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.