Taking a Jewish Page From the Book of Mormon on Interfaith Marriage

What We Can Learn From Salt Lake City

Marriage, Mormon Style: They marry young, while the church still has influence.
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Marriage, Mormon Style: They marry young, while the church still has influence.

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

Published April 14, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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After the bar or bat mitzvah, most Jewish institutions do not have any kind of formal schooling or other particular religious requirements. Aside from teen youth groups and college Hillels, Jewish leaders mostly seem to be waiting for young Jews simply to return to their doors when they get married sometime in their late 20s. Emerging adulthood, though they may not call it that, is embraced by most Conservative and Reform families, who want their children to have a variety of educational, professional and geographical opportunities, unencumbered by the needs of a mate.

If there is something to be learned from the way the Mormon Church has approached interfaith marriage, it is not just that certain policies, structures and teachings of the church work to encourage endogamy. Interfaith marriage is not unheard of among Mormons. In fact, there are people at the highest levels of church leadership who come from interfaith homes or whose own children are in interfaith marriages.

Over time, though, a significant portion of these marriages becomes same-faith. And it is because of the church’s attitudes toward interfaith couples and nonmembers in general that this is the case. I would describe it as a calm and quiet confidence that there are important truths to be found in the LDS faith, that their community is one that people should want to join. There is a sense that religious views do not necessarily change overnight, but sometimes only after years of marriage or a decade or more of involvement with a community.

Mormons understand that conversion is not something you ask about once and then drop. People change, and they become more receptive to religious messages at different points in their lives. It is not devious or threatening to try to engage nonmembers in such discussions regularly as long as you are not mean-spirited or hectoring.

Jewish leaders have focused so far mostly on the problems they have had convincing young Jews to marry inside the faith. But they have not paid as much attention to what happens after intermarriage. There is an acknowledgement that pushing more conversion would be a good idea. But Jews are so new to this idea that they are not quite sure how to go about it. When they do, they are often timid and deeply concerned about offending non-Jewish spouses.

Or they simply want to make it seem like Judaism is something that is compatible with a spouse’s agnosticism or secularism. This is understandable, but America is a thriving religious marketplace, and if Jews are going to compete, they will need to have more confidence in their message.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America” (Oxford University Press).


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