A blessing and a threat
Chelsea Clinton, raised Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, Jewish, will wed this weekend.
Statistics show that 37 percent of Americans have a spouse of a different faith.
Statistics also show that couples in interfaith marriages are "three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages."
Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -and gained -when religious people intermarry?
I have never met a human being in general. I've met Russians, Norwegians, Americans, but no generic human being. We each speak certain languages, are born in certain towns, have specific parents. Although all human beings share many things in common, culture is not one of them.
Similarities increase the likelihood of a successful marital union. I once asked the CEO of an internet dating service what he had learned from his work, and he said the idea that opposites will make a successful marriage is a myth. Marriage is a difficult enterprise; you maximize the chances if you look at the world the same way.
Of course, intermarriage instantiates an American ideal: nothing matters more than love. People who grow up in very different circumstances can find a powerful, immutable bond. It is enshrined in our common mythos -- the beauty and the beast, the peasant and the Queen -- differences dissolve in love. But for the Jewish people in particular, however fetching the ideal, the prospect of intermarriage is fraught.
There are over two billion Christians in the world. There are over a billion Muslims. There are some 15 million Jews. Since the chances of an intermarried couple raising their children in the minority culture - that is, Judaism - is small, intermarriage is a serious threat to Jewish survival. We are a vanishingly small people.
Abstract considerations rarely prevail over love. But we have to be honest, even when the truth causes pain. Religion in a home usually follows the patterns of the mother, so for a Jewish man to marry a non-Jewish woman is even more likely to result in children who do not identify as Jews (and this also accords with the classical Jewish definition, where religion follows the mother.) To say "well, they will grow up and choose" is dangerously naïve. Both studies and common sense tell us when a child grows up with parents representing different religious traditions, the child does not really decide on a faith, but chooses a parent.
Religious traditions are complex, ramified cultures. They are not checklists. To adopt a tradition is to orient one's soul toward the universe. That is far easier to accomplish if both parents represent the same tradition. I always counsel couples to choose a tradition; do I prefer it be Judaism? Of course. But I would rather they choose one even if it is not Judaism than to try to raise a child in both, which too often ends up being neither.
Conversion is a worthy, powerful way to join two people in a common cause. For the couple it is not always possible or desired. But we should remember that a melting pot is an inferior metaphor for the United States. People do not indistinguishably meld together. Rather we are a mosaic; different colors that contribute to the beauty of the whole. Distinctions and differences are not invidious.
Love vaults over boundaries and that is often both beautiful and compelling. Much can be lost along the way however, and it is difficult to keep both the integrity of a tradition and its universal messages. As with all great blessings, the blessings of America exact a considerable cost.
July 26, 2010; 10:03 PM ET
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