“It’s going to be an interfaith wedding! What are we going to do?”
As the executive director of The New Seminary, the world’s oldest interfaith seminary, I’ve had a lot of experience counseling anxious interfaith couples. Their anxiety is understandable. As modern-day Americans, it’s easy for us to meet and even fall in love with someone of another culture and faith. But once marriage enters the equation, we’re confronted with questions we might never have considered before. What role does faith play in our identities, in our families, in our lives as individuals and as a couple? How do you make room for someone else’s beliefs without losing sight of your own? While these kinds of questions are usually pushed to the background as we negotiate our everyday lives, the topic of marriage—especially to someone from a different faith—tends to push them front and center.
The good news is that you don’t have to have the answers to these questions before you can get married. The bad news is that you may not have the answers during your mutual lifetime. Instead, by exploring the possibilities and challenges of an interfaith marriage, the two of you are opening a fascinating dialogue that will keep you talking. How are you going to celebrate holidays? If you have children, how will you handle their religious education and identity? As you can see, your wedding ceremony, although very important, is just the first of many challenges.
Interfaith Marriage 101
WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE Greek and Eastern Orthodox Churches, all major faiths recognize the validity of an interfaith marriage. But after basic recognition, it gets a little complicated. Here’s a quick primer:
The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of a marriage performed by a rabbi so a Catholic/Jewish couple can be married by a rabbi or a rabbi and priest co-officiating. Mormons have their own rules, but everybody else, with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox faiths, accepts the validity of interfaith marriages.
If one of the couple is a divorced Catholic, the Roman Catholic Church requires an annulment before a priest can participate.
While Conservative and Orthodox rabbis will not perform interfaith marriages, many Reform, Liberal, and unaffiliated rabbis will.
Most mainstream Protestant denominations are open to interfaith marriage. Many clergy will perform the wedding without requiring conversion or a promise to rear children resulting from the marriage in a particular faith. Clergy from the Unitarian Universalist Church or from the Ethical Culture Society can marry interfaith couples. Both include elements of Judaism and Christianity in their beliefs.
A couple can choose to be married by a deacon or cantor instead of a priest or rabbi.
Some more liberal imams will agree to co-officiate, as will members of the Sufi Muslim communities. There are also, of course, interfaith clergy ordained specifically as interfaith ministers.
Interfaith ceremonies are not reserved for Jewish and Christian couples. In my own somewhat circumscribed experience, I have had the privilege to co- officiate at weddings that were Jewish, Buddhist, both Jewish and Hindu, and several other combinations.
These are reputable clergy—rabbis, priests, reverends, and ministers—who are not just willing to perform interfaith marriages but are genuinely happy to do so. There are priests like Father Giles Spoonhour of Putnam Valley, who was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest in 1964 and who left that church. He is now a certified officiant of the Federation of Christian Ministries and a member of the clergy of the Orthodox Catholic Church of America. There is the Reverend William Weisenbach, DD, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Katonah, who will marry Jews and Christians, and Reverend David James, a retired Episcopal priest living in Mount Kisco, who joyfully co-officiates with rabbis to marry couples of all Christian denominations. (See “Clergy on Call,” opposite page, for many more.)
Constructing a Unifying Ceremony
JUST BECAUSE THE TWO OF YOU are comfortable with your choice to marry doesn’t mean everyone in the family will be as accepting. As a rabbi who conducts interfaith weddings, I almost always have to counsel couples, parents, and even grandparents when a Jewish man or woman chooses to marry a non-Jew. Having clergy who are recognizable to both families at the wedding ceremony is the easiest way to calm the fears of most of the couple’s relatives. Another important contribution is a carefully crafted wedding ceremony.
A wedding does more than unite a couple—it also brings two cultures and two families together. When the first call I receive is from the parents of a bride or groom, I am careful to let them know that it is possible to have a ceremony that will honor both faiths and one that will not offend anyone on either side of the aisle. No matter who makes that first call, however, my primary concern is not the comfort of the relatives, but the happiness of the couple.
My next step is always a personal meeting with the bride and groom, a meeting designed to discover what is important to them, what they would definitely like to include in their ceremony and what they absolutely do not want. A most important part of my job is to be an advocate for the couple, helping them weather familial pressure without relinquishing control of their own wedding.
Whether I am performing the celebration alone or with a clergy member of another faith, the process is very much the same. How do we include enough traditions from both faiths that allow both families to feel honored and comfortable? And, as we do that, how do we find ways to be sure that the more “orthodox” members of either family are not insulted or upset in such a way that they might walk out of the ceremony?
Admittedly, in some instances, the fear isn’t so much that orthodox family members will walk out of the ceremony—it’s that they won’t attend at all. In these instances, where family members are completely dead set against the marriage, you might have to accept the fact that there’s nothing to be done. All you can do is accept that your orthodox grandfather or born-again aunt won’t come to your wedding. Time and familiarity might convince them to open their hearts, but this one event may have to proceed without them.
In less intractable circumstances, the most important way to honor both faiths is to look for the most meaningful traditions that are part of each religion. It’s looking for the comfort food, that which demonstrates to the families attending that each heritage is being honored. Not all of these traditions are overtly religious. The tea ceremony before the wedding and the use of red and gold during the ceremony may be as important to a Chinese family as any of their particular religious practices. Ditto the inclusion of the ceremonies of the cord, the veil, the exchange of coins, and even the candle-lighting for a Filipino bride or groom. Some African Americans choose to include “jumping the broom” as an expression of their history. A tradition at least as old as the African presence in America, a couple would be considered married when they jumped together over a broom (even if legal status for their marriage was denied by slavery.) Each culture brings a piece of its own identity along with its various religions.
Sometimes you can create a sense of comfort for your family at the reception as well. I know many brides who, for example, opted for glatt kosher weddings even though they themselves didn’t keep kosher. As one bride put it, “I’m an atheist, but my relatives are deep believers. Pleasing them pleased my parents and, frankly, that was more important to me than having seared scallops or lobster bisque at my wedding.” A traditional song, a dance, or even a toast can do wonders to ease tension and make this new union feel like a natural extension of family.
In interfaith wedding ceremonies, it’s important to realize that even guests who are open-minded and supportive might be concerned that the family’s religious traditions will get short shrift. For some situations, it’s enough to be aware of the “counters”—those relatives who, during the ceremony, mentally tally each and every religious reference in “home team” and “visitors” columns. Every family has these counters and it’s important that they witness a game that ends in a tie. For these people, it’s important to preserve a balance so that everyone feels equally respected.
Some relatives may, of course, always feel slighted. Some will make themselves, rather than the couple, the star of the show, announcing, “I will not be attending that wedding if he marries a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, etc.” “If the Catholics take Communion, I’m leaving.” “If there is a reading from the New Testament, I’m walking out.” “I won’t be able to stay in the room if there is any Buddhist chanting.”
By way of advice, I offer the following true story: at one wedding being co-officiated by a rabbi and a priest, just before the ceremony, the priest came to the rabbi to say, “It embarrasses me to ask you, but the bride’s father [Catholic] asked if you could leave Hebrew out of the ceremony.” The rabbi, who was usually very accommodating and soft-spoken, thought for a moment and then said quite strongly, “Absolutely not!” The priest, taken momentarily aback asked, “And, why not?” The rabbi’s answer? “If I don’t use some Hebrew, Jesus won’t understand a word I’m saying!”
The priest laughed and went to tell the father of the bride who also laughed. The potential confrontation and tension defused, the wedding went on with Hebrew included. The point of the story is that the only way to make people of different religions and cultures comfortable with each other is to find the commonalities and similarities in those religions and cultures.
In sum, an interfaith wedding is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. While many same-faith couples can simply assume they share the same beliefs, traditions, and practices, interfaith couples have to actively sift through these issues. As individuals and as a couple, they have to confront what they believe and what they want. They must engage their families in this discussion. And out of all this exploration, they must craft an understanding that will form the basis of their partnership. Although this process can be emotional, frightening, and even divisive, it also can be tremendously rewarding. By staying open to each other but true to yourselves, you can have the wedding of your dreams; a wedding filled with love and joy and in which each sentiment is not some time-worn platitude but a heartfelt conviction.
What if you love your spouse-to-be but don’t love the idea of combining your faiths on your wedding day? Sheila Gordon, co-founder and president of Interfaith Community, a New York resource for Jewish/ Christian couples, says there’s more than one way to do an interfaith wedding.
“For some couples, the wedding is simply a kind of political accommodation to the two sides of the family; for others, it’s a heartfelt, shared statement for each other’s traditions,” she says, “But not every couple wants to devote their wedding to making everybody comfortable. For some couples, the ceremony defines ways that they’ll work out their religious differences. Some couples will even choose to have two separate ceremonies because they want to be clear about their distinctions.”
Gordon advises that couples think through what they want to accomplish with their wedding ceremony. “It’s too easy to say, â€˜I want two officiants,’ and be done with it,” Gordon says. “You may need some guidance about how much you want to gloss over or how much you want to be clear about the differences. Thinking about your wedding is a wonderful moment to at least anticipate the role that religion will play in your life going forth.” If you think planning an interfaith wedding is proving tough, Gordon cautions, “The work that follows is much harder. There’ll be holidays, children—the ritual welcoming of a baby, the education of that child. These are hard decisions!” For help, Gordon recommends that you contact Interfaith Community (www.interfaithcommuni ty.org) or its Westchester affiliate that meets in Scarsdale and Larchmont. For more information, email Westchester’s interfaith community at email@example.com or call (212) 870-2544. Interfaith Community provides counseling, religious services, education for children, ongoing education for adults, and a supportive community where interfaith families, regardless of the choices they have made, can find a place to connect.
Clergy on Call
According to Sheila Gordon, PhD, co-founder and president of Interfaith Community, interfaith marriage is becoming more accepted among clergy. Increasingly, representatives of many faiths are willing to conduct these marriages because they see the ceremony as an opportunity to encourage couples to respect religion and incorporate it into their lives together. The following clergy are willing and able to perform your ceremony. (Note: with the exception of the clergy mentioned in the main article, Interfaith Community graciously provided all the names below.)
Rev. Robert L. Brashear
Rev. Anne Conroy
Rabbi Ari Fridkis
Rabbi Joel S. Goor
(212) 679-8580, (Metropolitan Synagogue), (212) TORAH-NY
Father Mark Hallinan
(212) 774-5500, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi/Cantor Jill Hausman
(212) 865-4944, email@example.com
(Network of rabbis and Christian clergy who officiate at interfaith weddings in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.)
Rev. David James
Dr. Katherine Kurs
Rev. Susanna STEFANACHI Macomb
New York Society for Ethical Culture
Contact Tony Hileman, Senior Leader
(212) 874-5210, www.nysec.org
Rabbi Roger Ross
Cantor Dan Rous
Rabbi Burt Siegel
Father Giles Spoonhour
Rev. William Weisenbach