If you are Jewish, have you ever thought about what it would be like to be married to a Christian? If you are Christian, have you thought about what it would be like to be married to a Jew? Of course, many of you reading this have done more than think about it. For couples and families involved in Messianic Judaism the issues come together often in nice ways. For couples and families not involved in Messianic Judaism, how do things work out?
Although I will speak of formulas, I don’t mean in any way that people, complex relationships, or feelings can be reduced to formulas. But I do mean that general patterns emerge that can help us think about intermarriage.
And this subject is not just for intermarrieds or their children to be interested in. Even if you are not intermarried, chances are you have friends who are.
In early January I was in Palm Springs with other leaders in the UMJC (umjc.net) for a retreat whose topic was intermarried families. We were all given a book, Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage by Jane Kaplan. The thoughts that follow come from a little reading of these sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully realistic stories (they are real) and also from my own experience with intermarrieds as a Messianic Jewish congregational leader.
One story in particular moved me, a story about a strong Christian who married an indifferent Jew. The formula for this story might look like this:
Strong Christian + Indifferent Jew = loneliness, a guilty Jewish parent, kids worried that their dad will not be in the world to come, an assimilated family
What I mean is this. The wife, in this case, is the strong Christian. She thought faith didn’t matter when she got married, but her commitment to Jesus has grown since the wedding day. She now finds herself now after many years of marriage feeling lonely. The most meaningful thing in her life is her relationship with God through Jesus, and her husband does not share any part of it. She says:
I think that, for me, the hardest part has been the loneliness. . . . There is this one couple I know from our church. They are so strong in their faith, and they have devotions together and they pray together. I would love to have that with my husband, but I don’t. I am always attending Bible studies where couples attend, but I am by myself.
The husband, meanwhile, is an indifferent Jew. So it might seem that his Jewishness does not haunt him in any way as he looks at his Christian wife and children. Yet even an indifferent Jew has a connection to Hashem and a longing that comes out from time to time.
Occasionally he feels guilty and attends temple. He takes Jewish holidays off from work though he does not keep them. Why? Because he doesn’t want people at work to think he doesn’t care about being Jewish. And after attending a relative’s Bar Mitzvah celebration, he reconnected with childhood memories: the melodies of the prayers, the feeling of a synagogue community. Afterwards he felt bad and even made some donations to a temple in his area. His wife described his melancholy as disappointment with himself.
If this weren’t all poignant enough — a lonely Christian wife and an abashed Jewish husband — what also touched me about the story is the unspoken tragedy of ignorance from the Christian side. Here is a Christian woman, married to a Jewish man knowing his feeling of loss and disappointment. And she reads the same Bible that speaks of Abraham and God’s covenant with Israel. And she belongs to a church that should know better. But the church too often has a blind spot when it comes to Jewish matters. Why did it not occur to this woman or her pastor to encourage Jewish practice in the home? Where is Messianic Judaism as an option for this family?
What would happen if Jesus himself gave this couple one session of marriage counseling?
Aside from the poignancy of the story, there are also many familiar cliches, as common as air to those who are intermarried and know intermarrieds:
–The omnipresent statement of good intentions: “We’ll teach them both religions and let them decide when they are older.”
–The Christian spouse speaking to the pastor who is well-meaning but clueless about Jewish identity, “What are you going to do when you have kids? Will you be bringing them to church?”
–The Christian children who try to get their dad “saved”: “The conflict for our children is that they are always wanting Richard to become a Christian.”
The whole story, for me, is tragic. I so wish I knew this couple and could at least try to help the Christian spouse understand and the Jewish spouse return to his Jewish identity with enthusiasm. There is no reason for this marriage to be sad and defeated.
Of course, there are other formulas besides Strong Christian + Indifferent Jew. Here are just a few examples and maybe I will reflect on some others in the future:
Strong Jew + Strong Christian = not likely to get married . . . (unless the Strong Jew becomes Messianic)
Indifferent Jew + Indifferent Christian = interfaithless marriage
Indifferent Jew + Indifferent Christian + Strong Jewish In-Laws = (see below, “Strong Jew + Indifferent Christian”)
Indifferent Jew + Indifferent Christian + Strong Christian In-Laws = (see above, “Strong Christian + Indifferent Jew”)
Indifferent Jew + Indifferent Christian + Strong Jewish and Strong Christian In-Laws = trouble!
Strong Jew + Indifferent Christian = often a half-hearted conversion of the Christian spouse, a guilty Christian parent, a one-sided Jewish upbringing (but sometimes things like Christmas trees sneak back into the home), if the Indifferent Christian is the wife she ironically will do most of the Jewish education of the children
People are not formulas, I know. And many do not fit the formulas I am laying out broadly.
But this intermarriage thing takes work. It also calls for a maturing of both the Jewish and Christian communities, to stop viewing the other as the enemy and to wake up to mutual values. Both communities have a lot in common, which is one of the fulfilling things about Messianic Jewish life.