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Can the interfaith family overcome Jesus?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 21, 2014 | 3:50 am

El Greco's 'Christ as Savior' (1610-14) / Museo El Greco, Toledo

We've been busy recently thinking and writing about interfaith marriages and their impact on the American Jewish community (Interfaith Marriages: Are We Moving from Surrender to Celebration?). Some of the things I wrote were annoying to several of my readers, and some of the things I quoted from others were annoying to other readers. In other words: my inbox is full. And it is not just full, it is full with interesting letters from people with firsthand experience with the institute of interfaith marriage. One of these letters is from Bette Isacoff, and with her permission I'm going to share it with you. Isacoff is the author of Star Crossed, a book which chronicles an interfaith courtship "when interfaith love was exotic and forbidden". Her letter is a response to my exchange of letters with Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (read parts 1,2, and 3 of the exchange here, here, and here).

Dear Mr. Rosner,

I have been reading with interest your exchange with Susan Katz Miller about raising the children of a Jewish/"other" marriage as "both."

Having been in an interfaith marriage for 43 years, I feel more than qualified to comment. It is simple to raise children with two sets of religious practices. It is not possible, at least in my case, to raise them in two different faiths (Jewish/Catholic). The biggest stumbling block is the divinity, or not, of Jesus.

We raised our only child in the Catholic faith, for three reasons:

(1) In the years before DNA testing a child was, as you know, determined to be the religion of the mother. Unless I converted in 1979 (when she was born) or afterward, or unless our daughter converted later, it would not have been possible for her to be Jewish;

(2) Richard's parents, by his mother's own admission, were not religious but "cultural" Jews. This was a matter of great curiosity to me when she asked me if I planned to convert to Judaism. Obviously I could not change my ethnicity, and I did not need a conversion to observe Jewish cultural practices.Why would I convert to a religion which neither my husband nor his family practiced? I was raised by my parents as a practicing, though tolerant, Catholic;

(3) Although it is possible to raise a Catholic child with a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the Jewish faith, the opposite is not possible. The principal hang-up is the divinity, or not, of Jesus. You can't teach it both ways. You can say, "This is what Mom believes," and "This is what Dad believes." But sooner or later, the child must make a determination about this concept (or have it made for him), and that choice of necessity dictates that child's religious affiliation.

With all due respect to Susan Katz Miller, I maintain that it is very easy to raise an interfaith child with two sets of religious practices. It is it not possible, at least in the case of a Jewish/Catholic couple, to raise him in two faiths. Therein lies the crucial difference.

Respectfully,

Bette Isacoff.

A similar point was raised by many of the reviewers of Katz-Miller's book. It was raised– one example - in The Human Side of the Coin blog, by Rabbi Steve Schwartz:

At the end of the day, the most serious flaw in Katz Miller’s argument has to do with the figure of Jesus.  For in all Christian faiths Jesus is a central figure, and in many he is understood as the Messiah, and sometimes as the literal son of God.  These are fundamental principles in Christianity.  But just as fundamental to Judaism is the principle that none of the above is true.  A person cannot be Christian and Jewish.  If they believe in Jesus (in any of the ways delineated above) they are Christian by definition and not Jewish.  And to be Jewish, they cannot believe in any of those ideas, and so cannot be Christian.

And by Jane Larkin in The Forward:

How could our family be “really Jewish” if we recognized Jesus as the Messiah? How could we be “really Christian” if we didn’t? It seemed that by choosing a hybrid path, our family would simply be on the threshold of both faiths but not be truly part of either.

In our exchange, I didn't ask Katz Miller about Jesus as I already knew her answer. You can read it here:

Parents in interfaith family communities need to agree that Jesus -- whether God or man or myth -- is an important topic of study, especially for interfaith children. One goal of these communities is to help the Jewish partners feel comfortable discussing Jesus without feeling pressure, as they might in a Christian context, to see him as God's only son. They come to understand that many adults raised Christian view Jesus as a great leader or teacher, rather than as a messiah or personal savior. And many Jewish intellectuals have studied Jesus as an important figure in Jewish history. In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler write, "It is difficult for Jews to understand their neighbors, and the broader society of which Jewish citizens are a part, without familiarity with the New Testament."

In an interfaith education program, children are offered the whole spectrum of ways of looking at Jesus -- as a folk protagonist, as a historical figure, as a mysterious inspiration, or as the son of God. They come to realize that they cannot make assumptions about the beliefs of an individual based on religious labels. Not all Reform Jews see Jesus the same way. Not all Presbyterians see Jesus the same way. In turn, this makes it easier for children to understand that developing their own set of religious beliefs is not a particular burden imposed on interfaith children alone, but a universal condition.

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