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

 


A Friendly Copyright Notice
© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

Even though most copyright notices say all kinds of mean things about not reproducing the book in any form, I not only wouldn't mind if you copy parts of this book, I would be thrilled if you do. All I ask is that you tell people where this material came from and who is the author. If you want copies of the entire book, it's easier and probably cheaper to buy nice pretty printed originals from our website. Thanks!



INTRODUCTION

            This is a book about decisions: important, religious decisions. 

To me, the words “religious” and “important” are near synonyms. Religions, after all, deal with what are called ultimate matters or eternal issues: the meaning of life, the reality of death, distinguishing between good and evil, concepts of God, declaring for a faith, belonging and committing oneself and one’s family to a particular religious community - and other soul-probing subjects.   Decisions based upon, or made about, such important considerations are life-determining decisions. They touch upon everything that really matters and impact upon profound questions of identity: who am I, what am I, what do I believe, what do I disbelieve, how do I characterize my heritage and how will I acknowledge, portray, practice and observe the religious traditions of my household in years to come. 

            This book is intended as a guide for several categories of readers among whom are interfaith couples – as well as their families and loved ones - who have not yet decided which direction they want to go, which of several pathways is best for them. Single-parent families, blended families, gay and lesbian couple raising families and adoptive families more than likely will also find that they have been invaluably aided and advised in the decisions they must make by the discussions relevant to their best interests.  This book, JEWISH, CHRISTIAN, CHEWISH OR ESCHEWISH, is also written for Intra-married, Mixed-married, Mitzvah-married and Inter-married husbands and wives who need to explore more deeply the decisions they have already made – Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever. The differences among them: the several marriage classifications as well as the various religious classifications - will be defined and carefully examined in these pages.

            Both partners in an interfaith relationship will be helped to realize how important it is for them to examine their religious and cultural identities and to communicate their individual and common priorities. Even couples consciously and conscientiously choosing none-of-the-above as their preferred pathway should keep reading.   While they think they are following no roadmap at all, in fact, they are following the Eschewish Route, one of the four directions explored in this guidebook.  They too should be prepared for the upturns and downturns in the landscape of the path they have chosen to follow.

Couples choosing the Chewish Route (both Judaism and Christianity, in a dual-faith formula of amalgamation) will also find the subject matter of this book informative and perhaps even essential.  Interfaith couples choosing the Christian route should read this book, become familiar with the issues raised, and employ the paradigm from a Christian perspective while seeking guidance and reading matter from a pastor of the Christian religious group they will join.   Similarly, couples choosing Islam or other religious routes should think through, analyze and apply the lessons derived from these chapters. They would do well to discuss the subjects in depth with the clergy of the religious group with which they will affiliate. Indeed all “inter” couples and their loved ones will need to consider the issues raised in the pages of this work.

The guidelines formulated in this book are particularly important for interfaith couples who are considering, or have in fact chosen, to walk the path of Judaism and build together a Jewish cultural and spiritual life. These couples, too, ought to know how to make their decisions work – and work at their best. Their journey, after all, will not be taken among the multitudes. Of necessity therefore they will conduct their lives deeply self-conscious of their uncommon identities.

REGARDING MY OWN BACKGROUND

As of this writing I serve as the rabbi of the National Institutes of Health where scientists conduct research and provide medical service impartially to individuals of all varieties of faith, nationalities, cultural traditions and every religious stripe across the board.  My fellow chaplains and I in the Spiritual Ministry Department of the N.I.H. work as a team dedicated to addressing the religious and spiritual needs of all patients, their families and loved ones in a health care clinical setting. In times of personal crises and at various stages of a patient’s illness, through uncertain worrisome times and fluctuating degrees of recovery and return to health, as well as at life’s closure, chaplains provide spiritual and emotional support, and an attentive ear.

          Over a number of years I have conducted research on the affects of crises, trauma and catastrophe upon individuals who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. My book, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, is based on an in-depth survey of over seven hundred Jews who endured the devastation of Hitler’s Europe. In that previous study conducted for the most part in Israel, I applied the most rigorous sociological research methodology to examine and determine how, why, where and when, concentration and death camp survivors were spiritually, religiously and in other ways, changed by their ordeal.

Often enough, issues arising from interfaith marriages and the agonizing but necessary decisions on the identity of children of interfaith households, develop into crises of critical impasse, entanglement and deadlock. Terms such as catastrophe and disaster may not apply to interfaith issues. Interfaith couples, whatever the challenges they must overcome and whatever the perils of their chosen pathway – even one that presents itself as a potentially explosive minefield to traverse - are not in danger of losing their lives or the lives of loved ones. But the life and death of a relationship and the breakup of a household amount to severe and formidable crises nevertheless! A kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome accompanies not a few who have gone through them for many years after.

I have served over four decades as rabbi of Jewish congregations with numerous interfaith families as members. My duties included guiding many of them around and over the countless crises looming like imposing obstacles and shepherding others through and past the decisive turning points in the pathway of life upon which they have embarked. These responsibilities have motivated and perhaps even inspired me to develop the approaches presented in these chapters that were conceived to best address, realistically confront and resolve the hazards of their interfaith predicament at critical junctures in their lives: preparing for marriage, for parenthood, for their children’s life-cycle milestones, for the times of the death of loved ones.

 I have been encouraged by interfaith families of every stripe and description to share what I have learned with others who must decide among the several pathways arrayed before them, and with their loved ones as well, that they too understand the dynamics at play: The obstructions, stumbling blocks and complications likely to build up along whichever road they choose as well as the comfort, gratifications and blessings that may be realized during journeys down the various byways. That is, I have written this book for you, the personally affected, deeply interested and solicitous reader. You, who love your family! Perhaps it can serve as a kind of beacon pilot to steer by.

The question whether a particular interfaith union is to be seen as an Inter-marriage, an Intra-marriage, a Mitzvah-marriage or a Mixed marriage will be reviewed in the forthcoming pages. The many couples/families/households of the greater Washington area and beyond I have come to know over the years have taken every path described in this book.  It is upon their feedback that I base my counsel, the advice and the recommendations I offer.  They helped me formulate the approaches to the subjects, issues, themes and propositions this book advances. They have contributed extensively and indispensably to the development of the guidelines and directions I advocate.

TEN SUBJECTS, ISSUES, THEMES AND PROPOSITIONS

The guidelines and the plans of action they generate are intended to help individuals, couples and families find their bearings; they are explored in depth in the chapters that follow.  The subjects, issues, themes and propositions that comprise these guidelines, include:

1) The Settled Sojourner: A contemporary treatment of the ancient concept and classification identified as the Ger Toshav; also translated as “an extension, adjunct (from the Latin, meaning ‘to join to’) and Friend of the Folk,” "all-but-a-Jew," “parent of Jewish children,” “parent of Jewish children-to-be,” and the like. The term applies in particular to a Gentile living in many ways like a Jew in a Jewish household.

2) Ascending Lineality (Lineage) and Retrojected or Reverse Identity; that is, an identity conveyed by child to parent (in Hebrew: Zehut, Ishut, SheHozer Malah).

3) The Common Heritage Approach to the children of Jewish, Christian, Muslim interfaith households; focusing on the traditions and values shared.

4) Conducting the Four Age-Appropriate Dialogues between Jewish children and their intermarried parents.

5) Conversion, Convergence and Jewish Identity.

6) A Tour of the Mansion of Jewish Identity; distinguishing among The Four Pillars (or Columns) upholding the Mansion.

7) Deciding from among The Four Pathways (Jewish, Christian, Chewish and Eschewish) arrayed before interfaith couples;

8) A presentation of the four philosophical standpoints of the theist, atheist, agnostic and ignostic and their approaches to thinking about God.

How to find your own way among the several paths of approach.

9) Polydoxy and Orthodoxy; Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

10) Inter-, Intra-, Mixed- and Mitzvah-marriages: how these classifications are distinguished; how these marriages are regarded by the various Jewish movements and their rabbinical authorities; defining the meanings of terms; contrasts and correspondence and the agendas growing out of each of these.

THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS

The decision-making process based on these ten subjects is explored, described and explained in the chapters of this book because the method works as a course of action.  Within these chapters we also present and pay close attention to what doesn't work and discuss why certain interfaith decisions fail. By sharing relevant personal stories of interfaith couples who have taken painfully unyielding and trouble-strewn pathways we will better understand the long-term outcome of decisions which disregard or misconstrue these subjects. We would be well advised therefore to examine thoughtfully what awaits further down each one of the several pathways arrayed before families-to-be of the 21st century at the status-changing intersection of life we know as marriage.

What we learn from wise and unwise decisions provides judicious guidelines for a lifetime game-plan that interfaith and intra-faith families would do well to follow. That is why this book focuses with careful consideration on the decision-making process leading to the judgments and choices that determine and identify a couple’s cultural, spiritual and religious household.

This is a book that gives advice and takes a stand.  I advocate a particular approach to the decision-making process. It is presented here precisely because I have seen this approach produce terrific, involved, healthy, and proud children belonging to a spectrum of faiths including Jewish, Christian, and Islam among others.

  In over 40 years of rabbinical experience as the rabbi of progressive congregations in large metropolitan areas as well as in smaller communities, I have seen good decisions, bad decisions (which predictably produced confused and frustrated households and rightfully resentful children), some decisions that were outright idiocy, and everything in between.   From these I can provide testimony on the real results of these important, religious decisions.

            Further, I have written this book as a Rabbi - a teacher of Judaism. My role, therefore, cannot be that of a dispassionate, stereotypical ivory tower social scientist “merely” observing and reporting on the issues this book raises. Social scientists study communities and local organizations, not necessarily with the view to finding remedies for the ills of society. Rabbis, on the other hand, are focused on what is best for each individual as seen through the eyes of a wise and well-respected heritage. 

            Modern thinkers from Viktor E. Frankl [1] to Kenneth Pargament  have observed that religion teaches how to cope with life, how to commemorate and celebrate milestone moments in life as well as how to deal with adversity and suffering. Religion also serves as a compass with which to set out in advance of determining the starting line and the direction we might follow in the search for significance.  Pargament suggests, “The search is anything but static. It is a process that unfolds over time.   People change; life changes. And religious 'coping' is a search for significance at a time of stress.” [2]

            "The notion that helpers, professional or nonprofessional, can set aside their own values and enter into relationships as ‘blank slates’ does not stand up well to empirical scrutiny. Counselors affect the goals¼ influence their clients’ values over the course of counseling."

Pargament's view is that “The value-laden nature of helping is not a cause for alarm. A well-articulated, value-based orienting system provides the necessary ‘road map’ for helping.” [3]

            You, the reader, will cope best by traversing your own particular landscape with a road map, such as this book is intended to be, nestled comfortably in your lap.

I rely, in part, on the current information produced by social scientists and other ministers and rabbis, of course.  However at this stage of my life I have become a proponent of certain decisions because I have found by first-hand experience that they work best, or better, than do others.  And the children affected by their parent’s decisions are more likely to form undivided, unimpaired and integrated personalities. It bears repeating that the discussions in this book are intended to explain why certain decisions work out well and why some decisions are flat-out foolish, likely to result in spiritual confusion and identity self-doubt. And that imposing hurdles invariably loom large in the trek along emotionally forbidding terrain.

Regarding certain incompetent parental decisions, Dr. Elizabeth Mark Marincola, Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology, a descendent of rabbis and herself intermarried to a committed Settled Sojourner, and raising proud Jewish children, calls attention to what she characterizes as “the ‘imposter syndrome’ – a disconnection between how one sees oneself, that is, what one is - for example, a Jew or a Christian - and what one feels that s/he is being seen by others as being.”  

 She adds: “having children makes you no more of a parent than having a piano at home makes you a pianist.” What is her considered opinion? “Raise fully informed, educated and clear minded children steeped in whichever culture and identity you select. Choose carefully and for life. The child’s hand must be held with sureness and conviction, avoiding the attitude which goes by ‘whatever,’ because that attitude sets up a painful slalom through self-created obstacles in a family’s life.”

Focusing on the pathway ahead for the best forward steps to take to avoid pitfalls and obstructions, I will go over what considerations must be weighed and how to make the judgment calls.  I will also address how to justify in your own mind your decisions, whatever they are, and how best to present them to your partner, to your children, to your other loved ones and to the society in which you are embedded.      

Social science research has revealed that around 50% of all marriages end in divorce and 75% of interfaith marriages fail. Divorce has become a defining feature of American childhood. Partners starting off on the same page, rather than on some disconnected chapters of different volumes, are more likely to succeed in marriage. Or at least remain an intact couple longer. And young children may be spared the deleterious effects of a family splitting up.

My choice for the title for this book, “Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewish” came about because I wanted to make clear from the get-go that by experience I favor the Jewish, Christian or Muslim routes or pathways for interfaith couples. For reasons which will be made clear further on in this book, I disfavor the amalgamated Chewish route, the route which attempts to raise children professing to be “both” Christians and Jews (or half-Jews).

I also provide the reasons why I disfavor the Eschewish route (from “eschew”, to shun or avoid) which is the decision to make “no decision whatever,” or for parents to teach their children that they are “neither” the one or the other, or that they, as a family, prefer no pathway at all in the cultural and religious landscape of identity and heritage. The pathway I disfavor the most, as will be shown, is the “choose-ish” approach: telling children to choose “whatever you want to be,” because, as will be shown, it creates for the children a world of persistent ambiguity, a world lacking some solid spot to plant one’s feet and establish one’s bearings.

In this book I will also identify, justify and explain the advantages and the serious drawbacks of each of the various pathways, the trades-off, and why (surprise!) some choices are better than others. Matters of personal identity have become complex in our modern society. And Eric Erickson promulgated the teaching that the search for identity was as central to contemporary psyches as the study of sexuality was in Freud’s day. No reason therefore to stand aghast of the fact that identity issues cut a huge swath through the chapters of this book.

To be sure, each pathway has its own detours and roadblocks. For certain couples the landscape presents alternative highways that arrive at dead ends. Each pathway therefore requires a well-documented and carefully charted road map. The exposure route, a form of "Choose-ism" in which the child will not be raised professing a distinct, specific identity but will be “exposed” to more than one religion, will also be discussed for its advantages and its unsettled/unsettling long-term problematic down-sides.

            This book was not designed to come out even or make some people or some traditions winners and some losers.  The intention was to deal with life decisions grounded in reality, and to point to what's best for each individual and each couple based on the “hand-of-life” that has been dealt them.  The book is also intended to serve a couple as a guide to scout out the way on up (in Hebrew, “el al”) to the front door of the Jewish Mansion, if that's where they are heading, or to point them in another direction if that is right for them. 

There is a pathway to the Jewish Mansion, to be sure, as there is to every spiritual home along the road. A section of this book is meant to serve as a guidebook, an escort to that gateway.  Readers for whom it is appropriate are encouraged to read the complementary books written from the Christian, Muslim, and other points of view.  Providing alternative roadmaps, the guidebooks listed in the appendix were recommended by friends who are pastors, ministers, social workers, academics and priests.

            Another note on my personal experiences may be relevant here.  I was brought up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish home, and have felt at home with, and participated in, all the major movements of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist). I have served as rabbi for over four decades, including a tour of duty as US Army Chaplain; and as rabbi in an institution for the blind, at a correctional facility and a mental hospital. I have experienced college and Catholic Seminary teaching and I have served a very wide spectrum of congregations from the pretty far right to the far-out left.  I have learned a great deal from all of these experiences. They have helped me find out where I belong.  They have also helped me to know how to help others. Experience has a way of doing that.

During these years of service, I have met with and counseled many hundreds of intra-married and interfaith couples on how to approach the child-raising issue, thereafter eye-witnessing and monitoring - as in a social-scientific clinical research protocol - the long-term consequences of these decisions over many years. These chapters bear witness to the many hours, many years and many consequences. As a primer providing first principles on issues of interfaith marriages and of interfaith households, this book derives from a distillation of years thickened with American, European and Middle Eastern experiences.  Offered here is the perspective of one progressive/Polydox/Reform rabbi/chaplain shared by like-minded friends and members of congregations served over the years.  I do not claim the approach I favor represents other rabbis or any of the several branches of contemporary Judaism or any of their congregations.  In fact, I know it most often does not. It reflects the angle of vision of one rabbi’s reformist perspective.

Over the years, several congregations I have served as rabbi have reached out in genuine friendship, have shared buildings, and spiritual space with broad-minded members of Christian Churches. The decision by congregations to share a sanctuary with another faith community suggests to me a courageous, robust, and unprejudiced perspective. For synagogue members, it also signifies confidence in the persuasive powers and sustaining qualities of the Jewish heritage.

I sincerely believe that for the Jewish community certain approaches to interfaith and identity issues uphold and carry forward the standard propounding that very confidence in a robust American Jewish future well into and far beyond the 21st century. There are others, to be sure, who would prefer to gaze obsessively and longingly into their rearview mirror. But I believe it would be more beneficial to make use of that mirror to see who we are, where we have been, to help us determine where we should be, for now and beyond, to secure and derive guidance - spiritual guidance, broadly defined - from past commitments and experiences.  For the sake of the future! I am gratified to be able to share these concepts and programs with others looking in the same direction up ahead.

This book is intended for readers who have embarked or are embarking upon the journey of marriage. It is also meant for their interested extended family members who would like to understand for themselves what is up ahead for an interfaith marriage, what the decision making process looks like for the young couple they love and what they all will be undergoing. Not everyone will find it necessary to read through to the last chapters principally because the text becomes increasingly more demanding and studious as the reader proceeds to the end of the book.

 Part one of this book is presented rather like a counseling session – to some extent conversational in character. Part two of this book takes a far more academic textbook method of approach - not surprising seeing that the subjects in this section - comparative religion, theology and religious thought - require a more didactic presentation and express a greater degree of formal tones and constructs. My advice is, don't be intimidated by these closing chapters. They are not exceedingly heavy. And they do not presuppose any advanced degree, just deliberate and thoughtful reading.

The first part of this work may be read as though a rabbi, social worker or psychologist is offering advice and guidance in the privacy of a session. The last chapters are to be read slowly, studiously and contemplatively as one would when faced with an assignment from a professor back in the classroom. Therefore as one goes further along, expectations escalate and the going gets increasingly hard-won. However, the reader need not tackle part two at once; part one offers virtually all the necessary bird's eye views and perspectives of the landscape for navigating the decision making process ahead. Still, the "course-work" of part two should be taken sooner than later to reinforce, strengthen, inform and justify the decisions reached as well as to help come to a decision in the first place.

To assist in choosing among the religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam for example, and/or to support a decision already arrived at regarding the lifelong direction that will be taken by a couple, chapter 9 is recommended as required reading. To understand the backdrop, framework and implications among the various issues in "god-talk," chapter 10, "Thinking About Thinking About God," is likewise necessarily challenging reading. To grasp the issues of status change, chapter 9 on Conversion and Convergence, which deals with Jewish law, practices and behavioral rules, belongs on the reading list that one should get to without too great a delay.

These chapters may prove to be particularly important for the impact they potentially have in selecting from the various pathways laid out before a seriously deliberating couple and to best prepare for the journeys these pathways have in store for their loved ones. Part one may be read independently of part two. Part two may be valuable whether read as separate essays on important subjects we all should think about and address or, for some, as pivotal aspects of the decision making procedures. It is hoped that, taken together, part one and part two address a number of the inevitable concerns of interfaith families.

Notes:

1.  Pargament goes on to say:  “Coping is the process that people engage in to attain significance in stressful circumstances. Stressful events do not simply happen. People actively approach, avoid, anticipate, and appraise situations in life according to their implications for significance¼ They bring an orienting system, a general frame of reference for viewing and dealing with the world that helps ground and direct them through difficult times. A key task of coping is to translate this general orienting system into methods of coping specifically suited to the distinctive demands and challenges of the particular situation. These methods of coping are designed to conserve whatever people find of greatest significance and, if that is no longer possible, to transform it. People search for the most compelling ways to cope, that is, those methods that will result in the greatest gain to significance at the least cost. The entire process of coping is inextricably bound to a larger cultural context.

     “It comes as no surprise that help seekers have preferred pathways and destinations of significance, but helpers have preferences of their own, too. Embedded within the helper’s orienting system are assumptions about what is of ultimate significance and what are the most appropriate methods for attaining significance."


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A Friendly Copyright Notice
© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

Even though most copyright notices say all kinds of mean things about not reproducing the book in any form, I not only wouldn't mind if you copy parts of this book, I would be thrilled if you do. All I ask is that you tell people where this material came from and who is the author. If you want copies of the entire book, it's easier and probably cheaper to buy nice pretty printed originals from our website. Thanks!


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