Sunday, November 23, 2014

Marriage and divorce customs across different religions: The IFLC helps facilitate inter-religious understanding about differences and similarities

On Sunday, November 16, the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit facilitated the panel discussion “Marriage and Divorce Across Faith Traditions” at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak. This presentation was the fourth in the IFLC’s Lifecycle Series, one of the diversity awareness and education initiatives for adults the IFLC developed to help people gain an understanding of how the perspectives of different faiths are both different from and similar to their own.

Previous presentations in the series included illness and healing, death and funerary customs, and birth and coming of age. Different panelists present at each discussion, and represented religions have included Judaism, Catholicism, different denominations of Protestant Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Baha’i Faith.

The marriage and divorce panel was made up of a Jewish rabbi, a community leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), a Muslim layperson, and a Catholic Permanent Deacon. Each presenter spoke about courtship and engagement, the wedding ceremony, an overview of the faith’s perspectives of the role of men and women in marriage, and the customs for divorce as a last resort.

Ariana Silverman, rabbi of Grosse Pointe Jewish Council, made the point that Jewish tradition is always evolving, and permits the introduction of new elements to the wedding rite, which can vary by denomination. Complex in ritual, Jewish weddings always contain four parts: A welcoming reception, the bride and groom helping each other prepare for the ceremony, the marriage rite, and alone time for the couple to bond before the community celebration.

While divorce is obviously not treated casually, it is permissible in Judaism. New customs in Judaism, including signing a marriage contract before the wedding, allow for a more egalitarian separation if the couple decides later to divorce.

Many contemporary Muslim weddings also include the signing of a marriage contract for the same purpose, according to Gigi Salka, a teacher who is involved in multiple interfaith and diversity initiatives. Salka explained that many wedding customs and viewpoints regarding marriage, which outsiders think are part of Islam, are actually derived from the many different cultures Islam is practiced in. She cleared up some common misconceptions about the dowry (traditionally given to the bride to do with as she pleases), plural marriage (there are a few practical historical reasons for the practice, and the Qur’án includes a caveat that all wives are to be treated equally), and summed up the role of spirituality in marriage by quoting Prophet Muhammad as saying that marriage is half your religion.

Muslim couples make their choice through group-dating and consultation between both families, and traditionally forbid one-on-one courtship. Islam places little emphasis on ritual, so the simple marriage ceremony can take place in the home or in the mosque and requires only the couple, the imam, and two witnesses. The reception can be similar to a Jewish wedding reception: Family, friends, the surrounding community, and either an invitation to the poor to come and eat, or a donation given by the couple to a charity.

Divorce is permitted in Islam, after the couple has gone through a period of separation (which doesn’t have to mean living in separate houses). If the couple cannot reconcile on their own, they must go through a complex arbitration process three times. If they still decide to divorce, they are expected to do so with no resentment, and maintain amicable relations regarding co-parenting their children.

The LDS Church also emphasizes simplicity in the wedding ceremony, which must be held in the temple to be sanctioned by the church, Polly Mallory explained. Marriage between a woman and a man, and the birth of children into that marriage, are essential to God’s plan in the LDS tradition; preparing children for their eventual marriage is part of the basic education of LDS youth.

The couple is “sealed” to each other in a room off the temple’s main sanctuary, with an altar in the middle, chairs arranged in a circle around the walls for the witnesses, and mirrors on the walls behind where the bride and groom stand facing each other, to symbolize looking into eternity together. The bride and groom dress in simple, modest white attire with no accessories, and the solemn ceremony involves no cheering or music. A more festive atmosphere (while still within the bounds of modesty) is permitted at the reception.

Predictably, the question regarding plural marriages was asked during the Q & A session: Mallory clarified that the LDS Church formally prohibited the polygamy in 1904, and that any splinter groups which practice polygamy are not acknowledged as part of the LDS Church.

Marriage is expected to last forever; while the particulars of the process are different, the process for dissolving an LDS-sanctioned marriage is as complex and lengthy as dissolving a Muslim marriage.

Catholic courtship and marriage customs, Kurt Godfryd explained, also involve sacred preparations, which last six months and involve relationship counseling with clergy. Catholics have a core belief about marriage in common with Bahá’ís: marriage is the nation in microcosm, meaning that harmonious families are essential for a harmonious community, and beyond that a harmonious nation and world. As such, it is viewed as a gift from God, a spiritual union, in which the couple celebrate God’s love between them, through the procreation of children, and by manifesting God’s love to others through community service.

Regarding divorce, Godfryd clarified that Catholics are not prohibited from filing for civil divorce, but an annulment is required for it to be accepted by the church, and for a divorced person to be permitted to re-marry in the Church.

The Lifecycles Events Series has not only helped us to adapt to the multicultural and multi-faith present, but it and the IFLC’s other programs help us prepare for a future in which unity in diversity is the norm rather than a subculture that’s virtually invisible to many people in the larger society.

Image: "Interfaith Collective," by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic Sharpie marker


  1. Informative and enlightening! The most important things are similar between the religions. Customs will keep changing. It's good to remember that marriage is the most important part of a wedding – and be open minded about various customs and practices.

  2. thank you for the review... i was unable to attend...