Who Gets to Criticize Your Religion?

  

Book, heart

I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt.  I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: “How can we teach our kids these stories?!” The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.

It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the “Aleynu” prayer. She nudged me, whispering, “Do you know what you’re saying?”  Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. “You [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.”

Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didn’t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the “chosenness” aspect. I didn’t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.

It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.

But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? It’s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the “defender” gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we can’t have this tradition alive in our home?

The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrée into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.

Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or don’t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.

I would like to offer some tips for getting through “critique” moments:

1.  Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the “Oh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!” mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of “make it or break it” moments.

2.  Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?

3.  Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because “that is the way it has always been?” Do you feel the need to present a “perfect” version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?

4.  Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an “erev rav”—a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isn’t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each other’s critiques—there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.

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