Daniel Isaak

Dear Rabbi Isaak,

It's great to hear from you!  It's been quite a long time since we had a chance to talk (perhaps as far back as my Bar Mitzvah).  I'm sorry for the delayed response, but I've been traveling quite a bit for work.  I just returned from Kenya where I was hosting a regional workshop for my organization.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful words and explanations.  You're right that there have been some logistical and other complications along the way, but I think we've done a really great job of speaking to people honestly about our commitment to each other, to our respective traditions, and to the values that our parents instilled in us.

I was saddened to hear that you won't be able to perform our ceremony, but I understand your justification.  I was sad because I value your opinion, find comfort in your words , and it would have been very meaningful for me to have a wedding officiant who has known me for as long as you have.  However I do completely understand and respect your decision.  I also particularly appreciate your thoughtful explanation of why religious intermarriages have been discouraged.  I was also very warmed to hear the teaching of Rabbi Schindler to love the intermarried even while discouraging intermarriage.

For Sonia and me, we believe that both our faiths will make each of us and our children richer and better off.  Our belief is that practicing one's faith is a non-zero-sum equation where more is better as long as one does not fundamentally disprove the other. It is our hope to create a link between us in both traditions, and transmit Jewish and Muslim values, which we believe are quite similar.  And of course, we want our chidren to inherit a tradition, culture and value system that both faiths can be proud of.  I know this is a path less traveled, and I can't say I have all the answers yet, but this feels authentic to both of us, and we know in our hearts that it s the only choice for us.

I am really grateful to have received your letter and for this chance to think more deeply about our approach to religion, interfaith marriage, and creating a multi-faith home.

I hope to be able to see you soon and would love to introduce you to Sonia next time we're in Portland.  I shared your eail with her and she was very touched.  I know we both would really enjoy and would benefit from hearing more from you.

Thank you again for your thoughtful words and well wishes!!


Avi and Sonia 

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