WHEN CONVERSION DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT
Years ago there was a great deal of pressure on interfaith couples who were dating that one or the other of them had to be willing to convert. Actually, that was after both sets of parents finally gave up trying to convince them that they really had no future. The idea that a healthy marriage could be maintained with two people of two different religions is a fairly new phenomenon. Even when my husband and I got married there was a lot of head-shaking and eye rolling. I’m quite sure there were some wagers on how long we would last.
In some communities there are still expectations that one or the other has to convert, or at least agree to raise any future children in a specific faith. While an interfaith family is not always the easiest path to take, there are no guarantees that a marriage between two people of the same religion will be enduring.
Those who come into a relationship with similar core values and a willingness to work through their problems have a much better chance of staying together. Religion is just one of many factors—for me it is a very important factor, but still only one factor.
Conversion must come from the heart and soul; it is rarely meaningful or lasting if it is done to appease parents, grandparents, an organizational hierarchy or even a loving partner. What I advocate is that couples make a decision about what kind of home they plan on having and how they will raise any children they may have. If they plan on raising their children as Jews, then as long as they are in agreement the spouse who is not Jewish doesn't necessarily need to convert.
I have worked with people who were reluctant to convert for the many of following reasons. They
- thought it would be disrespectful to their parents
- didn’t like the idea of the mikvah (or baptism) from a privacy perspective
- had never been circumcised and couldn't imagine doing it as an adult
- were circumcised but thought they would have to do it again
- felt like they were giving up their identity
These are all valid concerns and items that can be addressed with your rabbi during your year of study. There is no shame is spending the time in thoughtful study and reflection, and at the end of that period, deciding this is not the right time for you to make the commitment.
The whole purpose of taking an entire year of your life to worship, pray, study, and celebrate with a faith community is to provide clarity as to whether or not this is where your future lies. If, at the end of the year, it still doesn't feel right, you are a wiser person for having devoted the time and energy.
You can have the exact same experience in any faith community whether it is a Christian Church, Baha’i Center, Mosque, or any religious community you devote yourself to as a seeker. At the end of your time of study and worship with your partner, you may decide this is not your path; however, it will not have been wasted or lost time. The two of you will have had time to clarify your values and grown in your understandings of what each of you does believe and what kind of home you will create.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM CONVERSION
If you choose to follow through and convert (this is about converting to Judaism) there are a few practices you might want to learn about in advance. Any rabbi you study with will certainly guide you through this process, but it doesn't hurt to know in advance. So, if you haven’t read LET’S TALK ABOUT CONVERSION, PART I, please go back and read that blog. In it I answer the questions about the mikveh, circumcision, a bet din, and offer a number of resources from which you can choose.
The thing about conversion is that you will make some people happy and disappoint other people—it’s kind of like everything else in life—you can’t make everyone happy all the time. The people you have to consider are you and your future spouse, your future children, and the reality of the feelings of your immediate family—parents and grandparents. But, even then, while being respectful and honoring them, the decision rests with you and your future spouse.
A conversion to any faith is a public statement and that is an expectation regardless of the tradition or movement. This isn't something you can keep secret and whisper in the early hours of the morning or the darkening of the sky. By converting you are publicly stating your intention to set your future course with a specific people who believe in certain principles, values and life styles.
I’M SURE, CONVERSION ISN'T RIGHT FOR ME
Good for you. A difficult decision has been made through thoughtful consideration. Hopefully, this is something you and your partner have worked through with your clergy member and everyone is on the same page. This doesn't necessarily mean it will never be something you will consider again, it also doesn't mean you will ever consider it again. For now, however, it is off the table and you will move toward your marriage as an interfaith couple and create an interfaith family.
DOES THIS HAVE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WEDDING?
Well, perhaps yes, and perhaps no. Most clergy will expect you to make a decision about what kind of home you will be creating once you are married. For example, if you are young and plan on having children, they will want to know what faith tradition you plan on raising your future children.
Being undecided, telling them you will let the kids decide when they are older, or saying you haven’t talked about that yet, are not the answers they are usually seeking. If a clergy member is going to officiate at your wedding, s/he will want to know that you have given careful consideration to these questions and plan to raise your future family in the faith that s/he represents.
However, having said that, many clergy are comfortable with couples who are still undecided up to the time of the wedding. This is a conversation for you to have with your clergy person who is officiating at your wedding.
WILL I STILL BE WELCOME IN THE COMMUNITY?
I can’t speak for every faith community on this one, but I can speak for the progressive Jewish community—Yes! The decision on whether or not to convert is a personal choice and nobody will think less of you because you have decided that conversion is not the right choice for you. As the spouse of a member, you will automatically be considered a part of the congregation and welcome to participate in all aspects of congregational life.
However, in some faith communities, and in some Jewish communities, there are specific roles and rites in which people who are not adherents to the tenets of the faith cannot engage or participate. One example in Christianity is the sacrament of Holy Communion; this is reserved for those who believe in Jesus as Christ. Similarly, in Judaism some congregations reserve reading from the Torah or reciting blessings before and after reading Torah for those who are Jews, either by birth or conversion.
WHAT IF I CHANGE MY MIND?
The door is always open. You may always decide at a later time that you are ready for conversion or that you wish to explore the idea again. It is not a “one time” decision. Many people have chosen to convert years after they were married, some long after their children were grown. People grow and change, circumstance change, our needs change and our ideas about what we once thought we wanted change.
You and your spouse have a common set of values that set you on a trajectory toward marriage and establishing a home together. If that common set of values continues to grow together, it is reasonable that at some point one or the other of you may ultimately decide to join the other in his or her faith community. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. It doesn't mean your value system is askew. It just means you each find meaning in your own traditions and that works for your family.
HOW DO I RESPOND TO PEOPLE WHEN THEY ASK ME WHY I AM NOT CONVERTING?
I am always amazed at the things people think they have a right to ask. I suppose it’s just too rude to say “it’s none of your business” but that’s really the answer they deserve, unless it’s a heartfelt request from a parent.
Your answer should depend upon the person asking and your relationship with that person. For example, if this is someone you really don’t know, you can simply say that it is a personal decision and you and your future spouse are giving careful thought to the question. If the question comes from a family member you can thank them for their concern and reiterate that you are giving it careful thought, and maybe add how much you enjoy celebrating with them.
There are two caveats of which you must be aware:
1. If you are Jewish and marrying someone from an evangelical Christian family, and,
2. If you a non-Jewish woman who is marrying a Jewish man.
In the first instance please understand that your new family may very well do its utmost to convince you to convert to their religion. They don’t mean to offend you, they mean the opposite—they love you and want to ensure your salvation. Period. This is what they know and understand. Please do not take offense but do be firm with your spouse and with his/her family that conversion is not an option (unless it is).
As for the second instance, since Judaism is passed down through the woman, children born of non-Jewish women have historically not been considered Jewish unless they converted. However, in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements there is this practice called “patrilineal descent” that recognizes children born of either a Jewish man or woman as Jewish as long as they are raised as Jews.
In Conservative Judaism it is a bit more complex. If a baby is taken to the mikveh following birth (after a Brit Milah for a boy and a naming ceremony for a girl) and immersed, then that child is Jewish. If, however, a boy does not have a Brit Milah but has a circumcision in a hospital and a naming ceremony, that is not considered acceptable. That child would then have to go through a hatafat dam (please refer to LET’S TALK ABOUT CONVERSION PART I for an explanation of this term) prior to the immersion.
Beyond these two groups of people you don’t need to go into details about why you are, or are not, converting. It is a personal decision. Everyone you meet will have a story for you. Everyone will want you to talk to their aunt, cousin, friend, sister or spouse. Thank them for their interest and tell them you will let them know if the time comes that you want to meet any of these people. When they circle back again, tell them firmly that you appreciate their concern but they are making you uncomfortable.
Now it’s time to settle into your lives and decide how you want to live this interfaith life that you have chosen. Your life together can be anything you want it to be. There are so many resources available to assist you and your family. Interfaith Family based in Boston is on that has a wealth of online resources that you can download. Their focus isn't on conversion; it’s on engaging families to create Jewish memories and supporting you in your process. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish movements all have departments devoted to interfaith families and resources to assist you. The Jewish Outreach Institute has some valuable information in its Jewish Lights publications series that might be helpful.
The Catholic Church has a website, www.foryourmarriage.org which outlines the specifics regarding interfaith marriages within the Catholic Church. They include other Christian denominations and non-Christian traditions such as Judaism and Islam. It is comprehensive and very accessible. Like Judaism, Catholicism expects you to raise any future children in the faith.
Many Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Episcopal Church have either departments within their national offices or online resources available. In addition, most of them have local offices that offer resources that are also readily available.
Other religions have interfaith resources including Islam-Christian, Baha’i Interfaith, Hindu Interfaith, Greek Orthodox and Buddhist Interfaith. Because so many couples are marrying outside the parameters of their faith traditions, religious organizations have come to understand that they will either lose these couples completely or they must find a way to embrace them and make them feel welcome.
The caveat with most of the denominationally based interfaith resources and organizations above is that, while they do not require the spouse convert, they do expect any children will be raised in their faith. Please make sure you have this conversation before you get married—in which tradition will you raise your children?
We covered a lot of information in this post. There is no right answer for everyone; each couple has to make decisions that are right for them. Those decisions might change over time and as your circumstances change. Nothing in life is static—your career is not static, you will likely move from one home to another, probably from one state to another. You will each grow and change throughout your life together. Being open and receptive to those changes and being mindful of how these changes impact your faith and family traditions will help you move forward.
The conversation about conversion is just one conversation. It is important, but it is still just one conversation. The conversation about shared core values is one that is ongoing. That is where the major portion of the work takes place. With the two of you deciding your future together. May the work you undertake together be one of blessing and joy; Mazel Tov!
REFLECTING ON YOUR INTERFAITH MARRIAGE
Visit us at www.interfaithlifecoaching.com and let us know what topics would like to have addressed on the blog. Leave your comments and begin a discussion about a topic of interest to you.