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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CHAPTER SEVEN: THE FOUR AGE-APPROPRIATE DIALOGUES
We have in the pages above surveyed the various upturns and downturns along the four pathways – Jewish, Christian, Chewish and Eschewish - deployed before interfaith couples. For those couples selecting the Jewish route, the following four age-appropriate dialogues which take place between a Jewish child and the child’s intermarried parents may be considered. These preconceived conversations also provide a kind of overview of the terrain and serve to help a family of inter-religious members navigate the course. Examining the details of the distinctively singular surface map charting their course of life should also disclose the commendable and encouraging aspects of their family’s religious convergence.
The model conversations below have been crafted particularly for non-Jewish parents - but they are to be seconded by the Jewish parent as well, ideally - to establish the common ground on which they stand with their Jewish children. These dialogues help organize the building blocks which will support the values and character of their home. They will serve as well to cultivate commitment to the family’s chosen path.
Once a couple has decided to raise Jewish offspring, it is important for them to become conversant with the four age-appropriate dialogues, which are carefully thought out responses to the almost inevitable question, "Mommy, how come Daddy and I are Jewish and you're not?" Or, “Daddy, how come Mommy and I are Jewish and you’re not?” Any question that the child is old enough to ask is worth answering as long as the answer itself is truthful, offered lovingly and is age-appropriate.
You owe your child an answer to this question even if it is not forthcoming or expressed in this form. If it is not brought up by the child, then when parents feel the time is right, it makes sense for the parents to do so: “You know that you and Mom are Jewish and that I was born Christian¼.” It is not advisable to avoid the question at any age although many counsel otherwise, suggesting that it is prudent to wait until the child grows older. From my perspective the sooner the better, appropriate to the age of the child.
As your child matures, your dialogues with your child will naturally become more sophisticated. Couples who make use of this paradigm of the four age-appropriate dialogues and the ideas they present have generally kept them on the shelf, initiating the dialogue themselves when the right moment in their child's life arrives, and subsequently, at various points of time, for reinforcement in the developing life of the child.
The ages below are meant to suggest an appropriate time to initiate these dialogues. You will find that the dialogues build on themselves through the years and help produce, as a consequence, respectful and sensitive children who are intellectually honest, forthright and sophisticated. Children understand that they are being encouraged to think and ask insightful questions on important – religious - subjects. This has been shown to be the case for all four paths reviewed in these pages.
These discussions apply and are relevant with adjustments and reconfigurations for each and every choice of interfaith by-ways except for the “let’s not discuss this subject at all” approach to child raising (“it upsets mom or dad or grandparents”). Neither do they apply to the method of child raising I call “resolute indifference,” that says, “You have super highbrow parents. Your mom is a psychiatrist and your dad is an academic dean and head-of-the-department-of-cultural anthropology and you are yourself or whatever you want to be. You’re a sophisticated child and you can even choose to be nothing.”
That path leads to nothing, to worldly refined emptiness and cultural dead ends. There is no mansion to explore at the end of that by-way. The landscape is bare and dismal. The children emerging from such “sophistication” are deprived of a heritage and a clear and confident self-identity. They find that they are not living their lives according to some set of firm convictions or solid criteria. Rather, they are experiencing the sheer formlessness of their spiritual lives.
The four dialogues that follow are intended to put a positive and favorable spin on the choice of Jewish identity you have selected for your household.
Dialogue #1 - Age 4-6: We Are Your Parents (or Shut Up and Eat Your Porridge)
The first dialogue between a Jewish child and inter-married parents, especially the non-Jewish parent, follows along these lines: "Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, and having different religions didn't make any difference in how much we loved each other. When it was just the two of us we (sometimes, never, rarely) celebrated all the holidays and I (sometimes, never, rarely) went to church on Sundays and Daddy (sometimes, never, rarely) went to temple on Friday nights and holidays. But when you came along, we had to make a decision. We didn't want to confuse you by trying to raise you as both a Christian and a Jew. We also did not wish to throw everything away by raising you as nothing. So we knew it would be either as a Jew or as a Christian that we would raise you. Each one or the other would have been desirable and good for the family. We chose Judaism for you and for our household. That makes you a Jew.”
“Is that why we don’t we go to church?”
“Yes, but Judaism and Christianity are each separately very good choices, we could have gone either way. And you know you have Christian as well as Jewish grandparents and other relatives and family who are Christian. We decided together to pick Judaism for you and for all of our family. This means you’ll be attending a synagogue where Jews congregate rather than a church where Christians go to pray. As you are growing up you'll understand this better and better and you will know why your Jewishness is a blessing to your whole family, including your non-Jewish relatives.”
“When you were born, we made you Jewish by having a brit ceremony (a ben brit for a boy; a bat brit for a girl, often called “a naming” ritual) for you. Soon we will enroll you in religious school, and you will be taught what it means to be a Jew. You will have a bar/bat mitzvah, you will be confirmed, well educated, proudly Jewish and an important part of the Jewish world. Your religious community will be within a synagogue, not within a church.”
“How come I didn’t have a choice in this?”
“What religion you will be and what you will study, where you will play, what TV you may watch and many other things, you know, these are the kinds of decisions parents make for their young children because we are older and know more than you do about the world and about how things work. We make all the tough choices for our family. That’s what parents do. We thought a lot about it and we decided on this together, and we're both very happy about it. It was the best decision in the world for our family and so don't worry, because everything's going to be fine. This is what parents are for - to make these tough decisions - so (and this is said with a huge smile and a hug) you're a Jewish kid, kid. Shut up and eat your porridge."
It has been made abundantly clear to the child that you, as parents, had to make up your minds; you thought it through, because that’s what parents are supposed to do. “We are not just your friends. We are your parents.” Parents make tough decisions. Just as important, you have said, “We could have gone either way for you, the Jewish path or the Christian path, because each path has great merit and value. You have loving relatives practicing each of these religious traditions and other friends doing the same. And we do not “put down” Judaism or Christianity. We respect everyone’s religious beliefs and practices. We also know that we will like the decision we made more and more as time passes.
“In fact, even though Judaism and Christianity each teach different things about life and the world, we greatly admire the two faiths or religions. But the Both and Neither paths, we decided, were not good choices. One is confusing; the other is, well, nothing.” And of course you might add, “I love your mother very much, and your mother cares deeply about her heritage and Jewish continuity. I do too because of her and that’s another reason I am happy with this decision which made you a Jewish kid. And me, a parent of a Jewish kid.”
Dialogue #2 - Age 6-8: The Common Heritage (or the Tree Image)
The second answer to the question, “How come I’m Jewish and you’re not, Mom or Dad?” is given when your child is beginning to grow up and requires more suitable details and expanded and more insightful reasons. It goes like this:
"We decided that you'd be Jewish because Judaism is the common heritage, the shared religious space of Mommy’s and Daddy’s religions.”
You would have to explain what a common heritage means, perhaps in this way: “Christianity came from Judaism. We hold Judaism in common. Mommy and Daddy both see this as a win/win deal. Everything about my Christianity is rooted in Judaism. There is no Christianity without Judaism. Christianity came from Judaism. Jesus was Jewish. Everyone he knew was a Jew! His mother and father and every one of his friends were Jewish. If Jesus came back, he could go to a synagogue and feel at home. He would not know what was going on in a church. People didn't become Christians until well after Jesus died, and Christianity has kept large chunks of Judaism in it. Judaism is the foundation stone for both Mommy and Daddy. And in a huge hugging embrace we stand on that foundation stone together with you as a family.”
“So one is not better than the other?”
"Right, but Judaism is better for us as a family. Because you are Jewish, you are learning the values, history, and ideas that both Mommy and Daddy share. We both feel great about this. Your and Mommy's Judaism is like the tree trunk and my Christianity is like one of the branches. We have the same Jewish roots. Christianity came from and is rooted in Judaism. Judaism is like the good earth out of which the tree arose and grew or like the sturdy foundation for the home we build as a family. Think of a tree. That image works well for understanding the reasons behind our decision. Judaism provides the soil, the roots and the main-stem of the tree. Christianity is a branch of that tree. Dad came down from the branch to the place on the tree on which we all stand together as a family.”
“But there are some differences, right?”
"Christianity, being a branch of the tree, has some leaves on it - some beliefs in it - that are different from some of the leaves, or beliefs, growing on the other branches. If we were to raise you Christian, Mommy would have had trouble teaching you about these beliefs because she doesn't agree with them. She does not accept them. But there is almost nothing in Judaism that I as a Christian have a problem believing or accepting so your being Jewish makes both Mommy and Daddy feel right.”
“But don’t we believe different things?”
“Yes, but we have far more in common and because Christianity came from Judaism, Mommy and Daddy both feel fulfilled. We both stand on your common ground. If we had chosen to raise you Christian, Mommy would have found all these beliefs that she does not accept difficult to teach to you. Jewishness does not have “you must believe” in it in the same way. I am very happy about your being a Jewish kid because everything I was taught as a Christian is rooted in Judaism. That’s why I believe that your being raised as a Jew is a win/win for both Mommy and Daddy in our minds and in our hearts.”
You might want to add this thought as well, as part of the dialogues you are constructing. "By the way, another religion that grew out of Judaism, like another branch of the tree, is Islam. The people who are members of that religion are called Muslims. In fact, the Muslim religion, Islam, is also a very great religion. Many of the ideas that are important to the people in the Americas and Europe and a lot of the Middle East and Africa come from Judaism. There have been so many famous and influential Jews like Einstein and Freud and Moses and Jesus. For Islam too we can say that the soil, roots and trunk are Jewish. In fact, Mohammed, who started Islam, married a Jewish woman. The strict Jewish interpretation would also consider his three daughters Jewish. The point is that Judaism has always been important and well known to the entire world despite the fact that the Jewish people are very small in number.”
Make it clear to your child that Judaism is the foundation stone on which the major Western religions rest. These concepts of win/win, common heritage, the coming together of your family, and most certainly the tree image of shared roots, are all ideas critical to a child's firm and secure grasp of his/her identity and his/her perception of the family’s unified solidarity while growing up in an interfaith household.
I always emphasize: above all, don’t walk this path and confer Jewish identity upon your family if you are not serious. Judaism is a way of life that is not for everyone. It requires study, acts of commitment - called mitzvot or commandments - and feeling at relative ease as a member of a proud minority with a different vision and set of priorities. After all, the life of a Jew is not only about survival; it’s about engaged and creative living.
At this point, you have explained to your child, 1) You are the parents and these important/religious decisions are your responsibility. 2) Judaism and Christianity are different but either would have been a good choice. 3) Judaism is the common denominator for Christianity and Islam. You certainly do not put down one or the others. Besides, identity issues and religious resolutions cannot be long postponed; nor should they be based on decisions that fall on a child to make. That would be too heavy a burden on a child.
You have explained to your child that the decision you made for the household is Judaism because you both have Jewish roots. Judaism is your shared heritage. Judaism is not a Christian religion but Christianity is very much a Jewish religion. The same can be said about Islam. The child understands that although divergent at some point, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are attached to each other like branches of a tree. Christianity and Islam extending from a Jewish main-stem, suggests a commonality and brings about conditions that are perceived as especially unifying in the life of all members of an interfaith household.
Dialogue #3 - Age 8-10: The Pianist Analogy
The third dialogue between Jewish children and their non-Jewish parents presents the majority/minority dynamic. Your discussion now is with a maturing youngster, no longer a young child but one to whom you speak as you would to someone growing up and maturing in rapid motion. You say to your youngster:
"One of the best by-products - although perhaps not the main reason we chose Judaism for you and your siblings - is because we always intended to raise well educated, knowledgeable, and sensitive children. We wanted you to have exposure to many religions and many cultures. We knew that as an American, you'd get a great deal of information on Christianity at school, at your grandparent's house, on TV and radio and everywhere else in America, since by far most Americans are Christian. It is impossible to be raised in America and not be ‘exposed’ to Christianity.
“The same does not hold for Judaism because even though Jews are quite prominent in America, Jews are so few - less than 2% of the population. You have to go out of your way and make an effort to acquire an education about Jews and Judaism. That’s what we are doing for you. Without confusing you, we wanted you to have as complete a picture of the world around you as possible – more of the full story - which you wouldn't get any other way than being Jewish, the minority way, because ‘when you go for the minority, you still get the majority’. So now at age 9 or so, you know a lot about both religions. That makes you a pretty sophisticated kid which is exactly what we wanted and planned for. That’s what we got: a well informed, knowledgeable (about the religious lives of others), open-minded kid who is proud of her/his Jewish identity.”
The point is, if you raise your offspring to be a pianist, that child is not deprived of everything else. That child is not barred from exploring other things. Your child can still enjoy sports, rock 'n roll and rap as well as classical music, fine art, the theater, roller-blading, cycling, whatever. But having this special skill - being able to play the piano - makes the child a pianist, a member of a minority group but well exposed to the majority.
To the Jewish youngster a similar line of reasoning suggests itself. A Jewish kid is “exposed” to everything no less than the student of piano and does not miss out on any of society’s other important offerings. Here is the point: while the minority child gets the majority culture too, it does not work the other way around. The “majority kid” does not get the minority culture; it is not everywhere to be had.
If you raise a Jewish child in a world of hundreds of millions of Catholics and Protestants, and there are only around 13 million Jews, the Jewish child will most certainly become well acquainted with Christianity and with many cultures. There is no way a Jewish child in America will fail to be exposed to Christianity. A Jewish kid cannot miss getting both cultures: They have only to walk down the street, or flip on the radio or the TV. Everywhere, there is Christianity.
This does not work in reverse. Christians are not "exposed" to Jews, nor do they learn about Judaism. Jews are too tiny a minority for information on Judaism to be easily available or to expect anyone who is raised a Christian to explore Judaism or become exposed to Jewish culture. Most Christians would not even know where to look. Christians have to go out of their way to learn about Judaism, and there is no compelling reason to do so. Nor are there enough Jews in most American communities to create a strong motivation for others who are not Jews to learn about Judaism.
Why is the pianist comparison useful? It’s obvious that for a child as for an adult, you don't get to be a pianist without study and practice. And it’s best to start early. You have to go after it. You have to acquire a piano, find a piano teacher, invest in the child’s piano lessons, learn something about music yourself, and oversee their daily practice and exercise schedule. You don’t call yourself a pianist unless you know how to play. In the same manner, you cannot call yourself Jewish without a Jewish upbringing and practices (or an equivalent nurturing in the culture and religion), a Jewish education, Jewish association and at least a comparable level of investment in time, energies and dedication.
Teaching a child to cherish a particular culture is a good way to teach the child to cherish all creatures and all of life. And knowing early on in life that there is more than one way to live is an invaluable lesson. Jewish children, and, indeed, the children of any minority culture, understand and appreciate far more about their world and the world around them than children of the majority who rarely address the issues minorities face.
When you make a special effort to teach a child a minority culture, the majority culture is not lost on the child. That is why this method of “going the minority route” is perhaps the only way of “doing the Both routine” that actually works. The child is Jewish and at the same time, inescapably, becomes familiar with, and exposed to, Christianity. And so much more!
Even among isolated Jewish communities in foreign countries, I've never met a Jew unfamiliar with Christianity. Moreover, while the treatment of Jews by Christians and the treatment of other Christians by Christians throughout history are not ignored or overlooked, no Jewish religious school curriculum teaches anything negative about Christians or Christianity.
On the contrary, Jewish children are taught to respect Christians even while they are taught that Jews do not agree with their beliefs. After all, Jesus was a rabbi and Christianity arose from Judaism. Making frequent use of the tree image, Jews are proud to say (not without humor and irony), that Judaism is the soil, the root and the trunk of the tree and Christianity is "out on a limb." The intention here is to suggest that in this instance it is not as big a stretch to go from the limb to the trunk as it is from the trunk to the limb.
So you have taught your child, “We wanted you to be a Jew for many reasons. Among them is for you to have exposure to many faiths and cultures. We gave you Judaism. We knew you’d get all the information on Christianity at school, at your grandparents, and everywhere. You’ll know about both religions, which makes you a pretty special and sophisticated kid.” This dialogue is also win/win. Such children know they’re exceptional and uncommon, and there’s great potential for pride and growth in that.
Dialogue #4 - Age 10-12: Jewish Parent and Parent of Jews
The final dialogue of this four-part paradigm addresses the relationship between the non-Jewish parent and the child who has been raised Jewish and is now leaving childhood and approaching bar/bat mitzvah age and the teenage years – although still far from adulthood.
The Fourth Dialogue goes like this: “You may wonder how I, as your non-Jewish parent, have felt all these years raising you to be a Jewish child. This will help you understand. I never felt left out. Or out of place or uninvited. In fact, look at your classmates in the bar and bat mitzah group in your Hebrew school. They are very varied in their composition, for sure. Your friend Jessica has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Your friend Eric has it the other way around, like our home. Both Brad’s parents were born Jews and Miriam's father and mother converted to Judaism, he as a youngster, she as an adult.
"The truth is that almost every combination of Jewish and non-Jewish parents and families are represented in your class and in the entire school. The lines of descent seem to matter far less than the line of ascent. We all have Jewish kids. We are raising Jewish kids and that is what makes us a Jewish family. In the final analysis, each member of the household is whatever is the chosen identity of the household. If you raise Jewish children you are pretty much Jewish because, over the years, you have become almost Jewish yourself. You grow into it, as did I. It’s just that I don’t call myself Jewish. I never converted. But we all share so much because our roots are so intermingled. More important, we conduct our lives as a united Jewish household.”
“Was that very hard for you?”
"Not really. I am by now pretty much like a Jew myself, a Settled Sojourner, by the fact of raising you and your siblings. I do all the things Jews do and even fast on the Day of Atonement out of solidarity with my Jewish family. Because you and your siblings are Jews! Some people refer to this process by a clunky term called retrojected or ascending lineality. It’s a kind of identity that works in reverse - zigzagging from parent to child and back on up over time, in a kind of loop, to the other parent. Regardless of my own descent, your Jewish identity and upbringing have, by the process of ascent, brought me into the fold as well.”
“You seem pretty happy about this.”
"I am. Over the past ten to twelve years I have been raising you and your brother and sister to be proud Jews. During these years I have also been raising myself that way: doing Jewish things, taking several basic Judaism classes with our rabbi, reading your Jewish textbooks and other Jewish books and magazines, participating in discussion groups, celebrating Jewish festivals and living a Jewish life. For me it was unavoidable and wonderful. Look what we produced - you! Soon to be a bar or bat mitzvah. These Jewish years of mine have transformed me too.”
“There’s no going back for you, right?”
"Right. In short, I am not much different at all than the parents of all your Jewish friends and classmates who have also been raising Jewish children. Some were born Jews, some were not. But we are all getting ready to celebrate the milestone moment of welcoming you and your friends into the quorum/minyan. So you see, the non-Jewish members of a Jewish household over time don’t become Jews unless they convert officially of course but all are to some degree Settled Sojourners like myself, parents of Jewish children. ”
At this point in counseling I make the following suggestion to the non-Jewish partner: “As part of your dialogues with your child, now nearing teenage, you point out that no one has ever been trying to convert you. No rabbi wishes to or feels the need to. Jews do not offer salvation. Jews do not claim the whole and exclusive truth. Jews offer culture and continuity not truth and salvation. You get no next-worldly, only this-worldly, benefits from being a Jew. But you have been told often by word and by gesture from other Jews and from your congregation that since you are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, we consider you one of us."
Jewish tradition comes toward you, the non-Jewish parent, with a prediction: you will get to like the Jewish way of life. You could derive much joy from your developing familiarity with the ages old wisdom and charm of Judaism and from your Jewish family. More than this, in many ways, you can play a part with others, Jews and their loved ones, in seeing to it that Jewish life, in the words of Rabbi David Ellison, President of he Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, “remains purposeful and vibrant.”
In many ways these words serve as a warning and a welcoming embrace at the same time: If you live this life, raising a Jewish child, you are really a part of us. How very different are you really from “other” Jewish parents? You share the same objectives: to raise a happy, well-adjusted, sophisticated, proud Jewish kid, and to provide a wholesome context for your family. Over the course of time, the non-Jewish parent grows into the role of being “all-but-a Jewish parent” or, more simply and precisely, a Settled Sojourner.
Once you turn to your beloved, perhaps sometime before your wedding or later on, who by the quirk of fate and family history was born Jewish, and say, "I understand where you’re coming from and I can ‘hack it,’ I can do this, I can join you in raising Jewish children," from that moment on, the Jewish community would say, you have become a part of us, a part of our ongoingness. Your status has changed to that of the Settled Sojourner; you are a friend of the folk (a ger toshav). You are in our eyes different than other Gentiles. There has not been a public conversion of course, but in fact, an inner transformation has been realized and an addition to your identity has come about. Your life’s pathway has led you up the doorstep of the Jewish Mansion. You might enter to look around for a room that's comfortable for you. You might very well be joined there by others like yourself. You have discovered that the Mansion is there to be checked out from room to room, from inner chambers to atriums. And you are welcomed and encouraged to investigate your surroundings once inside. Remember, for Jews, history precedes theology. You have, by the way you live your life, chosen to become part of Jewish continuity. In the words of one such parent, “You will also feel as though your children’s DNA goes right back to Sinai.”
After you enter the Mansion, remembering that Jews have no required beliefs, you can look around to see which conceptions and convictions make sense to you as a family. Choose the room that is right for you. The beauty of it is there are no doctrines to affirm in order to gain entrance or to feel welcome inside. Jews will tell you that “no one seeks to alter your brain. We are connected by culture: festivals, ceremonies, history and values; identity not ideology. And you have become a part of our identity and our posterity.”
It can be seen that I have become negatively disposed toward two of the four paths we have explored, the both (the Chewish) and the neither (the Eschewish). The first, because it is self-contradictory and tends to split families. The second, because that path leads to a dead end and deprives a child of a heritage. The Christian route has great strengths as the majority faith blessed – as is the Jewish route - with great music, art, festivals, towering figures and all the ingredients of a great world religion.
The problem for the Jewish partner is doctrine: he or she accepts none of its foundation stones - the articles of faith claiming that Jesus was the messiah, that he was sent by God to die for our sins, a triune god-head, virgin birth, resurrection, original sin transmitted through the generations and other Christian tenets.
Judaism, too, has its impressive positive values, a great heritage, beautiful festivals, and music and art as well as great contributions to civilization and society, as has Christianity. Despite the fact that the route is a minority one, even exotic in some ways, for certain families the Jewish path leads in the right direction. And it is for them - for the many non-Jewish parents-to-be of Jewish children – that this Four Age Appropriate paradigm may prove to be useful as a floodlight focused on the road ahead.
These Four Age-Appropriate Dialogues that constitute the paradigm, the model, are important to examine as you begin to plan your marriage. As a couple, it is best to start thinking about them sometime even before you plan your wedding, which is the status changing intersection where and when your lives unite. Keep in mind, you’ll be developing and changing constantly, so your beliefs will also be ever evolving. And remember always that the “we, we, we”, is of a different order than the “me, me, me”. It is not so much that you no longer gaze lovingly at each other as that you are now turning together and pivoting as one in the direction you intend to take.
Sometime before that first infant arrives it’s good to have made up your collective mind, to become the “we” and to formulate your game plan accordingly. There may not be any urgency right now to make heavy decisions. But in the meantime do some comparison shopping, called research. It’s part of the transformation of me to we.
Having these dialogues available might very well ease the process and help a couple take a step closer to each other. Together they will turn toward that objective of providing a nourishing and wholesome environment for their children.
In this connection, there increasingly arises the question of biracial identity: “Is the mixed child black, white, Asian, or what and how the issue is related to interfaith households?”
That question cannot be answered without parallel (but quite different) explorations and studies conducted of the various options for an interracial couple - and their ramifications and consequences - just as we have, in this study, explored the several possible pathways for an interfaith couple. The question of biracial identity is too important for glib answers not based on experience and research.
It is hardly necessary to point out that race is not especially relevant for Jews. As any visitor to Israel (or to most American congregations) will attest, Jews are black, brown, white, Asian, Indian etc. They, regardless of color, refer to themselves as other Jews refer to them, namely Jews. Or they may see themselves as Jews who are of the Sephardic (mostly Spanish and North African), Ashkenazi (mostly European), Oriental, Indian, Ethiopian, or whatever, Jewish communities.
I have witnessed interracial weddings in Israel and have officiated at these nuptials myself many times in the United States. The couple may be of different racial backgrounds but that fact is incidental to their Jewishness. The attitude is forthright: what they say is that regardless of outward appearances, they are all eligible to marry one another and they do. The families can dine together with minor variations of what is proper or kosher, worship together from the same prayer book with minor variations on the theme, and the rest. When referring to the past they also say “we.” When called to the Torah they also say “us.” Regardless of racial appearances, they self identify as Jews.
An interracial child has a number of parallel subjects and issues to address such as how to choose to self identify and in college, often, which fraternity to join. But, concerning race, one can readily call oneself “mixed” without feeling confused or conflicted at all.
A child of a Christian and Jew may also call himself/herself “mixed.” But that’s referring to an entirely different kind of mix – a rather intellectual and attitudinal mix, a mix lacking inner coherence. Not an external manifestation of color mix. An ethnic or racial mix is not a self-contradictory mix or mix-up of required “truths” to be held simultaneously. The experiences of ministers, priests and rabbis (as well as social workers, psychologists and other human services professionals) with interfaith households suggest, aside from the difficulty of conflicting religious teachings, that a child snared in an interfaith Chewish mix-master and trying to cope without having been provided with clear directional signals, should not have to sort out the mix. Furthermore, as has been enlarged upon repeatedly in these pages, children should not have to choose between parents to determine their self-identification.
Reverend Karen Morrow makes the observation that, “being raised Christian and Jewish is far different and much more difficult than being raised bi-racially where there are no inherent philosophical dissimilarities and divergences. There are other matters of course concerning the ‘mixture’ of color but religious inner conflicts are not likely to be an unfortunate outcome. Besides the one is avoidable; the other, the birth of a biracial baby, is to be received as a blessing regardless of shades of color.”
Reverend Karen Morrow, Methodist Chaplain formerly at the National Institutes of Health, herself a person of color, points out that it is also wise to bring up interracial children knowing who they are and how they are to answer the question of their identity. “Besides, a child’s understanding of color is based on what they see in the mirror and how others perceive their color.”
Being a Jew or Christian, on the other hand, is not based on one's mirror image but on a decision to be or not to be a Jew or a Christian, a Chew or an Eschew. Race does not require action or a behavioral code quite like a religious heritage.
It is worth contrasting religious identity - which one chooses - with racial identity which is typically “defined” or “assigned” by others. For example a person with three white grandparents and one black grandparent is typically classified by society as “black” even though that person may experience himself or herself to be more “white” whatever that may mean or feel to the particular individual.
Nevertheless being African American arouses many obvious similarities to the serious Christian, Jew, Muslim or whatever, in matters of commitment to culture and identity. Being African American, in terms of attitudes and values, is often in itself very much like being Muslim, Jewish or Christian. They all embody profound imperatives to a life’s vocation to be Black, to be Jewish, to be Muslim, to be Christian (or whatever) and to an engagement with the concerns they, and others like them, encounter. Each is profoundly important – touching upon ultimate truths to which certain individuals may choose faithfully to devote their lives. But as Chaplain Morrow observed, “there are no fundamental contradictions to being Black and Jewish or Black and Christian. And there are no fundamental conflicts to being a woman who is a feminist and Christian or a feminist Jew. There are no doctrinal discrepancies.
“But the same cannot be said about being Jewish and Christian simultaneously even if many Jews and Christians were once one or the other and changed or converted. I know some people who were one day Christian and having converted, became Muslims the next day. There were no days when they were ‘both.’ They moved from one to the other. Not necessarily overnight, and for some individuals only after a long period of gestation. The same is true about the crossovers that others have taken from Judaism and Christianity. They never were both at the same time although they may have been quite nothing at all for a period of time before they took the plunge one way or the other. For a time they were simply in no man’s land but they were not both, simultaneously.
“Being Black is different. There is no conversion to or from color. Still, color can be merely an incidental appearance to one Black and a passion for another much the same way that commitment varies among Jews, Muslims and Christians. Being Black and something else - say Jewish or Christian or Muslim - is not a contradiction in terms and beliefs do not clash internally with conflicting doctrine.”
There is wisdom in the view which suggests that “if you see yourself as all-of-the-above, you’re none of the above.” It is also expressed as, “you are not anything if you’re everything.” Still another variation of the theme is that, “all half-hearted relationships pull you away from high-quality relationships.” These views have sufficient merit to warrant review and consideration in this context.
Tiger Woods, the professional golfer, claims Asian, Caucasian and African American descent and backgrounds. He speaks of himself saying, “I’m just me.” It sounds appealing: why indeed do we need all the labels that cause divisions and the separating designations that so often spell conflict and intolerance?
One answer is that it is precisely the cultural, racial and ethnic varieties that add to the diversity of life and enrich the world’s civilizations. Another answer is that differences teach tolerance and the virtues of multiculturalism. What is meant is that it is no trick to get along with people who are similar to us in background and values. It is an entirely other matter to respect and uphold the religious views of different faith members of a family as well as of the larger community and beyond – even of another, perhaps alien community. But that is incidental to the main issue.
Should Tiger Woods fall in love with, marry and have children with another Euro-Asian-African-American, the family could devote itself to matters, concerns and issues arising from that given reality. They might forge bonds with others like themselves. They might then gather readings and build rites and religious ceremonies around family anniversaries, important dates and commemorations grounded in the fact of the multi-racial, multi-national character of the family – somewhat like how other religious groupings were founded. They might, as well they should, see themselves as special, different, worthy of perpetuation as a distinct group – even “chosen,” as are all people in different ways.
They would then marry among themselves and others that fit their classifications, those sharing their values, interests, attitudes and self-understanding. Perhaps they will even develop their own cuisine. Conversion however would not be an option (unlike Judaism, Christianity or Islam) because being Euro-Asian-African-American is self-evidently ethnic and racially oriented. But many of the other processes of establishing a new religion could be invoked. A model might be how the Mormons got started: with a new family. Indeed Judaism also began to function in this manner early on until it grew to become a world religion.
Should he choose a life partner who is Christian, Tiger Woods might choose to identify the family with that community and the household would be Christian with several ethnic variables. The family might see itself as non-Caucasian-Christian-ethnically-mixed. Were he to marry either an Asian or an African American, the household could identify that way, and at the same time, with no deep or distorting contradictions, as Christian, Buddhists or none of the above.
Let us suppose that Tiger Woods marries a Jewish woman and together they decide to raise children in a Jewish household. The family would choose Jewish identity for their children and act accordingly on it – keeping the mitzvah system of festivals and life cycle events. Then, in addition to his own self-understanding as “simply a man,” Tiger Woods would also be considered a Ger Toshav, a Settled Sojourner raising a Jewish family. His family will not see itself as holding self-contradictory religious commitments at all. Rather, he along with his beloved family would experience, more than likely for the rest of his lifetime, the humor, the joy, the tenderness, the suppleness and the subtlety of the Jewish heritage and traditions. Moreover, parallel and perhaps similar words may be appropriately applied should Christianity or Islam be the path taken.
The new Jewish family, of necessity, would not favor any of the various forms of cultural amalgamations. The members of this family would oppose the self-destructive ideology teaching that all humanity divests itself of diversity and multi-cultural distinctiveness by the process of stronger cultures digesting and obliterating numerically weaker ones according to some severe Darwinian formula. Rather he would - as would any other person not born Jewish but choosing nevertheless to establish a Jewish household - see himself and family not as “just me” but as opponents of assimilation and as components of Jewish continuity and community- regardless of shades of color.
In short, racial and ethnic backgrounds are not necessarily a source of conflict. One can be a Black Jew, an Oriental Jew, or many other combinations that are not self-contradictory and that do not conflict. Or they could be “none of the above.” But without a carefully laid out frame of reference - who I am, who I am not – the ambiguity and confusion the children face will likely develop into a persistent tension. The incongruities begin to surface in vacillations; truth and identity become moving targets.
An individual of mixed ethnic backgrounds and religions can, of course, choose to sever all ties that signify belonging to a particular social, ethnic or religious community; the Eschewish route is the pathway of rejection. Not being fully one or another, someone may take the position, “a plague on all your houses of worship and identity.” But that approach turns a family away from the possibility of enriching their lives with a special history, a culture and a particular way of life. Better to flip a coin. Any one of the traditions is to be preferred to none at all.
Tiger Woods may see himself devoted to the concept of multi-racialism and may decide to elevate that devotion to the realm of religious commitment. In that event, for him and his family, multi-racialism will likely stand in for conventionally established religious beliefs and behavior. A Jew, on the other hand, by definition, takes upon him/herself a responsibility expressed as a dedication to the continuity of the Jewish people and their way of life that, at its epicenter, includes dedication to “mending the world” by social action. Jews are committed, commanded (whether by a Commander or by the commands of history) not to blend into the majority and self-destruct – the principle message of the festival of Chanukah. They are numerically too small to afford the luxury of assimilational multiversity.
The Tiger Woods syndrome of just being a man in the general sense cannot apply to members of the Jewish people if they are to continue to survive and flourish. Too many ancient peoples have already been obliterated much to the detriment of the civilized world and its rich varieties of religious/cultural life. Jews are committed not to allow that to happen to them. Jews see themselves - as all diverse peoples may rightfully see themselves - as an eternal people.
When the interracial Jewish child grows up and for the first time leaves the safe environment of the home, the experience as related by one such young man, Edward Higgins, can be seen as relevant to the matter of identity and self-concept.
As a young African-American man born of a Jewish mother and Jamaican father, Edward was raised in a fairly traditional and observant Jewish household. Edward asked me to imagine a room filled with newly enrolled college freshman students who had never before met one another. He described how after the orientation, certain clusters of individuals, a kind of patchwork American quilt of groupings, began to break out and assemble as identifiable cohorts.
“A black group gathered and I drifted over and chatted awhile bonded by race. I remembered I had that same superficial but nevertheless comfortable feeling once when I went abroad and bonded with other Americans with whom I had little in common. But we were Americans and shared that fact. Like I felt toward these strangers in college who were of color as am I. That night after orientation I soon picked up on a handful of Jewish young men and women searching and finding one another and separating out quite naturally from the wasps and some Orientals, African Americans, and others. I soon understood that I had intellectually and in other essential ways most in common with the Jewish clique than any other company based on color or whatever. My values, interests and needs converged with my Jewish contemporaries.
“I started by asking what synagogues and temples were in town, what was Hillel like on campus, who was the rabbi and what kind of programs were offered. And soon we were sharing where to eat, where to get decent bagels and knishes, Judaica courses and Judaica shops, Jewish campus activities and of course, girls, that is, dates. I prefer to date Jewish girls and one day will marry one, regardless of color. Over the semester I spent time with my fellow Jewish students and we became friends. Interestingly we bonded at once, the instant I disclosed my Jewishness just as all Jews who don’t wear skullcaps, reveal their identities and bond with one another.
Previously we reviewed the philosophical position taken by the Central Conference of American Rabbis - the rabbis of the Reform movement - on the meaning and interpretation of the mitzvah system referred to as the required “timely and public acts” of Jewish identity. In this context, in fairness and for the sake of balance, it is necessary to cite the reasons behind the Reform movement’s negative attitude toward mixed marriages and rabbis officiating at such weddings.
You will see, for one thing, that the Reform movement – with prominent rabbinical exceptions - draws no distinctions among interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish marriages as have we in our attempt to differentiate between a marriage leading to Jewish continuity (Intermarriages) and others that will not (Mixed Marriages). As opposed to the official position in this matter, a considerable number of Reform Rabbis do make such distinctions. Most Reform Rabbis use the terms intermarriage and mixed marriage interchangeably regardless of a couple’s intention to build a Jewish home. In this work we have made such a distinction – and consider it critical.
The Reform Rabbis' Manual, published in1988, cites the CCAR resolution of 1909 declaring that “mixed marriages are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion and should, therefore, be discouraged by the American Rabbinate”  This resolution was reaffirmed in 1947 . Most Reform Rabbis discourage such marriages because so many lead to the end of the many-thousand-year line of Jewish continuity. There are no rabbis ever known to me who encourage interfaith marriages of any kind. Many rabbis discourage such unions also because the divorce rate among such couples is even higher than the already high divorce rate in the general population. These marriages are seen as trapped in a vortex of confusing and negative vibes.
The question we have grappled with in these pages is how to address the issue of interfaith marriages for the best outcome possible given all the considerations in a couple’s life and the life of the community. Another critical question is why and in what manner will the Jewish community turn its back on a couple or embrace them at so significant a milestone in their lives. And with what formulas and templates will the issues they encounter be addressed? Clearly most couples will wed regardless of encouragement or discouragement from others whatever their source. How therefore shall we – ministers, rabbis, parents - deal with the given reality so that the most desirable outcome is brought about?
There is no question that in biblical days Jews – Hebrews, Israelites – intermarried with loved ones who were not born Jews. The very greatest biblical figures such as Moses and Joseph married non-Hebrews. But from the time of the late biblical period and still later during the days of the Rabbis of the Talmud and to this day, the prohibition of marriage between a Jew and an unconverted non-Jew has stood unchallenged as a most serious violation of Jewish law.
In its publication, Gates of Mitzvah, the Reform Movement offers this position statement:
“It is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry a Jew so that the sacred heritage of Judaism may be transmitted most effectively from generation to generation…Judaism resists mixed marriages because it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community, and because it makes it more difficult to establish the mikdash me-at (the small sanctuary of the Jewish home) that should be the goal of every Jewish marriage. The crucial question of Jewish survival is especially compelling in this post-Holocaust era.”
There is no doubt that the established Jewish community, as well as the rabbinates of the various denominational movements from the most conservative to the most liberal, vigorously support the proposition that a Jewish home is more readily established and maintained when both partners are themselves Jews. It is rather remarkable, as Alan M. Dershowitz has pointed out, that given that Jews constitute less than three per cent of American population; nevertheless, about fifty per cent choose to marry other Jews.
The Jewish National Post and Opinion headline story on the issue of who is a role model in the Jewish community, “Leadership Cannot be Intermarried,” reported that “the issue of whether an intermarried Jew can be elected to represent the Jewish community was raised when Morton Zuckerman, the publishing and real estate magnate, was being considered for the presidency of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations."
Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, took up the question in connection with Zuckerman’s marriage to, and divorce of, a non-Jewish woman . Regarding Rosenblatt's strongly held views, that Jewish leadership should be chosen from the ranks of the Jewishly intra-married (like his predecessors such as the towering figure, Seymour D. Reich, who was elected President of the Conference of Presidents after serving as president of the Anti-Defamation League and the International Bnai Brith) according to the newspaper, “many will consider his (Rosenblatt's) opinion a harsh position.” Among the average Jewish man and woman in the American community, if the interfaith marriage rate is our criteria, Rosenblatt’s view is roundly rejected. It is nevertheless the predominant one among official American contemporary Jewish leadership.
Rosenblatt’s position is, “if you want to, or are called upon, to lead, you must be able to command respect and rise to the challenge of the moment….While financial support remains vital, we also need to look to new role models for leadership, to our rabbis and scholars and those whose lives are infused with mitzvot and morality. When we have leaders we can truly respect for their Jewish values as well as their portfolio value, we will be a stronger and prouder community.”
Others would say that the criteria should be not whom community leaders marry, although that is extremely important too, but what kind of household they create. A Jewish man married to a non-Jewish woman, raising a Jewish family in a Jewish home they create for its members, may indeed prove to be an excellent role model to be emulated by the huge number of Jews who intermarry. These Jews are looking for a far more welcoming attitude by the official Jewish community, one that affirms that it will not turn its back on them and will consider where they are going on their chosen pathway at least as important as where they have been.
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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved
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