Interfaith marriage is one of the most persistent spiritual realities and challenges of our time. As a rabbi who has officiated at interfaith ceremonies for over 37 years I have watched as the rate of intermarriage has risen every year so that today more Jews may actually marry non-Jews than Jews and I see no reason to believe that this trend will reverse itself any time soon. I have always considered finding non-judgmental ways of supporting every couple and family, regardless of the religious lifestyle that they choose to create for themselves as one of my most important professional and personal challenges. So as we once again enter the holiday season with its inherent stresses and strains, especially on interfaith families, here are some of the most persistent questions that I am asked each year regarding how to make interfaith marriage work.
1. "Is it important for young children to identify with one religion as opposed to two?"
I believe that religious consistency promotes emotional stability, especially for young children. Children are very flexible and they have no trouble saying, "My mom is one religion and my dad and I are another and we get to celebrate mommy's holidays with her, too." What is most difficult for children is when they are put into a situation where they have to say, "I know what my mommy is and I know what my daddy is but I don't know what I am. So the best decision is usually to give your children an identity to call their own.
2. "Is it confusing or irresponsible to tell a young child that they can make up their own mind about which of their parents' religions they should follow?"
Telling children that they can make up their minds about which religion to be is putting an unfair and emotionally difficult burden on them. All children have the same needs -- to feel that both of their parents love them and will protect them and keep them safe from life's fears. The last thing that children want is to be in a position where they are asked to choose between one parent and another, which is, after all, the primary cause of so many traumas among children during divorces. Asking children to choose one parent's religion over another's puts them in a no-win situation and places an emotionally traumatic burden on them as well. Regardless of how they choose they will inevitably feel that they are betraying one parent or another and thereby risking that parent's love and affection. It's helpful to remember that all of us ultimately have the ability to choose which religion or spiritual tradition we will follow or embrace when we become adults anyway and literally millions of people throughout the world do in fact change from one religious tradition to another every year regardless of how they were raised. A parent's job is to provide every child with the most stable, loving, nurturing, safe emotional environment in which to grow up that they can. My best advice is to raise your children in a consistent religious tradition, whatever that may be so that they will have a sound, emotionally secure religious identity out of which they can make decisions for themselves as they grow older and meet others from different religious traditions.
3. "Should major holidays of both religions be celebrated or is it overwhelming for children to be exposed to too many different religious practices and holidays?"
The challenge of an interfaith marriage is to create harmony out of differences, mutual respect and love in the midst of ambiguity and paradox. The challenge is to learn to see differences as opportunities and gifts from which each in the couple can learn and which can add richness and diversity to your children's lives as well. When couples can learn to see holidays through the eyes of their partners and not only through the lens of their own upbringing they can enrich their own lives and give their children the tools with which to experience different religious traditions in an open and nonjudgmental way. Children who grow up in interfaith families have a right to love and respect and cherish all of their relatives regardless of their individual religious traditions. That is why interfaith parents have a particular responsibility to teach not merely tolerance but nonjudgmental acceptance of the idea that there are many different legitimate paths to experiencing the sacred in our lives. It is important to teach your children that no one religion is the "right" religion with all the others wrong. After all, if that were the case then most people in the world would always be wrong. Here is where I believe that interfaith families above all others have an opportunity to experience and teach the lessons of inclusion and acceptance of differences. Children can still feel a strong sense of identification with one specific religion or the religious tradition of one parent and at the same time enjoy celebrating holidays, customs, and traditions of the other without fear of confusion.
4. "What is the most important advice you can give to interfaith couples?"
In my experience with interfaith families over the years I have learned the simple lesson that when parents are confused kids are confused and when parents are not confused kids are not confused. It is helpful for parents to agree upon the religious identity of their children and to work together to reinforce that identity. At the same time every successful relationship, whether same-faith or inter-faith is a partnership. When parents make decisions together as partners then regardless of which specific decision they might make, their children will receive consistent messages and the emotional stability that such messages invariably create. Only when couples establish what is important to them together will they be able to successfully pass those values down to their children. When parents cannot agree upon how or what to celebrate in their home or even the religious identity of their children they are running the risk of communicating that same ambiguity and spiritual insecurity to their children as well.
Ultimately interfaith couples have both the opportunity and responsibility of creating their own unique religious lifestyle together which requires patience, tolerance, flexibility and an openness to experiencing life in a different way from which they were raised. There is something wonderful about nurturing an attitude of experimentation and openness to new experiences and customs that can allow both parents and children to see themselves as partners on a lifelong journey of spiritual self-discovery. Ultimately one person in each couple will inevitably take the lead in creating the religious celebrations and experiences of the family, but the most successful interfaith families are those in which both partners are willing to share the experiences together and find a way to create a stable and consistent sense of religious identity for their children.