It’s a beautiful thing when two people decide to get married: they meet, become friends, share experiences, become intimate, consider their future together, and finally agree to intertwine their lives in a bond recognized by the world around them as special. Something in one completes the other, while they remain two individuals with their own thoughts, ideals, values, interests, which bring color and diversity to their relationship. When we see a happy couple together in love, it gives us hope that there can be a brighter tomorrow.
So why do we typically label a couple from disparate religious upbringings as “interfaith” and their marriage as “intermarriage”? It brings sharp focus on one difference between two people—that of their faith and culture—and dismisses the fact that every couple has differences. People are typically not so narcissistic as to marry a clone of themselves (whether same or opposite gendered), so there will invariably be differences as well as the commonalities that draw them together.
Although it might be true to describe such a couple as being “interfaith,” is it not similarly true to describe a couple in which one partner is a Republican and the other a Democrat to be “inter-party”? Is a match between an introvert and the other an extrovert “inter-personalitied”? We don’t use such labels for obvious reasons: Opposites attract, and such differences do not impede their relationship.
The heart of the matter is this: When two committed human beings decide to bond their lives together in the eyes of the law, it is a human decision—one of the heart, the mind, and the spirit. As a society, we should look at the decision as meaningful, thoughtful, and reasoned. When we give such a marriage proposal a label specifically pointing out a perceived flaw or inherent weakness, we undermine two people’s decision to bind their destinies to one another.
Why the focus on faith at the time of marriage? It might seem obvious to clergy folk or the religiously observant, but in the 21st century, with Millennials being less religious than any previous generation, it is not. A young person’s faith and family of origin is a facet of their identity, but not a definition of their identity. Their attitudes towards themselves and the world are more holistic. This allows them to connect with others across class, race, and religion, and to see that which we all have in common, rather than what divides us.
Their attitude scares traditionalists because it inevitably leads to a more homogeneous society, in which definitions are blurred and distinctions erased. Those who grew up in a more stratified society may feel an invalidation of the identities they grew up with, like “Jew,” “Protestant,” or “Muslim,” instead of “Human.” I don’t begrudge them this view for themselves, but trends being as they are, their hold on the future will only continue to erode. Moreover, with doctrinal theologies being supplanted by secularism or humanism (in the void where more liberal religious movements have made little headway), many young couples care much more about the universal values they hold dear from childhood, and hope to synthesize particular cultural or religious elements together into something new and shared in their marriage.
Having said all that, many couples still have a desire to be married by clergy of their birth affiliation, whether because of family pressure or (more frequently, in my experience) a seed of something from their upbringing that speaks to them. The wedding ceremony itself has religious meaning and symbolism across cultures. Getting married by an Elvis impersonator or a Justice of the Peace is fine for some, but many see the solemnization of a wedding performed by an ordained clergy as the “proper” way to do it.
I am a Jewish cantor and have struggled with my position on officiating interfaith weddings. I used to justify my non-officiation at interfaith weddings by looking at statistics of divorce rates of Jewish versus interfaith couples. Yet, my own parents—both Jewish—were divorced during my childhood, and my own marriage to a Jewish spouse ended in divorce. There are no guarantees except for this:
I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding. Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.
When partners of different faiths approach me, I’m much less concerned with their divergent religious backgrounds, and much more concerned with the strength of their relationship, their moral fiber, their commitment to family and friends, and their outlook on the world. I also need to ensure that they have similar views on the role religion plays in their lives and the life of their future family. They should agree about how religiously observant they want to be, and specifically about how they define that observance. This is why I perform premarital counseling before working with them to craft a ceremony that gives a voice to their hearts in a public way.
Although as a cantor, I am well-versed the Jewish wedding rites, I am continually learning from the couples I work with. As I evolve my practices in working with couples from diverse backgrounds—ranging from religiously or culturally aligned with their birth family, to more spiritual, to rational, agnostic, or even atheistic—I have become more open to creative and meaningful approaches to wedding officiation.
I like to make sure both partners feel that they have equal representation in their wedding: I’ve worked with a couple where the groom’s mother was Japanese, and we translated a portion of the rite into Japanese. A British groom used his family’s Scottish quaich (friendship bowl) for one of the two glasses of ceremonial wine. Another groom incorporated his family’s traditional egg nog cup into the wedding rite. A wedding ceremony should be an expression of the future a couple wants to build. That often translates into a synthesis of cultures, values, and experiences that make a couple and their future family stronger and closer.
In the 21st century, instead of our world becoming more universal and whole, technology and the free sharing of ideas had led to more tribalism, more “us versus them,” and more divisiveness on global and local levels. And yet we see that love still can cross boundaries. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Bernstein’s West Side Story might as well have been written today. But such stories do not have to end in tragedy. Instead, we can help two loving souls finding a strong bond between them as a hope for a brighter future.
I want to be a part of that future.