Interfaith Relationships: A Buddhist Take

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment he was a confused twenty or thirty-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual life. Each time in this column we look at what it might be like if a fictional Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? "What Would Sid Do?" is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

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My boyfriend -- who is Jewish -- recently told me that no matter what, his parents will not be happy unless he marries a Jewish girl. While marriage is not coming up tomorrow, we do love each other, and I intended on letting this relationship grow naturally. Now I feel like I am stuck until he talks to his parents and asks them "What would happen if I fell for a non-Jewish girl?" I feel like no matter what I do or who I am -- this one thing prevents us from being together. I am not against Jewish traditions, holidays or weddings. Sigh... help? - JD

JD - It sounds like you are an open-minded individual and, chances are, your partner is too. I have some good news: if you two are content with one another and your relationship, I'm guessing this will have a happy ending regardless of what your boyfriend's parents have to say.

You did not get into this relationship to make your boyfriend's parents happy. As things progress along the way, that notion need not change. No matter how close both of you are to your parents, your romantic life is your own and is based in your happiness, not the happiness of friends or family.

I am saddened to hear that even in today's world, there is still blanket discrimination when it comes to inter-faith relationships. I hope that your lover's parents get to meet you and experience you as a fellow human being, one that makes their son happy, as opposed to just some shiksa. I hate to second-guess your boyfriend but I'm guessing that if they meet you and see what a great partner you are to their child, his parents will relax a great deal.

In the worst case scenario, they refuse to acknowledge you as a positive force in your boyfriend's life. In that case, I imagine our friend Sid would ask you to be gentle with yourself and see their misguided opinions for just that: confusion. You can hold them in your heart with compassion, as opposed to fear or anger and recognize that their confusion has no real basis on your happiness. They may disapprove of you, but their primary motivation is that they want to be happy, just like you.

Further good news is that more often than not, parents will be happy because their kid is happy. I'm relatively confident that no one turns out exactly as their parents envision. Raising a child is a constant game of rearranging your fixed expectations of what this being you gave birth to should be. The more parents are able to relax their grip on set expectations, carefully managing the rollercoaster of hope and fear, the more they can accept their child and that child's decisions with an open heart and mind.

So here is what I imagine our fictional friend Sid would recommend: Don't look to external factors for trouble, because you will find it. Instead, learn to be content within your relationship. Learn to be content with what is going on Right Now, not what may be coming up in a few years time. You can cross the "should we get married" bridge when you come to it. When that time rolls around you are likely to be stronger as a couple.

In the meantime, there's no harm in exploring what one another's religious traditions mean to you. Having open and honest conversations about why you like certain holidays or religious practices allows you to further understand what you will want as an inter-faith couple, as opposed to what is expected of you by others.

From that strong foundation of open communication and exploration you two can figure out what sort of spiritual life you want to build together. You can make compromises so that each of you feels that the other's tradition is being respected and valued. You can even take part in one another's spiritual lives, learning more about this intimate aspect of your partner's well-being.

While raised Buddhist, in recent years I have been attending temple and seders with my fiancé. I have been exposed to teachings that I would not have heard otherwise that have caused me to pause and think differently. These explorations have given me insight into the beauty of another tradition and simultaneously strengthened my understanding of my own faith.

There is so much growth that can happen within the container of an inter-faith relationship. There is no need to let external pressure make you feel any less content than you currently do. Enjoy your time together, get to know one another, and screw the haters. In all seriousness, hold the haters in your heart with compassion, and hopefully they will come around to see you as the kind and loving person you are. Good luck!