Samira Mehta joins us to discuss her book Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States and the meaning and complexities of interfaith marriage: Why it matters beyond the question of continuity, how it relates to broader social and religious trends, and how thinking through interfaith marriage can help us to understand our world at large.
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Samira Mehta is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College. In her book, she presents a fascinating study of interfaith marriage as a lived practice. Instead of studying it as a problem to be solved, she engages with it as a fact on the ground and asks, how do the increasing number of interfaith families navigate the landscape of their lives? How do they choose to raise their children, and why do they make the choices they do? She ultimately seeks, as she writes, to “redefine interfaith families and their relation to American culture”—to look beyond overly simplistic notions of cultural merging, to see interfaith marriages not as a monolithic phenomenon but as the individual life choices of so many people today, and to try to identify the diverse ways in which people are engaging with religion in today’s world.
An edited transcript of our conversation can be read below.
Jason Lustig: When I saw this book, I got very excited because there are a lot of people who talk about interfaith marriage in a series of different contexts, and I think you’re taking a very different approach inasmuch as you’re really writing about interfaith marriage as a fact, as opposed to something that could or should be stopped. I think that you are really doing something different here.There are people who are engaging with these questions in relationship with questions of continuity; you really aren’t doing that. One of the issues we might think about is what is the relevance of this question of the reality of interfaith marriage, and these families that results from it, in a way that is not just thinking about continuity, and what goes beyond that in terms of what we can learn from studying and thinking about it.
Samira Mehta: You know, I don’t ever want to imply that on a personal level, as a human being, Jewish continuity doesn’t matter to me. It certainly did matter to me for the three hours a week that I spent teaching Hebrew school all through graduate school, trying to make it fun and engaging and dynamic and meaningful for my students so that they would have warm feelings and affections for the religion in which they were being raised. So I don’t want to imply that I don’t care at all about the question of Jewish continuity, but I don’t feel that that is my job as a scholar. My job is not to say, where do I want this religious community—mine, somebody else’s—to be in ten years. My job is to ask, what is going on for this particular community in this particular historical moment, in this case roughly fifty years starting in 1965 and ending approximately in 2015 when I closed the research on the manuscript, and to ask how those families are creating meaning in their lives and what matters for them? What’s at stake for them? There are people in those conversations the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), various people’s parents, the Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, who are extremely concerned with questions of Jewish continuity, what it means to ask families to raise children Jewish or not Jewish. There are absolutely people who do care a lot about those issues.
I try to pay attention to those concerns, but those concerns can’t be my concerns. and they also cannot trump the concerns of the families themselves, who may or may not care or be conflicted about continuity. And some of them are, and some of them very much are not. I think that it’s extremely important that interfaith families that their life worlds be understood, that their varying perspectives and needs and desires be understood, in part because I think that the Jewish community can serve them better, as can other religious communities serve them better, if they understand what’s at stake for these families, but also because I think that when you put the focus on continuity or on the impact of interfaith families on a religious community, usually on the Jewish community. You’re not asking about the families. You’re asking what’s at stake for the religious community, or how can the religious community influence what the families do. But you’re not asking about how it is that Americans are going about living and creating and constructing their religious lives. So I take Jewish continuity and concerns about it as one of the topics that I am interrogating rather than as the concern of my scholarship.
JL: When you look at the more popular approach to this question of intermarriage and continuity, among those who are opposed to intermarriage, there’s this kind of hidden assumption that families with two Jewish parents, for instance, will raise their children to be committed Jews, or at least are more likely to do that than intermarried or interfaith families. The reality, perhaps, is not so simple as that.
SM: So, my research would suggest that the reality is not necessarily that simple. I think there are a lot of things going into the mix of questions of continuity, including whether we are, as a society, in a moment in which people join institutions. Do people feel compelled to live out their Jewish or Methodist or Buddhist or Zoroastrian identities as affiliated members of religious organizations in suburban American communities? That’s one question.
Another question that I think is really important is, which comes first: are people not affiliating because they are in interfaith marriages, or are people entering interfaith marriages because they are the people for whom affiliation wasn’t a primary concern? And I think that both of those things are true.
People fall on both sides, but there are also some assumptions about what’s going on. Does interfaith marriage cause people to not affiliate, or are people who were not inclined to affiliate therefore also more inclined to not worry about what religious tradition produced their spouse, or whether or not their children feel inclined to affiliate? And so, those are very real questions. But I also just think that the project is different. I’m really committed to understanding the life worlds of interfaith families. But if I put continuity front and center as a concern, then I’m missing the reality that for many of them continuity is not a concern, or the reality that for many of them continuity does not mean affiliating with Jewish communal organizations.
I think for Jewish communal organizations and for people who have an inclination in the direction of Jewish communal organizations, continuity means you join a synagogue, send your kids to Hebrew school, you work out at the JCC, you have an awareness of what’s going on in the world of the (Jewish) Federation. And that’s what it means to have Jewish continuity. There are people in the world of interfaith family life for whom continuity means knowing how to put together a Seder. Whether or not you also have three generations of family Christmas ornaments in a box in your basement or attic that you get out and lovingly dust and put on a tree—it’s a very different understanding of what continuity means, and it’s often more family-based, or it’s tied to having an appreciation of Jewish humor or Jewish authors or Jewish culture, for some definition of what those things mean, like what makes humor Jewish what makes an author Jewish. What is Jewish culture? There are lots of different ways that people define those things, but people who want their kids to have some sense of Jewish heritage, but it doesn’t have to be an exclusive sense of Jewish heritage. It can be paired with something else and that could be a sense of Christian heritage. Or it could be a sense of Swedish heritage, and the Swedish heritage might or might not look like Lutheran heritage. So it’s a different understanding of what “continuity” might mean for different people in the population that I studied.
JL: You’re talking about the ways in which we can redefine some of the basic assumptions that we have about interfaith marriages and about continuity and the relationship with the past. I was really struck by the way that your book highlights that this is a very diverse phenomenon. This is not monolithic, by any means. This is made up of individuals who are making choices and who are all living their own lives out in a variety of different ways.
SM: No, it really isn’t monolithic. I wanted to demonstrate how deeply individual the choices are, and how much energy people put into making choices that make internal sense. One of the primary things that gets said about the “doing both” method is that it will confuse the children. And one of the things that I found is that it really doesn’t. I think, again, people are individuals, and there are families in which it is confusing or painful because there’s tension. But in these case studies, these are families that have really worked out ways of holding two traditions in relationship to each other, in ways that are not painful or confusing for the family members, and they look radically different from each other. And I wanted to look closely at those realities in a way that I couldn’t have if I interviewed many more people than I put in to my book.
And I picked four of the families for the case studies of people doing both, who were unusually articulate or particularly public in how it is that they’ve approached things. There were reasons that I chose those families, but the ways in which they stood out were really the extent to which they were able to articulate what they did, or the amount of time that I had with them. Not that they didn’t reflect other experiences. But I didn’t want to say broad, general things. I wanted to show the nuance of how four individual families created their world, because I think that the devil is in the details, really. And the more people you put in, the less you can put in of the details that really show how these families are creating meaning.
JL: So, when you say that there are four cases, do they represent four archetypes, or four paradigms, or four different potential directions that interfaith families can go in? Do want to quickly summarize what those four are?
SM: The four case studies that I provided, you could see them as four archetypes. Again, I hesitate only in that I want to emphasize the point that you made previously, that you can talk in broad generalities, but these are individuals with individual needs and hopes and dreams and commitments. But the four types, broadly speaking, are people who in some ways have chosen to do nothing. They have two heritages, but they’re unaffiliated. And perhaps have found their community or their moral universe in another venue.
I talked about a family that has a culture of homesteading. They popped in and out of churches, liberal Protestant churches, which have been more available in the parts of the country that they’ve lived in, but primarily the moral universe in the family is around the parents’ decision to be back-to-land kinds of people, rather than in the moral universe of a church or a synagogue.
One of the families is Unitarian Universalist, and so in that case they are creating a very visible Jewish presence in a UU congregation. The mother in that family is Jewish, and the father in that family—again, these are all heterosexual families—the father in that family grew up in the Missouri Synod, a very conservative form of Lutheranism. And they are the people who like to say that they’re inter-religious, that they come from two different religious traditions, but they feel that they have found a shared faith in Unitarian Universalism. They do not feel that they are interfaith, but they keep both sets of religious traditions alive.
The third example is a family that exists in two different religious communities. They’re a member of a Jewish community and they are a member of a Mormon community. And they have friends who know that about them, people who know in both communities, so that’s what they’re doing with varying levels of acceptance. But really, the worlds are separate, except when moments in their lives bring them together. When the oldest daughter, for instance, had a Bat Mitzvah, she also had a Mormon feminist ritual. In that case, Mormon feminism is a little bit outside of the Mormon mainstream, I think that’s an important thing to note there.
And then, the fourth example is a family that belongs to a community that’s explicitly about raising children in Christianity and Judaism at the same time. But it’s the only family that doesn’t get a pseudonym, because Susan Katz Miller, who is the mother, has written extensively about her family’s personal experiences, and they are members of a community called the Interfaith Family Project, which is located in suburban Washington, D.C., and is really explicitly dedicated to providing Sunday school education in Christianity and Judaism, for Christian-Jewish interfaith families.
JL: When we put it into the context of the title and the argument of the book, you are saying that there are a series of approaches that go beyond, perhaps, what people hold as a kind of a stereotype about interfaith families. When we look at idea that you have in the title, “Beyond Chrismukkah,” this idea is a kind of merging or fusing of two holidays. It’s kind of the greatest wish of many children—
SM: Eight days of presents and one day of lots of presents!
JL: Right. What does “Chrismukkah” as an idea—not just as a as a practice—what does it represent in terms of an older perspective on the nature of interfaith marriages and the experience of living within them, in relationship to the, perhaps, other kinds of approaches? You want to say that we should get “beyond,” you know, this older approach.
SM: Part of the reason that I called the book “beyond Chrismukkah” is, to me, the image of Chrismukkah is not actually simply doing both. Chrismukkah was a Time Magazine word of the year in 2004. It comes from the O.C. (the TV show), and it really is the idea of the little kid’s dream: eight days of presents and then one day of lots of presents, unless you’re having an off-year, like a couple of years ago in which Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped. It is this idea of a dual holiday life, and there are people who run a dual holiday life. But a lot of people are doing something much more robust. I think Chrismukkah simplifies what’s going on in the lives of interfaith families. It’s the ugly stereotype of what those families are doing. “They’re not doing anything. They’re just having these consumer-based, empty holidays.” Now, I think that consumption and modes of holiday consumption are very important to how it is that people create their religious lives, interfaith or not. That’s just part of how we understand religion working. And you know, if you don’t believe me, read the work of someone like Leigh Eric Schmidt or Andrew Heinze. Consumption is hugein how religious lives are shaped. But “Chrismukkah” is sort of saying, “and that’s all there is to it.” It’s this consumer feeding frenzy.
But there are other kinds of interfaith families that really want their children to have access into the world views of both of their traditions. Starting largely in the 1990s, families that did not want to choose one religion started having a more robust vocabulary for defending their choices to build religious or religious-adjacent lives. In more than one community, there started to become communities—granted largely in major cities in New York, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C.— that are really designed for people explicitly doing both. It’s always been possible to join a Unitarian Universalist congregation and have Christian and Jewish traditions in your lives. But the increased rhetoric of multiculturalism, I think, made it easier for people to explain what they were doing. It increased the amount of heritage language in the lives of white Americans, and it gave people in those settings a way of thinking about what they were doing. It gave people who wanted, also, as increasingly the United States becomes a nation of people who do not go to church, it created space for saying, our heritages and our traditions are important to us, but we’re not religious people and so we are going to have elements of Jewish culture and we are going to have elements of, again, either Catholic or Irish or Swedish or Lutheran culture in our homes, but we are not actually “church people.” That became a more possible thing to say. And, you know, it also became more possible for people to belong to a couple of different religious communities, again because people became increasingly comfortable with blending religious traditions in their lives, with holding multiple religious identities.
Is it different to go to synagogue on Friday nights and Mormon Ward on Sunday morning, than it is to be an Episcopalian who has a really serious and robust Zen meditation practice and to go to a Zen center on Wednesday nights, even though you’re going to church on Sunday morning? Is it different than having that combination in your life? There are lots of different ways in which interfaith families create their moral meaning. A lot of the time, they are using language of multiculturalism. And so they’re talking about tolerance. They’re talking about diversity, they’re talking about an ability to culturally code-switch. They’re talking about the ability to interact with and respect and appreciate the traditions of different people. And those are all values that are part of a multicultural America. They are values that are very much part of a neoliberal project. They are values that are very much part of a contemporary pluralistic society or diverse society project.
I had a conversation recently, without IRB approval, in my personal life, with someone who was talking about wanting his children to have a sacramental imagination. He wanted to make sure that although they were not being raised in the Catholic Church, they had a sense of sacred presence in their lives. And that is not saying, “I want to make sure that they like are getting really good presence on Epiphany.” That’s saying, there’s something about the imaginative or spiritual or sacred world that is created by a kind of engagement with Catholic ritual that matters to this parent. This parent wants to make sure that their children have access to, in the same way that someone might say, “I want my children to have a deep and abiding knowledge of Jewish ethics, or of Jewish ritual life, of Jewish understanding of time. I do not care if my children can leyn Torah, but I want my children to have the sense that I had at my Shabbat dinner table as a kid growing up.”
I, again, talked to several Mormons in the creation of my book who wanted nothing to do with the Mormon church. I didn’t actually end up including them. I included somebody who very much does want something to do with the Mormon church, but I talked to a number of people who don’t want anything to do with the Mormon church, but they really want their children to have family home evening, which is a Mormon practice in which on Monday nights—and apparently the state of Utah can’t really schedule anything else, functionally, on Monday nights, because Mormons won’t go—I don’t mean the state officially, the state of Utah, but apparently Boy Scouts can’t meet on Monday nights. And family home evening is a time when the family gathers together for both some sort of religious or moral instruction and for family time together: board games or puzzles or reading stories or talking intentionally about their day, at a family dinner when everyone’s at the table and all of those things. And so I’ve talked to multiple Mormons who may or may not want to be practicing Mormons, but they want that tradition maintained.
And I think that all of those things are things that disappear from “Chrismukkah” à la the O.C., which is sort of negative and probably unfair to the Orange County stereotype about cheap consumerism, or very expensive consumerism, that is a little bit morally bankrupt. And I do not want to imply that people trying to do both are not animating their lives with moral worlds, because they often are, and they are often doing so intentionally. That doesn’t mean that every single interfaith family that is “doing both” or that has chosen one tradition is doing so with deep, thoughtful integrity. But, you know, it’s not like every single person who marries within their own tradition, every single Jewish-Jewish couple raising Jewish children, or every single Catholic-Catholic couple raising Catholic kids, or Methodist-Methodist couple raising Methodist kids, are doing so deeply and thoughtfully, either. And I think that’s an important thing to remember. Of course, there are interfaith families going through the motions and not really thinking about what they’re doing. But I think everyone who works extensively with religious communities knows that there are people in religious communities who are also doing that.
JL: When I think about the image of “Chrismukkah,” and going beyond this whole debate about appealing to the consumerist instincts of children and so forth, it also really represents something really quite fascinating inasmuch as it represents, in a certain way, this instinct to align the two traditions of Judaism and Christianity. That it’s not just that these two holidays fall around the same time of the year, but to try to find a way to fit them together. And this, to me, is really fascinating. I think a lot of the discourse surrounding the possibility of successful interfaith families and successfully raising children within those environments is tied, in a certain way, to some of the implicit assumptions that that one might have in America about the so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage, that these two things kind of go together. And so the flip side is this whole idea of going “beyond Chrismukkah”—it’s not perhaps only about thinking about, what are the ways in which people are doing more than just going through the motions in their interfaith families, but also that there are other kinds of interfaith relationships beyond between Jews and Christians.
SM: So, I suppose one of the things that we haven’t talked about is what I think is one of the most important interventions that my book tries to make, in how we talk about and think about interfaith families. And it is to say that the terms “religion” and “culture” are not static terms. They are terms that people define strategically in order to make a point about what you can or can’t do in interfaith family life. And so, since the “Chrismukkah” in the title, in some ways the best example is the Christmas tree, if you want to say it is perfectly okay to have a Christmas tree in your Jewish home, or have a Christmas tree in your interfaith family home, what you say is that the Christmas tree is not a religious symbol. It’s a cultural symbol. “Tell me what the Christmas tree has to do with the birth of the baby Jesus, and then we can get rid of our Christmas tree. But until you can develop a compelling theological argument about the baby Jesus and a pine tree, I get to keep my cultural Christmas tree, right?” So that’s a justification for having a Christmas tree. Or if you want to say your interfaith family is only having a Jewish home, if you get rid of the Christmas tree, what you’re saying is the Christmas tree is inherently a religious symbol that is part of how the celebration of the birth of the savior is marked. And while the tree doesn’t particularly necessarily have anything to do with the birth of the savior, it is part of the symbols and iconography of this particular holiday and this holiday is about Jesus. And you can also then flip it and say, you know, we would never ask a Christian partner to get rid of their religion. And this is actually something that gets said in a Jewish-produced manual for how to have an interfaith marriage, and it’s about why the home should be Jewish. So that’s the context: “We would never ask a Christian to get rid of their religion, but Christianity is the baptismal covenant and how someone lives that out. And it can be lived out in your heart. It is not lived out by putting up a Christmas tree. That’s a cultural symbol, and so it’s okay to ask someone to get rid of it.” In that argument, on the one hand the Christmas tree is both soreligious that is it is polluting the presence of a Jewish home, even though if the Christian person is also Irish, it might be fine for their kid to take step dancing instead of Israeli folk dancing, because step dancing is cultural, but it’s okay to ask them to get rid of the Christmas tree because the Christmas tree is not central to their baptismal covenant and therefore is not central to their Christian faith.
So on the one hand, the tree is too religious to be in the Jewish home, and on the other hand the tree is cultural and so it’s an okay thing to ask a Christian to get rid of, right? What’s being encoded as religious or cultural is neither entirely consistent. The same thing can be religious or cultural, but even within a conversation people will switch back and forth according to strategically the point that they’re trying to make. And I think that that’s probably one of the contributions that is most helpful to thinking about how other kinds of interfaith families structure their lives. How do people police the boundaries between what is getting designated as “religious” and what is getting designated as “cultural,” and why? They’re not going to probably be consistently policed. The same ritual or the same practice might get coded as “religious” by some people and “cultural” by others, because they want to say, you can do this together or you can’t, or even the same group of people might switch between whether something is religious or cultural depending on the arguments that they’re trying to make, and also the kind of meaning then that is getting in read into a ritual or a practice or a text. Actually, this means the same thing for both of us. And that might or might not be something that you could really back up with text or history or anything like that. But when people make claims like that, they’re arguing for how traditions may or may not be combined. They’re boundary-policing. And I spend a lot of time looking at how those boundaries get police in the Christian-Jewish example, and I think that that’s probably one of the most fruitful methodological interventions into other kinds of interfaith families. The dynamics are going to be different, because they have different historical relationships to each other and different positions of power in American society.
JL: So I want to come back in just a moment to this question of the various potential types of intermarriages, because it goes way beyond religion. But I want to bring up one last point about this idea of “Chrismukkah” because I think it highlights another element that you touch on in the book. Christmas and Hanukkah are two holidays that are celebrated in the public sphere, in ways that I think can be said are not necessarily quite the case with a lot of other holidays. Take Passover, for instance, it’s about what food you eat in your house. This is something that is in the personal sphere, you hold your Seder at home—
SM: I don’t know. In my hometown, the entire seasonal part of the grocery store gets totally overrun by Passover, and God help you if you want a Cadbury Creme Egg,
JL: Well, my point though is that Christmas and Hanukkah are especially public in the way that they are celebrated and viewed. People put Christmas lights on their house, right, or the Chanukiah is in the window, etc. And I think that part of what you’re doing in this book, which is so interesting, is interrogating the way in which interfaith marriages and interfaith families relate to this question of the public-private division within American religion.
SM: One of the most striking things, to me, about how we navigate American religious diversity in the public sphere is that on some level we work to a lowest common denominator. And the example that comes immediately to mind is actually an example from my personal professional life. When I graduated from Harvard Divinity School, there was a real attempt to create out of the very Protestant-structured graduation ceremony something that was more inclusive. So Hindu prayers were slotted into the worship service. It was still a very Protestant-structured service, but space was made for these other traditions within the Protestant form.
Or you’ll talk about having a clergy breakfast, in which you get all of the clergy together for breakfast. And you don’t serve bacon because you want the rabbis and the imams to show up and be able to eat. And you can’t serve the fake beef bacon, because now there’s a Hindu pundit in town. Right? So you’re going to do breakfast, because breakfast—like pancakes and eggs—is easy. And nobody’s going to feel deprived if there isn’t meat at breakfast, and you just don’t serve it, or you do serve it and those people don’t take it.
And so everybody comes together and, you know, they talk about God, but they don’t talk too much about Jesus, and they work with what I think of as the lowest common denominator of the faith traditions. They talk about the places where the traditions agree, and they ignore some of the places where they don’t agree, whatever that might be. Jews don’t talk tons about how they are the chosen people when they are doing interfaith work. Christians try to keep a lid on the question of Jesus as savior for some people and not others when they are doing interfaith work. And in all fairness, lots of Jews are not nuts about the idea of chosenness, and lots of Christians don’t think salvation is only through Jesus, but you get my point.
And the presumption of that kind of public square interfaith relationship is that when you go home, you can let your religious freak flag fly, whatever that might be right. You can keep kosher. You can not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. You can not drink wine and only drink grape juice because—whatever it is, you can pray with the explicit language of your tradition and not worry if it’s excluding someone else. And your prayers can be in languages that are not English and you can do whatever it is that you want in the space of your home. And that is the American interfaith, multi-religious society, religious diversity bargain. Sometimes we’re good at it, and sometimes we’re terrible at it. But that’s kind of how the religious public sphere works.
What happens when that’s in your home, when you can no longer assume that your home is a place where you can, without stepping on anyone’s toes or having your toes stepped on, be religious in the way that you want to be? That, to me, is the super interesting animating question. How do people do that? What does it mean to fast for Yom Kippur or Ramadan or Good Friday when your relatives are eating lunch in front of you? Or does it mean that if you do not keep one of those holidays, do you fast too, because your loved ones, whoever they may be, are fasting? Does everybody give up bread for Passover because the house has been cleaned for Passover? Does the Christian partner get to go out and have pizza at lunch time out of the house?
JL: In a certain way it’s easier to not do something, than it is to do something on a personal level.
SM: Right. And by the same token, do you aid somebody else in raising your children to say prayers that you do not necessarily value? And do you come to value them after listening to your children say them for their entire childhood?
JL: And when you talk about this public-private negotiation, there’s also the element which you about in the opening to the book, the intervention in this of the state in some disputes in interfaith families, as well. That was part of this situation of navigating public and private religion. When we talk about interfaith families, one thing I’ve been thinking about as you’ve been talking is that you’re making this connection between the development of a multicultural or multifaith society as a whole in the United States and what it means to construct an interfaith or multifaith family. And so what that gets me thinking about is, is there a connection between the changing discourse and debate about interfaith marriage, or just intermarriage in general, and the changing ways in which Americans understand religious culture and assimilation as a whole?
SM: I think that an increasingly diverse society, by which I mean both an increasingly demographically diverse society but also if you believe that we are in a society in which people are increasingly likely to deal with people outside of their enclave, whatever it might be—and I have days when I really think that’s the kind of society that we’re headed towards, and then I have days in which I’m deeply skeptical of whether or not that’s the kind of society that we’re heading towards, and often has to do with how much time I’ve spent listening to the news… But if you think that that’s the kind of world we’re heading towards, interfaith marriage is going to get more and not less common because people are going to be interacting with people who are different from themselves more.
One of the things that those families want to argue, and also people have argued in books like Putnam and Campbell’s American Gracebook is, interfaith families lead to increased tolerance. And the way that Putnam and Campbell put it, as they say, there’s this thing that they call the “Aunt Susan effect.” Your tradition says that everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe is going to hell. But Aunt Susan, who married into the family, doesn’t believe what your family believes, and she’s wonderful and she’s clearly not going to hell, and so it causes you to question whether or not that’s true and to become more open and maybe tolerant, but maybe genuinely embracing of religious difference.
I think you can apply that to other kinds of difference. There are people who make the argument that an increasingly diverse society creates increasingly diverse families, and increasingly diverse families create an increasingly pluralistic society, a society in which people are something ranging from tolerant to embracing and celebrating of difference. People make that argument, interfaith families often argue, that the skills that you develop navigating a family that has—and people make this argument about interfaith families and also inter-ethnic families and also interracial families—navigating those two or more worlds create children who are better citizens of an increasingly diverse world. Both of those arguments exist out there. And I think that there is some merit to them. I also think there can be kind of a boostering, there’s an advocacy element to that. And I’m not sure it’s always held out or holds true. But, certainly, I think people make that argument a lot.
I also think that trends like decreased affiliation are part of the trend that creates interfaith families. Again, I don’t necessarily think that interfaith families are driving a tendency to go anti-establishment. But if you’re doing less of your socializing through your church or synagogue or mosque, you’re going to meet fewer of the people in your life through your church, your synagogue, your mosque. And if you’re not raised in a community like that, you are potentially less likely to feel the need to seek it out.
JL: I think it brings us back to something we talked about towards the beginning of our conversation. If we treat intermarriage or interfaith marriage as a fact as opposed to as a problem, we can approach it in a more level-headed manner and think about: Okay, so what does it mean? How do we live in this new reality, when upwards of, I don’t know, fifty or sixty percent—and again, these are numbers I’m sort of pulling out of thin air, but they’re representative of the fact that numbers are very high—when a very high number of people, say, within the Jewish community or within other communities are marrying or entering into relationships with people of other faiths or even within their own religion, e.g. a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew, when we take this as the reality on the ground, it presents a different set of questions about how does one how encounter and deal with this reality. It’s really striking to me, the way that you talked about the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is a Reform institution. Perhaps they represent a segment of the American Jewish population that is increasingly engaging with the fact of intermarriage, as opposed to the problem.
SM: I think they are increasingly treating interfaith marriage like a fact rather than a problem. But I think that they are still more inclined to treat it like a problem than a fact. I chose to focus on the Reform movement because that was the front edge of dealing with the problem. Most of the time, when the Conservative movement or even Modern Orthodoxy grapples with interfaith marriage, they’re working off of a template set by the Reform movement. They’re accepting or rejecting choices made by the Reform movement. And so, the Reform movement really set, I would say, the terms—and continues to set the terms—of Jewish communal engagement with interfaith marriage. So that’s why I chose to focus on them, because anything that the Conservative movement and to a certain extent various Orthodox movements do is done in relationship to the choices that the Reform movement made or is making. That doesn’t mean that they, like, immediately follow suit. But that’s the context. And in some ways, the Reform movement sees the competition, I would argue, as Christianity or secularism. But for the Conservative movement, the competition is Reform.
JL: We’ve been talking a lot about religion. But there are so many kinds of intermarriages you could talk about: a relationship between a Republican and a Democrat, or any other kind of crossing the boundary line of different kinds of beliefs, practices, approaches to the universe. And you’re really focusing here on Jewish-Christian marriage in particular. In what ways would you say that the interfaith relationships that you were examining in this book, are they different from other kinds of intermarriages between ethnic groups, religious groups, political affiliations, or so on and so forth? In what ways is this distinctive, or is it telling us a bigger story about the transformation of the society in which we live?
SM: People keep asking me or saying to me, the most common kind of interfaith marriage in theUnited States today is between Christians and non-believers, between Christians and “religious nones”—(religious) nones, as opposed to religious nuns, The Sound of Music. It’s people who, when you ask what is your religion, they check none of the above. And I think that there’s a lot to be said for that. But in the United States, the majority of non-believers are also coming out of Christian contexts. So while they may be militant and secular atheists who do not, for instance, want a Christmas tree in their house or something like that, they are often not navigating differences in some of the rituals that I find really interesting.
I get very interested in how people deal with religious ritual and practice that aren’t aligned. And often Christians marrying secular Americans don’t have those issues. They may have profound differences in worldview, but even then, they often don’t. They often feel differently about God, and maybe they feel differently about religious community, but it turns out that the majority of religious nones are also believers. They may or may not call what they believe in “God.” But there are some very interesting studies, both in the book Choosing Our Religionand in the book Losing our Religion, neither of which I wrote, that talk about the fact that the differences between people in church and out of church are not as profound as you might think.
So when people say, what about Christians and non-Christians, I’m less interested personally in that kind of interfaith marriage than I am in some of the bigger differences in worldview that you’re talking about. And I have to say, I think worldview is big. I think that Republican-Democrat marriages, perhaps particularly in Donald Trump’s America, are harder to navigate than interfaith marriages. And it has to do with worldview and values. It is utterly possible to be Roman Catholic and Jewish, or Hindu and Presbyterian, or pick your combination, and have very similar values about how one should live in the world and what kindness and compassion or the biggest ethical principles should look like. They may come from very different places, and they may have very different stories and practices in forming them. But the values can be very similar. And I am very aware—I often teach Steve Prothero’s book God is Not One, in which he’s saying, you need to remember all of those bigger contexts because they’re real and they inform what things mean. And I agree with him, but I think that, so often, the people who were talking about their context is really twenty-first century America. And so, on a day-to-day basis, how you want to live and move through the world is very similar across religious traditions, in some ways more so than a Reform Jew and an ultra-Orthodox Jew. A Reform Jew is going to have more in common with a member of the United Church of Christ than they are with a member of Chabad.
So what are you talking about when you talk about interfaith? It’s much easier for me, personally, to imagine myself married to someone outside of my tradition than it is for me to imagine myself married to someone outside of my political party—I guess my association to my political party isn’t that tight—but out of my political set of values, than outside of my religious tradition. And that was a personal answer and not a professional answer, but I think it holds true. The people that I studied, their heritages are very different often, but their worldviews are less different than you would think in many, many ways. Not in all ways, not in terms of all of their cosmology, and they have very different practices. But they’re often animated by parallel values.
JL: You just mentioned cosmology. In a certain way, I think this is so interesting because on a fundamental level this question of the creation of the universe is potentially a very important religious question, right? But when you take an interfaith couple, you probably won’t have one person who hews to the Biblical story of creation and another who says, well, it was the Big Bang. Among those different religions, you would probably have those two people, on average, either as one or the other, and not being in conflict over that fundamental question of the nature of the universe, even if they might have been raised going to synagogue and going to church, or whatever.
SM: Exactly. Like I said, a liberal Jew is going to have more in common with a member of the United Church of Christ than they are with their ultra-orthodox counterpart.
JL: To put all this in context, are you saying that that that even when we talk about interfaith marriages, that they’re really usually is not a huge difference? They might be members of different religions by birth, but usually so much draws them together at the same time, that this perhaps is part of the misconception of our understanding of intermarriage and interfaith marriage. So if you are basically saying that there are perhaps fewer differences in worldview or outlook between members of interfaith marriages or interfaith relationships than we might expect, why do Jewish-Christian intermarriages matter? Isn’t it, in a certain way, more interesting to talk about say a marriage between an ultra-Orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew, right? Or between a believing Christian and a profoundly dedicated atheist? What is it about Jewish-Christian interfaith marriage that matters, given this entire context?
SM: I think that ritual and practice and community do remain very important questions to navigate and to negotiate. I think that there are often striking similarities in worldview that bring people together, and I do think that there are often more things in common across religious difference than, for instance again, particularly in 2018, than across political difference. But that doesn’t mean that those differences don’t catch people by surprise and require them to think about how to navigate difference in the most intimate spaces of their lives. I am, in some ways, most interested in interfaith couples who think that they are completely the same until they realize that something they had no idea mattered matters to them, and then they have to figure out how to work that out.
JL: So, what does looking at this whole question of Jewish-Christian interfaith marriage tell us, then, about our society as a whole? Can we learn something from looking at these cases of people who think that they have a great deal in common until they don’t, in terms of understanding our world today at large?
SM: I think that in a lot of ways, what we can learn is how is it that we talk to each other. Earlier, I said that I think that in some ways my biggest methodological contribution is thinking about the ways in which people deploy terms strategically. What is religion? What is culture? What is natural? What is socially constructed? And how those negotiations play out. So it’s not necessarily that we can learn massive things from the choices that any given interfaith couple makes about how to live their lives, but we can learn a lot about how those choices are navigated. Not what their final decision is, but what kind of language and what kind of negotiation makes sense to them in the process of getting to that final conclusion.