Jewish Journal

Both Is Neither

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

November 5, 2013 | 4:47 pm

In one of his nightclub routines from the early 1960s, Woody Allen describes his first marriage. “I was an atheist, and she was an agnostic. We couldn’t agree on what religion not to raise the children in.”

If only it were that funny. If only it were that easy.

Dual-faith parenting is back in the news. It recently got a prominent placement on the New York Times op-ed page.

In that essay, the author describes raising children of interfaith marriages in two religious traditions. She names the holidays that her family celebrates – a combined religious calendar of Jewish and Christian observances. She hopes that her children will ultimately decide which religious tradition they will follow, and that whatever religion they choose, they will have an understanding and an appreciation of the other. 

I am sensitive to the family dynamics and the spirit of compromise that brings people to such decisions. These are good, loving people who want to do the best that they can under challenging circumstances. 

I believe that children need a core religious identity. Children need a spiritual address. Children need a sense of belonging and of believing. They need to know who they are.

Children should not have to choose between Judaism and Christianity, especially when that inevitably means choosing one parent over another. More than that: Judaism is fighting an uphill battle in a culture that is, by default, Christian. It’s just not a fair “fight.”

Is it even possible to blend both religions? Not without ignoring or watering down some very important, basic truths. 

Take Judaism, for example. Here’s the Jewish “elevator speech”:  God revealed Torah to the Jewish people (however you want to understand that event – and, lucky us, we have no shortage of possibilities). The Sinai event gives us mitzvot. The purpose of Judaism is the fulfillment of the mitzvot as the way we sanctify our lives and redeem the world.

And the Christian elevator speech? Far be it from me to speak for Christians and for Christianity, and I loathe utter simplification, but if I understand the theological basis of Christianity correctly and sympathetically, it would sound something like this: God revealed the divine self/embodied the divine self through Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings constitute a new Torah, and who died on the cross and was resurrected and who will someday return in glory. The essence of historical Christianity, as taught by Paul, is that the Christ event negates the mitzvot. They are not only unnecessary; they are actually counterproductive. 

Let’s talk about ceremonies. Baptism (in which the child is re-born in Christ) or brit milah/baby-naming, in which the child becomes part of the covenant of Abraham and Sarah? First communion, in which the child partakes (even symbolically or metaphorically) of the body and blood of Jesus Christ – or bar/bat mitzvah, in which a child shares and teaches Torah to a community?

Holidays? Jews don’t believe that the Messiah has come. Full stop. You can talk all you want to about how Christmas has become just an American gift-giving holiday, but I’m wondering if you’ve checked out that theory with Christians who really believe. 

OK, well, most people could care less about theology. What about “real,” day to day, “in the news” issues? 

True story. A mixed couple – Jewish mother, Presbyterian father -- who were raising their kids as “both.” The (halachically Jewish) son decided that he wanted to go on Birthright. “Great,” says Mom. “Wait a second,” says Dad. “My church has been debating whether we should be boycotting Israel and divesting from it. I don’t believe that he should go.”

Another true story. A Jewish-Catholic couple and their child. They were contemplating switching off between a Jewish religious school and catechism. As the Jewish father said, “it’s no big deal.”

I asked them to consider a hypothetical and uncomfortable situation. What would happen if their daughter became pregnant at the age of fifteen?

With the speed and certainty of a game show contestant offering an answer, the Jewish father said: "Easy. She'll get an abortion."

The Catholic mother screamed: "Like hell, she will!" and broke out in tears.

The husband was not offering a “Jewish” position on abortion, which is far more nuanced than we can delve into at this moment. He was merely parroting a “whatever” position. But the wife knew what the husband would not imagine: religion is serious stuff. It’s about real ethical issues, real life issues, real issues of meaning.

Years ago, the psychologist Robert J. Lifton wrote about "Protean Man," named for the Greek mythological figure who could change his identity with relative ease. Lifton noticed that a new type of individual had emerged in our day: one whose interactions with his environment are characterized more by change and disruption than by stability and constancy. What has caused this new type of person? He answered: a loss of connection with the vital symbols of our cultural traditions. Lifton noted that people are starved for ideas that can give coherence to their world.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that this is precisely what kids need. Not a Whole Foods salad bar of rituals and symbols to choose from. Rather, they need a central, defining story.

And they need a connection to a people that tells that story.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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