At a panel on interfaith marriage held on Nov. 12 at Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus, Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, showed a photo of the wedding of two dear friends taken some 40 years ago. The groom, a French Canadian Catholic, was to wed his bride, a Lebanese Muslim.
At the annual Fall McGinley Lecture, Father Ryan dedicated his lecture, “Interfaith Marriage: A Concern for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” to the couple—as this year’s topic struck a personal note for the lecturer and the respondents.
Father Ryan said that despite commonalities between the three faiths, Christians and Jews in particular, he’s not entirely convinced that commonality “justifies interfaith marriage”— especially the ones he reads about in the Sunday New York Times.
“Typically these [wedding]notices assert, for example, that ‘elements of the Christian and Jewish traditions were introduced into the wedding ceremony,’” he said. “And they are usually conducted by a friend of the marrying couple licensed to preside over the occasion by some ersatz online marriage ministry.”
Father Ryan pointed out that such interfaith unions are on the rise—among American Jews 58 percent of those who have married since 2005 have done so outside their faith tradition.
“All too many of the children of such marriages are raised in neither religious tradition, growing up as what I call Brand X,” he said. “If so many American Jews marry outside of their faith and raise their children without religious identity, what is the future for American Judaism?”
Respondent Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie and author of several books on the Book of Psalms, said that for some Jews an “out marriage” represents a betrayal and an abandonment of Jewish peoplehood.
“We are not simply a religion. We are also a people and so we have an inalienable right to exist,” he said.
Rabbi Polish said that is one reason he refuses to officiate at interfaith ceremonies.
“The Torah is a family-oriented book that tells you to teach this diligently to your children,” he said.
Given the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate Jews in the 20th century, the rabbi said losses through interfaith marriage deliver a “posthumous victory to Hitler.” As such, he said that the reasons he and other Jews oppose interfaith marriage shouldn’t be dismissed as parochial notions of superiority.
Recently, Reform Jews decided to recognize patrilineal descent alongside matrilineal descent for Jewish identity, thus opening the possibility for intermarriage, the rabbi said. Nevertheless, he remained pessimistic, stating that of the more than 50 percent of Jews who marry outside of their faith, only 25 percent raise their children in the faith.
For her response, Union Theological Seminary Assistant Professor Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Ph.D., expressed more hope for interfaith marriage and tackled the idea via “inherited faith.”
Quoting the Qur’an, Lampty said that when God told Abraham he would make him the leader of his people, Abraham asked whether the covenant would be extended to his descendants, to which God replied that only those who were righteous would inherit Abraham’s leadership. From that passage it could be gleaned that Islamic identity doesn’t purely come from parents; one must live a righteous life.
“Religious identity in the Qur’an isn’t something that can be inherited,” she said.
Lamptey said that in the majority of Qur’an verses which address men alone a man can marry a woman outside of the faith, but a woman cannot do the same.
Lamptey said that the general understanding of the rule could be explained as an effort to protect women so that they can practice their faith.
The upside is that Muslim men are considered “tolerant” of their non-Muslim wives, she said, having little reason today to exert “normative dominance.”
Muslims who are against interfaith marriage are more concerned about what “should be, not what actually is,” she said. She said the lack of effort to understand others “shores up the boundaries of identities” when, in fact, the Qur’an teaches Muslims other religions could be “signs of God.”
“If religious diversity is a sign of God, then we are obliged by our very commitment to God to acknowledge diversity,” she said. “We are called to engage deeply across traditions.”
The McGinley lecture was also presented on Nov. 11 at the Lincoln Center campus.