Chapter One: What Is Interfaith?A Philosophy of the Heart
The spiritual visions of man confirm and illumine each other....Great poems in different languages have different values but they all are poetry, and the spiritual visions of man come all from One Light.
-- Juan Mascaro, introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
Interfaith is not a religion. It walks among the religions.
Interfaith begins when we create a bridge between one set of beliefs and traditions and another. We start by listening to one another, and to the humanity in all of us. Interfaith emphasizes the universal principles and spiritual compassion taught by all schools of divinity and ethics. Each religion is an instrument for the divine, and together the world's religions form a glorious symphony. Interfaith is the acceptance and celebration of humankind in all its magnificent faiths, colors, cultures, and traditions. It is the acknowledgment that there is but one light that burns brightly through each faith and within each heart. In its essence, this light is love. Interfaith does not take sides.
The idea is not new. The interfaith message of Sufism is twelve hundred years old. Humanism flowered in the Italian Renaissance. The Unitarian Universalist Association traces its origins to 1793; the Baha'i faith originated in 1844, the Theosophical Society in 1875, Ethical Culture the following year. The United Nations is an international, intercultural, interfaith assemblage. Indeed, the list of interfaith organizations in the United States and around the world grows longer each year.
"We are made for complementarity," says South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "I have gifts you do not; and you have gifts that I do not. So we need each other to become fully human."
Learning to understand and appreciate our differences brings enrichment to our lives. It is love, after all, that breaks down the prejudice and fear between people of different faiths and cultures. That is the eternal, healing, magical presence that brings an interfaith couple together. "Think not that you can direct the course of love," wrote the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, "for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course."
Such is the case with interfaith couples. Listen to the story of Cecile and Lance:
Cecile is French-born, the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She and Lance, a devout German Catholic, were getting married. She is a petite brunette, worldly and outspoken; he is tall, blond, and quietly direct. They had already undergone counseling and agreed that Lance would retain his religion, but their children would be raised Jewish.
As they plan for their wedding, couples who were raised in different religions or denominations, like Cecile and Lance, or even in the same faith but are not religious, often wish for a ceremony that is both personally meaningful and God-centered but without the dogma. A growing number of individuals feel comfortable creating their own personal theology and philosophy, and embracing a universal deity or power connecting all things.
They represent one aspect of what I see as a reshaping of religious life in America. I find that many people, perhaps searching for meaning in a complex world, are either becoming more religiously conservative or moving away from organized religion and toward spirituality in a universal sense. While some yearn for traditional religion and doctrine, others find it constricting. On the one hand, there are now some sixteen hundred religions and denominations in the United States, half of them established since 1965; membership in Evangelical churches, led by the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God, has boomed in recent decades, as has the Muslim population in the United States. On the other hand, some traditional Protestant church memberships are in steep decline, nontheist Buddhism is the fastest growing Eastern religion in America, and spiritual self-help -- from Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson to Chicken Soup for the Soul
-- is flourishing. At their best, of course, religion and spirituality overlap and reinforce each other.
Interfaith is a way all people can find common ground. It takes no position on any organized religion; rather, it rejoices in all. Interfaith calendars published by the National Conference for Community and Justice, for example, note the holidays and observances of all the world's religions. Interfaith offers freedom of choice, freedom to interpret, to question, to grow, to stay rooted in your own tradition, or to discover another and make it your own. It offers freedom to create something new; it allows you to be as you are. There is a place in God's universe for all God's children.
The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, head of the Interfaith Center of New York and former dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, says, "Most fundamentally, interfaith is respect. Respect for different traditions, different religions, different faiths. It is coming to understand them. And more, it is coming to love them. The recognition of the oneness in all its diversity of expression, that is the basis of interfaith."
* * *Joining Hands and Hearts
is devoted to the interfaith wedding ceremony. What is that? It is a ceremony that completely reflects you as a couple -- your love, your relationship, your beliefs and values. It is a collaborative creation celebrating the traditions and beliefs of two people in a universal context, a ceremony that emphasizes spirituality over religion.
But an interfaith ceremony does not imply uniformity. "Never instead of, always in addition to" is the motto of Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, founder of the New Seminary and the All Faiths Seminary in New York City. We retain our own beliefs and philosophies and reach out to the beliefs and philosophies of another. In doing so, we expand. We become richer inside. We hear the essence within each of us, the essence that supports and sustains us all.
However, there can be great disparity between what a couple wishes and what the families may want in a ceremony. Even if the bride and groom have worked out their own issues, a wedding is a family affair and a public statement that parents or other relatives often care about deeply. Couples find themselves trying to coordinate their desires with those of their parents. Grandparents, siblings, and friends often become involved as well.
I know the questions that engaged couples ask themselves, for I have heard them many times. You may have some of the same: How do we have a wedding that is a reflection of us, our love and our relationship? How do we remain true to ourselves and still make our families happy? How can we create a ceremony that merges our religious, spiritual, cultural, and personal beliefs? Can we do this without offending anyone? What issues are likely to arise? How do we talk to and work with our parents? Which rituals do we include? Who will officiate at our ceremony? Where will it take place? What will it look like? What will people think? Has this been done before?Joining Hands and Hearts
will help you answer all of these questions. I hope you will be inspired and comforted by the stories of other interfaith couples. You are not alone! You are not the first! You'll read here the wedding traditions -- rituals, prayers, vows, blessings -- of many religions and cultures, and see how to adapt and combine them within a universal context. You will see how to honor your heritage in a ceremony that will joyously affect everyone present, particularly family members. You will learn how to create a ceremony that will remain alive within you always. Regardless of your backgrounds, the language of love and marriage is universal.
To return to the story of Cecile and Lance:
Cecile had a dream in which she and Lance were kneeling in a church; she woke up crying. I asked her how her family, particularly her father (the Holocaust survivor), felt about Lance. She said her father believed it was difficult enough to find someone you really love and care for; her father cared for Lance and had given his blessing. But Cecile's guilt remained. "Cecile," I asked, "do you feel you are betraying your father?" She began to cry. I asked, "Do you love this man? Do you know this with utter certainty?" Solemnly, she nodded yes. I continued, "Do you know this in the most inner core of your being, in your very cells?" Again, she nodded. I said, "Then God is on your side! Who do you think created this love in the first place?" I told her a Jewish legend that says spouses are chosen in heaven before they are born. It reflects the Jewish concept of b'shert.
(We used that legend in Cecile and Lance's ceremony.) What is God if not love?
We began working on their wedding. Each ritual, prayer, and blessing was up for discussion. Lance wanted the lighting of candles; Cecile felt the symbolism too Christian. I assured her that candles are lit at many Catholic-Jewish weddings and no one gets offended, not even the rabbis. We could accompany the lighting with a rabbinic proverb or with music, or it could be carried out in silence. Cecile was reluctant, so I suggested she speak to her parents about it. Her mother thought it was "a beautiful idea!" When the ritual was explained to her, she loved the notion of lighting the side candle herself, symbolizing her giving life to her child. We had her blessing.
As the wedding date approached, Cecile's father came to me and said, "You have a very important job." I smiled. "Will you do a good job?" he asked. I told him I would try my very best. "Do you know our history?" he continued. I replied, "I do." His eyes were now fixed on mine, probing. "Are you our Rebbe?" I immediately answered, "Yes, I am!" He laughed, and we embraced. He and I were both well aware I was not a rabbi. He was really asking if I was there to serve his needs. At the ceremony, we spoke about the importance of rejoicing in our differences.
While interfaith celebrates our di...