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Intermarriage & Dual Religion

I met a great guy and we are on the way to getting engaged soon I hope! We share lots of interests (hiking, movies) and I find him very funny, intelligent and attractive. So what could be wrong? Well, he’s not Jewish. I think I can live with that (most of my friends married non-Jews).

We discussed this briefly and thought it best to have a dual-religion home, and let our children make the choice themselves. But I’m wondering what obstacles I should be aware of. Thank you.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Honestly, I don’t think this can work. On many levels, you cannot have both a christening and a Bris. Because as nice as it would be for intermarried parents to be able to "cover both bases," not have to make any big decisions just yet, and provide something for all of the grandparents, having a child brought into the Church of Jesus as well made part of the covenant of the Jewish people is not being honest to either tradition.

As "exclusionary" as this sounds, this position is based on common sense, respect for the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity as religions with particular and distinct messages as well as what has been found through years of experience as being in the ultimate best interest of the child.

Religiously speaking, children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous faith identity which gives them a place in the world, a spiritual tradition through which to experience the important times of life and a community of meaning, not just to know about, but to be a part of and to feel at home in. This means that, when it comes to religion, one is better than none and better than two.

There's a video put out by the Reform Movement of America. It's a real-life documentary depicting a series of group therapy sessions for intermarried couples, designed to help them deal with the unique issues of intermarriage.

In this video, a Jewish woman says: "Our marriage was going smoothly until the birth of our baby boy. I was thrilled and wanted to arrange for a Mohel to do the circumcision. My husband thought I was crazy! He said, 'I won't allow that bloody, barbaric cult ritual!' We're supposed to be celebrating the birth of our child – and instead we we're having a terrible fight! He finally agreed to the Bris, but said, 'I'm sure you'll understand when I take the baby to be baptized.' I was shocked. Now I'm not sure our marriage is going to survive."

Then, the video shows these couples – none of them religious – describe how the major obstacle in their marriage is the issue of Jesus. We don't always realize it, but belief in God is an essential part of our identity. Do you find the idea of praying to Jesus repulsive? Do you know that in the mind of your future spouse, Jesus is the ultimate image of yearning for spiritual transcendence? It's engrained from Day One – the same way that your Jewish imagery is engrained.

Egon Mayer, a professor at Brooklyn College who studies interfaith issues and published a study linking intermarriage with higher divorce rates, said in USA Today: "When you bury something that is really important to you, all you're doing is building up a kind of pressure within the family relationship, which becomes a source of tension, which ultimately becomes a time bomb. If there's any reason why intermarriages break up, it's because of that time bomb."

And it goes beyond this. Often the in-laws exacerbate these problems by putting pressure on the intermarried couple. Esther Perel, a therapist who counsels inter-faith couples, says in New York Magazine: "The difference isn't just between Moses and Christ. You're dealing with issues of money, sex, education, child-rearing practices, food, family relationships, styles of emotional expressiveness, issues of autonomy – all of these are culturally embedded."

And what about having children? Many intermarried couples say: "We're going to let our children choose their own religion. When they grow up they can choose what want. That way they'll get the best of both worlds."

But the reality is that children of intermarried couples suffer an identity crisis. One set of grandparents has a Christmas Tree, the other a Chanukah menorah. It's very confusing for a young person trying to forge an identity in an already-complex world. Children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous identity which gives them a place in the world. They need a spiritual tradition through which to experience lifecycle events, and to have a community where they feel at home.

Psychologists report that many "dual-religion" children express a great deal of anger at their parents for putting them in the middle of an issue that the parents themselves could not resolve. When a person has to choose one religion over the other, there is always the unconscious sense of choosing one parent over another. (The fact is that 92 percent of children of intermarriage marry non-Jews, effectively detaching themselves forever from the Jewish people. That's simply the default choice in our predominantly non-Jewish society.)

But can you imagine if your son or daughter becomes a committed Jew or Christian? What will this child think of you, the Jewish parent? If he becomes a believing Christian, he'll think you're going to hell for denying the faith! And if he turns to Judaism, he'll regard you as a traitor for having intermarried!

And what about your own spiritual awakening? People who do not profess a belief in any particular religion often turn back to religion later in life. A Gallup Poll showed that religious commitment is lowest from age 18-39 – precisely the time when people are making decision about who to marry. I have a folder of emails from intermarried people whose lives turned to horror when they (or their spouses) turned back to religion. The issues become insurmountable.

This is not a guilt-trip. This is an issue of practical reality. It is a documented fact that intermarried couples have a higher divorce rate. Would you ever consider going into a business with a partner who carries a greater risk of failure?

And finally, I of course must mention that all “logic” aside, according the Bible, Deuteronomy 7:3, it is forbidden for a Jew to marry a non-Jew.

These comments are written with love and concern. Please write back and share your thoughts.

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