Why I Witness Interfaith Marriages

Among the most significant contributions of the Abrahamic faiths to the well-being of society is the concept of covenant. Covenant … Continued

Among the most significant contributions of the Abrahamic faiths to the well-being of society is the concept of covenant. Covenant is distinctly more encompassing than contract, which is legalistic in character. Covenant for me conveys a partnership whereby the Divine-human relationship is translated into the manner whereby humans relate to one another.

I am particularly indebted to the teachings of Martin Buber who conveys to us the principles of the I-thou relationship. Buber applies the I-thou covenantal relationship to the dynamics of a healthy marriage which must embrace growth, reciprocity, the sanctity of otherness and the willingness and ability to become the total listener.

A covenantal marriage, relationship also involves the inclusion of a sense of mystery or as Buber so nobly states it “The world may not always be comprehensive but it is embraceable.”

I believe that everyone entering into a marital union should be able to participate in an I-thou covenantal union which does not take place in a civil court house, judge’s chamber or justice of the peace setting. As I prepare couples for marriage I engage them in a dialogue where they can understand that the ritual of the marriage ceremony itself embodies the principles of Buberian thought.

I do not consider myself an officiant, but rather a celebrant and witness, I explain to couples that the chuppah, the wedding canopy under which they will be married is a symbol of their private domain. I ask attendants and family members to stand outside the canopy–the area of the public domain–where I also position myself. I conceive of the wedding ceremony itself as a public statement and announcement of what has been heretofore a private relationship. I emphasize that neither clergy nor wedding ceremonies marry individuals. People marry one another.

The Torah provides me with another guideline. Both Abraham and Isaac did not want their sons to marry Canaanite women. The issue was not religion but ethnicity and ethnic standards. Both Patriarchs wished their sons to marry women from Mesopotamia, whose people still practiced idolatry. Rebecca, Isaac’s intended wife, brought her idols with her and into Sarah’s tent. The prohibition that evolved which forbade Israelite males to marry women from the seven Canaanitic nations centered around the reality that the Canaanites participated in abominable moral practices. Religion was not as much the issue as corrupt moral behavior.

I, as well as other Jews of my generation, was nurtured on stereotypes that in a sense portrayed Christians as modern Canaanites. I had relatively little social interaction with non-Jews and could not deny prototypical descriptions of non-Jews as being subject to alcoholism or fractured family structures. Although my experience with anti-Semitic episodes was exceedingly limited I was assured that the average Christian was the above-average anti-Semite.

The breakdown of social barriers between the Jewish world and the non-Jewish community led to the dissolution of many of these stereotypes. And with social interaction came relationships that culminated in marriage. Interfaith marriage was no longer a vehicle for assimilation or the denial of one’s Jewish identity. Nor was interfaith marriage the product of poor Jewish education.

I have found in my meetings with couples that both the Jewish and non-Jewish partner have enjoyed the benefit of rather thorough religious education. Interfaith marriage for these couples is not an exit visa from their respective religious traditions.

More significant than witnessing an inter-faith marriage is the counseling that precedes it. I am particularly committed to assisting couples in the area of how they will raise their children. I share with them case histories relating to the progeny of interfaith marriage who attend Georgetown University, I emphasize that what is important is not satisfying their own self-interest but rather doing that which is in the best interest of raising a healthy well-adjusted child. My recommendations are always multifaceted and are designed to meet the unique situation of each individual couple.

My approach is to view interfaith marriage as an opportunity for synthesis rather then relegating such to the category of the problematic with no opportunity for meaningful alternative solutions.

– Rabbi Harold S. White

Editor’s Note: The author is Jewish Chaplain at Georgetown University.

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  • VICTORIA

    peace rabbi white i had the pleasure of attending my husband’s brothers marriage a few weeks ago. his wife is catholic and he is muslim. the ceremony took place in a catholic church and the celebrant was an east indian priest who held a book in his hands that had the symbols of islam, christianity, judaism,buddhism and hnduism emblazoned on the cover( i noticed his picture on the back cover). he was so filled with love and joy at the interfaith wedding (nad nervousness too) thatit was tangible. my brother in law is turkish and the priest couldnt help but make an analogy of the popes prayer at the blue mosque and the celebration in front of us—it was so beautifully done that no one felt that their faith was diminished and afterwards the priest was visibly shaking and thrilled to have an interfaith dialogue with me where he proudly toldme that his sister is married to a hindu and his brother a muslim and of course hes a catholic.in islam the issue of interfaith marriage has long been dealt with as it is in the Qur’an that muslims can marry people of the book (jewish and christian) also in the catholic church couples are required to go to counseling before they marry and ive long contended that i wish muslims would do the same, peace

  • David

    Interesting column. The first reply was interesting also, but had an extremely significant error.Under Islamic (Sharia) law, Muslim MEN may marry Jewish or Christian women (i.e. “People of the Book” and of course may marry Muslim women!). However, Muslim WOMEN are forbidden to marry a non-Muslim — and in any event, require the permission of their guardian to marry.Also, in Roman Catholicism, while a Catholic’s spouse need not be Catholic or Christian (indeed, may even be e.g. openly atheist) they must agree to raise any children of the marriage as Catholic.

  • ama

    Aren’t interfaith marriages involving Jews and Christians unfair to the children, as it requires the children (once they are old enough) to choose between the conflicting religions of their parents, or reject both?

  • Ian

    Ama,

  • victoria

    DAVID- that is true- but the wife is not overly religious and welcomes muslim instruction for future children.also, im still not convinced that the condition of women not marrying out of the muslim faith did not only apply to that particular political situation- i was having an interesting dialogue about this withmuslim women do NOT require the permission of their guardian to marry.period

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  • Verse Infinitum

    It’s a great achievement for Islamic leaders and scholars as well as Newsweek and the Washington post to present this imperative opportunity for inter cultural and global philosophical dialogue. What’s important is that by exchanging our ideas and comments regarding inter religious relations and world events that affect our views of each other as fellow human beings. Since the advent of humanity, We strove to make sense of the world we live in and the lives we’ve experienced. Worldwide curiosities to learn the true nature of life and our universe is an exceptionally rare virtue upon life on Earth. In other words, we’re the only known species on the planet who’ve pursued to unravel these great mysteries and developed written philosophies based upon our understanding of the world around us.

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