Interfaith Marriages and Religious Leaders
Initially I was not excited about Mixed Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century (2013) by Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll, which tells the story of their interfaith union. While I am all for sharing stories about successful intermarriage, being in one myself for over 25 years, I was not sure what the hype was about.
But as I read and reflected on what they had to say and experienced, I came to appreciate the nuances of their marriage and the courage of their commitment. Their personal story stands on the cusp of a larger opportunity.
Not only is one partner in this interfaith marriage Jewish, but she is also a rabbi. At first, this was not enough to bowl me over. Plenty of intermarried clergy have faced the same difficult decisions. I too am ordained, as an Interfaith Minister. My seminary was founded by an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi and I completed the coursework for Rabbinic Seminary International.
But although I run an open interfaith educational program for children of intermarriage, I am not serving the congregation of an official denomination approved by a religious institution, and not beholden to the politics that go with it.
Michal Woll is, though, and that makes all the difference. Furthermore, Jon Sweeny’s devotion to Catholicism is as deep as Michal’s is to Judaism. He converted to Catholicism as an adult, having been raised a Protestant. Though not a cleric like Michal, he is a religious scholar and author of multiple books on Christianity and Catholicism.
The profundity of Jon and Michal’s situation did not fully sink in until I read the following words – not in their book, but in Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both (also reviewed this month in these pages) about families choosing two religions and their difficulty finding supportive clergy:
“Jews who are intermarried or in a committed relationship with a non-Jew cannot be admitted to or ordained by the rabbinical seminaries of the Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist movements… rabbinical students deeply involved with Christian partners … felt they had to push their partners to convert to Judaism by the time of their ordination.” (p. 73)
Ouch. Even though I “knew” this (never mind the Orthodox movement’s ban on intermarriage, let alone female rabbis), there was something definitive and sad about reading it in black on white. It made me see the decree for what it is. Although Michal, who met Jon after becoming a rabbi, does not confront these rules pre-ordination, she does so post-ordination. I came to see her predicament as part of a pregnant moment waiting to give birth to a new paradigm.
Jon and Michal’s story is testimony to Love’s conquering ability. They describe their religious and romantic backgrounds in a refreshing style with honesty and clarity. They share the process by which they, alone and together, work out their differences and celebrate their similarities. We learn about two people with strong and admirable values who come from theologically opposing traditions, with histories punctuated by conflict, and yet, who manage to love the stranger.
They choose to keep a Jewish home and raise their daughter with one faith (Jewish), while Michal is supportive of Jon’s Catholicism. Not all intermarried couples have or will come to the same conclusions as Michal and Jon do, but I know that many share in equally spiritually enriching conversations about religion. This couple’s willingness to expose theirs and to demarcate their journey with themes such as “becoming ourselves” and “creating a home” from which others might draw inspiration, is worth investigating whether intermarried or not.
When Jon’s religious affiliation turns out to be the sole reason for why Michal is rejected by one Jewish congregation as their prospective rabbi, it says more about them than the couple. Michal later lands a position with a congregation that accepts her and her Catholic spouse, the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. I am thrilled that this family has a religious home where they can feel comfortable and grow together.
However, it must be noted that just as Michal’s dual role of rabbi and interfaith spouse presented a hurdle for finding both a congregation to lead and a community to join, so too is this binary identity a boon. For the result of this love story is an intermarried rabbi bearing the conferred power to be both The Acceptor and The Accepted, both The Leader and The Led.