“When it comes to interfaith relationships, if your partner is committed to having a Jewish home and raising your children Jewish, but won’t be converting, is that enough?”
This is a really important question, and I suspect it is a question that many young Jewish adults are asking today. The trickiest part of this question is the last bit: “Is that enough?”
Maybe a better way to say it is: “Is that enough for whom/for what?”
What you and your partner might deem “enough” may not be the same as what your parents, your rabbi, or the rabbi of a movement different than the one you affiliate/identify with deem to be “enough.”
Since I am a Reform rabbi, I’m going to answer you from that perspective, but I want to emphasize that ultimately you and your partner have to figure out what is or isn’t “enough” for your family. (Is it important to you to factor in the hopes/expectations of your parents, grandparents, in-laws, congregation, etc.?) I can’t decide what “Jewish enough” means to you and your family (and, if I’m being honest, I’m not a big fan of this language to begin with), but I can encourage you to think through the role that Judaism plays in your lives by helping you to reframe the question:
“Will rabbis and/or Jewish communities accept us as a Jewish family if one partner/parent is not Jewish (but the home and the children are)?”
Generally speaking, in Reform communities you will find many interfaith families where one partner is not Jewish but is committed to raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. These families are welcome and full participants in their Reform Jewish communities. More and more Reform rabbis (myself included) are using this as a key piece of the criteria that determines whether or not we will officiate at an interfaith wedding ceremony. Rabbis, like me, who will marry a couple if they are committed to raising Jewish children in a Jewish household but will not marry a couple who can’t or won’t make such a commitment, are essentially sending the message that the commitment to raise Jewish children in a Jewish home is “enough.”
That said, I want to be clear that “enough” in the context I just described should be used as the starting point and not as the end to what I hope is a life-long discussion. In other words, while these criteria may be “enough” for determining whether or not I would officiate at your wedding, and while all interfaith couples, regardless of how they raise their children, are welcome to participate in my congregation (to varying degrees), I would sincerely hope that as you and your family grow together, Judaism would become more and more a part of all of your lives, and that you would never stop engaging with the questions such as the one asked. I wish that for all members of the Jewish community, whether they were born Jewish, whether they chose Judaism later in life, or whether they are a non-Jewish member of a Jewish family.
Beyond that, though, as a rabbi, I would love to have a conversation with your partner about conversion and at least make sure that he or she knows they are invited to consider conversion, and to speak with me about it at any time. It’s an open invitation with no expiry date.
Finally, I think it’s important that you and your partner be aware that even if you, your family, and your chosen rabbi/congregation are comfortable with what you’re defining as “enough,” there will be other rabbis and other Jewish communities that will disagree. It’s important that you and your partner think through the potential outcomes of the decisions you are making because the “status” or “Jewish identity” of your children could be viewed differently by different communities, especially if the non-Jewish partner is the mother.
Traditional Jewish law deems the child of a non-Jewish mother to be non-Jewish, regardless of how he or she is raised, unless they enter the Jewish people through a process of (traditional/Orthodox) conversion. With that said, there will be Jewish communities who will not accept your children as Jewish. It’s possible that this does not matter to your family and might never matter to your child. But it’s also possible that your child will one day want to join a more traditional Jewish community or marry someone who is part of a more traditional Jewish community, and in such cases, his or her “status” could prevent him or her from doing so, or at the very least make it difficult and uncomfortable.
What I tell couples who come to me with such questions is that ultimately, they need to do what is comfortable for them and what is in keeping with their own denominational affiliations or ideologies, but I do think it’s important to be aware, and to make sure your children (when they are old enough) are aware, of how those decisions impact them and of the options available to them if they want to make different decisions when they are old enough to make such choices. I also urge them, if it does seem to matter to them that their children be accepted as Jewish in as many Jewish communities as possible (rather than in Reform Jewish communities only), to consider or reconsider conversion. It is the best way to maximize the number of Jewish communities who will fully accept your children as Jews (at least in the liberal and Conservative branches of Judaism).
But back to the question of “enough.” It is also possible that what you are trying to ask is, “Will the decision to have a Jewish household be enough in terms of solidifying a strong Jewish identity for our family and our children?”
To this, I would answer “no.” The decision to have a Jewish home is a great start but I would strongly encourage you to do (at least) two other things: 1) make a commitment to Jewish community: As a family, you should join a Jewish synagogue/community, and everyone in your family should participate in that community regularly (not just the Jewish members of the family); 2) make a commitment to Jewish education: Both the Jewish and non-Jewish parents should be actively committed to this pursuit. The non-Jewish parent should take, as a minimum, an introductory level course/class in Judaism, and both parents should ensure that they are learning along with (or just ahead of) their kids throughout their children’s Jewish education. These two steps will enhance your Jewish lives and strengthen the Jewish identity of your whole family, and they will also go a long way toward confirming your commitment to Judaism, should anyone question it.
If you have done the hard work answering these questions and making the commitments that come along with them, then I would say that you most certainly have done “enough” for now.
InterfaithFamily has articles, tips and other resources for interfaith couples raising Jewish children, and so much more.
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