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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 They say they are not of the school which believes in "letting it all hang out before the wedding." In their minds they will work it all out later.  Charlie Pilloni is, in his own words, "a former Catholic and nonbeliever," and Gail, his wife to be, is a committed young Jewish woman who had celebrated a bat mitzvah at thirteen and remained in religious school through Confirmation in tenth grade.  To this day she still cares deeply about her Jewish identity – and Judaism.

            It quickly became evident in premarital counseling that they could not raise a Christian child.  Neither of them considers themselves believing Christians.  That also eliminated the Chewish/Both category. No point presenting oneself as a Christian and as a Jew if you don’t consider yourself a Christian. But when I asked whether their children would be raised to say they were Jewish (defined as “Willful Self-Identification”) and, clarifying the crossroads they face still further, whether their children would be brought into the covenant at birth with the intention of establishing Jewish identity, would be enrolled in a Jewish supplementary school, and prepared for bar/bat mitzvah (which, taken together with various other observances, we have defined as “public formal acts of Jewish Identification”), it turned out that this was not what this young man had in mind. That is, however, precisely what his fiancé had in mind. She did not wish to fail passing down her inheritance to her offspring and depriving them of what to her was a greatly treasured way of life.

            He simply did not want Jewish or Christian kids.  He wanted to celebrate a little of this and a little of that: Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, despite the fact that he no longer considered himself a Christian.  He certainly didn't want to have his children jointly enrolled in both Catholic and Jewish religious schools; he wanted less, not more, religion in his life.  He had rejected his own religious roots and didn't want his bride-to-be to have any religious roots either. With her agreement to that formula they could "leave the whole mess alone and start off even.”

            She was not happy to hear this. For her, Jewish identity spoke loudly and insistently.  He was not capable of listening.  He felt that if he could give up his religious heritage, she could, too. This was not possible for her.  She felt herself to be part of an historical community.  She was raised to think of herself as a link in a chain and responsible for the continuity of her people.

            He could barely understand these feelings.  He asked why she couldn't “give up her Jewish religion” for him like he was giving up his Catholic religion for her, or why they couldn't do a little of everything?  Deciding now whether their children would be Jewish or Christian was not necessary anyway, he maintained, seeing that that resolution could be made “when the time comes.” They did, however, come together on the view that their problem could not be settled by what they called “the all-of-the-above approach to child-rearing,” which we have called Chewish.

            They also understood that letting the child decide – a “Choose-ish” Eschewish upbringing – was, in their words, "nasty for the child" because it meant having their children, “down the road” choose between parents or possibly ending up with producing siblings with different religious commitments.  They felt it was hard enough to raise siblings who were close without these complications.

         Towards the end of a particularly difficult session, Charlie Pilloni turned to me and said, "I'm being railroaded.  It seems that I'm being pushed into the corner of having to go and have Jewish kids. All the other choices seem so much worse for us.”

“Precisely,” was my response, while remembering reading somewhere that “certain minds lock gears beyond repair when given directions.” 

My obligation was to try to help them decide what would be best for their family as a whole, which may not necessarily be the favored solution for each individual person in the particular, that is, for either of them. The same is true in reverse. Nor is the best choice always the easiest.     

      Clearly not one of the four pathways, Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewich, is without pitfalls and downsides. Nevertheless the question still remains which, on balance, is the best one for Charlie now that he is marrying Gail.  The answer may be, "given the realities of your choice of bride, Charlie, you may need to revise your thinking and rework your mental frame of reference to identify the most suitable and appropriate course. You must also remain ever mindful of the certainty that marriage entails taking on an entirely new and, in certain respects, a reconstructed and at times a somewhat discontinuous state of being. And it is indeed a serious undertaking and profoundly challenging, considering the life-long ramifications, to eliminate the thorniest, most trackless paths and to set out on a new and unfamiliar one.  But it nevertheless may turn out that of all the decisions with their collateral positives and negatives, one choice, however demanding and requiring many adjustments, may indeed be best.  Therefore, the prudent advice is to start working on the most advantageous of all the alternatives for the new family. This process essentially assures that the ‘we -we – we’ team approach will eventually triumph over the feelings still stuck on the ‘me-me-me’ that sees oneself as being railroaded into a disfavored decision.”

 Behind Charlie’s demurrals and protests lies a mind-set that needs to be drastically reshaped to become increasingly more open to alternative possibilities for the sake of the marriage. He needs to grow to accept that successful life management often involves change.

              The right decision for a particular couple may not be a compromise settlement at all, just the best decision for them and their future family. In fact, most compromises make matters worse not better (such as choosing an entirely different and unfamiliar religion for the family requiring an entirely artificially fabricated allegiance). Just as it is most certainly true, and at times perhaps quite predictable, that someone who feels railroaded may incline towards an unwise alternative solution, it is also unwise for anyone to see the handwriting on the wall and refuse to read it.

            For some couples undoubtedly the right decision is the Jewish route, for some it is the Christian or Muslim route. And for a number of others, as for example when a couple does not plan to have children to raise, the right decision for them may be all or none of the above, that is, no religious route at all, or a what-have-you Chewish amalgam seeing that there will be no children to confuse.  But without question, there most certainly is a best decision considering the given set of circumstances for every family. This fact indeed is handwritten on the wall.

            Besides, it is also important to remember that not everything that looks negative at first is negative. Over time a certain decision can become positive by doing the things that make the decision positive. And by reinforcing it regularly. The need for constant reinforcement of a decision may at times feel burdensome, but it is absolutely necessary. And it pays dividends over time because it helps keep the eye on the mark and a family on the same page. Whatever the decision! Even more broadly formulated: constant positive reinforcement makes a relatively good decision an even better one.


"Backing into the Jewish Pathway" refers to the decision-making process leading to a determination to “go the Jewish route” when all other options are out of the question. But the Jewish path fails to excite the non-Jewish parent-to-be.  I see this most often when a committed Jewish man is marrying a non-Jewish woman and she is a willing but a reluctant parent-to-be of Jewish children. Because of the trade-off dynamics of the male-female relationship (examined more fully in chapter 4) that happens less frequently when committed Jewish women marry non-Jewish men.  In these instances when a grudging, uncertain or disenchanted decision to go the Jewish route is in evidence, it is "because the other alternatives are much worse, or not possible, or cannot work for us."  Why? What underlies the decision – however reluctant it starts out - of gingerly embracing Judaism and selecting that pathway over others for the new family?

            For one thing, the non-Jewish wife-to-be understands that if she desires her future husband's participation in the religious upbringing of their children and if she wishes her family to express a unified voice in religious matters, then the Christian choice and the Chewish choice will not work. Her husband cannot believe in, and is sometimes repelled by, Christian doctrine. He cannot support these beliefs being "imposed" on his children, or having Christian religious ceremonies reflecting these beliefs in their home.

            A non-Jewish woman marrying a Jewish man may rightly feel that the Eschewish/Neither choice would work for them because it is the easiest and requires little participation from them as parents.  The Jewish choice would also work, but this decision entails considerable participation and commitment on her part and, in the words of one woman, "and it’s a big bother, costs big bucks, and comes with restricted residence requirements: you can't live just anywhere you like. And while it is true that Jewish communities are widespread – in Tennessee, Nebraska, Idaho and Alaska - still there are restrictions. You have to live where there is a Jewish community in order to affiliate and raise Jewish kids."  How could she not be disinclined or reluctant?

            The Jewish partner, too, is hesitant.  He does not want to impose or "inflict" his religion or identity on his beloved, especially since she has no intention of imposing her religion on him. "Taking advantage of her” is the phrase these young men most often use to express their doubts. They are very mindful of the gifts their brides-to-be are already bringing to their union that they are not: birthing, for example. When the Jewish pathway is ultimately selected, the non-Jewish wife keeps on giving. The Jewish husband “takes.” No one likes to be the constant giver or the perennial taker when fairness and balance dictate, in Allan Bloom’s words, that there ought to be a “reciprocal recognition of rights.” How could such a couple not be hesitant and on edge regarding such a decision that impacts upon their entire married lives?

            When Jennifer and Jesse became a couple they knew that neither felt “especially connected to their religion.”  Jesse says he thought of himself a Jew, would fill out a form identifying himself as a Jew, but his family “is very mixed.”

            “I never received a Jewish education or bar mitzvah and so Judaism never meant very much to me. Jennifer was brought up as a Catholic but she and her family dropped it early on.  She sees herself as an ex-Catholic and not a believer.”

            I asked, “Why turn to a rabbi to conduct your wedding service?”  Their answer, “because the wedding ceremony is very beautiful with rich traditions and symbolism and nothing that our Catholic guests will object to because it all came from Judaism.”

            I asked, “Won’t you be depriving your children of an identity?  Wouldn’t it be better to flip a coin and provide a single religious upbringing as well as a solid cultural identity?”

            Their answer, “we were not provided with very much of anything ourselves and it hasn’t affected us badly.  We do not feel we were deprived.  We’ll transmit ‘values.’ We’ll teach our children honesty, loyalty, diligence and the rest, apart from religion. They do not need a specific religious identity. Instead we will give them music, literature, painting, theatre and dance.¼

            Parents are most certainly obliged to teach the cultural arts to their children. Jesse and Jennifer understand this. They would not consider depriving their children of great music, dance, paintings and sculptures and all the wonders of humanity’s creative mind.  However a cultural/religious heritage, an unambiguous identity, joyful festivals, uplifting ceremonies, deeply rooted values and memorable life-cycle moments are, and should also be seen by them as distinctive, vitally important, and character-building essential components of an upbringing.   Without these elements of a religious heritage, a child would be brought up greatly deprived – evidence of a legacy withheld.

 This is something that Jesse and Jennifer will likely realize one day as they experience their children being brought up without an identity and minus a legacy to call their own. My advice would be to check out a synagogue on a Sabbath when a bar or bat mitzvah is scheduled and do the same at a church life-cycle observance. You will better understand, appreciate and perhaps experience, in part, the considerable loss that your child will sustain when deprived of a heritage, a community and an unambiguous identity.


            Why would a rabbi agree to officiate at a wedding of a couple declaring for such an uncertain and confusing future?  The answer is to be there for them, to impact on their lives, to keep the door open for a change of heart and mind, and to put forth a road map to at least one future path option that they may yet turn to eventually.  At the time of a wedding, decisions are not irrevocable. In experiencing at least one profound life-cycle event - their wedding - they can gain a foretaste of how much richness and beauty a heritage can add to all the unfolding future life-cycle events of their family. The officiating rabbi refuses to rule out in advance the possibility that perhaps one day, maybe with the arrival of their first child, they will choose a religious identity which they then will come to see as a great good in their lives and the doors to the Mansion of their choice will swing open with gestures of welcome.

 It is not within the scope of this book to endeavor to convince rabbis, and all “officiants,” to regard weddings and other life-cycle events as opportunities for making the case to a couple that they carefully weigh and consider identity decisions for themselves and their children.  They undoubtedly need to be guided in such a way so that they not overlook or minimize the importance of such critically overriding goals as uniting families, strengthening marital bonding and solidarity, marking significant moments in life, as well as the celebration of growth and personal development.

 Beyond all these considerations, weddings and other life-cycle events are, in the words of one Jewish young man approaching marriage, “opportunities to showcase a sliver of the significant traditions and history and an occasion to ‘sell’ the product. By that I mean, the Jewish way of life that I want to introduce in the best light possible to my new in-laws and their friends and family.

“The wedding and one day the baby-naming are for me and for Katherine, who has agreed to be the mother of Jewish children, all marketing tools to show Jewishness at its best as well as to mark important and deeply felt family milestone achievements.”

           The decision to take the Jewish path is often triggered by the non-Jewish woman because she knows her fiancé cannot, in good conscience, raise Christian children: “I know he’d not whole-heartedly participate in bringing up children to believe in things and affirm doctrines he cannot accept. He’d be out the door playing sports all day or out of the house doing whatever.”  The Chewish/Both route, much like the Christian route, won’t work for the same reason – the husband’s lack of belief in Christianity – or “the Christian part of the bargain.”

          Nevertheless, the wife doesn't want to deprive her children of a religious identity altogether.  She understands that her husband doesn't believe in Christianity and will not fudge with his kids by endorsing and supporting a religious life based on articles of faith he denies or, in his own words, “resting on claims and so-called truths I reject.”

         As one young man said: "I know that whenever I would hear a child of mine say that Jesus was God or the Messiah, I'd go ballistic.  It's one thing for other kids to be taught whatever their parents choose; but I'm to be a parent in this household and I cannot live a lie and fail to oppose and resist what I consider to be myths and distortions being passed off as religious fact or history.  Just the opposite!  I need to resist Christian doctrines as a proud Jewish skeptic, but not oppose basic Judeo-Christian values.  Even if I were not a Jew I would probably oppose these Christian teachings because I don’t believe in them.  I certainly will not withhold my strongly held feelings and skepticism from my children.”

            The realization of the consequences of the Jewish partner's disbeliefs may set in motion a dialogue between the couple which often leads to the decision which we have characterized as "backing into the Jewish route." When the other three choices promise to make matters worse, they come to the conclusion that declaring for Judaism and raising Jewish children may prove to be the best choice for their family's religious identity, despite the fact that they each still have certain misgivings.

            In a frequently encountered scenario, the Jewish man feels that his beloved is yielding or surrendering something precious yet again, after she has already given him so much. What goes on in his mind is, "I didn't choose her to be submissive, but to be equal."  Nevertheless they commence their life together as a Jewish family half-heartedly and with hesitation.

As a rabbi, it is my obligation to try to help couples become conscious of, and talk about, the reluctance and uncertainty they are experiencing. With that kind of openness they may become capable of turning their attitudes around - to view the decision they make as drinking from the cup of life together which they can see as half-full, rather than half-empty. It is important that they grasp the positives, the blessings, and the commendatory benefits that the Jewish route offers without denying the downside realities. Of the several pathways, who says there can be found a single road without obstacles that a newly married couple must surmount? Certainly not this rabbi given all that we have learned about life’s onrushing landscape with all its many snags, snares and pitfalls.

            However unplanned and unanticipated, whether reluctant, enthusiastic or someplace in between, this means that a non-Jewish bride-to-be will be bringing incomparable and non-reciprocal third and fourth gifts to their union. They are transaction numbers three and four. That is, in this dynamic, the woman ends up giving twice more.

          She has not necessarily decided to shed her own religious identity and perhaps never will. But she has made the decision to relinquish her childhood dreams of transmitting her own religious beliefs to her children - difficult for her even as she knows full well that Christianity is a Jewish religion.  She has made a choice in favor of creating a unified Jewish household. She does so in order to converge with her beloved in their shared commonality, namely Judaism. Her decision is to seek out their mutuality.

            This is not easy for her, as we have said, but it is do-able because, among other reasons, doctrinal “you-must-believes” are absent. Jesus will be seen not as a God or messiah but as a great rabbi who was martyred along with other great rabbis and thinkers, murdered by those obsessed with destroying the Jewish people. (Jews do not willingly kill their rabbis – teachers of Judaism.) She will divest herself of many of the teachings of her upbringing and while she may not become a Jewish woman herself, she will be the mother of Jewish children.   She will become a Settled Sojourner.

            When you add the religious identity of the household to the gifts of the birthing of children and the transmission of surname, it amounts to a huge package.  And it's all one way.  She is the giver and he is the receiver.  Adoring her and committed to her, he feels terrible about it. He understands that there is simply no way he can reciprocate to make things even.  So she gives yet again; the next gift, the fourth gift, is crucial. She gives him substantial quantities of understanding and enormous amounts of compassion for his awkward position of loving her deeply but finding himself unable to demonstrate evidence of that love in the most telling and measurable ways. That’s an especially momentous gift in that it is meant to last for far more than a moment – especially since it cannot be seen as in any way earned. He too knows it’s not coming to him because it is his rightfully deserved.

 She has given him so much: 1) childbearing, 2) conferring his not her family name, and 3) the religious identity of the couple’s children. Now she gives again, a fourth giving: 4) forgiveness, as in four-give-nesses. A “nes,” in Hebrew is a wonder, a miracle, a giving of the kind that is gratuitous. He feels that it is a major miracle that she is willing to give so very much to their relationship. She feels she can forgive and comfort her beloved Jewish husband-to-be and even tease him lovingly with the shared knowledge that he is incapable of meaningfully equivalent reciprocation. What can he give her that measure up to the magnitude of what she is giving him? I always remind Jewish husbands of Christian wives raising Jewish children that they have embarked upon a lifetime sentence as a thorough and complete – although most certainly grateful - taker!

            She may understand very well that Judaism – the parent Abrahamic faith -  is their common denominator since it gave birth to Christianity, Islam, and, in part, to western civilization. But she also knows that this is a one-way, awkward, and unbalanced set of transactions between husband and wife.  What is most important here is that the husband in his gratitude, and in his reluctance to "shove Judaism down her throat" (in the words of more than one young man), should not out of a sense of compensation, avoid, belittle or represent as unimportant, their partaking of Jewish culture, celebrating joyous Jewish festivals and blessed life-cycle milestones.

      Neither should they position themselves as standing apart from the Jewish community.   As a consequence of their reluctance, the family should not become Jewish minimalists depriving themselves of the full richness of a heritage. The philosophy to be followed is that once the choice has been made, and the marriage set on its course, they should make the most of it and get the maximum out of that decision for the good of all.

            This way of thinking is especially related to the process of searching, finding and joining a synagogue that’s right for them as a couple - not necessarily the one the Jewish partner prefers – but one that is best for the two of them and their future family. A Jewish partner raised in an Orthodox or Conservative Jewish home would be well advised to select a Reform or Reconstructionist congregation to attend regardless of whether the non-Jewish partner intends to converge at this time rather than convert. There will likely be many other converging couples like themselves in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations. In a Reform congregation especially, there will be considerably less repetition of prayers, more English recited and more music played. The point is that both partners need to adjust, change, accommodate, even if one partner “gives” quite a bit more than the other.

A key to success is: once you have made the decision (whatever that is) try to cultivate a positive and proactive attitude. Be conscious not to become passive-aggressive, resentful, embarrassed or apologetic about it. My advice to the Jewish partner is, accept her decision lovingly and graciously as a great and non-reciprocal gift. Then begin to accompany her, and guide her, down the bumpy path over and past the doorstep into the most suitable room of the Mansion. Begin the process the moment she makes it a point to say she wants to study and practice Judaism so she will, in the words of Arlene Thompson Joffe, “stay at least a lesson or two ahead of the kids."


            Many of these “backing into it” husbands say to themselves, "It's enough my beloved bride-to-be has agreed to Jewish kids.  We don't really need to do anything about it.  Better not press my luck by pushing too much Judaism down her throat because I don't want to stretch things to the breaking point. We don't really have to partake very much of the culture, observe more than a couple of festivals but never do anything special, sacred or spiritual on a Sabbath, nor need we join a synagogue or if we join, need not attend often or take classes or read Jewish books or plan a family visit to Israel one day. She’ll resent it. We'll eat a nice dinner on Passover and give out Chanukah gifts and call our kids Jews.  Maybe we will get a tutor at bar and bat mitzvah time.  That will do.  I don't want to make it too tough or too unfathomable and esoteric and cause her to regret her decision and I’m not so religious anyway." So he decides not to take her hand and become her tour guide through the many sublime and entrancing portals of the Jewish Mansion –exploring together as they proceed - because he doesn't feel it right to “impose” Judaism on her. Even when both agree that the Jewish pathway will be the one traversed!

            This approach of trying to keep his non-Jewish bride from stumbling over unfamiliar rocks and crags on the road to the Jewish Mansion is also preventing her from picking up the precious stones strewn along the very same pathway. Years later she may turn to him (as I have witnessed on numerous occasions) and complain that he never took any initiative to guide her around the Mansion and she has learned so little about the Jewish heritage she and her husband were committed to transmit to their children. An objective observer will see this do-as-little-as-possible approach as self-defeating because it does not lead to an informed, proud Jewish home.  A Jewish home is a place of learning about all things Jewish: Torah values, Mitzvah actions, Holy Day celebrations - the fullness of the culture from special foods to a particular sense of humor emerging from a singular history.

            The imagery of the pathway to the Mansion lends itself well to Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf’s vision (he attributes to Franz Rosenzweig) of the landscape, once the direction has been determined. He writes:

           “I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked ‘Sabbath’ and one “Civil Rights” and one ‘Kashruth’ and one “Honor Your Parents” and one ‘Study of Torah’ and one ‘You Shall Be Holy.’ There are at least 613 of them and they are of different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up, and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments. I do not believe that He expects me to lift what I cannot, nor may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can.” [1]


            We have pointed out previously that Judaism and Torah are near synonyms: the word Jew and Judaism come from Judah, the tribe from which most Jews descend. Torah, in Hebrew, means "teaching," that is, the teachings of Judaism.  Related directly to the Hebrew word for parent (horeh/horah), one who instructs, Torah derives from the word yarah, 'to shoot,' as in the act of sighting a target, taking aim and letting an arrow fly - an ancient image alluding to the quintessential methodological core of the teaching/training process.

        Torah is also celebration-oriented because the festivals, commemorations, and commandments - all of which arise from Judaism's fundamental values - connect Jews to their history, to the extended family of contemporary co-celebrants the world over, and to the Jewish folk of tomorrow.  Another image emanates from this process: “the chain of continuity.”  Jews are taught that each link of the chain has the responsibility of reinforcing, building upon, strengthening and sustaining the received teachings which taken together constitute the Jewish inheritance.

            The non-Jewish wife often wants very much to be invited to visit, become familiar with and comfortable in, the many engaging and well-appointed rooms of the Jewish Mansion.  On the other hand her husband, often out of ill-conceived but entirely understandable loving consideration, can't bring himself to open the doors and introduce her to “Torah,” that is, to the Jewish way of life being joyously conducted inside.  He is being considerate, devoted and kind - but not wise.  This is a far-reaching and frequent mistake, and these couples often end up straddling the Eschewish/Neither path by default and neglect. Unfortunately, in this approach, there will always be a yawning gap where a culture should be for the children and the entire family.

            When the decision to establish a Jewish household is arrived at by the process of elimination, it is as much perplexing as joyful.  As Diane put it:

                        “I know next to nothing about Jewish life.  It is complicated.  Much of it is conducted in Hebrew and has strange and unfamiliar celebrations and festivals.  But I'm determined.  I'll learn and I'll stay a step ahead of the kids.  My husband had better pick up the slack on his part and deliver."

            The advice that seems best in this situation is to suggest that no one should take the Jewish path unless they can.  The paradox is that you can't know this until you try.  It is important to remember that many others have done so before you. Those who have been-there-done-that can both reassure and testify to the overriding positives that can be realized by “getting with the program.” The best suggestion is to stress the immeasurable good that can be derived from the Jewish way of life that produced so many great men and women of magnanimous character and towering achievement.

          If the Jewish path is your way to go, a decision arrived at after deliberate and considered discussions, reflections and dialogues, and you catch yourself shifting into reverse and backing into Judaism with reluctance, because, after all, “it’s a bother and requires some effort, attention, study” and for a dozen additional cogent reasons - STOP.  Stop short! Turn around. Walk forward. Emphasize the positives. Accentuate the beauty of the festivals, take pride in the great contribution of the Jewish people to civilization, the importance of the heritage and value system which have informed most of western civilization, and the unparalleled examples of ethical integrity and compassion that exist in Jewish teachings.

                                                               And then, start doing Jewishly – keep up with Jewish issues; pay attention to the news for what’s going on in the Jewish world and in your own community and support the attitudes and values you care for as part of it. That’s called “Jewish Community.” Think of yourselves as the contemporary custodians of the culture, the current links in the chain of an Eternal People and do your best to live that message proudly, magnanimously and enthusiastically. That’s called “Jewish Continuity.”

            It has been pointed out that according to Jewish law, the child of a Jewish parent (Orthodox and Conservative Jews would stipulate that only the child of a Jewish mother) is a Jewish child. And although biological descent is acknowledged as transmitting identity by all branches of Judaism, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis require, in addition, formal acts of Jewish identification and commitment (mitzvot) to establish Jewish identity. Lineage, that is, descent, is necessary but not sufficient. Other pillars upholding the mansion of Jewish identity must also be in place.  It can be seen that in certain critical issues and principles, non-Orthodox Judaism is stricter than Orthodoxy.

          In Reform and Reconstructionist circles where the patrilineal principle also applies, the child of a Jewish parent - father or mother - who is provided with a Jewish upbringing is a Jewish child. And conversely, as their rabbis would point out, “Without the upbringing lineality has no application.” Or, often, “biology isn’t enough.” And “Every Jew is a Jew by choice.” And in the words of a 12-year-old bat mitzvah candidate explaining what it is like to be Jewish to her non-Jewish classmates, “To be what you are it’s what you do.”

It has been pointed out that a brit ceremony and enrollment in a Jewish school program formally and publicly initiate the Jewish child as a new member of the Jewish community.  Forever after throughout life, Jewish observances serve to confirm and strengthen that identity. This can be thought of as a matter of Jewish belonging and self-definition as much as it concerns Jewish law and behavioral rulings.

             It has also been discussed in several places in this book, particularly in chapter four, that apart from any issues of interpretation of law is the fact that a Gentile parent of a Jewish child becomes, over time, a Settled Sojourner. Naturally, this can be seen as “a radical recognition of reality,”   to employ a characteristic expression shared by many Polydox rabbis. Furthermore, this standpoint or disposition of mind and temperament is virtually universal in non-Orthodox American Jewish communities: a child being raised as a Jew by a Jew is a Jew and over time makes an “all but a Jew” of the non-Jewish parent – “retrojectedly.”

That process has been designated as “Ascending Lineality” and “Retrojected Identity” to indicate that however you conduct the religious life of your household, whatever pathway you choose to walk, determines your own identity – as Christian, Muslim, Jew or Settled Sojourner. That is, for the most part you are what you raise your kids. That also means that, as I have pointed out to many non-Jews raising Jewish children, "as your child is learning about Judaism and becoming immersed in its heritage, so are you.  There is no reason to be left out particularly since Christianity and Islam are Jewish religions. You are a part of it and you will feel it especially when you are observing the Jewish festivals, keeping Shabbat in the manner you determine, taking your child to a Jewish supplementary school, and doing a variety of Jewish things.

            “As your Jewish children wade ever deeper into the Jewish stream of life you, the non-Jewish parent, are holding your child's hand as you are simultaneously being carried by the same current.  The deeper you wade, the more interesting, fascinating and appealing you'll find Judaism.  After all, it's such a rich tradition and it has been around for such a long time. You will always be raising your eyebrows in astonishment over the fact that there is so much to this culture.

            “So while you, a non-Jew, are nurturing and nourishing your Jewish child, you are “bringing yourself up” Jewishly too.  You are not very different, in fact, from a Jewish parent raising a Jewish child, just different in origin, in self-declaration (you don’t call yourself a Jew) and perhaps in beliefs and cultural backgrounds. But while inter-value marriages almost never work, inter-belief marriages have a better chance at success. Besides, beliefs and faith change so much, often radically, over the years.  The point is in the doing. And in that regard the non-Jew raising a Jewish child invariably is doing pretty much what born Jewish parents do for their Jewish children and families.

         I have already pointed out that “since Judaism has no ‘must beliefs’ (there are however many ‘must not beliefs’) to raise Jewish children, beliefs will not be a hugely insurmountable problem for you as a Christian.  Besides, many cherished beliefs flip-flop fundamentally or go off in an altogether different and unexpected direction every five years or so - this is called growth.  There is no growth without change. Who knows what your beliefs will be like a few years from now?  But by doing what all committed born or converted Jewish parents do, then in the eyes of a Reform Jewish congregation, you will become a participating parent of Jewish children.  A parent of a Jewish child is very much like a Jewish parent (but without willful self-identification, of course). Regardless of your beliefs, you would be considered a Ger Toshav - all-but-a-Jew, a “friend of the folk,” a Settled Sojourner.

            My advice would be, don’t back into the pathway, walk forward proudly towards the porch and then on into the Jewish Mansion. Explore the charming rooms, check out the gracious vaults, domes, archways and antechambers and find the captivating family suite that suits you best. Don’t hang out long in the vestibule and waiting parlor. Venture forward. Take a peek into the many nooks and alcoves. Linger in the library and dally in the den. Go about the venture of exploration conscientiously and attentively - but do not overlook the pantry. It’s been said in jest that the essence of the entirety of Jewish history and all Jewish holidays may be reduced to, ‘they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.’ Food counts, eating together is important. Yes, take pleasure in the lodging, as have so many before you. Lastly, remember it is best to explore the digs with your roommate.

Then the huge gifts that the non-Jewish partner gives to the marriage indeed will be reciprocated by the richness of Jewish family life, its character building and its culture, its sense of belonging and its moral groundings.  Your family will celebrate life-cycle events and festivals joyously together. And the road you took tentatively and reluctantly will become what Sarah Masey, a Settled Sojourner who celebrated her children's bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation in a Reform Jewish congregation, calls "the best decision I ever made."



“You’re raising your son Jewish?”

            “As a believing, devout Christian, I often hear this question from new acquaintances, most notably other Christians.  My marriage to Rachel isn’t ever really an issue. Folks in this diverse, dynamic culture have long since gotten used to the idea of interfaith marriage.  Raising a child outside of the Christian faith, however, seems to most folks to be another matter altogether.  They are startled by it, confused by it.  How is it that I, a deacon and seminarian who aspires to the ordained ministry, am not raising my child Christian?

            “If they are one sort of Christian, there tends to be either a nod of  acceptance or a moment of awkward silence, followed by a change of subject.  The other sort, the more aggressive, evangelical types, usually push the issue.  ‘How can you profess faith in Jesus as your personal Lord and savior if you won’t even commit your son to Jesus?  How can you believe that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but deny the Gospel to your family?’

            “The decision to raise our children Jewish was a hard one.  Early on in our relationship, as Rachel and I became certain that we would share the rest of our lives, we hashed through this issue. I was uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish child at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was resisting for all the wrong reasons.  I balked at the idea of not being able to share many of the delights of my childhood with him.   No sparkling lights on a tree, or eager 5:30 am anticipation on a Christmas morning.  No face full of chocolate bunny on Easter.  Yet these things are not central to Christian faith.

            “To be a Christian is to hear and obey the message of Jesus, and to be filled with the promised Spirit of Christ. The message of Christ is simple: the Kingdom of God is at hand, so you damn well better get your act together.  In each of the first three Gospels, Jesus hammers this message home.  He doesn’t go on about himself, or about what heaven is like.  He proclaims the Reign of God, and asserts the authority of the Lord over creation. 

            “Most Christians don’t get this.  They’re happy to sit around on their collective tuchus, thinking about Jesus coming back in the mothership to cart them off to a blissful harp-twanging eternity.  If only it were so easy. What Jesus proclaims is terrifying, shattering, world-shaking -- the Kingdom is at hand. God is among us. Yet it is within that very proclamation that Jesus offers hope, for implicit in that message is a radical redefinition of messianic expectation.

            “To which you say, justifiably, “What? What the Sam Hill are you talking about?” Sorry...let me unpack that.  At the time of Jesus, the Jewish folk were suffering under the yoke of foreign oppression.  With Rome calling the shots, and the Davidic line of anointed kings shattered, Jews yearned for a return to the past. What they wanted, prayed for, yearned for, was a king-like David on steroids, with some serious angelic muscle to back him up.

            “Jesus was something different. A 'radical redefinition.'  Something that goes to the very root of something to bring change. Before David, before the whole bloody mess that came of kings in Israel and Judah, authority over Israel rested not with human beings, but with the Lord alone.  Through His person, through the power of the Holy Spirit working within him, and within and among those who followed him, Jesus changed the very nature of messianic understanding.  Not an earthly King, but the Spirit of the Lord.  Not sudden, violent triumph by the sword, but by the Lord dwelling in and among us, using us to fill this creation with the promise of His justice, love, righteousness, and peace.

            “Now, this is far from a majority view within Christianity. Still, the fact that I am this sort of Christian makes me able to accept Rachel, her family, and my sweet little son, Sam.  If they are true to the heritage of Israel -- meaning that they love justice and do righteousness, and walk humbly with their God, they are doing all that Jesus asked.  If they open themselves to the Shechinah, let their sails be filled with the breath of God, they are doing all that Jesus asked. If they hear the prophet Isaiah, and clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless, then they are doing all that Jesus asked. “Jesus was, after all, a good Jewish boy.”


            “Since my Jewish faith and identity have always been an important part of my life, I’d always assumed that these would be an important part of my family life as well.  When Dave and I officially made the decision to get married, we had a point-blank discussion about the religious upbringing of our children.  It’s funny, because many of our friends approaching the engagement stage of their relationships were having the ‘do you want kids?’ discussion. 

            Meanwhile, Dave and I were having the “do you want Jewish kids, Christian kids, or both?” talk.  There had never been any question about bringing children into the world -- both of us were sure of that from the beginning of our relationship and even from early in our own lives.  But since we were each committed to our own faith identities, we were faced with the serious task of choosing.

             “Luckily, Dave and I shared the opinion that raising kids with a mixture of both Jewish and Christian observances did not make sense for us.  We enjoyed strong religious identities and wanted our children to be able to do the same.  We felt that truly educating them in both religions was basically impossible and thought the outcome would be a family life filled with fun (both Chanukah and Christmas, both Passover and Easter, etc.) but it would be a token and not a particularly spiritual or religious observance.

            “An interesting twist to this decision came in the issue of taking Dave’s last name.  When it came right down to it, I really wanted to keep my name.  It had been mispronounced and misspelled countless times, but it was something that felt like me and felt like my heritage. However, it was quite important to Dave that I take his family name. The compromise was that I would hyphenate my last name, taking on his but keeping mine as well, and we would raise our children in the Jewish tradition.

            “Admittedly, I got the better (or at least more significant) end of the deal.  Looking back on this compromise now, however, I think that this was only a token concession on my part and that Dave would have agreed to raising Jewish kids anyway.  He had studied religions in college and understood that Christianity and Judaism basically have Judaism in common. Knowing that he would have committed to a Jewish family either way I went with the name issue, makes me appreciate and respect him even more.

            “And I know that it is difficult in some ways for him: he can’t share his wonderful church with his family, he won’t be constructing the traditional fake Christmas tree in our home, and now that he is preparing to enter the ministry, he can’t even look forward to involving his family in the life of his own congregation.

            “But Dave deeply understands the foundational nature of Judaism and I know that he feels comfortable with our decision for both theological and emotional reasons.  Every time Dave comes to High Holy Day services or lights the Chanukah candles with me, or memorizes various Hebrew blessings (he knows the Shema by heart!), I am reassured that he is as committed to being part of a Jewish family as I am.  This is the greatest gift he could ever give me.

            “I realize that no matter how singularly we educate our children in the Jewish faith, we will face certain challenges simply because we are an interfaith couple.  Kids are naturally curious and they will have an interest in their father’s religious tradition.  But since Dave and I made this decision together and with strong purpose, I think we’re well equipped to deal with whatever the kids throw at us.  Provided it’s not strained carrots or rice cereal of course.”



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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

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