One side of interfaith marriage era

As always, the High Holy Days season has inspired quite a bit of coverage of issues linked to modern and postmodern Judaism. Covering the major religious holidays can be a chore for Godbeat veterans, since we are always looking for some hook that is both new and newsy. It’s hard work to get it right. Trust me, I know.

In recent decades, one of the evergreen topics for this time of year — for totally valid reasons — has been the rising tide of interfaith marriages, especially those between Jews and members of other faiths. This is not a new story, but it remains a hot story (as young master Brad Greenberg recently noted).

Why is this a hot story?

Well, the main reason is that many Jews believe that the fact that interfaith marriages are becoming more and more common is bad for the health of Judaism, both as a religious reality and as a matter of culture. The crucial question is this: What percentage of the children of interfaith marriages grow up to be Jews, in terms of being active in Jewish congregations or in other Jewish community organizations?

Is that a controversial, emotional topic? Well, research “interfaith marriages” and “silent holocaust” and then look around in that digital file. What numbers do you see? Any tension in there?

The bottom line: If you read a story about interfaith marriage and it is (a) all happy or (b) all angry, then you are reading a story that is only dealing with half of this story.

With that in mind, read the following Washington Post report that ran under the headline, “Interfaith Families Project helps couples navigate tricky religious issues.”

As I read this story, I was reminded of a classic quote from the legendary historian Martin Marty, who once told me that there are people who define “ecumenicism” like this: “You don’t believe very much and I don’t believe very much, so we have a lot in common.”

This very interesting Post story is, in effect, about some very nontraditional Jews who are working with some very nontraditional Christians on a project to help smooth out bumpy spots in their interfaith marriages. By definition, these activists are not likely to share the concerns of traditional Jews and traditional Christians. Does that make sense?

Thus, we read:

The gathering of about 300 people at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring reflects the deepening bonds of the interfaith group, one of the largest and oldest of organizations now popping up across the country for families seeking to live with — but not necessarily blur — two different religions. As interfaith marriages become more common among other religious minorities, including Muslims and Hindus, interfaith pioneers like those based in Takoma Park may offer a road map.

The group also held its first Easter service this spring. The new holiday services reflect the organization’s evolution from something mostly pragmatic and secular (its 1995 charter explicitly banned prayer) that focused on religion classes and marriage workshops to something deeper: a nurturing, self-sustaining spiritual community with the confidence to tackle the biggest religious holidays.

“We used to encourage people to go to their own synagogues and churches for the holidays, but as it evolved, it was like, ‘Why not be together? It feels good, we really know each other,’ ” said the Rev. Julia Jarvis, the group’s spiritual director. This Easter, she said, one of the Jewish men said: ” ‘Let’s do it together; let’s put it out there! Let’s really wrestle with Jesus!’ ”

Despite fears within the Jewish community that assimilation could lead to extinction, the rate of intermarriage among Jews has soared from about 13 percent among couples who married before 1970 to more than 40 percent among Jews who married after 1985. One of the most high-profile took place this summer when Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky at a ceremony officiated by a rabbi and a minister.

And so forth and so on. Now, this minister is interesting and, as you would imagine, a pivotal figure in the story.

While some people believe that it is crucial to struggle with the details of doctrines and traditions — one such person makes an appearance in this report — others kind of swing the other direction and are more inclusive or openly Universalist in their approach. Consider the details in this passage about Jarvis and early participants in the program:

The group took off, growing to 90 families in the first several years. But each step was weighed.

“They were very paranoid about language,” said Jarvis, who was raised Southern Baptist, ordained in the United Church of Christ, is now part of a Buddhist community and, when asked if she is a Christian, says: “Good question.”

The group craved the kind of spiritual uplift and energy that comes from sharing deep beliefs about things like social justice and human goodness. But it didn’t want to be seen as trying to create “a religion.” Many were wary about orthodoxy of any kind. When Jarvis proposed doing some prayers when the group met, members asked: What do you mean by “prayers”? When she proposed a sermon they said: What do you mean by a “sermon”?

You get the idea. The key is that this is a very interesting and valid story about one — repeat one — approach to the interfaith marriage issue. There are hints as to why this is such a complex and emotional topic.

However, what the story lacks is any content from anyone who believes that the tactics used by this particular group are, well, bad. There is no other side to the story, no discussion of the kinds of hard statistics that Jewish leaders use when they are discussing the pluses and the minuses of interfaith marriage.

This is a story about a group that works with religious believers of a certain type and their interfaith marriages. It is not a story about the issue of interfaith marriages. My question: Should it have contained any material that offers balance? Any presentation of facts that demonstrate why this issue refuses to go away? Why is the topic so, so emotional?

Early on in the coverage of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, I shared the following anecdote and I repeat it here for context:

Back in my Denver days, I covered a remarkable meeting about intermarriage between Jews and Christians, in this case Catholics. In the summary remarks, one of the rabbis made a comment that has always stuck with me.

This liberal rabbi was not in favor of intermarriage, but he was not opposed either. He knew the realities of life in the age of assimilation. He knew the numbers in his own congregation. However, there was one thing he strongly opposed — people trying to raise their children in both faiths at the same time.

The bottom line: The rabbi said that, statistically, there was a better chance that children raised in Jewish-Christian families would eventually choose to live their lives as Jews if they were raised as Christians than if their parents attempted to raise them half and half. All that approach taught the children was that faith was a buffet and that their choices didn’t really matter much. The key was whether the children were taught that faith actually mattered in their lives. They would eventually make their own choices about the faith that they would practice.

Now that was a candid voice on the Jewish left. Imagine the views of the Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in these debates.

The Post story, in effect, said: Debates? What debates?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Passing By

    My impression from reading the WaPo story is that it’s not so much about inter-religious as bi-cultural marriage: how to do the holidays, what rituals to enact, and so on. There is talk about doing theology, but nothing about beliefs. So what came out of that “wrestling with Jesus”?

    This seems to be a group of people, some of whom vaguely believe in Christianity (or some vague version of it), and some who hold to some vague version of Judaism. These folks have, in fact, formed a new religious community based on ethical concerns: “social justice and human goodness”. That’s fine: they seem to be a more organized version of the spiritual but not religious theme so popular these days. But that’s nothing really new, is it? It seems to me a form of Unitarian Universalism with a particular focus.

    Myself, I’m one of those folks who would sleep in on Sunday if I didn’t believe Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God – pretty much a “religious not spiritual” type. So I have to ask: what is Easter if not a celebration of Jesus rising from the dead? Ok, maybe a spring re-birth nature festival, but do pagans use the word “Easter”? What exactly was the content of that Easter meeting? What was the meat of their theological wrestlings.

    Unfortunately, the story didn’t tell me.

  • dalea

    Passing By asks:

    Ok, maybe a spring re-birth nature festival, but do pagans use the word “Easter”?

    We use the older forms of Easter: Eostre and Ostara.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/03/easter-pagan-symbolism

    http://www.zenzibar.com/articles/easter.asp

  • http://allegedlyretired.blogspot.com/ Joseph M. Smith

    The story was accompanied by a photograph of Rabbi Harold White, who is surely the “dean” of Jewish-Christian marriages in this area. I have shared several of them with him. And at least in those days, several years ago, he was not advocating any sort of “compromise” mish-mash. So it may be a form of journalistic guilt-by-association to picture him alongside this article, in which he is not quoted.

    For what it’s worth, nearly every couple with whom I worked toward one of those marriages included a Christian partner whose faith was passionately evangelical! I shall not soon forget the young woman who said, in the presence of her fiance, “It is my heart’s desire that [he] would come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”

  • Jon in the Nati

    Ecumenism:

    “You don’t believe very much and I don’t believe very much, so we have a lot in common.

    That’s good. I like that.

  • Dave

    As a Unitarian Universalist I find very odd both Terry’s use of Universalism as meaning that all religions are equally valid, and Passing By’s reference to Unitarian Universalism as an organized form of being spiritual but not religious.

    Terry, Universalism is the (heretical) doctrine that all souls are ultimately reconciled with God. It’s not a comment on other religions.

    Passing By, Unitarian Universalism is a religion. It has members who may be more spiritual than religious but I dare say that could be said of many religions.

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    Your last comments remind me of Flannery O’Connor.

    At a dinner with Mary McCarthy and her literary friends, somebody was talking about the Eucharist being a great symbol. Flannery sensed that they were expecting her, as a Catholic, to say something profound.

    She just said:

    Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.

    So much for making nice while talking religion.

  • Julia
  • Passing By

    Julia -

    The Flannery O’Connor quote was in my comment, but I took it out as a bit of a complication. It is absolutely one of my favorites, though.
    :-)

  • michelle

    Hey Terry! Thanks for writing on my story! I just read it, and wanted to note that we DID reference — albeit briefly — that there remains strong opposition to interfaith marriage. You said there was no opposition mentioned. I quote from the story: “Despite fears within the Jewish community that assimilation could lead to extinction, the rate of intermarriage among Jews has soared from about 13 percent among couples who married before 1970 to more than 40 percent among Jews who married after 1985.” Michelle Boorstein

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MICHELLE:

    Sorry, I thought my one reference to your inclusion of one voice/source on the other side of the issue was obvious enough.

    I did include this:

    “While some people believe that it is crucial to struggle with the details of doctrines and traditions — one such person makes an appearance in this report — others kind of swing the other direction and are more inclusive or openly Universalist in their approach.”

  • Augustina

    Don’t have time to read entire article at this moment, so excuse if I am a repeat of anything that has been written. It is a known fact that Chelsea’s father-in-law spent 8 yrs in the slammer for wire fraud, mail fraud and bank fraud. Where did anyone read about that in the media?? Never saw his picture at their wedding. Well the Clinton’s and the Mezvinsky’s should be able to get along quite nicely.


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