God Is Dead but Woody Allen Lives?
Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians
By Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen
Pages: 416 pages
Review Author: Ronald Austin
Intermarriage between Jews and Christians is a growing phenomenon in American life which provokes both fear and joy. It may be viewed an as intimate deepening of an essential dialogue, full of opportunities for understanding and forgiveness, or, alternatively, as a threat to Jewish existence itself. It has the potential for a mutual spiritual enrichment, or it can lead to a diluted secularization of both faiths.
The dialogue between American Jews and Christians in our time is actually a triangular conversation. The third partner, always present but often unacknowledged, is the voice of “the world,” the society within which both groups live and attempt to survive. Indifferent to redemption, its popular culture unapologetically “pagan,” the larger “civil” society provides both the arena and, increasingly, the behavioral norms. But when unacknowledged, this secular voice enters the dialogue as a whisper of assumptions, unexamined and unchallenged.
Intemarriage between Jews and Christians accelerates both dialogue and tension. There are now over a half million intermarried couples in the country and the numbers are increasing. At least a quarter of all American Jews “marry out,” a statistic that understandably alarms a community whose low birth rate alone threatens its long-term viability.
The Intermarriage Handbook by Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen is the latest and most comprehensive book to address this controversial development. It is a useful book for the many things it tells us about marriage between Jews and Christians — and enlightening for what it fails to address. The secular whisper prevails throughout.
The “handbook” is over 400 pages of good-intentioned advice for the increasing number of Jews and Christians whose love and commitment draws them into the unexplored emotional territory of intermarriage. A broad compendium of facts, statistics, and practical suggestions, it deals with literally everything from birth (baptism, naming, circumcision, etc.) through death (who will and will not bury your spouse of a different faith). Indexed, it provides extensive supplements providing organizational and written resources. A couple contemplating intermarriage will find sympathetic support within these pages, but may seek in vain for even acknowledgment of many thorny underlying questions.
Petsonk and Remsen are journalists who lead programs for intermarried couples. (Remsen, who was “raised Methodist” — and “lapsed” according to the L.A. Jewish Journal — has intermarried and is experienced in the “Jewish upbringing of his children.”) Their approach to religious issues is understandably “neutral” but not necessarily “objective.” Their assumptions reflect the times. “Religion” is seen as part of one’s “lifestyle,” important to some, not to others. Religious conviction seems more grounded in the psychology of personal adjustment or the sociology of remnant groups than in Scripture or tradition. Utilitarian ethics and relativism appear to be the accepted norms. As they approach those creedal and ritual elements of both religions which are less congenial to the “modern mind,” they read, at best, as benign anthropologists among tribalists.
What seems to emerge in these pages as the intermarried couple is guided toward compromise and common ground is a religion of assimilation. Judaism becomes less a covenant than a subculture, increasingly arbitrary and ill-defined. This is a trend deplored by Jewish commentators, such as the late Arthur A. Cohen. It has led to “temples” without rabbis and rabbis without God. Not that intermarriage is necessarily a threat in itself. A sociological study of intermarriage by Egon Mayer (Love and Tradition: Marriage Between Jews and Christians, 1985) suggests that intermarriage may actually increase the religious awareness of many couples. Mayer’s concern is less with demographics, however, than with the nature of Jewish survival. Assimilation leading to a complete loss of identity may be less of an immediate danger than the emptying of the irreducible content of Judaism. The dietary laws and the mikva may go, but how far can the covenants and commandments be relativized? Can an authentic Judaism be reduced to social concerns and popular psychology? God is dead but Woody Allen lives?
It may be presumptuous for a Christian, even intermarried, to do more than raise these questions in a Jewish context. But the Christian identity is perhaps no less at risk. “Assimilation,” as such, is seldom posed as endangering the Christian majority. The complacent assumption is that the values and structures of the larger society are either compatible with Christian identity, or, if necessary, can be altered. Indeed, despite 24 million abortions and an ever-ready nuclear strike force, “Christian” identity itself is still frequently subsumed by the rubric of American nationalism. In the matter of spiritual survival, Christians may have much to learn from the experience of our Jewish brethren and forbears.
Not surprisingly, the Petsonk-Remsen book becomes the most superficial when dealing with those aspects of life most challenged and examined by religious teachings: life in terms of creation (sexuality) and death. The Jewish and Christian concepts of death are covered in barely more than a page in an otherwise thoughtful section concerning death and funerals (events often made more painful by the conflicts of intermarriage). The authors’ treatment of sexual ethics is most revealing. Situational ethics and moral relativism are implied as the norms, again unexamined and unchallenged. This and other limits of the book stem from the authors’ inclination to substitute pop-psych “self-expression” for worship and ritual. Religion (or the “spiritual,” a balm also to be found in New Age groups) is accepted as a somewhat arbitrary contributor to the goal of mental health, helpful if “liberal” and flexible, less useful if “conservative” or “traditional.” At times the book becomes a psychologically oriented “self-help” manual, urging the reader to do his or her own thing. Occasionally the examples of “creative alternatives” verge on the bizarre: a “non-churchy” birthday cake for Jesus at Christmas, for instance (who blows out the candles?). It is hard to imagine the more demanding representatives of the two religions, say a John the Baptizer or an Isaiah, surviving within the confines of this “new” and evasive religious sensibility.
The authors correctly caution those contemplating intermarriage to consider marriage as a process comprising stages of growth and challenge. As the Christian partner in an intermarriage of over 30 years, I can acknowledge the many and sometimes surprising problems that love must overcome. This book, at times genuinely helpful, anticipates many of them. But the secularized, assimilated version of religion the authors seem to favor not only raises serious questions for Jews (the perplexing “who is a Jew?” still rages), but poses equally difficult questions for intermarried Christians.
What if the core of religion is experienced as not cultural but revelatory? Surely this is closer to what has been recorded as authentic religious experience in both traditions. What happens if either or both partners in the evolving marriage should begin to see Jesus and/or Torah not as reassuring symbols to be extricated from dying traditions and integrated into one’s self-invented “lifestyle” but as living forces, embodying commandments to believing Jews and Christians? Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel once described the Bible as an extended answer to a question. The question wasn’t “what’s in this for me?” It was “what does God expect from man?”
In other words, what if the religion comes alive?
Aren’t truly believing, observant Jews and Christians obliged to “live their faith”? Don’t they then become “witnesses” to that faith? Does this then imply a desire for the conversion of the partner? Does the anti-idolatrous heart of Jewish piety command a total rejection of the Christian spouse’s “savior”? These are some of the difficult yet inescapable questions that may arise.
If an interfaith love is mature, fruitful, and lasting, then we must believe that God has a purpose in bringing us together. We have been given the opportunity, clearly, to reduce suspicion and overcome prejudice. But is there more? What is the theological dimension to intermarriage?
I suggest that the thoughts of two paradigmatic thinkers of the 20th century offer, if not answers, at least compatible paths of inquiry. Martin Buber and Jacques Maritain, certainly among the leading religious interpreters of our times, both displayed enormous sensitivity and insight when dealing with Jewish/Christian issues. Buber, the Jewish sage, referred to Jesus as “my brother” throughout his life. He did not acknowledge Jesus as the expected Messiah but as a spiritual guide and teacher. Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, challenged, to his everlasting credit, anti-Semitism and the evil ambivalence of many Christians prior to the Holocaust. He also saw through the mask of anti-Semites who, fearful and resentful of Christianity, could only attack the spirit and teachings of Jesus by attacking his People.
It is not that either man avoids confronting essential differences. Neither indulges in ecumenical blather. What is most interesting to note in Buber and Maritain is not just a common generosity of spirit but the similarity of their critiques of the “other” religion.
Buber, whom Cohen called “a prophet to the Gentiles,” sees Christianity as compromised by its entanglements with earthly power while fixing its gaze on eternity. He wrote in At The Turning (1952): “Christianity had its origin in a deformative late phase of Jewish Messianism, in which it strove, no longer to conquer history, but to escape from it to purer spheres,” whereas “the principle of our faith, the truth and justice of God, which strives to fulfill itself in the domain of human life and human history…continued to radiate from our Book and some protagonists of the Christian faith were hit by its rays….”
Maritain acknowledges this Christian deficiency saying: “Of earthly hope the Jews have an excess; and of this virtue many Christians have not enough” (The Mystery of Israel, 1937). But he saw the plight of the Jews as coming from, in part, their inordinate love of “the world”: “The Jews…at a crucial moment chose the world; they have loved it; their penalty is to be held captive by their choice. Prisoners and victims in this world which they love, but of which they are not, will never be, cannot be.”
Are these not “reverse of the coin” criticisms? Both see the other as captured by an unredeemed world. Yet neither spares himself, his people, or his faith from the same criticism.
Both Buber and Maritain demand a religious vision that addresses injustice and the needs of the living, yet never forsakes mystery and the transcendental. Buber, whose early heroes were Boehme, Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa, continually fought against those who would “absolute a fragment of the Absolute,” whether in religious or political terms, and confronted contemporary Gnosticism (which he saw in Jung among others), defining it as “God taken prisoner by the mind.” Maritain was equally resolute in resisting erosive modern excesses such as historicism: “We have witnessed human reason gone astray and [become a] captive to empiricism, seeking wisdom more anxiously than ever before, yet failing to find it, because it has rejected the sense of mystery and has attempted to subject wisdom to the alien law of progress by substitution.” He concludes: “truth cannot be subjected to a chronological test.”
Both men recognized that, as the Torah teaches, “fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom,” a sentiment not found in the Intermarriage Handbook. Yet Maritain would have surely agreed with Buber’s reflection that Isaiah and Jesus demand not just a faith in God, which was implied and understood, but “its realization in the totality of life.”
I suggest that these are two teachers for us all.
Rather than diluting or omitting articles of faith for our personal convenience, even for the sake of interfaith harmony, the paths of Buber and Maritain suggest that we accept our differences as calling for deeper understanding and for humility. Not that we don’t share a great deal in faith and ethics. Doesn’t the common ground, for instance, suggest a required opposition to the contemporary idolatries of power and wealth, and of materialist consumerism? But there remain crucial differences, including some seeming gulfs. If, however, we must challenge each other, shouldn’t it be not so much as to amend and bend as to deepen our faith, forcing us to reach beyond the comfortable and familiar to that convergence Christians find in Grace and Mystery and which Buber called “Thou”?
The greatest Jewish artist of modern times, Marc Chagall, was a friend of Jacques Maritain. In fact, Raissa Maritain wrote a long study of Chagall and his work. Like Buber, Chagall was drawn to Jesus and painted a number of crucifixion scenes. Chagall saw Jesus as archetypal, perhaps holy but not divine, not as the Christian savior but as Jewish prophet and martyr. In one of Chagall’s masterpieces, the White Crucifixion, the crucified Christ is a Jew whose loins are covered by a tallith, a prayer shawl. The cross is surrounded by images of a burning synagogue, fleeing refugees, the dead and dying. It is the world of pogrom, war, and revolution, yet it is bathed in the holy light of redemption.
Chagall’s image suggests a possibility, perhaps even a miracle. Is it possible that Jesus the Jew, accepted as a living Messiah by some but only as a loving brother by others, can still be a bridge between us? Is this perhaps the ultimate “Jewish paradox”: that the symbol of rejection could yet become the means of reconciliation? It would mean that the same Jesus of history, whose worshipers persecuted his people, would bring the divided together, not in identity but in forgiveness and in love. For Jesus to be recognized by Jews as the suffering servant described in Isaiah could be nothing more or less than the revelation of a beloved brother and teacher. It is in fulfilling his faithfulness as a Jew that he is despised and misunderstood, yet brings justice and truth. And thus as a Jew, he offers his earthly life as a sacrifice to love and faith.
And for those who are his followers, who took his prophetic name, and for whom He is more than suffering servant, more than brother and teacher, a Christ-centered dialogue with Judaism would mean accepting and acknowledging this Jewish view of Jesus as profoundly different from our own and yet as another path to God.
Miracle or mitzvah, many of us in interfaith marriages would welcome such a dialogue.
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