Thursday, November 6, 2014

Think Intermarriage Vitriol is Unique to Judaism? Think Again.

In a November 2 article in The New York Times, Sonia Faleiro, author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars,” highlights the upheaval in India over interfaith marriages. She shares the experience of a Hindu-Muslim couple married in the 1970s and details how Hindu extremists are using violence to discourage intermarriage today. I was intrigued by the essay and wanted to see how other faiths dealt with interfaith relationships.

Faleiro starts with a portrait of the interreligious couple. The woman, a Hindu, kept her relationship with a Muslim man a secret from her conservative, middle-class family. When her parents found out, they were furious and warned her that it would not work and that she would "end up on the street." After she had married her boyfriend, her family disowned her. 

As I read this woman’s story, I thought, how it sounded much like the stories of Jewish-non-Jewish couples over the decades. Modern children who choose a partner for love rather than to conform to a religious or cultural norm and parents who disapprove of the choice and shun their children. 

For generations, the way in which Jewish parents and the community disowned a child who intermarried was to consider the child dead. Intermarriage symbolized a rejection of Jewish heritage. Parents sat shiva, the seven-day period of mourning that Jews observe when a parent, sibling, child or spouse dies. While sitting shiva for a child who has intermarried is no longer commonplace, there are still Jewish families that shun their children if they marry outside the faith. 

An observant man with two intermarried children recently wrote to The Seesaw, The Forward's column on interfaith relationships seeking advice on what to do about his estranged relationship with his two intermarried children. He wanted to have his children in his life, but he couldn’t get past their interfaith unions. He didn’t allow their non-Jewish partners into his house and he wouldn’t visit his children in their homes. 

As an occasional Seesaw contributor, I told him, that by choosing strict adherence to a religious norm over unconditional love, he had given up the chance to have a meaningful relationship with his children and grandchildren. By rejecting his children’s partners, he also lost the opportunity to influence his kids’ families through exposure to Jewish life. 

At some point, the parents of the Hindu woman in Faleiro’s essay learned a similar lesson because they decided to accept her husband and family after her second child was born. Over time, the Muslim spouse even became the parent’s favorite son-in-law. 

Faleiro also paints a scary portrait of the violent response to interreligious unions by some Hindus in India today. She details attacks on mixed faith couples in consenting relationships, women being dragged to police stations, weddings being stopped, and the faces of women partnered with Muslim men painted black by roving bands of men. She talks about right-wing Hindu politicians in states with sizable Muslim populations who fan communal flames by propagating the false claim that Muslims plan to seduce vulnerable Hindu women and convert them. 

Thankfully, these kinds of intermarriage prevention tactics are not used, at least to my knowledge, even in the most conservative segments of the US Jewish community. But they are in some Orthodox communities in Israel. These communities use social service professionals to "rescue" women dating Arab men, vigilante-like patrols to stop Arab men from mixing with local Jewish females and anti-assimilation campaigns from right-wing religious organizations  anti-assimilation groups to save Jewish girls. 

Faleiro’s piece reminded me that the specifics of the intermarriage issue may differ from faith to faith, but the fears are the same. Outsiders are luring our children away from our tradition, and weakening our community. For the sake of continuity, these relationships must be stopped before our children reject our faith or the non-[insert the religion of your choice] converted. 

While the concerns are the same, in my opinion, so are the solutions. Reach out to welcome the stranger, show loving kindness to demonstrate respected, and educate and engage the partner of another faith by including him or her in rituals and traditions. Above all, focus on having meaningful relationships with children and their families, rather than on religious norms and community opinion.