A conversation between Rabbi Reuben and “Mary”
(Names in correspondence have been changed to protect privacy)
Sent: Thursday, August 20, 2009
To:* Rabbi Reuben
Subject:* Advice: Dealing with Feelings of Failure in Marrying Out
My name is Mary. I’m from Kentucky and went to Catholic school-although neither my family nor I are religious. My boyfriend, Ben, is Jewish. Both of his parents are Jewish, his father is Israeli and his mother is American. They have a very secular household, but they identify themselves as Jews- Jewish culture is everything to them.
We have approximately the same moral values and view of god. Our relationship has been termed “interfaith”, but our problems are not a matter of faith-I think they’re a matter of race/culture.
Our relationship has gotten really serious and we are very much in love. I’m doing all I can to embrace his culture- I’ve spent 7 months with him in Israel- celebrating holidays with him and reading books about Judaism and learning Hebrew. I’m really enjoying getting an insight into another culture and religion. I love Israel and I like the values in Judaism- with the exception of the ‘exclusiveness’ aspect.
However, he’s having a hard time embracing my family and my heritage. He can’t seem to face it. Now that we’re thinking aboutthe future and I’m pressing for him to make time for my family, his prejudice is showing through. He’s terrified that he won’t fit in with my family and he has all these preconceived notions of them- like the way they would act or what they would think.
We went through some of the questions last night from your book, A Non-judgemental Guide to Interfaith Marriage. He opened up and told me that he feels he’s settling or will fail by marrying a non-Jew- like he didn’t try hard enough to find a Jewish girl. Also, he feels his Jewish identity is threatened by marrying out. Is this what is taught?
Is there anything we can do? Have you dealt with this in the past? We’d both really appreciate any help/insight you can give us.
Thank you so much for you time,
I am happy to help you any way that I can. The kind of ambivalent feelings that Noah has been feeling are not unusual for Jews who are involved with “interfaith” relationships, especially Israelis. Part of the challenge is that although religious identity both for Christians and Jews is composed of the three B’s – Believing, Belonging and Behaving – for Christians the foundation is “belief” and the “behaviors” such as going to church or celebrating holidays and the like are expressions of that belief, for Jews our identity grows not primarily out of “belief” but rather “Belonging” to the Jewish people.
It is what most people call “culture” and reflects the fact that Judaism is in truth not a religion in the narrow sense of a system of belief, but rather the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people with language, literature, art, music, food and all the full range of any civilization. We are like a family and we experience our identity as part of that large Jewish family that stretches back to Abraham and Sarah in the Bible and continues down to this day. That is especially true for Jews raised in Israel since the sense of belonging to the Jewish people and being responsible for its continuing survival is deeply impressed in the Israeli psyche as a remnant of the Holocaust. When you marry someone Jewish or become part of the Jewish people by choice (conversion) as an adult, you are also becoming part of this historical sense of belonging to a community and people that has experienced the anti-Semitism and discrimination of the past several thousand years (especially from the Christian world, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Holocaust).
It is a painful reality that Jews even today on some level all live in the shadow of the ugliness and pain of the past, but true nonetheless. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a loving, nurturing, spiritual life partnership with Ben because the world is filled with lots of interfaith marriages and relationships that are successful. My congregation is probably at least a third interfaith relationships and they have all found ways of creating their own unique religious lifestyles that work for them. I have a number of video blogs that you can see on http://www.interfaithfamily.com/ or even on my own not completed website http://www.interfaithrabbi.com that might be helpful as you work through all these personal issues.
I’m happy to offer whatever advice I can and do want you to know that liberal Judaism does not teach exclusivity or that Jews are better than anyone else and in fact my version of Judaism specifically rejects the idea of exclusive chosenness of the Jewish people and teaches that all people choose their own unique answers to the same fundamental questions of life and one isn’t better than another.
Anyway, let me know if there are specific issues I can help you with.
Thank you so much for your advice. Now that Noah and I are discussing this more, the issue is becoming even more hurtful and seemingly hopeless.
We’re caught in this cycle and I don’t know how to break it. He admits that he has issues with me and my family not being Jewish- that he always pictured himself marrying a Jewish girl. I get upset and feel like he wants something different than me. He consoles me by telling and showing me that he loves me and only me. I try to forget the Jewish thing because I know and believe he loves me. Then I’m reminded that we don’t share this huge thing that’s important to him and I’m back to being upset.
I don’t know how or if this cycle is breakable. I feel like this is something he can’t change about himself, but I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t want to hang on and get even more hurt, but I don’t want to let go. So I have some questions that I’m not sure you can answer…
How do I know if he can change? Knowing that he doesn’t think I’m worthy enough to marry, breaks my heart and the fact that it’s because of my cultural background makes it so much worse. How can you carry on a relationship like this? How do you take away the resentment he feels for my people because of the threat they pose to his people and the separation that comes with that? How is it that love doesn’t erase this by itself? How do I not take this all personally? How do you break up with someone when you know that they love you and you love them?
I really don’t know who else to turn to on this.
Rabbi Reuben wrote:
Mary my dearest,
My heart breaks for you reading your pain and suffering as you contemplate the implications of Noah’s attitude about Judaism and its role in your life. However, I think it is a mistake for you to equate Noah growing up always picturing himself marrying a Jewish girl and having a Jewish home and family with Noah not seeing you as “worthy enough to marry.’ I don’t think those are the same at all and I certainly have had lots of experience with interfaith couples where one person’s childhood images and fantasies come in conflict with his or her adult reality of actually finding the person they love. Sometimes you can over intellectualize and over analyze the implications of your partner’s childhood assumptions. There are one’s dreams and expectations growing up and there is the reality of life that we encounter, embrace and love and they are very often not the same at all.
Having said that, what is important to a successful relationship, whether same faith or interfaith is that you are a partnership and that you feel you are on the same team and same side with one another. If you love each other and want to be together and create a life together, you can. If you are both willing to put you relationship as number one in priority in your life and see it and each other as the most important things in your life then the differences between you can be accommodated and incorporated into your life together. Either way you will be creating your own unique religious lifestyle together and the degree to which you incorporate religious ritual and custom and tradition into your lives is up to you. I encourage couples to see their own religious backgrounds as the spiritual, cultural resources of their lives from which they can draw upon to help give a greater sense of purpose, meaning and belonging. Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people with language, literature, art, music, food, a shared cultural history and sense of values and ethics. It is not belief but rather “belonging” to the Jewish people that is the primary force that gives Jews their sense of identity. In general Christianity is based more on specific beliefs and the behaviors of Christianity like going to church or celebrating a holiday are expressions of one’s beliefs. In Judaism, the behaviors we embrace, whether holidays, life-cycle rituals, Jewish foods, visiting Israel, going to a synagogue service are all ways of reinforcing our sense of belonging to the Jewish people and family. Those are the elements of our identity that matter most to most of us – the shared history is important because as a minority living in a majority culture we have experienced so many centuries of persecution and prejudice so we have developed a certain paranoia about the rest of the world. We come by it honestly, even though it is a bit difficult for non-Jews to understand always on the same gut level as someone who has grown up Jewish or Israeli.
It is also important not to personalize that which isn’t actually personal. Resentment against non-Jews who have created antisemitism, or supported the holocaust or attacked Israel is understandable, and is not the same as looking at all non-Jews as bad or evil or whatever. Life is complex and messy and so are relationships. I would trust my heart to tell me if I can trust my partner. You need to sit down with him and share your fears and concerns and see how you feel as you talk about these issues.
Let me know if I can answer any specific other questions for you and please know that I am happy to talk with both of you in person or any other way that might be helpful. I have to run now but am happy to talk with you about this more.