The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Till Death Do Us Part?
I am marrying a Catholic man who is concerned about the afterlife and whether or not he will be with me and our future (Jewish) children many, many years down the road. As a Jew, this is not something I think about much – although it does bother me a little that I won’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I want to “lie” next to my husband. How do we broach this topic? What are the options? Doing some REALLY long-term planning…
Heaven is Not a 1950s Country Club
SCOTT PERLO: In the 1950s my grandparents helped open a Jewish country club in Los Angeles (vunderful golf, darling). They did this because the gentile clubs didn’t want them. Thus the city was properly (according to some) separated by religion and class.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that heaven is not a 1950s country club. Almost every religion (including ours) has dogma that puts only its believers in the most exclusive circles of the afterlife, but one of the benefits of our age is that encountering everybody else’s religion has encouraged ecumenicism. I may not know exactly where we’re going, but I’m pretty sure that we’re going there together.
The intermarried Christian mother of a friend once told my quite obviously Jewish mother that her one regret in marrying a Jewish man was that she would not be with her husband and children in heaven. Since she was nonetheless willing to marry a Jew (and managed to forget that my mother is one), I guess that she had gained that gem of a belief as a kid. When people are uncritical of an article of faith that does not jive with their adult behavior, it’s a fair bet that they picked it up young.
Your fiancé’s belief needs to grow up. It’s not something that you can force, or, like a recalcitrant little kid, it’ll back itself into a corner. But you can ask it questions to help it evolve, such as “what happens to righteous people who are not Catholic” and, perhaps with less patience, “do you think that 4/5s of the world’s population is going to hell?”
And when it is time for your eternal rest, most Jewish cemeteries these days have space where both Jews and those not of our faith can lie together, regardless of their heavenly address.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
These Days You Can Intermarry and Inter-bury
KEREN MCGINITY: Nowadays you can intermarry and, hopefully after a long life, inter-bury. There is a traditional prohibition against burying Jews and non-Jews in the same cemetery that is upheld by Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. However, Reform Judaism honors a non-Jew who marries a Jew and co-raises Jewish children by allowing him to be buried with his Jewish family. Fortunately for you and all intermarried Jews, there are Jewish cemeteries that allow mixed-faith burials so that you will be able to “lie” next to or at least near your husband-to-be.
His preoccupation with the afterlife and whether or not he will be “with” his Jewish spouse and children is more of a challenge but not insurmountable. You can broach this topic by validating his feelings, sharing yours, and asking him questions. What is the basis for his concern? My hunch is that it may have to do with a pre-Second Vatican Council teaching that people who were not been baptized did not go to heaven. What would put his mind at ease? A modern interpretation of Catholic scripture that God saves all people rather than only Christians means baptism is an entrance ritual into a community of Christian faith—not a ticket upstairs. See Reverend Walter H. Cuenin’s article “Is Heaven Denied to an Unbaptized Child: For Catholic Parents of Jewish Children” for more insights.
Try to talk openly with your future spouse and also seek out Jewish and Catholic clergy who can discuss in-depth what your two faiths have in common regarding death and what are the points of divergence. Although the afterlife is rarely discussed in Jewish circles, Judaism does include belief in the immortality of the soul and Olam Ha Ba, the World to Come. Provided he is willing to put his faith in God and you are open to putting stock in a messianic age, you two can be together beyond “’till death do you part.”
Dr. Keren R. McGinity is an author-educator affiliated with Brandeis University. Her books include “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America” and “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood.” Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com.
Not Everything Needs to Be Figured Out in Advance
HALLOCK SVENSK: Life events – marriage, graduation – have a way of putting things into focus. The details become visible and meaningful. A certain chapter comes to an end and the loose ends need to be tied up, the dissonances resolved, the details put in their place, else there is no story of what went before. At the same time, the future appears expansive, unsettled, needing signposts or limits to give it shape.
As I’ve had to remind myself now and again in preparation of my own wedding, however, love is long, forever, and not all decisions need to be made today, as time often has a way of making certain decisions for you, such that the decision of, for example, how to celebrate both of our family traditions in December is often resolved more pragmatically by airfares and vacation times than by ideological commitments. Having come from a more liberal Christian background, I guess I tend to put love first and assume that the details will follow.
That said, it would be worth knowing specifically what these concerns about the afterlife are. In his mind, is Christianity a prerequisite to virtue or happiness in the afterlife? More importantly, is it prerequisite to those things in this life? Does he believe that you will be tortured in the afterlife simply because you lived your life in accordance with the laws of a different religion – despite otherwise having been a virtuous and just person? If so, there’s a problem. Alternatively, could you be an observant Jew and by dint of that, have been a virtuous person under his Christian criteria to be saved in the afterlife? With more details and love lighting your way, perhaps you can discover an alternative interpretation of the texts to keep you both happy in this life and the next.
Hallock Svensk grew up in New England and now lives in California. His fiance is Jewish and half-Chinese. They have a dog named Ace.