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The Interfaith Exchange, Part 2: What Does ‘Good for Judaism’ Mean?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 8, 2014 | 4:11 am

Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is an award winning Journalist. A graduate of Brown University, Katz Miller began her journalism career at Newsweek in New York. After working in the Los Angeles and Washington bureaus, she moved to Dakar, Senegal for three years. While there, she wrote travel pieces for the New York Times, was tear-gassed in the streets while covering an election, interviewed the President of Senegal for Newsweek International, and wrote Christian Science Monitor pieces from Benin, Togo, the Gambia, and Sierra Leone. On returning to the States, she became a US Correspondent for the British weekly magazine New Scientist. She then spent three years freelancing from northeastern Brazil. After her two children were born, she and her husband settled in the Washington, DC, area, and she founded the first blog devoted to interfaith family communities and interfaith identity, onbeingboth.com, and began blogging at Huffington Post Religion.

This exchange focuses on Katz Miller's book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press, 2013).

(You can find part one of the exchange right here.)

 

Dear Susan,

Thank you for your first round answer. I have two follow-up questions (for now)-

1. You seem to assume that what counts as far as the Jewish people is concerned, is the number of members of the "tribe". Thus, you conclude that having families of "both" is ultimately (numerically) beneficial for Judaism as it keeps open the possibility that at least some members of each "both" family will choose Judaism (or partial Judaism) over "nothing" or "Christianity". But how would you respond to the argument that the Jewish people - while definitely in need of numbers - also have a standard that it needs to be maintained, i.e., to set a certain level of observance/sense of belonging beyond which there is no more "Judaism". In other words: some people might be concerned that by legitimizing "both" they are draining Judaism of any serious meaning - but I'm sure you disagree, so please explain why.

2. Your answer also seems to suggest that you view Judaism as a religion (as a faith). Yet Judaism isn't just a religion, it is also a nationality. The Jews are a "people", and, again, people have to have a defining sense of belonging. Is it possible that "doing both" can work as far as faith is concerned but gets complicated when one considers the national component of Judaism to be a vital part of one's Jewish identity? Can you be "both" a Christian and a member of the Jewish people?

Best,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Both numbers and spiritual vitality are important for the survival of any religion, and logically, the two are interrelated. The strength of American Judaism is bolstered, I believe, by the diversity of Jewish movements. I am glad that there are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic Jews in the world. But the issue of what the "standard" or "level of practice" or "serious meaning" should be, is of course all part of the familiar debate around "Who is a Jew?" Different Jewish movements disagree over what those levels of practice should be. Meanwhile, ironically, Reform Jews of patrilineal descent are asked to meet a certain standard of practice that is not asked of people with two Jewish parents. And requiring matrilineal descent, which was clearly not the standard in Biblical times, is a problem for many 21st century interfaith families. So for interfaith families, the issue of "standards" is complex. But ultimately, I cannot see how interfaith families engaging with Judaism, and teaching it to their children, is worse for Judaism than interfaith families disengaging. Judaism has never been "pure" or static. Intermarriage began when Judaism began. The Jewish side of my family has pale skin and red hair: traits that I doubt came from the Middle East. And yet, Judaism persists in my family, and in the world.

As for your second question-

Different Jewish movements, and ultimately different Jews, put different emphasis on theology versus nationhood versus religious practice versus cultural engagement. My rabbi, Harold White, was lucky enough to study with Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mordecai Kaplan. He often quotes Kaplan on the idea that Judaism is a civilization, with all of these components. For converts, interfaith families, and ethnic minority Jews, the cultural and tribal elements can be problematic when individuals apply them to us as litmus tests for being "real" Jews. And yet, it is precisely because Judaism has such a strong cultural component that interfaith children often feel interfaith (and/or Jewish), no matter what religious identity or beliefs they are given, or choose.

As for being Christian and a member of the Jewish people, I'm sure you are aware that there are ardent Christians of Jewish heritage who still refer to themselves as a part of the Jewish people--for instance, the late Roman Catholic Cardinal, Jean-Marie Lustiger. I believe in the right of individuals to self-define in matters of identity, and have adapted a "Bill of Rights for Interfaith People" that speaks to that issue. Meanwhile, as Jews we sometimes view Christianity as a religion based solely on belief (or "faith,") and yet, I surveyed and interviewed Christians married to Jews who felt a strong cultural connection to Christianity even when they were willing to put "faith" aside and raise Jewish or interfaith-identified children. Among the "spiritual but not religious" and the "nones" there are a growing number of unaffiliated "cultural Christians" who parallel the familiar concept of being "culturally Jewish." In my research, I found that many intermarried Christians see Jesus as a teacher and rabbi, rather than a personal savior, yet they still call themselves Christian. So the idea that Christianity is a stark binary, a "believe or don't believe in Jesus" religion, does not reflect the reality documented by Pew Research and others of 21st century American religious patterns of fluidity, flexibility, choice, and intermarriage.

I define myself, and my children, as a part of the Jewish people. For instance, I expect them to stand up for themselves as Jews and for Judaism when they encounter anti-semitism. In my research, I found that the barriers to feeling a part of the Jewish people come from rejection by self-appointed gatekeepers as much as they come from people reluctant to self-define as Jews. Faced with conflicting opinions on Who is a Jew, on how to convert, on Who is a Rabbi, on whether or not we can be married or buried as Jews, etc, many of us respond by either disconnecting, or, in the case of families raising kids with both religions, by creating our own connection to all that is nourishing and vibrant in Judaism, whether others agree that we belong there or not. What is very encouraging is that, especially since the publication of my book, I am hearing from more and more rabbis and Jewish institutions willing to support these dual-faith families and help to teach and connect them with Judaism, rather than applying genealogical or theological litmus tests to exclude us.

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