Recently, I attended a wedding. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The ceremony opened with the grooms reciting their intentions to one another. This was followed by scripture readings: first, from the Tanakh; then, from the Christian Bible. After a mutual ring exchange, the Sheva Brachot were recited. Only, instead of recitations from honored guests, the whole community blessed the grooms using call and response, Catholic Mass-style. Each guest had been given a printed liturgy, with Celtic symbols adorning the pages and blessings both Jewish and Christian printed inside.
The ceremony concluded with much “Mazel tov!” and music — to say nothing of eating and drinking. To my right and left were members of my Jewish community. Across from me, a kind Christian lady shared wisdom from a class recently taken with a local rabbi (over a bagel and schmear).
Recent talk in the religious world, Jewish and non-, has centered on pluralism: different groups coexisting in close quarters without, you know, killing each other. Interfaith dialogue is more popular than ever, at least among moderates and progressives. But, of course, all this talk of getting along and understanding one another is not without its complexities. For instance, how much diversity is too much? Does diversity teach tolerance and love, or does it merely water down the integrity of all faiths involved in the exchange?
The Jewish world, in particular, is still caught up on the issue of inter-marriage: Jews and non-Jews building homes together, having children, and raising them with knowledge of both faiths. A recent article from The Daily Beast went so far as to say that Reform Judaism, whose rabbis often perform weddings for interfaith couples, acts “against Jewish continuity” by tolerating and facilitating these kinds of marriages.
Now, the wedding I attended was officiated by a family friend: not a rabbi or a priest. Technically, it wasn’t a religious wedding at all — at least, if you define “religious” by whose clergy get to run the show on the Big Day. Even so, with readings from sacred texts, traditional blessings, and Ashkenazai food: it’s hard not to acknowledge the presence of Judaism, and yes, Celtic Christianity in that place. Both stood side by side, represented by their respective partner, and given equal treatment.
So is this sort of thing as bad as the article (and indeed, as many other commentators have) suggested? Pundits will continue to weigh in, and others will combat their conclusions. But practically speaking, is this trend bad for the Jews?
First off, if intermarriage is only problematic because of couples with kids — namely, because of fears the children won’t stay Jewish — then arguments around it only treat families as Jewish baby-making machines. While procreation is awesome (thanks for that, God!), it isn’t the only reason for family.
Without getting sentimental, it seems perfectly reasonable that two adults who love each other should wed: gay, straight, Jewish, non-, or whatever, even if they don’t have kids.
Understandably so, we want the Jewish people to keep on existing. We also want our culture to remain strong: not just more Jews, but Jews who, you know, do Judaism. Intermarriage, some say, is problematic not just because of kids, but also because of the way the faith is often practiced in an interfaith home.
Critics of intermarriage argue that interfaith environments weaken the potency and power of Judaism. In multi-religious homes, God must be scrupulously contextualized, explored and thought about. This critical process often ends up equating religious traditions with “culture”– which, though meaningful, doesn’t carry the same life-and-death significance. “After all,” some might say, “even if they keep practicing, they’ll just be Reform or something. Not the real deal.”
But here’s the thing: understanding a faith as a product of a particular time, place, and culture does not weaken the integrity of that faith. Cloistering it away, guilting and shaming those who marry a non-Jew: these things do weaken integrity. They demonstrate a faith sorely lacking in, well, faith. Judaism, according to this thinking, cannot stand on its own two feet. Being fearful of interfaith marriages makes the statement that Judiasm can only survive through isolationism and exceptionalism, rather than by its own beauty, power, and allure. It demonstrates a lack of faith in God as well. Many of the critics of intermarriage are the same people who believe passionately in God’s promise that Abraham’s people would always endure. Now who has faith?
Many intermarried couples know this, and they know it as much about their partner’s faith as they do their own. Critics say that treating all faiths as equal implies nothing is special. Counter to that, treating all faiths as equal only demonstrates a confidence in the beauty of one’s own choice.
As I reflect on the recent wedding of my friends, seeing their faiths side by side, seeing Christians and Jews and others noshing and kibitzing and dancing to a jazz band in the corner — no forced baptisms, no Talmudic rants about the nature and character of Christ, no pogroms — I can’t help but think, “Tolerance like this: what could be better for the Jews?”