Jewish, Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish:
Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium
by Reeve Robert Brenner


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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

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 New realities require new terms. New terms need to be defined and explained. And this essay abounds in new terms. At first they do come across as unwieldy. But a recently coined term such as “egalitarianism,” despite its imposing seven syllables and fourteen letters, is already well known and universally understood if not universally followed. Egalitarianism – unquestionably of critical importance in the 21st century -was a candidate for enlistment in the title of this chapter but it did not make the cut. The reasoning being that in non-orthodox Jewish congregations “egalitarianism,” meaning gender equality, has already attained the status of an established “given.” “Equalineality,” the presumption of Jewish identity of a child of paternal as well as maternal descent, also examined attentively and diligently in these pages, convincingly managed to make this chapter’s headlines. It is a relatively recent concept and rapidly growing in importance in the majority of egalitarian congregations.

The reintroduction and reformulation of the standing in the Jewish community of the “all-but-a-Jew” Settled Sojourner (ger toshav); further reconsideration of how the Settled Sojourner is to be recognized; upon whom that status may be conferred; and why the status can be seen as gaining ground in the new millennium, will be explored and amplified in these pages. Why a piece of the process is here assigned the clunky and rather graceless designations, “Retrojected Identity” and “Ascending Lineality,” and the reasons why they need to be further developed as concepts acknowledging and addressing contemporary realities, will also be discussed in this chapter. 

 Neologisms – coining new words or initiating fresh nuances for a familiar term – are not necessarily formulated as magical buzzwords or semantic keepsakes; they are justifiable only to the extent that they serve to simplify, clarify and illuminate unanticipated developments and unprecedented circumstances. Without question, cultural conditions in 21st century American society, even in so fundamental an institution as the family, have undergone major reconstructions. Innovations in language, expressions, definitions and nomenclature that shed light upon new contingencies are therefore hardly surprising.

Another matter of unsurpassed importance must also command our attention in the context of this chapter. A man and a woman – whether Interfaith or Intra-faith - who have made a decision to marry, establish a home and raise a family together, soon realize that they have agreed to enter into a covenant, a binding transaction, with one another. Their marriage will be based on a voluntary social compact between lovers who have decided to commit to one another and to be faithful in the vows they make to one another. Drawing together as a couple, they will be exchanging three incomparable dispensations, or better, “gifts,” in the course of and for the sake of their union. They are: 1) the birthing of children, 2) their shared family name, and 3) the new household’s religious and/or cultural identity.    

 These three considerations – precious, exalted, incomparable “gifts” reciprocally given and received by a man and woman taking each other as husband and wife - are increasingly being understood as vital, pivotal and unavoidable transactions. In this chapter I will try to make as clear as possible how these transactions are impacted so decisively and enduringly by the ideas informing the rather ungainly nomenclature and neologisms adopted in this discussion. My appeal is, despite the somewhat pompous terminology, stay with it.  


  One of the most fundamental principles uniting virtually all Reform, Reconstructionist, and most Conservative congregations (that is, most American Jews) is that of egalitarianism.  Hence at a Reform synagogue it is taken for granted that its members would not join a Jewish congregation which was not gender neutral, one which falls short of being fully egalitarian.

 Reform, Reconstructionist and many Conservative congregations mean by this that no privileges, duties, ritual honors and positions of importance in the synagogue will be determined, affected, or influenced in any way, by gender. Men and women are equal in all respects.  As it has been stressed previously, by now the commitment and devotion to gender equality has become a 21st century axiom.

Prayer books for Jewish worship are gender neutral. Contemporary women have written new prayers for important milestones, events, and rites of passage that they alone experience: for the onset of menses and menopause, for giving birth as well as for infertility, miscarriages, abortions and still births, for surviving the trauma of rape, for becoming a mother in law and grandmother, and even for separation and divorce. Today Jews refer to God in feminine (for example, “Shechina,” translated as Presence, Providence) as well as in masculine terms. Women can become - and have become - cantors, educators and presidents of congregations.

And rabbis! Regina Jonas in Germany became the first ordained woman rabbi in 1935. In the United States the Reform movement’s Yeshiva/Rabbinical Seminary began ordaining women in 1972, the Reconstructionist movement in 1974 and Conservative Jews ordained their first woman rabbi in 1985.

            It is also useful to remember now and again that there has never been an "obey" clause at a Jewish wedding ceremony in any of the streams of Judaism.  Mothers as well as fathers accompany their sons and daughters to the marriage canopy together and at their side.  Brides are never "given away" by the father as the mother watches from elsewhere on the aisle as though she were a second level parent.

          More than a few non-Jewish brides are brought up anticipating the fulfillment of their romantic childhood fantasy of processing toward their groom on the arm of their father. Mothers watch but do not accompany their daughter down the isle. Most Jewish brides and grooms understand that being escorted by both parents to the wedding canopy is a statement expressing equality. It is egalitarian. For a Gentile bride the accommodation that positions her mother walking beside her represents a significant reevaluation of her values, mores, and principles.  Non-Jewish brides soon realize that they are undergoing a major adjustment to overarching cultural changes in their way of life. Many understand their future as symbolized by the overarching canopy beneath which, as brides, they choose to pronounce their vows to a beloved Jewish groom. In addition, increasingly, wedding ceremonies climax with brides as well as grooms joyfully stomping upon and crunching glass underfoot. They are proclaiming that their marriage is of equal partners. Either one can make or break it.

            Nowhere does it say in any Jewish sacred text that women cannot be religious leaders, rabbis, or cantors, although with few exceptions that didn't happen until the late 20th Century.  It was with the advent of Reform and Reconstructionist (non-Orthodox) Judaism that women in relative short order - given the span of Jewish history - officially counted as part of the minyan (quorum) of ten adult Jews required for a religious service, acquired the honor of reciting the Torah blessings, celebrated bat mitzvah ceremonies before their congregations at Sabbath morning services, became cantors and were ordained rabbis.

            Today, every Reform and Reconstructionist rabbi would support these rights vigorously. The Orthodox would counter by pointing out that women are given different and no less honorable responsibilities than those required of men and that their duties are centered in the home rather than the synagogue.  Not surprisingly, gender issues often underscore the major differences between Orthodoxy and Polydoxy. But even within the Orthodox community the question arises, "How far can Orthodoxy accommodate the needs of the new Jewish woman without losing its Orthodoxy?”

“There are also myriad specific questions:  Will every girl in the community be expected to study Talmud?  Will Orthodox women become rabbis; make halachic decisions as yoatzot, advisors, or poskot, decisors? Will they be dayanot, judges in the rabbinic courts of law, presiding over matters of divorce?  Will the gendered language of the prayerbook undergo a transformation or will the original language be preserved, with commentary and caveat sensitive to kavod hatzibbur, the honor (of women) in the congregation?  And most of all, who will prepare for Pesach?  (Just kidding.)

“Who would have imagined that women … would serve on Israel religious councils, or as congregational interns in Orthodox shuls? Who would have pictured a woman reading the Torah portion at a woman’s tefillah (prayer) group?” [1]

            In the various non-Orthodox (Polydox) congregations I have served as rabbi, gender issues have never surfaced. For over forty years I have shared the pulpit with as many female presidents and cantors as male, and every congregation treated all members equally in the life of the synagogue and did so well before I arrived on the scene.

            As is the case with other rabbis, I would not consider taking a pulpit as rabbi of a synagogue that followed non-egalitarian traditions. Increasingly, this principle of equality is being applied also to the line of religious descent of children, otherwise known as lineality or lineage.  Progressive rabbis today use the term equalineality, or co-lineality, to mean that Jewish identity can be conferred by either the father or the mother. Gender equality requires as much.


            The point here bears repeating: while lineage, or identity as a Jew, was once transmitted only from father to child, then only from mother to child, in our time the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have ruled that, given other required conditions such as a Jewish upbringing, Jewish identity can be conferred by either parent. This ruling is without question a radical but logical innovation of great magnitude and consequence.

At first this change – recognizing (again, as in biblical times) paternal descent as establishing Jewish identity - was put in effect and practiced in Reform synagogues unofficially. Theological justifications were not thought necessary. For decades, Reform Rabbis and their congregations would simply ignore maternity or paternity issues altogether once a child was enrolled in a synagogue’s religious school and the family made clear its decision to raise exclusively Jewish children.

The welcoming ceremony of Consecration for all children at the time of enrollment, documented in the annals and archives of a congregation (invariably Reform), sufficed to establish and authenticate Jewish identity regardless of which parent was Jewish. Jews, throughout their relatively lengthy history, have been less concerned with abstract principles than matters of conduct and ever-evolving behavioral norms - which realistically and humanely address new conditions and novel circumstances. These judicious and compassionate acts of inclusion preceded any theoretical justification or supporting theology of the sort being presented in this essay.

Consistent with this profound and fundamental innovative ruling by Reform and other Polydox movements that Jewish identity may now resolutely and validly be conveyed by either parent, women "gave up" sole possession of its transmission. It might be said that relinquishing their monopoly they advanced equality!


       Before discussing the issues raised by introducing so audacious and counter-intuitive a proposition as Retrojected Identity, the status of Settled Sojourner brought about as a consequence of Ascending Lineality, it is essential to differentiate between believing Christians, Muslims (indeed, everyone adhering to the faith of an established religious community) and other Gentiles who do not consider themselves religiously committed. Most Jews entering interfaith marriages choose non-religious Gentiles as their mates. One reason is that their life values are more likely to be in agreement. And while the divorce rate in Jewish/non-religious-Gentile marriages is well over 50 percent, it is even higher in marriages between Jews and committed Christians.

        How then shall non-Jewish parents dedicated to raising Jewish children be regarded by a Jewish community in the new millennium? How might Gentile parents of Jewish children achieve, or take upon themselves, the very special status of the Ger Toshav, the Settled Sojourner?

       This might very well be the most appropriate place to submit and develop the proposition espoused and emphatically advanced throughout this text – a proposition which builds upon, and to a certain extent revises and enlarges the symmetries of Jewish identity for our time. We have characterized the proposition as “Ascending Lineality.” We have also propounded its corollary by the designation “Retrojected Identity.” How does Ascending Lineality function? To whom and when does Retrojected Identity apply?

        Descent is obviously downward in direction and Descending Lineality refers to the age old formula of determining the “line” of identity from above. Ascent is upward in its direction and Ascending Lineality refers to the process of acquiring identity from below. The proposition recognizes that a child’s upbringing transmits a distinct status upon a parent. Retrojected Identity confers the standing of Settled Sojourner upon the Gentile parent of a Jewish child. That new status is often made apparent at the time a family celebrates a life-cycle event such as brit, consecration or bar/bat mitzvah.

        At any one of these milestone family commemorations establishing or affirming the Jewish identity of a child, whether consciously or dimly understood, the non-Jewish parent obligates himself or herself to take on certain responsibilities/commandments over and beyond the requirements of the “children of Noah.” Usually at an early-on life cycle event such as a covenant ceremony, standing alongside the child, Retrojected Identity “kicks in” precisely at the time the non-Jewish parent’s “being there” and “body language” convey the avowed intention of supporting the child’s Jewish identity. That is when a Gentile parent may justifiably begin to see and declare her or himself to be a Settled Sojourner. Retrojected identity, brought about by the process of Ascending Lineality, occurs when Gentile parents pledge audibly or vow inwardly that they will do no less than a Jewish parent to raise their children as Jews.

This ungainly term for an elegant proposition acknowledges the reality that the identity of a household and the upbringing of children, in truth, determine the religious identity of the parents, not the other way around: For “whosoever raiseth Jewish children becometh a Settled Sojourner,” Jewish, for nearly all intents and purposes, in an ascending direction or in reverse order. The proposition designated Retrojected Identity serves to recognize and acknowledge the undeniable fact that in 21st century American society, the decision parents make concerning the identity of a child establishes the identity of parents. When parents make a decision about their children they make a decision about themselves.

Perhaps the most important thesis of this book then is the proposition that the decision concerning the religious identity of a newly established household determines the identity of all its members – whether Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewish.

Lineality arises from the child. The pillar upholding the Mansion of Jewish Identity that we denote as Jewish descent (along with conversion) also refers to Jewish ascent. For the Settled Sojourner therefore, three of the four pillars supporting Jewish identity may potentially be set in place, even if not necessarily firm or solid in structure. Torah/Judaism provides the culture and the initiative for action; the mitzvah system provides the specifics of the actions to be undertaken; Ascending Lineality transmits Settled Sojourner status. Only self-declaration is lacking. But self-declaration as a Settled Sojourner also serves to brace the edifice.

The process of shoring up the pillars of the Mansion will be ongoing for the Settled Sojourner as it is for any self-identifying Jew. Studying Judaism, immersing in Jewish life, deepening adherence to Jewish culture and Torah values while participating in the mitzvah of raising children affirming Jewish identity may, for more than a few Settled Sojourners, take on impressive strengths over time.

            In Reform and many other congregations, children attend religious school and enjoy observing bar/bat mitzvah celebrations and Confirmations even when, or even though, their fathers are Jewish and their mothers are not.  Without masculine or feminine distinctions in this age of gender equality, mothers and fathers alike share in making the decision to establish a Jewish home and to become joyous participants in the cultural and religious life of their family.

       Years into their marriage, generally when children are preparing for their bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, the non-Jewish mother invariably smiles and nods in agreement when I point out (again) that despite there having been no conversion - “only a convergence” - a mother of Jewish children is a “Jewish mother,” or more accurately, a Settled Sojourner. She is hardly different in the path she has taken and the way she has lived than a born Jewish mother. This Settled Sojourner status – in true egalitarian fashion - applies as well to a non-Jewish father. 

      Settled Sojourners do not refer to themselves as Jews but as parents of Jews living in a Jewish household, observing commandments and doing what Jews do. From time to time it is useful to be reminded, even if it is an oversimplification, that Judaism does not tell you what to believe but what to do, that is, how to conduct one’s life. The conduct of the life of the Settled Sojourner is a Jewish conduct of life.



         Are there Jewish antecedents or precedents for the rather extravagant notions/edicts we have designated Ascending Lineality, or for Paternal Descent, and the status of the Settled Sojourner?

      There is ample evidence for the Settled Sojourner in the biblical narrative; so many husbands and wives of prominent figures like Ruth, and Moses’ wife Zipporah, are good examples. Indeed, the Exodus experience was shared by Hebrews as well as non-Hebrews called the erev rav – the mixed multitude - who joined the people Israel as Settled Sojourners (or, given that their journey entailed four decades of wilderness wandering, “Unsettled Sojourners”). Jews say, “they are our ancestors no less than the ‘original’ Hebrews. We are their descendents just as we derive from the Hebrew core community returning to their homeland in Canaan.”

       There is also ample evidence for patriarchal descent in Scripture’s historical narratives related in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah.  Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, Rachel’s first-born, (the most unflawed of biblical heroes according to Allan Bloom) had two sons, Ephraim and Manassah, by his Egyptian wife, Asenath. Her grandmother was Potphera, a priest of On who worshipped the Egyptian sun–god Ra. Ephraim, founder of one of the most influential Jewish tribes in the northern Kingdom of Israel often referred to as the “House of Ephraim,” was the offspring of an unconverted non-Hebrew mother.

        Reform Jews are inclined to point out that the biblical Book of Ruth attests to the accepted practice of patrilineal descent. The only “conversion” which Ruth evidently underwent was to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi to her village in Judah pledging her devotion in the memorable words, “wither thou goest I shall go, your people shall be my people and your God, my God and I with thee shall be buried.”  And marrying Boaz, a Hebrew, their children took on the religious and ethnic identity of the father.

       There is a legion of biblical personalities – Israelites - descended from non-Jewish mothers. They would not be accorded Jewish status by contemporary Orthodox authorities.  These include Ephraim and Menasseh, the sons of Joseph, Gershom and Eliezer, the two sons of Moses, born to Zipporah.  There is a tradition suggesting that prior to her change of heart (and circumcising her son in an act establishing his Israelite status), Moses and Zipporah “compromised” by agreeing to raise one son to be an Israelite and the other to be a follower of the mother’s religious tradition.  Jethro, Zipporah’s father was a priest of Midian. 

      Others who are also included in this category are Rehoboam, son of King Solomon and Na’ama, an Ammonite, Ahazaia, king of Israel, the son of Ahab and the Phoenician Jezebel. King David was the great grandson of Ruth, a Moabite.  Clearly, in biblical days Jewish descent was passed on through the father’s line, as attested to in the first chapter of the book of Numbers.

         There was no such thing as an official ritualized conversion then. Rather, wives left the home of their families for their husband’s home. The non-Israelite woman joined her Israelite husband’s clan and became integrated into his community. Their children were Israelites. Clearly, patrilineality was the rule in the early biblical period. 

          At some time between then and the mishnaic period – which began some two centuries before the Common Era - a shift to maternal descent occurred. Some scholars think it was instituted about three hundred years before the mishnaic period by Ezra the Scribe who required Israelite men to take Israelite wives exclusively and to divorce foreign wives. The reason for such a blatant overturning of biblical law, although theories abound among historians, is still unclear.

      Some scholars attribute the change from following the father’s line to following the mother’s line to the influence of Roman and Athenian law whereby a child born to a Roman man and a non-Roman woman was not considered a Roman citizen.  But a child of a Roman woman and a non-Roman male received the status of the mother.

      There has also been some scholarly speculation that the change from patriliniality to matriliniality became necessary because of the sacred obligation of ransoming slaves (pidyon shevuim). It was incumbent on the Jewish community to redeem women made captive and raped by Roman soldiers whose offspring were then considered Jews. Mothers were not expected to abandon their children. Instead they were brought into the Jewish community out of compassion for them and their children.

      Scholars, such as Rabbi Frank Hellner, maintain that the decision by the Talmudic rabbis recognizing Jewish identity by maternal descent was a necessary response to the social crises of their time. In response to the realities in effect then, it was a courageous and correct decision. But the problems necessitating the change in Jewish law no longer exist. Instead of captive Jewish women being violated, in our day we have deliberate and volitional interfaith marriages. A similarly courageous response to today’s reality would recognize the profound biblical conception that Jewishness is a product of nurture as well as nature, upbringing as well as biology, conversion as well as reproduction.

     To embrace the realities of our own day, we need to employ the concept of equalineality which affirms that a child born of a Jewish parent, either parent, has a “presumptive Jewish status” that will be confirmed as the child is being raised and educated Jewishly. The bilinear path makes sense for the contemporary Jewish community. It is also the most compassionate and welcoming approach to many individuals who would otherwise be lost to Jewish continuity.

       In the words of 13-year-old Melanie Sachs, “how can Judaism teach that my bar and bat mitzvah classmates are Jews depending on the good luck or bad luck of a parent? I know that they all think of themselves as Jews and all of us have been growing up Jewish and educated Jewish year after year. And we know they are Jews. And every one of us is equally proud to be Jews and will say so at our bar and bat mitzvah Sabbath services. Regardless of whose mother is Jewish or whose father is or isn’t Jewish. There’s no difference between them. That’s a Jewish view most kids hold.”


     While maternal and paternal descent have historical antecedents, where is the biblical “hook” upon which to hang the idea of Ascending Lineality, that is, biblical evidence of parents taking on the religious identity of their children?  Is there an instance of a non-Jew “converting,” becoming one of the people, by way of an offspring in the course of some solemn rite?

     The most striking and noteworthy case of Retrojected Identity by Ascending Lineality is the story (cited above as an important instance of patrilineal descent) of Zipporah, Moses’ non-Jewish wife. Apparently, wishing to become a full member of the Exodus community, she takes upon herself the bold initiative of circumcising her eldest son Gershom, (who was born in Midian) and declaring herself to be, by that act of circumcision, a Hebrew – through her son. By this action, instating her son within the covenant of Abraham and hurrying to join the Exodus community guided by her husband’s leadership, she performs the “conversionary” rite of passage for her son as well as for herself.

Fast-forwarding some three thousand years to the present, a Gentile may likewise take on the standing of a Settled Sojourner by participation in a Jewish rite of passage. Pronouncing the words “according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” as rings are exchanged in a Jewish wedding ceremony may also be understood as a statement of kinship affiliation. That formulaic utterance constitutes an avowed commitment to establish a Jewish household and to participate in raising Jewish children. And not as an outsider but as would any Jewish parent!

In that case, two status changes occur simultaneously: from single to married and from potential or likely, to publicly declared, Settled Sojourner.

I am aware of the likelihood of exasperating the reader further still by suggesting - in the context of this discussion on the several ways one acquires the standing of Settled Sojourner- another freshly minted designation that lands with a thunk: “Lateral Lineality.” It is meant to signify the Settled Sojourner status as having been transmitted, usually under a chupa/canopy representing the Jewish home they intend to establish, to non-Jewish brides and grooms by their beloved and documented by signatures of witnesses on a ketubah, a marital contract.

Lateral Lineality refers to the point of origin of the Settled Sojourner status, an identity that is acquired longitudinally – not descending from parents or ascending from children – by way of a sincere commitment to the Jewish way of life shared with a loving Jewish mate. Even when children will not enter the equation, the status may derive (not solely from parents above or children below but) laterally, “sideways,” from husband and wife. The Jewish partner transmits it.

Certain Gentiles - regardless of the presence of a Jewish significant other- living a Jewish life in anticipation of undergoing conversion to Judaism may also be seen as Settled Sojourners during the period of time prior to “taking the plunge.” That candidate is living as a Jew but does not yet self-declare as one.

          However infrequent in occurrence, it is not difficult to conceive of the Settled Sojourner status being transmitted to a non-Jewish child. A non-Jewish sibling from a previous marriage being raised among self-identifying Jewish children in an intermarried Jewish household may, during those years at least, rightly qualify for that classification.  Providing they see themselves that way!

         Grace, who reminisces on her teenage years as an older sister of Jewish siblings she “helped raise as Jews,” celebrating holidays, rites of passage, and two visits to Israel with them - and “would not be against finding a nice Jewish man to marry one day” - meets the necessary requirements for that designation. Certainly while living in a Jewish household.

And, as we have spelled out in this chapter, the Settled Sojourner status is most often conveyed in ascending direction. It is “retrojected” from child to parent, publicly at a rite of passage celebration such as a brit, a consecration ceremony, or a bar/bat mitzvah service. These commemorations constitute the life-cycle observances in the upbringing by a Gentile parent of a Jewish child.

          Jews through history have dilated upon “the merit of our ancestors” who have transmitted their legacy from generation to generation. They have also well understood that the Jewish future is tied to “the merit of our descendents.”  Whether born Jews, converts, or Settled Sojourners, parents of Jewish children grow increasingly aware of their responsibility to mold the character and shape the commitment of future Jewish generations.       


        Research studies and investigative surveys in the social sciences, (including my own, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors [2]), attest to the staying power of beliefs, values and attitudes acquired in childhood.  There is also evidence of religious change and the reshaping of beliefs over the course of a lifetime, sometimes radically and sometimes gradually.  If and how, when and why, a Settled Sojourner involved in a relationship with a Jew relinquishes or holds to beliefs acquired in childhood may one day be seen as subjects worthy of study by social science methodology. 

       Rigorous scientific surveys of relatively large numbers of Settled Sojourners have not (yet) been conducted. The Settled Sojourners would need to be interviewed with precise survey instruments perhaps every five years to monitor revisions and modifications in their convictions before any conclusions can be drawn.

       Experimental and control groupings, perhaps several, would also have to be established to help isolate variables such as the effects of outreach programs, the Jewish partner’s own religious and philosophical attitudes, commitments and convictions, synagogue affiliation, if any, and the role a rabbi may have played in their lives. And several other discrete and important factors need also be identified.

       Anecdotal evidence suggests that Settled Sojourners as a group are likely more open and amenable to religious change than are others. Doctrinal ideas are often discarded when new relationships are established and new understandings take hold. Certain beliefs one professes entering marriage, therefore, may not be viewed necessarily as huge impediments. But others most assuredly are.

       For example, a Christian’s strong salvational convictions may later prove to be an obstacle not easily surmounted, for reasons discussed further along in the chapter distinguishing between conversion and convergence. Kristin, who holds to the conviction that only Christians baptized in Jesus’ name can be saved, would be well advised not to consider raising non-Christian children. In short, for some, the way forward may be blocked by the road already traveled.

         Professing Christian or Muslim beliefs do not necessarily preclude taking on the status of Settled Sojourner. I know a number of Gentiles, parents of Jewish children, who identify as believing Christians. They see themselves as able to retain certain articles of faith, not others. They may belong to a church and observe Christian holidays. The beliefs they do profess are generally less hard-core in conflict with Judaism, such as Jesus was something more than a charismatic rabbi but was not necessarily God’s son or member of the Trinity or sent to die for our sins and the like. I have also seen their diametrically opposite counterparts – Jewish, skeptic, non-believing partners – living in Christian households. It must be said however it is never easy raising children professing religious views parents repudiate.

       Before reflecting on marital matters, it may be appropriate to be reminded here that in chapter one of this essay on the four requirements establishing Jewish identity (the pillars of the mansion), we have among other matters, introduced a number of new terms for the purpose of clarifying the status of a Settled Sojourner - a non-Jew, who by commitment to Jewish continuity and by taking on Jewish responsibilities, may be classified as “belonging - by extension” to the Jewish people.

      We have noted that descent from a Jewish parent – mother or father – may be thought of as one of the four columns upholding the mansion of Jewish identity. We have also suggested that the term Ascending Lineality makes plain that the Settled Sojourner status also belongs in the lineality column and derives from raising a Jewish child.  That status, we have submitted, is generally conveyed at the time of life-cycle celebrations of a Jewish child, when a Gentile parent takes on a “retrojected identity” committed to supporting the Jewish upbringing of his or her offspring.




            For any couple planning to wed and establish a home, certain gender issues - apart from the self-evident facts of life and nature - need to be worked out. But they are neither urgent nor immediate. I find that many couples do not feel the need to negotiate every issue and all things in advance. Except hypothetically in “what if” discussions they are encouraged to have, most couples, whether inter or intra-faith, tend to deal with them as life unfolds.

       Still, several key issues impact powerfully in determining a couple’s blueprint plan of marital life and their expectations of one another. It would be wise to discuss the most complicated and critical arrangements in advance, such as household roles, who works outside and who works at home, how responsibilities for raising their children will be shared, how finances and discretionary funds will be allocated. Later in this chapter, I will discuss how gender issues can unpredictably, unexpectedly but profoundly, affect the process of selecting the religious identity of the children.


            In terms of impact and changes in lifestyle - adding new responsibilities and imposing new constraints - I would rate marriage at between a three and a five or six on a scale of one to ten.  (A ten belongs to the arrival of children.) After all, a large number of couples today have already been living with each other for a period of time, which is often comparable to a trial run at marriage.  Although the findings of studies are not consistent, the practice of cohabitation or “trial marriage” and getting to know one another day in and day out may contribute to keeping already high divorce rates from going even higher among certain groups.

            Nonetheless marriage for many couples “feels like a ten" - in terms of real life transformation and status change – at the time.  No matter how long they have lived together, as the wedding grows closer, the impact of marriage moves steadily up the life-changing scale for the two participants.  Its consequences are even more strongly felt when one member of the couple is not Jewish but plans - and is seriously preparing - to be a parent of Jewish children living in a Jewish home.

            The status of the partners in the eyes of the community also changes significantly at the time of their marriage.  Previously as singles, the community and its leaders have regarded them, at best, as “interesting.”  Now – primarily but not exclusively because of the expectation of having children one day - they have become “important.” They form a different sort of household from that of single individuals.

          Ministers, rabbis, politicians, school boards and various other community leaders, for their potential involvement in good works, projects, and causes, see a married couple as a critical resource of society’s future.  It is not that single people don't make similar contributions, but they are not pursued in the same way.  They are perceived as not deeply rooted in the community. By definition their status changes when they marry. They are then viewed as having more reason to commit to strengthening religious institutions and to the needs of the community.

                        In terms of changing peoples' lives, while marriage may be a five or six on a scale of one to ten but feels like a ten at the time, the young married couple cannot in advance compare changes brought about by marriage with the requirements of parenthood – not until their first child is born.  Once that first child is born and the process of caring for and bringing up the child has begun, the full impact of such a demanding and unrelenting challenge is powerfully experienced as a ten. And the issues raised in this book become critical realities rather than abstract theories.

        To be more precise, it is not literally at the time of the birth of a child but rather, according to Dr. Elizabeth Marincola, somewhat later “at the threshold juncture at which a child starts becoming engaged, inquisitive, complicated, and ‘spiritually needy’ – about four years old – that marks this impact. The game changes.”

        One notable example is that interfaith parents, who previously thought they could "expose" their child to both their religious traditions, may begin to understand that their child needs a harmonious whole identity free from uncertainty and ambiguity, not an exposure.  Once that reality is fully recognized other issues of child rearing arise. It also becomes clear that the long-range effects of many decisions couples make on issues of identity may not necessarily correspond to their most hopeful and optimistic expectations.

         Parents come to the realization that identity and self-understanding, especially for a child of interfaith parents, are matters of profound importance. Certain preliminary plans couples make with good intentions may need to be reconsidered and at times fully recanted. An altogether different route, one with clear directional signposts, may present far fewer ruts, detours and obstacles along the way.


            When a man and a woman decide to become a married couple, each receives great gifts from the other and, in return, gives up important things, such as autonomy and independence, in order to nurture and strengthen their newly created togetherness and to support their union. Every creation – and marriage is just that - requires that a destruction of sorts prepares the way before it.  Every covenant, contract, pact, or transaction necessitating give and take, does away with a previous status, arrangement or condition. Often called a sacred bonding entailing vital and distinct transactional dimensions, marriage is best understood as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman who have essentially broken with their past.   Some parts of the transaction are unconscious, but many are quite deliberate as when a couple works out critically decisive issues thoughtfully and responsibly. The very nature of love, it has been said, finds expression in giving.

            Pastors, rabbis and marriage counselors, often with great skill, help couples become conscious of this give and take process and encourage each of them to engage in these transactions with love.  It is very important to develop sensitivity to the giving and receiving intricacies of the negotiation process and to become mindful of the trades-off. Otherwise potential misunderstandings and poor decisions will likely arise.  In the best of worlds, when well conducted, the decision-making procedure will strengthen the couple's bond.  It will initiate the transformation of the “me” into the “we.” It will also play a crucial role in determining the religious identity of their children and the nature of their home.


            There are any number of important gives and takes that a couple negotiates, such as when one spouse puts the other through school or when one agrees to move to another part of the country, perhaps giving up a job when their spouse is transferred.  These transactions bring about reciprocation in various ways including, for example, remaining at home to care for children, looking after their partner’s parents, and deferring personal ambitions for the sake of maintaining or improving the family’s standard of living.

            Apart from the many “matrimonial transactions” of lesser rank there are only three primary or first rank transactional components of the marriage covenant. We may refer to them as status transactions or marital trades-off that must be negotiated by 21st century parents-to-be. These are: 1) birthing, 2) naming, and 3) conferring religious identity upon children. The most approximately symmetrical transaction takes place when in exchange for one and two, the husband reciprocates with three.

          It goes without saying that there can be no trades-off and no symmetry to their transactions when the groom appropriates all three. Nevertheless, as will be discussed, there are relationships that must of necessity be asymmetrical; otherwise they cannot work out. Whenever that transpires, couples are obliged to thoroughly understand and together justify the reasons why this arrangement, so weighted in favor of the groom, is best for them. It concerns and often worries me when that appears to be the plan.

Before they come to me for counseling prior to their wedding ceremony, couples know, given our physical apparatus, that it would be best if she did the birthing not he; they already know the family name - or the family name of the children - which will be used by them as a married couple: almost invariably, his.  While this need not be assumed as a foregone conclusion, very few couples choose the wife’s family name for their children. There is no religious justification in Judaism or Christianity to perpetuate the groom’s family name in preference to the bride’s. And yet, more couples adopt children – sidestepping the birthing by the wife for various reasons - than adopt the mother’s name for the family.

In short, if a couple chooses to bring children into this world, the wife will bear them. And, although it need not be characterized as an ironclad regulation, she will likely yield her family name as well. But the issues, which will be examined below, of the identity of the children, the religious character, level of practices and observances of their household, and whether to affiliate with a religious movement or denomination, are much more problematic.  This third consideration is assuredly the least fixed and definite, perhaps even, in certain cases, entirely up for grabs.

            Our attention, as one would expect, will ultimately be directed toward the intricacies, implications and consequences of selecting the religious identity of children and the kind of household that an interfaith couple will establish. The issue of religious identity is, after all, so often fraught with formidable difficulties, pitfalls and emotional stress, requiring skillful and adroit handling – along with love, understanding and compassion.


It is a fallacy, of course, to think that a man and a woman are the same or merely biologically different. The facts of nature prove otherwise. This is so even if their roles are increasingly equalized, if not ever quite identical. So the first transaction is hardly a transaction at all. Nature carries the greatest authority and its decrees determine and launch lifelong consequences.  There is no escaping that the woman is the birthing partner in the marriage. Except in cases of turning to the adoption of a child this role cannot be negotiated.

Clearly this gift to the marriage by the woman is the single most notable and vital component of their several transactions. Hence ever-expanding concentric circles of responsibilities and divisions of labor and activity in a marriage radiate from the role of women in conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to the children. She will follow her nature, bring infants into this world and attend to their needs, as no one else, including the father, will. This is uncontestable even as gender roles are ever increasingly becoming equivalently balanced. 

            The gift of birthing is almost invariably received with great love by the man who loves her, who wants to be a father and who genuinely wishes he were able to relieve the discomforts of her pregnancy and the birth pangs of his beloved.  If he only could, he would gladly take these on himself.  His body language communicates this truth when he hovers over his wife's bed in the delivery room in a way which suggests he would willingly take on the suffering and pain, he loves his wife and their infant so much.  But it is a wish that cannot be fulfilled, no matter how well meaning or loving he is.  Nature has its own way.

For her part, the mother will often say of the birthing she contributes to their sacred bond that while there is no denying all she endures, it is also true that men are deprived of the beautiful and incredible experience of the miracle of bringing children into the world.  Most women view having children as a unique and special power.

         Nevertheless a man, quite properly, feels enormous and immeasurable gratitude for her "giving" them a child, as well as a deepening of his love for her. He knows that in this matter as in so many others, he is the taker and she, the giver.

In view of this fact, when a couple plans a marriage, the man is already in the woman's debt - in advance.  If they decide to have children, she will be giving far more than he to creating their family.  Together they will delight each other sensually (and in Judaism these pleasures are considered a great blessing that husbands and wives give equally and may not withhold from each other). But in the final analysis, she will give birth and he will at best be allowed to cheer from the sidelines – and run errands.

            According to Rachel Williams, a new mother, certain women would modify “the stark contours of the birthing transaction.”  She feels that “conceiving and giving birth to our child was something we did together, as will be raising our children.  I don’t want or expect gratitude for our son Sam, because he is so much a part of Dave as well as me.”

            Still, a mother brings a child into the world through many months of gestation and bodily changes. All this that she undergoes will almost universally arouse in the father-to-be loving gratitude that has no parallel or comparable reciprocity. Even if this contention is overly idealistic and simplistic - given that some men do not deal as well as others with the loss of their wives’ attention, changes in physical appeal and hormonal based crabbiness - and even though certain immature men do expect pregnant women to perform exactly as though not pregnant, be it in job, care of the home, care of other children, in bed, etc. - and certain fathers do indeed take the attitude that birthing is ‘‘their [the wives’] job”, to be expected rather than appreciated - most men by far understand well the great gift given them by their wives in the birthing of their children. 

            It is also understood at the outset that within the deepest level of the sacred bond of marriage, the birthing is a physical experience that is unshared. Yet Rachel’s husband, David, adds, “The spiritual and emotional elements of birth involve both the mother and the father.  It is not like being a surrogate mother for another couple.” 

            One N.I.H. doctor had this observation: “I have seen countless husbands including my own whose body language, as they arch over their wives in labor, clearly indicated that they would readily, even gladly, take on the discomfort and pain their wives are experiencing as she brings forth their child making him a daddy.  I’ve never seen it reversed.  The experience belongs to her alone, however lofty and admirable our husband’s intentions and generosity of heart."


            When a couple registers their intention to wed at the local courthouse, an official form is offered to the bride-to-be asking her whether she would like to change her name to “reflect” the groom’s family name. No such form is delivered to the groom-to-be asking whether perhaps her family name might be chosen as the family name of the newly married. Regarding the name of the new family, the male invariably “flects” and the female reflects.

         This practice has been passed down from the Normans who, after invading England in the eleventh century, established the tradition of recognizing paternal surnames to determine how property, real estate, and other wealth was to be recorded and passed on. Wives were also considered property.  Many died in childbirth and daughters were to be “given” in marriage because they too constituted property. Often, the wife of the father of the bride was not the mother of the bride being given by her husband in marriage. There may have been several predecessors as stepmothers to the bride.

This system of ownership was retained for some time in the west after other societies progressed to greater gender equality. Its values and customs were continued by the English colonists who came to America. The issue of “names” traces a powerful history and a cultural principle as authoritative as the rule of law. Its roots in the ancient world reach deeper even than Scripture.

 Jenny McPhee challenges the male monopoly on names in our culture and calls attention to the power disclosed in a name.

            Jenny's Story 

            "By the time I got to college, I was convinced that feminism had pretty much eradicated the traditional patriarchal practice of exclusively passing on the male name.  But since graduation, one female friend after another has slipped on a new name.  Mrs. Fred E. Green, for example, explains away her choice with, 'My name was so colorless.'  Other friends say they are happy to get the chance to start over with a new name.  (In fact, more than three-quarters of American women still take their husbands' names.)  And when it comes to the children, the most frequent response is, 'His name means so much more to him.'  Though names can mean a lot to women, girls learn very early that they will probably lose their names when they marry.  If you know that you will lose something, you do not get very attached to it.  Thus, the connection for women between name and identity becomes insignificant and unimportant.

            "Giving my son my name has invited all sorts of weird accusations: 'He'll have trouble in school,' 'He's sure to be gay,' 'You're undermining the integrity of the family,' 'You're demeaning the role of the father,' 'You're doing it because your father is John McPhee, a famous writer.'  And some people are awestruck by my powers of manipulation: 'How did you finagle that one?' 'Luca must be a saint,' or, most commonly, 'Luca must be a pushover.'  And many people insist that my name is not my own to give: 'It's your father's name anyway.'

            "Every time I am asked why I gave my son my name, my gut response is deep embarrassment at my own brazenness.  The act of naming my son after myself did something astonishing for me.  By claiming my name and passing it on, I have experienced something that I was not expecting, something that is at the heart of self-confidence and a strong identity - pride in myself.  I know that my name is mine and that no cultural practice will take it away.  I know that I can hand it on to my children and that is a wonderfully powerful sensation."[3]

            In most marriages, however, the woman will give up her name to the man, and if not to him then to their children just as his mother, and her own mother, gave to theirs.  This is her second important dispensation, which we have euphemistically referred to as a gift. And it is hugely important. For many women it is a deeply felt loss – a relinquishment and pang the ache of which extends to other members of her family – siblings, parents and grandparents.  However much she loves and honors her birth family, it is her husband's family name which will be perpetuated, not hers.  This is not a law of nature, but a nearly ironclad law of custom, and therefore of history.

            At best, concerning the matter of imparting the male’s family name, when one considers the distinctions – and their economic and emotional ramifications - between legitimate and illegitimate children in previous societies, the father is indeed “giving something.” He has given legitimacy to the offspring and acknowledged public accountability by bestowing his family name upon a child.

       In contemporary times, however, the father’s contribution of legitimacy conveys far less importance than in previous times. This development reflects important changes in attitudes in many quarters of western society over the decades as well as the fact – or because of the fact - that only twenty-five percent of American households are composed of a nuclear family consisting of father, mother and children.

            Today an increasing number of women will keep their names professionally, while their children receive his.  Some couples will hyphenate their names, but one cannot hyphenate forever from generation to generation.

            Only once have I officiated at a wedding where the couple decided to take her name (Cohen). In this instance, the non-Jewish groom who was choosing to raise Jewish children said, "Cohen is a great name that goes back right to the pages of the Bible, and I'd like my kids to have a Jewish name if they are going to be Jewish kids. I’d like that even if my own name had not sounded like pizzeria."

             The woman, even if she does not take her husband's family name for herself, marries with the understanding that her children will take her husband's name.  Although forgoing one’s name is naturally – in both meanings of the word – not like the gift of birthing, still she gives that to him as well in the service of their love and for the sake of their marriage.

            Birthing and naming are hardly comparable. “A name is ours alone to give and take; a child is a blessing from God and the fruit of our union.” (Rachel Moser Williams.)  But birthing and naming are, without question, of the first rank in the marital transaction bonding yin with yang.


            After the bride-to-be gives the groom-to-be the vital promise of the gifts of birthing and naming, what of comparable magnitude and importance is left for the groom to offer his beloved in return?  It is rarely financial considerations. After all, the couple has given their love to each other fully and equally; and important as economics is, that issue is of another sort.  I have seen that financial matters, and the projected style of life of their marriage, even if not fully settled, have almost always been already taken into account and discounted by them at some point during the early stages of the dating/rating/mating process.

            Religious identity often proves to be by far the most intractable transaction of all. When interfaith partners are thoughtful and mature, the religious identity issue will have been discussed thoroughly and continuously from early on in their relationship.  That is because, after the birthing and naming issues, there remains but one principle offering of the greatest consequence to negotiate: the religious identity of the children. 

           This book is principally about the several judgments, options and recourses required by the third transaction, the transaction that determines the profound question of the religious identity of a newly created household.

            Time after time I see that the process determining the religious identity of the children of interfaith couples is powerfully impacted by the other loving gifts of birthing and naming which the woman has already bestowed upon her partner. Her giving to him brings about the reciprocity of his giving to her. Moreover, for many couples, turning their attention to choosing the religious identity of the children occasions the precise point when "me, me, me" begins to transform into, "we, we, we."  Whatever path they choose, they walk it together. They themselves will be whatever they determine their household to be.

            The gift of religious identity is conspicuous and public, as well as far-reaching.  They negotiate this transaction in love. Mature adults stand proudly behind their identity decisions, as they stand proudly together throughout the nine months of pregnancy while they anticipate and prepare for the birth of their infant, and as they mesh their ideas and feelings together to choose their newborn child's given name.  At this point all the really important decisions are mutual and shared. But they are not shared quite as equals even though the couple experiences parenthood together. Rather, the man already feels tremendously in debt to his wife, whether or not articulated, for giving him the gift of their children and giving his name to their children.

            How do the previous transactions impact on religious decisions?  I have seen Jewish men taking the Christian course and raising Christian children for precisely this reason.  They explain that they "owe" so much, or that they are so indebted to their wives-to-be for all that they, the husbands, have been given, that they want to give this - something hugely important, and on some level comparable to birthing and naming - to her in exchange.  After all, he loves her deeply. And he wishes not to be the “taker” in all things important in their marriage covenant.

           Out of a genuine sense of honor and obligation, some Jewish husbands-to-be of non-Jewish wives self-sacrificially - even nobly - make the decision to raise their children, as the mother prefers.  Many choose Christianity. It is not that they no longer continue to consider themselves as Jews, although some do cease doing so and merely acknowledge ancestry. These Jewish fathers-to-be of non-Jewish children have thought the issues through most deliberately and they have decided not to establish a Jewish home.  They have elected to relinquish Jewish continuity. Some may still see themselves as Jews and follow a Jewish life style in an otherwise non-Jewish home just as some non-Jewish parents continue to follow a Christian life style in an otherwise Jewish home. Or they may represent themselves as former Jews or as secular Americans or as non-Christian Americans or as none of the above (Eschewish).

          One young man from a deeply committed Jewish home put it this way:

            "I have already gotten two out of three, and what's more, she's going to move to my community where I earn my living.  I'm not a selfish guy.  I'm a generous man, and I refuse to have Sandi forced to raise Jewish kids when she'll be doing the religious raising at home far more than I..."

          Another young man observed in remarks reflecting the dilemma:

"Yin is fitting into yang, but the kids issue changes everything.  What will they be?  I love her and she is giving me so much that I thought, let the kids be Christian.  She believes in it to some extent and what's the harm?  There are good Christians everywhere, certainly.  But then I thought about it again and I'm not so sure.  I do not know if I can do it.  I can't and won't be dishonest with my children and pretend I believe or that I think they should or must believe in Jesus.

         “As a Jew, I don't wish to tell them what to believe. Jews are not strongly belief-oriented anyway but are into acts and belonging.  And I know I will also be depriving my kids of an identity and a heritage which was transmitted to me from centuries ago which makes so much more sense to me than the religion in which my kids' mother would be bringing them up. 

“I am a rationalist and a skeptic - typically Jewish.  How am I going to support the Christian dogmas?  God became a man and died? Jesus is our savior? We are all sinful and need a god to die for us? And the rest... I probably won't, I'll simply vanish. Or perfect my golf swing while she does the religious training and raising.  But she's a believer, grew up in the church, and sincerely believes certain Christian beliefs like salvation.  So let them be Christians. She's going to be giving me the children and taking care of them far more than I will... And she's more religious than I am...terrific dilemma.  Or we may end up doing zero!"

            Another young man rather wistfully said softly that “the hardest part is knowing you’re the end of the line after thousands of years and hundreds of generations and I can imagine future generations down the line accusing me of dropping it and breaking the chain which if intact and had I not snapped off, they would be Jews. In other words what right do I have to be the one to end it? That part is very tough.”

            The adjustments are considerable when a Jew marries a Christian.  It is also a major adjustment when Christians decide to have Jewish children, giving up so many of their own rich traditions and memories and establishing ties to a tiny minority people, with all the uncertainty being part of a tiny minority entails. 

          There may be little religiously off-putting for a Christian in Judaism since Judaism is the foundation stone of Christianity, but Jews have always been outsiders. They are not unfamiliar with prejudice and discrimination. That's a big adjustment! The children of this marriage will fall outside of mainstream American Christian life, with all that this implies.  So when a Christian marries a Jew and decides to establish a Jewish home, the religious adjustment, while not insignificant, is relatively minor compared to the social adjustment of kinship with family members of a minority group.


            When a Jew marries a Christian and decides to establish a Christian home, these issues are reversed.  The social adjustment is easier since the individual goes from a minority household to being part of the mainstream culture, but the religious issues are very different and very difficult.

            While Judaism contains little a Christian would reject, Christianity  professes a significant number of tenets that Judaism strongly repudiates including that the Messiah has already come and will return, resurrection, virgin birth, sin transmitted from generation to generation, a God who died, believing in Him brings salvation, and other doctrines. It is very hard for Jews to see their children being taught not only that these things are true, but also that their Jewish parent who does not believe them will, according to certain Christian teachings, suffer terrible consequences.  "Daddy, why aren't you saved?" is an awful question to have to answer especially to a child. So is, “won’t you be with us when we’re in heaven?”

            If you say that you don't think you need to be saved, you undermine the Christian message and set yourself in opposition to your spouse, which divides your home.  If you say that you think that people do need to be saved but it's not for you, you look foolish (if not reckless), and you may be undermining the unity which a healthy home requires.

            Some would assume that no Christian who believes that “one must know Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior or be damned” would marry a Jew in the first place.  To be bound in the covenant of marriage to someone who you believe to be damned would, in the words of a Bethesda resident I have counseled, “cause cognitive dissidence and just wouldn’t be viable.”  In truth, however, I have met such individuals, men as well as women, who, married to a Jew, nevertheless firmly maintained that only Christians are saved.

             For many believing Christians, it is of vital importance that their children’s souls are to be saved – must be saved. And it is the Christian parents’ responsibility to ensure that this happens. Their non-Christian spouse's salvation or lack thereof is a separate matter altogether and not their responsibility. Rather, their Jewish in-laws, some would maintain, are responsible for the forfeiture of their grown children’s salvation by not having done right by them.

            Such conflicting Jewish and Christian attitudes and values are often unyielding to reconciliation and smolder just below the surface. Bethesda resident Dr. Elizabeth Marincola reminds us that “in the heat of passion such couples tend to minimize the dividing differences between them and to rationalize the rest. It’s when they have children and the children ‘come of spiritual age,’ at about four or five years old that these issues tend to rise up and slap you.”

            Even so, just as some Christian men adjust to Jewish children, some Jewish men adjust to having Christian children.  Jack Glickstein understands his decision as contributing to the health and strength of the marriage.  It is a kind of gift giving in return, but very difficult.  He says:

                        "I'll be the end of the line.  I'll be the link in the chain that breaks off.  My children will be taught beliefs I do not share or hold.  It will not be easy, I know.  There will be a wall of doctrine between me and my children.  I can just imagine my children coming home from church or Christian religious school and saying, 'How come you don't believe?  Are you going to be saved?  Is Jesus your Messiah?  Did he die for my sins and not yours? That's when the 'roll your eyeballs to the ceiling in despair syndrome' kicks in which Jews who are raising Christian kids experience.”

             Jack adds, "I've been to several gatherings and have shared this with other Jewish parents of Christian kids and many or most of us feel the same way.  But their mom is a strong believer and I love her very much.  She will be the one more at home with the kids.  She's the mother and she's bringing them into the world... Everything in life is a trade-off."

            Steve Schwartz, a young Jewish man, said, "What's the difference?  I'm not religious anyway.  Christianity and Judaism to me are one as good as the other - it's one myth or another.  Whatever they believe as children, in either event, they'll grow out of it.  The kids will probably stop believing in anything when they grow up just as I did.  Besides, it's her job.  I work; she stays at home with the kids."

            Alan Stern, responds to Steve Schwartz by pointing out that he disagrees because, in his words, “you're confusing identity with religion.  People change religious beliefs often while they are growing up, but identity - like being a Jew - is different.  Identity stays with you for life."


            In reverse, some Christian women adjust to having Jewish children in much the same manner: 

            "I took one look at Jonathan and knew he couldn't do it.  He doesn't believe a word of Christianity.  He'll be gone out the door to the ball park and he’ll be less involved in the raising of our children if they were to be Christians.  I consider myself a believing Christian.  Were it not for the fact that my husband is Jewish, I would have brought my children up Christian as I was brought up and been quite happy not to have to think about it.  I'll be giving up a lot: communion, confirmation, Christmas, church weddings and cherished memories I loved as a child.  But I did, after all, fall in love with a Jewish man, an unusual man in many respects.  I really can't expect him to raise children with beliefs he denies. 

            “I don't know of any Jewish beliefs that I deny, except to me Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps.  Besides, Jesus was Jewish. No perhaps about that. And Christianity is, at its heart, Jewish.  So the downside will be that our kids will be taught that Jesus was a great rabbi and a teacher and not the Messiah.  Okay.  A trade-off. The values in Judaism are good. They do reappear in Christianity, and so are the Jewish holidays very good the way that families observe them together. It's a lot to give up, but there's the compensation of our being a united household raising Jewish kids."

            The Gender Factor enters the equation and is expressed in various, often predictable, ways. For some Christians - who feel they cannot withhold from their children the Good News of God’s sacrifice of his son Jesus for our sins and that that belief brings salvation - the Eschewish and the Jewish routes should not be taken. For the husband of such a devout Christian mother-to-be - and of an equally devout Muslim woman planning children - the trade off is birthing and naming in exchange for religious and identity upbringing. 

        For some Jewish men, despite their strong, noble and loving instincts to reciprocate for the great gifts their wives are giving them, raising Christian, Chewish or Eschewish children for reasons of balance, would be the wrong choice. They feel the door standing between generations will be closed and they will be – in a phrase often recited - “the end of the line” of Jewish identity for their families.  Their children will be taught to believe things they and other Jews do not believe, and these beliefs are serious and fundamental assumptions about the world, not inconsequential surface matters like Santa Claus, Easter bunnies, Hanukkah dreidels, Purim carnivals, and the like.  They are fundamental beliefs, such as “Jesus died for my sins,” that define the meaning of life and its purpose.

            It is my experience in counseling that the Christian man with a Jewish wife generally finds the give and take process easier and less troublesome religiously and philosophically than the Jewish man, his counterpart, with a Christian wife.  The Christian man also says to his bride-to-be that he loves her. And since she is giving so much to him by changing her name or bestowing his name upon the children she will bear for them both, the least he can do is to be supportive of her choice of religious identity.

          He will explain that he can be counted upon to become involved in the upbringing of their children as Jews.  He may feel that mothers are more involved with the religious upbringing of children than fathers, and studies have shown that women are often more spiritual as well as often more religious than men. The bottom line though is that the Christian father of Jewish children will not likely find any conviction or doctrine in Judaism offensive to him.  He will be constantly reminded that “Jews are into deeds not creeds.” As one Washingtonian man who was born Christian and is raising Jewish children explained,

            "I don't wince at Jesus being referred to as a rabbi or teacher.  It's not the same for me as for a Jewish man who raises Christian kids and has to teach his children to believe in so many things like Jesus was a  God who died 2,000 years ago and was supposedly resurrected but was never seen again in the flesh except by his followers, according to the New Testament.  I view this as a myth.

            " In some ways I feel by the Jewish path we'll take that I can be a gracious hero and a gallant participant in Jewish history and the Jewish community's ongoing life as it moves deeper along into the 21st century - although there is a lot I will have to learn.  At my wedding, I even chose the moment of the exchange of rings and vows, like the rabbi said, to affirm publicly with the spoken formula 'by the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel' that my intention is to be a parent of Jewish children.

            "I consider it a great honor to declare the Jewish direction my family will be going. It's the least I can do in exchange for all that she is giving to me.  Besides, I've grown accustomed to the idea.  I'm growing into it and I like it very much. My kids will be different, that's true, but it comes with the territory of 'acquiring' a Jewish wife. I can cope with it – although there is much I have to learn and I know it’s a challenge.”


            They need not come to be flash points threatening a relationship, but it is obvious that the three transactions - birthing, name-giving and religious identity decisions - are vitally interconnected. Often when one goes up in importance, one of the others will likely go down. If, for a particular couple, the name issue is of no great consequence and they simply decide to assume the husband’s family’s name and not hyphenate, it may be that the religious identity of the children becomes more of an issue than if the decision were otherwise.  And conversely if religious identity is not a dilemma for an interfaith couple, perhaps the name issue may be.

          It is very prudent for an interfaith couple to be alert to these transactions – and to discuss them openly, responsibly and tenderly - as they unfold and develop because they often unconsciously impact on other decisions and other transactions.

            I have seen too many decisions that were reaction decisions. They were based not necessarily on what was best in the long run for the newly created family but on far less relevant - or what ought to have been less relevant - considerations such as “balancing things out.” No put down intended for “balance.” It is the very essence of transaction and trade off. But the equation balanced may be missing weighty variables such as children having to live with misfitting self-perceptions and the likelihood of long term discontent.

          These variables have to be factored in as well or the scales will eventually tilt. Confusion for children, not knowing who they are, how to see themselves and how to identify themselves to friends and adults are some unintended but too often observed consequences.

        The gift giving that the meshing of lives engenders is immeasurably good and even at times noble. It can be seen as arising out of the affection and the thoughtful consideration of lovers. But some transactions are conducted in a love-conquers-all disposition of mind confident that issues between them will all somehow work out. At times couples decide on a path they will follow not necessarily because it is the best one for them but for the sake of evening things out – to be fair. That path may prove to be a rough and trackless road.  Some difficult paths are strewn with honorable intentions.

          The advice offered by clergy, family counselors, and other professionals, is that each decision must be thought through on its own merits and then be folded into their life-as-a- couple, bringing about a lowering of the “me-me-me” and an advancement of the “we-we-we.” As in other matters, honesty and openness - meaning deep listening not just routine and perfunctory hearing - are paramount especially at the intersecting milestones of marriage, starting a family, and at the decision-making turning points prefiguring future life-cycle events and rites of passage to be played out by the new family in the course of a lifetime.

(1) The first such woman to serve on a religious council in Israel is the American born mother of the author’s children, Joyce Hope Brenner. Dr. Joyce Brenner is professor of Social Work at Bar Ilan University.


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