‘Interfaith’ term rings hollow for some Jews

Jodin and Ashley, an interfaith couple, learn to bake challah with InterfaithFamily. Photo courtesy of InterfaithFamily

BOSTON (RNS) — When Rabbi Rachel Saphire was a child, her Jewish mother gave a special spin to the Hanukkah message that acknowledged her family’s two faiths.

Although Saphire’s father was Christian, she was taught that, like the Maccabees who reclaimed the Jerusalem Temple from Syrian-Greeks in the second century B.C., their family would be among “the ones to preserve the (Jewish) tradition, even fighting for it,” Saphire recalls.

Today, however, that spin no longer works for many interfaith families, said Saphire, who is associate rabbi at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass. A Christian father doesn’t need to be thought of as supportive of Jewish life in spite of his different faith.

Speaking recently at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial gathering in Boston on a panel calling interfaith marriage “The New Normal,” Saphire said Jewish communities today are more supportive and inclusive than in previous generations.

How interfaith families are welcomed into the life of a congregation is a critical factor in keeping them connected to Judaism. And the language of this inclusion effort matters to these families, perhaps more than ever, the panelists agreed.

To this end, Jewish leaders and clergy are looking in new ways at how people speak about — and to — interfaith couples and families, hoping to ensure they do not feel like outsiders in congregational life in prayers, traditions and leadership roles. The Reform movement, the largest stream of Judaism in the U.S., with the largest proportion of Jews who marry outside their faith, is taking the lead on the issue.

Start by letting go of the “non-“ prefix, said Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, an organization based in the Boston area that supports interfaith families.

“If you haven’t already stopped using the term ‘non-Jew,’ do it now,” Bromberg told the panel’s audience of congregational leaders and clergy.

No one has landed on an adequate replacement term for “interfaith,” but not for lack of trying. Many don’t consider the term inclusive enough.

April Baskin, the URJ’s vice president of “audacious hospitality,” uses the term “Jewish-and” to refer to Jews who have different racial, cultural or religious aspects to their identities.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, a Conservative rabbi, left the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly last year over his decision to officiate at interfaith weddings — a stance the movement does not support. He like the term “Joy:” a combination of “Jew” and “goy,” the Yiddish word for “nation,” which generally refers to non-Jews.

Lau-Lavie uses “Joy” in weddings he performs at Lab/Shul, his experimental congregation in New York City. In addition to being a clever portmanteau, he argues the term is grounded in Jewish tradition, noting that medieval rabbis had a term for a non-Jew who lives in Jewish communities and accepts the authority of the Torah. Those rabbis called such a person a “ger toshav,” or “resident alien.”

Lau-Lavie maintains that engaging “Joy” couples is crucial as the demographics of American Judaism continue to evolve.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that seven in 10 non-Orthodox Jews who had married since 2000 wed non-Jewish spouses.

“This is not a drop in the ocean,” said Bromberg, “This is the ocean.”

Statistics aside, many people consider their identities to be “fluid,” scholars say.

“The notion that you’re this or you’re that is something that might not last another generation,” said Rabbi Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. “From within the Jewish orbit, we can lament that, or we can actually try to get on top of it and figure out what that might mean for the Jews in the next little while.”

For some Jews, this translates into shifting from a tone of “welcoming” to one of “inclusion.”

Temple Shir Tikva, a Reform congregation in Wayland, Mass., has worked in recent years through its Interfaith Families Committee to fully engage interfaith couples.

“Welcoming makes you feel like you’re a guest,” said Heather Meterparel, who chairs the committee and was raised as a Catholic. “Inclusion is, ‘you belong here.’”
That means reaching out to extended family members — parents, former spouses, cousins, or grown children’s spouses — who identify with other faiths.

Alex and Eli Wettengel, ages 10 and 5, decorate holiday cookies at their home in Massachusetts. The brothers are being raised by parents who come from different religious backgrounds. Photo courtesy of InterfaithFamily

To aid them, the congregation provides a companion to the prayer book offering translation and explanation of Hebrew prayers and rituals.

Unlike the Reform movement, which discourages but does not prohibit rabbis from officiating at interfaith weddings, the Conservative movement still officially forbids the practice, even as some of its rabbis question it.

In a recent letter reaffirming its stance, the Conservative movement encouraged rabbis to cultivate a “rabbinic relationship that is broader and deeper” than a wedding — with a goal of helping non-Jewish spouses consider converting to the faith.

For some rabbis, that approach is inadequate because it asks non-Jewish spouses to check their faith histories at the synagogue door.

Some are experimenting with descriptive language that doesn’t reduce the complexity of “interfaith” couples and families to that catch-all term.

“It just seemed like the term wasn’t intellectually honest; it wasn’t an accurate term,” said Rabbi Darby Leigh, who is ordained by the small but influential Reconstructionist Jewish movement. At his congregation, Kerem Shalom in Concord, Mass., he prefers to speak of “families where individuals come from different faith backgrounds.”

Susan Katz Miller, author of the 2014 book “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” continues to use “interfaith” because it works for families that have chosen to practice only Judaism, as well as those that maintain both parents’ traditions.

She said Jewish institutions exclude two-faith families at their peril if they want to foster participation and connection in future generations.

Said Miller, “The Jewish community should and, in fact, must look beyond those families who are doing that all-but-conversion Jewish pathway.”

About the author

Holly Lebowitz Rossi


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  • An “interfaith” relationship is one between a person with a Jewish background and a person with a background from another or no religious tradition. It’s not a perfect term, but there is no better term available to describe that kind of relationship. An “interfaith family” includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions. Some couples don’t feel the term describes their relationship well, because one is practicing a religion and one isn’t, or because they are both practicing the same religion, or for other reasons. But “Interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice; it doesn’t mean a couple that is practicing two faiths, or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith, or a couple that is raising children in two faiths.

    I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions of different labels. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is more than a culture or a heritage.

    The term “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc. An “interfaith family” may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify.

  • Sadly … you are all very lost in your understanding of religion and Judaism.

    Christianity is the belief that Jesus was the mashiach. Christ means mashiach in Greek. People (Jews or not) who decided that Jesus is the mashiach have made a Jewish decision … just like lubavitchers can choose to accept rabbi Meacham Mendel shneerson as the mashiach.

    What created a division between messianic Jews and non messianic Jews was that Jesus rejected halacha. But both reform and conservative also reject halacha … so they have nothing to hate Jesus over.

    Even if you reject Jesus as the mashiach… you should study his teachings and realize he is as much of a Jewish reform rabbi as anyone today.

    The diff between Catholic and haredi is two religions bc both have a history of hate.

    But if you are a reform jew and you are talking about a secular Christian … then you are part of the same faith with a disagreement in who the messiah is. You have diff cultural practices sure. But true followers of Jesus should be more open to Jewish customs that Jesus would have practiced himself and true reform Jews should acknowledge that Jesus isn’t the enemy here … he was preaching the same thing you are!

    So go home and do some research. Stop using orthodox labels for Jesus and start to understand and reconcile the truth. Go figure out why Jews and christians think they are part of two diff religions and figure out if that is a relevant reason today considering the Judaism you practice! That’s what God wants you to do.

    Sadly you are fighting your own team just bc Jewish radicals killed a reform rabbi 2000 years ago and 3bn people decided to accept him as a mashiach. Do you really think that the solution is to treat these 3bn people as gentiles? God created you with eyes, ears and brains… go use them to figure out the truth.

  • An alternative to “interfaith” is “polypistic” (from the Greek “pistis”, meaning “faith”).

  • Theologically illiterate idiots who use ‘mashiach’ instead of ‘messiah’ because they think it makes them sound more legitimate are sooooo 1990’s.

  • One important reality not mentioned in this article is this: the most difficult “interfaith” relationships can be those between people of the same religious tradition who are at either end of the traditional-progressive spectrum. Such couples, I find, are the most embattled, much more so than, for instance, progressive members of two different religious traditions.

  • Thank you for the insult … I will make sure to use messiah in the future if that makes you less angry/offended.

  • That the non-Orthodox are more “inclusive” of interfaith families, regardless of terminology, is not the issue. Inclusiveness and even conversion won’t overcome the demographic trends: The rates of assimilation and dis-affiliation of non-Orthodox Jews are huge, their birth rates are below replacement rate, and the few children of those who intermarry currently remain self-identified as Jews at a rate of only about 20% (according to Pew Foundation studies); the very fact (or at least correlation with) of intermarried parents seems to greatly diffuse what value of and affinity for Judaism and Jewish identity that a child might have. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

  • My lutheran wife and I find this very true. We’re both progressive. That is plenty of common ground.

  • You are being very dishonest in reducing the difference between Christians
    and Jews to whether one believes Jesus is the messiah or not.
    Christians believe that Christ is God incarnate, that God literally came to earth as a human being, in order to suffer and die as a divine human sacrifice
    for all the sins of mankind, for all time. This is very far from the traditional
    Jewish view of the Mashiach.
    To Jews the notion of an embodied God is an absolute abomination. Judaism and Christianity are completely separate religions. They don’t even ask the same questions, let alone provide similar answers. It never helps to evangelize using falsehoods.

  • I completely understand the difference between Christianity and Judaism… I don’t believe that there is reconciliation between Catholics and protestants vs. Judaism bc of the points you made.

    But I was raised an orthodox Jew and I studied Judaism 12 hrs a day .. I know everything about Judaism. And I spent 2 years diving into the depths of Christianity to find out the true differences.

    Conclusion is that you need to look at Christianity as an onion with layers.

    Layer 1 is Jesus the Jew and teacher … easy to reconcile with Judaism today

    Layer 2 is Paul’s interpretation of Jesus via the new testament… that interpretation sounds foreign to Jews but paul was a Pharisee so his interpretation was consistent with messianic teachings of his day … Jews need to accept that Paul wasn’t out to lunch on his theology.

    Layer 3 is the Catholic trinity that came 300+ years later. I believe that there might have been some kabalistic schools of thought in Judaism that supported this angle but certainly it wasn’t the only interpretation out there.

    I can write a 400 page book explaining this … but that’s why I said secular Christian in my post … bc a secular Christian is someone that questions the trinity and prefers science over theology on matters of faith… most Christians today are sceptical about Jesus being god. They just celebrate Xmas bc they think Jesus was a wise teacher. I think reform Jews and such Christians can find common ground.

  • And your comment about Christianity not having a traditional view of the mashiach is again very surface.

    Paul was a direct student of RABAN GAMLIEL who was the head of the sanhedrin. He knew the Jewish messianic teachings 1000 times better than any Jew today. He said Jesus was son of God which means that raban GAMLIEL would say that about the mashiach (certainly not about Jesus per say). Paul preached his idea in synaguages throughout the Roman Empire and was well received by many.

    Considering Judaism today makes this concept sound so foreign leads me to conclude that rabbinical Judaism since has done a 180 on many messianic topics on purpose to mislead it’s flock about what is or isn’t traditional Judaism. It is no wonder that they told me in yeshiva that we don’t like studying kabalah until after 40 years old … bc those sources reconcile these topics.

  • We agree more than I realized. Reformed Jews and liberal Protestants,
    seem to share the same theology or lack of theology, and differ principally in having sentimental attachments to different forms of worship. It is particularly obvious if you read someone like Shelby Spong, who, although former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, believes Jesus was an itinerant preacher who was elevated to the status of a
    deity in the Gospels, by the writers borrowing pagan motifs.
    That is pretty much what every reformed rabbi believes, if they have a opinion on the subject.

  • What’s interesting is that in all my intense Jewish education, we didn’t discuss the messiah much. He comes up a lot in Jewish prayers but no one has any details. I think the orthodox do that on purpose bc any details would resemble Christianity. Can of worms.

    Paul’s proclamation of son of God seems to be validated by the psalms. And it seems to be a widespread concept in his day amongst jews.

    But he never claimed in his texts that son of God is a diety. It would be very easy to state that and avoid the debate in future years. But my guess is that this point wasn’t the accepted tradition.

    If you stop and think about it, messiah son of God is already an elevated status. It certainly makes the being special / in charge. Why do you need this being to be 1 with God? Regardless, we don’t pretend that this being is the creator of the universe like his father is … so he is equal in name only.

    For me, I try to block this topic out of my mind. It’s irrelevant. I know the messiah is a Jewish concept so I need to decide if Jesus might be the messiah. But I don’t need to know if the messiah is something beyond the son of God… I’m not a church goer so it’s not my problem.

    What I do know is that Jesus transformed history and made all humans in the West into messianic Jews… so he is the messiah of the human race. Is he my messiah specifically? Maybe maybe not … not really relevant. I think in Judaism there is room for many rabbis and many interpretations. Jesus is a very big one and I respect it as a branch of Judaism. I’m also open to the idea that he was the messiah considering everyone else thinks so and it saves a lot of trouble trying to convince 3bn people of a new candidate. Some Jews today claim that the lubavitcher rebbe was the messiah and died in 1992. He has 100k believers probably. The Jewish people respect this movement as a valid option. No one runs around stoning this group.

    The real mistake for Jews in history was their vicious approach towards Jesus as the messiah. They peed their own bed by having him crucified and starting this hateful movement against Jesus. They have every right to be sceptical but hateful rejection is what made them isolated and hated throughout history. Their hate goes against most of their own principals like “there are 70 faces to the torah” meaning there is room for multiple views on everything.

  • I also believe that this issue of Jesus must be dealt with by all Jews eventually. When Jews escaped their shtetls in Europe, they weren’t theologically equipped to join humanity. They resorted to new identities like atheist communist, reform Jewish, secular Zionist… all to avoid becoming Christian. Most of these alternative identities didn’t last. Atheist communism is gone in Russia.

    Secular Zionism doesn’t have any theological answers. It claims that Jews by blood should live in the middle East and reject the Jewish religion entirely. But their movement is unsustainable… I’m Israeli myself so I know. The settlers forced Zionism to be non compliant with intl law on borders and the ultra orthodox are forcing the destruction of the state internally. The latter are growing like weeds, will be the majority in 45 years, hate Zionism, refuse to serve in the army, refuse to work / pay taxes / get a secular education / have a career / or accept global Jewry as jews that are welcome in Israel as citizens. They are a form of stage 3 terminal cancer for Zionism that can’t be treated.

    So the Jews down there will eventually admit defeat and move to NA. Once in NA, they will need to address this 2000 year old theological question of Jesus… to me Jesus the messiah is a question that underpins society, and politics not just religion. Essentially, Jews swapped their Christian neighbors for Muslim neighbors in 1948… bc they weren’t compatible with Jesus… how did that go for them? Mohammad is a lot harder to be compatible with 😉

  • D: You might want to read Romans 9-11 and see what you think of the argument Paul uses here: The Jews didn’t believe in Jesus, because faith in him was necessary for the Gentiles to find God’s grace; at the end of times, the Jews will all be reconciled (not quite the argument, but a shorthand) and the covenant promises will be actualized again.

    PR Chris

  • I honestly don’t understand what you are driving at with this quote.

    Not in an argumentative way … I just don’t follow

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