I’m Jewish, he’s an atheist: Intermarriage, and what I have to leave behind

Guest post by RobberBaroness
Remember when Tara and Tayo jumped the broom and smashed the glass? Photo by Amy Ann Photography.
Remember when Tara and Tayo jumped the broom and smashed the glass? Photo by Amy Ann Photography.

Intermarriage wasn't supposed to be something that I'd ever have to deal with. I'm the daughter of a rabbi and a cantor (and the stepdaughter of yet another rabbi!), sent to Jewish day school as a child, raised Conservative, and while I'm unsure about my personal beliefs, my identity as a Jew has always and will always be super important to me. I've been to weddings my father officiated, listened to him explain how stamping on the glass is a reminder not only of the destruction of the temple but of the constant work we need to do in a marriage, and even sang Sunrise, Sunset in the chorus of my own temple's Fiddler on the Roof production.

Just my luck the love of my life turned out to be an atheist…

He's a friendly atheist with a deep appreciation for the aesthetics of ritual and religion, and my family has been fine with our relationship. He even considered conversion for a while, before deciding it would be spiritually dishonest to profess faith in anything, as much as he loved Judaism's culture of intellectualism and constant questioning. Any religion I want in our wedding is okay by him, but it will still be an interfaith wedding.

Which means, of course, that it can't be Conservative. The denomination I was raised in will not perform intermarriages.

While some Jews find this horribly unfair, I actually don't. I totally get it. Judaism in general (Conservative Judaism especially) is dwindling, and children of intermarriages tend not to become Jews. More than that, in order for a Jewish ceremony to actually mean something, Judaism should be part of the couple's life. It's great when religious Jews marry religious Jews because something special and holy will be a shared part of their lives, inform their values and help them grow together.

I get it. The prohibition against Conservative rabbis even attending intermarriages is less reasonable to me (and some family friends will be skipping our ceremony due to this), but overall I get it.

It still means I'm leaving behind the way I was raised, and the denomination that I feel the most connection to. (As the joke goes, I may not go to shul often, but the shul I don't go to is Conservative!) I'm speaking right now to several Reform and Renewal rabbis and cantors (Reform clergy will perform intermarriages where the children are promised to be raised Jewish, and Renewal clergy get to make up their minds — which all clergy do to some extent, anyway).

My wedding will be spiritually appropriate to a questioning couple with doubts about eternity but a love for culture, and a belief that transcendence is possible. I will be just as Jewish and my husband will be just as supportive and engaging in that Jewish tradition as ever.

It still means other-ing myself from my family. And that's never easy.

How have our other interfaith couples handled this often sticky religious issue with each other and your families?

Comments on I’m Jewish, he’s an atheist: Intermarriage, and what I have to leave behind

  1. I’m having an interfaith wedding. I’m a Pagan, he’s a Christian. There are some pretty conservative Christians in the family and I don’t know how well the Pagan half of the ceremony will be taken.

    We’re booking a celebrant who is familiar with interfaith weddings so she will explain the bits of the ceremony as they happen so people can understand what’s going on. But I don’t know if that will be enough for people who aren’t tolerant of paganism.

  2. Duuuuude. I’m a Jew-ish (emphasis on the “ish”) gal marrying an atheist, too! Just giving a shout out 🙂

  3. I’m Wiccan or I straight up like to call it, I’m a Witch he’s agnostic. We were both raised conservative Christian and both of us have lost friends and I have lost my family (blood wise) for believing what I do.

    And yet we are not having a public handfasting or traditional cermony.

    Here’s why. We don’t believe it is our job to put our marriage, life, family, or even our future children into a spiritual mold that has to be filled a certain way. It is more important to us that all of these things are completely open to all spiritual experiences so that we may grow as people. And really love all people. Our wedding will not being a “showing” of faith. Rather a celebration of who we are, there will be nodes towards what I believe and aspects of our Norwegian tradition, but we don’t want to smother anyone. We will have our own private “ritual” of marriage on our honey moon.

    • I get what you’re saying about it not being a showing of faith for you. That’s cool.
      For me, it wouldn’t feel like my wedding day without the religious bit.

      I’m going to get my partner to “pre-warn” and prepare people who might not like it in his family and I’ll do the same with mine. They can choose whether to come to the ceremony.

    • As a pagan, planning a wedding with my no belief partner, there is no way I couldn’t incorporate pagan ritual in my wedding. My spirituality is as much part of me breathing, and it wouldn’t feel right without these elements. Luckily, as long as I don’t make us do anything too funky, my man is perfectly cool with this 🙂 I couldn’t care less what the people coming along think, or if it makes them uncomfortable, as it’ll be one of the most important rituals of my life! So its great your plan is to have a separate ritual, I hope its just as special for you 🙂

      • Like I said. There will be aspects of wicca in our wedding. I love some of the handfasting vows. But I have never wanted a flashy handfasting or strictly pagan cermony, however we look forward to the ritual of our own we will be doing just for us two, no people middle of the redwoods, with nothing but the goddess and us along with ancient trees. That makes us happy 🙂

  4. Been in an interfaith marriage for two years now. I’m Christian, my spouse is Jewish. I’m actively involved in my church, and I find Judaism extremely interesting and love our family’s home practice in both religions’ holidays and rituals.

    We live in the heartland, so there are no rabbis in not-needing-to-fly distance that are willing to participate in interfaith weddings. The responses we received from our inquiries to Jewish clergy were all kindly meant, but some of their words were very hurtful. (“Just so you know, I don’t think you’re bad people” was one of the more memorable.) I was offended by clergy who refused to participate in our wedding and in the next breath urged us to raise any children in Judaism. I was indignant on behalf of my spouse, who always wanted to have a Jewish wedding, indignant that they would deny someone who loves Judaism so much this important life-cycle moment within his own culture and religion.

    My pastor joyfully performed an interfaith ceremony, and it was wonderful. Exactly what we wanted. But I have to admit, I still feel gunshy trying to engage with Jewish community. I’m trying to move past bitterness into forgiveness, but I’m still struggling.

    • maaaaaaan. As a future rabbi, and daughter of an interfaith marriage myself, I want to give all of those rabbis a stern talking to. Like, SERIOUSLY stern. It’s our job (in my opinion) to help a couple towards finding a meaningful way to integrate Judaism into their future lives and family together. That starts with being open to performing a wedding.

  5. I sometimes refer to myself as a mudblood (thanks Harry Potter, which I’ve never actually read). My father was Jewish, my mother was Methodist, and she converted in a reform synagogue to marry my father. They raised me and my sister in a Conservative synagogue and we each had a Mikvah for good measure. But my street cred as a Jew was always in question.

    My first wedding was performed by a Lutheran minister, but we used my father’s tallis and my (now ex) mother in law’s garden trellis to form a chuppah. I taught my protestant farm boy (ex) husband a few phrases in Hebrew, and we broke a glass together.

    My next wedding will be decidedly less religious. I’m marrying an ex-Catholic turned pagan, and I’m an atheist. I still consider myself a Jew – ethically, culturally, heritage-ly Jewish – but I have no idea how to incorporate this into our wedding, or even if I need to.

    • just so you know, JK Rowling did not invent the term mudblood. it is a racist term that was used to describe “undesirables” during WWII such as Jews, Gypsies, and other people who would end up in concentration camps. Some people would be extremely offended to be referred to in that way, or to hear a flippant use of that term.

      • Interesting! I did a pretty extensive study of WWII, including some in depth papers on German eugenics and never saw ‘mudblood’ in use. I’d love to hear more about its pre-Rowling history and a cursory search is only turning up Rowling references. Do you have any sources I could use?

      • Do you have a link, because I’d love to learn more. I certainly hope my use didn’t come across as flippant, since I was referring to myself and the very real ostracism and bullying I’ve faced from Jews of “purer” heritage than me.

        • She is probably referring to the German word “Mischling” which literally translates as “mutt” like a mixed breed dog. It could be viewed as being equivalent to the term “mudblood” but I am not aware of any literal use of the term or a commonly used direct translation from the Nazi era.

    • Check out Secular Humanistic Judaism – we are the kind of Jewish you describe, and have 50 years of experience celebrating weddings, creating community, etc. You might find a sympathetic and talented officiant for your ceremony through the Association of Humanistic Rabbis (www.humanisticrabbis.org) or the Graduates of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (http://iishj.org/about-alumni.html). And mazel tov!

      • We were married by a secular humanist rabbi, and it was incredible. I am Jewish, the husband is atheist, and our Rabbi just totally “got us”. The ceremony was perfect, and frankly, I WISH I lived near his synagogue, because I would love to become a member (we got married across the country from home, we picked a rabbi in our wedding town and got to know each other via Skype. We were able to build an amazing ceremony the centered on equality and strength as a couple and as independents, and not even the oldest, most traditional Jews in the crowd caught on enough to comment on the simple fact that there was no mention of God anywhere in our ceremony.

        We also signed a Ketubah with secular humanist text.

  6. THANK YOU for posting this! In my own inter-faith relationship, I’ve been hard-pressed to find advice or wisdom I could take seriously. I’m a Christian, and serious about it (like, ‘future-pastor’ serious), and my partner is in the same boat as yours–interested, supportive, but too honest to pretend that he can believe it. I wrote the ceremony myself, and our Lutheran pastor will perform it; it’s decidedly Christian, but in an accessible way. Because we’re getting married on a farm (more accessible than a church to his family) we’re incorporating a lot of language about planting seeds and nourishing them, and ‘bearing fruit’ by living well in the world. We’re asking all of our guests to bless us with a ‘prayer, blessing or wish.’ I definitely had to exercise restraint; some rituals and language that are important to me would make his family feel really weird, and wouldn’t be very honest for him either. I hear you. It’s hard. For me, the most important thing to remember is that my relationship with God and my relationship with my partner are not in competition; they are complementary. They each help me love the other better. And that it is a beautiful thing to be surprised by love.

    • I’m in the same situation as you. But I’m struggling, really struggling. My entire life I’ve been taught not to marry a non-believer. I’ve read the books, seen the evidence, felt so sad for the women who attended church without their husbands.

      I can’t help but feel that I’m doing the stupid thing by marrying a non-Christian. Even though he and I suit each other so well.

      • I know exactly how you feel. I was raised in a fundamental conservative Baptist church (cant get any more serious than that lol) and growing up, we were always taught not to be “unequally yolked.” That a believer cannot marry a non-believer.

        Growing up, I understood what they were saying but since my father didn’t attend church with my mother for such a long time, I grew up used to that. I had family that were catholics and I had other family that just stopped going to church and backslid, so to speak. So I saw all sorts of situations going on.

        I don’t understand to the full extent since my fiancé was raised Catholic and still identifies as Catholic, even though when he does attend church, pray, or even talk about faith it relates more to the non-denominational faith that I practice. So we both believe and have faith in the same God. Yet, there are people I know who would still see this as wrong since he was a Catholic. I was raised in private schooling, I also attended public schooling, and I’ve traveled to different countries so I see my faith differently than most would.

        What I have told people is this: I have prayed and prayed a lot about marrying him and God has given me a peace about it. I don’t feel any doubts or worries because I know God has brought us together. Love does not live in a box, we put it in a box with all sorts of boundaries.

      • You’ve got my prayers, and my empathy! One thing that really helped me on this front is reading 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul talks about the contentious issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. Essentially, he says that there’s no one right way to go–each person has to prayerfully follow their own sense of God’s call. If there’s a question that we’re uncertain on, we can apply all of our best wisdom and prayer, and then make a choice to do what seems faithful to us. And when someone does something that’s different than what we have chosen, but do it in their best attempt at being faithful, we have the job to support their efforts to follow God, rather than to tear them down.
        Another important thing for me was the moment when I realized what I was afraid of. I was afraid that if I married this man, I would lose God’s love and be a ‘bad Christian.’ Sister, I’m here to tell you that if that’s what you’re afraid of, it’s a LIE! There is nothing you can do to count yourself out of God’s story. We all have to make choices the best way we know how, and then have faith that God will use us in a beautiful way just how we are. So make your choice in joy and in confidence, whatever it is–don’t make it in fear. You are loved by the God of the universe, and that is not going to change, no matter WHAT you do. I’m praying for you!

      • I know the feeling. I actually broke up with my fiancee because of that once – I’m a die-hard Christian (loosely Seventh-Day Adventist), and he’s an agnostic. At the time, though, he was going through a bit of a more militant atheist phase, and I while I believe everyone is on their own journey and can live with that, I can’t handle people actively bashing my dearly-held beliefs, pretending like my experiences aren’t real, or not defending me sufficiently when I’m under verbal attack over my beliefs. So I broke it off with him.

        But y’know what? I still loved him, & he still loved me. We ended up getting back together 2 years later, but not before we had a really serious talk about the place of faith in my life & in our relationship. He promised to be more supportive & open-minded, and apologized for going off the rails… he actually seemed a little embarrassed about the whole thing (he’s normally a very open-minded and mild person). And you know, I feel pretty good about it 🙂 We still get a few comments of concern here & there, but mostly people are good about it, cos they know he’s a good guy who lives a lifestyle that’s not far off from what most of us in my church do. And my pastor has said he’s seen interfaith marriages work before, & that respect and open-mindedness are the most important things. So yeah, feeling pretty good about it 🙂

        The flip side of this is that especially in our world, nothing is guaranteed. I know one Christian couple who had been married for 20 years and then the husband de-converted & is now a rather die-hard atheist. So, I guess marrying another Christian in that situation didn’t really matter much to some extent… you never know when a person will change their mind. So why try to plan for that?

        So basically, I think if he’s a good match for you, is willing to be respectful of your beliefs, and you agree on a lot of moral issues (something that’s important regardless of religion), and if you can handle not being on the same page sometimes, then go for it. That said, if you think his lack of belief will drag you back in your own faith in any way… then I’d give it another look before continuing with the wedding.

  7. I’ve also dealt with a certain amount of un-welcome-ness being an atheist marrying a Jewish man. I’m sure the children will face a certain amount of intra-Jewish prejudice (a reality I was totally unaware of prior to exploring this whole ‘intermarriage’ thing). I was ranting about how maybe more people would want to be active in the Jewish community if the Jewish community were more welcoming to the non-Jewish partner; especially us atheists! I don’t even have a religious belief to be “inter”-whatevered with! The only religion the kids will get will get will be Jewish! Gah! We’re tentatively approaching the one Reconstructionist group in town, but the looks I got were all sorts of unsettling. (Does not help that I’m your standard-issue tall, blonde Scandinavian type. I get it; it’s just unsettling for me.) I’m totally willing to be all the supportive there is, and then finding the essays written by rabbis who feel that it’s worse for Mr. Star to be marrying me to be the most terrible thing out there….it’s frustrating. I’d consider converting if I could convert straight from Gentile atheism to Jewish atheism. Is that a thing? That should be a thing. Anyway, I’m glad there’s other people who’re in the same boat; empathy’s always nicer than sympathy. 😀

    • I feel you! I’m Jewish and will my marrying an atheist. Judaism will be the only religion in the household, but we still face discrimination. This is the first time in Jewish history that Jews have married non-Jews in such high numbers, and everyone is extremely suspicious, even scared. But they have to accept us – the Jewish community will grow to include us, because although many Jews believe our families will fade into gentile society, we know we won’t 🙂

      • I *do* get an amount of where they’re coming from as well; I mean, Jew-Gentile relations don’t have the most startlingly brilliant history, or anything, and your modern skinheads don’t really help at all. Googling ‘nipster’ just makes me ten *more* kinds of angry and sad. And even more determined to be totally supportive of all (as he puts it) the nagilas he possibly could hava.

        (It’s a terrible joke, I know.)

    • Definitely see if you have a community affiliated with Secular Humanistic Judaism in your area – they welcome and celebrate people living a secular lifestyle who are connected to Jewish culture and peoplehood. In other words, families and couples just like what you’ve described! Contact information available at http://www.shj.org or http://www.csjo.org.

    • Where are you located, if you don’t mind my asking? Because I’ll be ordained Reconstructionist in a few years and I’m honestly shocked that you’ve been receiving a less than gracious welcome (not that I’m doubting your story at all). Our movement has been fully open to interfaith families for decades now and I think I’ve maybe met one or two Reconstructionist rabbis in my life who refuse to perform intermarriages. In fact, many of us younger seminarians are the products of interfaith marriages ourselves. All I can hope is that as this younger crop of seminarians graduate, experiences like yours become less and less common.

  8. Posts like this strike home with me, because I’m currently in an interfaith relationship. We’re very serious about each other having dated for many years, but I’m Christian and he’s…not. He doesn’t really have any religious beliefs, having not grown up in a spiritual or religious family and for the most part it’s never an issue. But as we become more serious about our relationship and the potential for marriage I find myself wondering what I’m doing. Like the author this was never the plan. I am/was supposed to marry a good, conservative christian man, with all the blessings of our families and churches. It’s such a departure, and I love reading about the intermarriages, because it’s just a strange road for me. This article sort of encompasses some of my feelings of change and shift in my viewpoints about marriage and religion. Thank you!

    • I know what you’re going through. I was raised Baptist & always thought I’d marry another Baptist. As fate would have it, I’m madly in love with an unofficial atheist (He’s told very few people about his true feelings on religion because his family is highly religious.) and we’re getting married in a few months. I’m glad there’s so many other people that are going through similar things. Loving someone of a different faith/non-faith is definitely an interesting situation. If you love each other, that’s all that matters. There will be family & religious officials that may not understand why you couldn’t fall for a good (insert faith here) boy but in the end, all that matters is that you’re in love and are happy. The rest will work itself out in the end.

      • This is a lovely sentiment, but I’d really recommend having a talk about child-rearing before you make a commitment to someone without faith or of a different faith. I think people tend to assume that children should be raised with some kind of organized religion, whatever the parents’ personal beliefs, or that the mother will make all the decisions regarding the children’s spiritual education, but your partner may not be OK with either of those. It’s easy to ignore your partner’s faith (or lack thereof) as long as it doesn’t really have any repercussions, but I think before you have kids, you and your partner really need to think about how important these things are to you.

        I’m a culturally Christian atheist who’s dated guys of a variety of religious backgrounds — Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu. I have no problem with the idea of raising my kids with a different culture (as long as some of mine is passed along too!), but I would not want to send my kids to church or raise them believing in any religion. That has been a surprise to more than one guy I’ve dated, as they assume kids have to be raised with some kind of religion, so it’s definitely something I’d discuss before getting serious with anyone.

    • Sister, it sure is a journey! I wish that I could give any advice, other than ‘pray hard.’ Well, and ask the wise people you know what they think about your real-life relationship. Many in my family and faith community were so cautionary at first–but as they got to know my honeybee, many of them came to the same conclusion as me: that he is GOOD for my faith, not bad for it, and that he’s a man who reflects God in a powerful way, even as a non-Christian. People who love you honestly will be able to look beyond the ‘love is blind’ state to tell you if your relationship is pointing you towards or away from God’s love. One thing: you don’t have to believe it when people tell you “it’s no big deal” or “do whatever you want, as long as you’re happy…” In my experience, it IS a big deal. It was at times a hard decision, and came with lots of tearful prayer (and subsequent spiritual growth!). I feel confident I made the right choice in my circumstance, but I would never say that my decision would be right for others without knowing them well. God bless you, sister!

  9. “It still means other-ing myself from my family. And that’s never easy.”

    Such a powerful statement that I could totally resonate with.

  10. Thank you for this powerful and poignant essay. There are some Reform rabbis who no longer make demands about how the children will be raised–they realize it is not really possible to extract such a promise, given that people change over time in terms of their beliefs and practices. Also, there are interfaith communities (especially in New York, Chicago, and Washington) formed on the idea of complete acceptance of interfaith families, equal respect for both partners, and interfaith education for children. You might want to check out my blog (onbeingboth.com) and book (Being Both) on this topic.

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