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The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabeth’s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabeth’s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call “organized” Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didn’t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish home—don’t ask me what a Jewish home is—many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ish…not a practicing anything else but hasn’t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seems—the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline read “More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope: Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations.”
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people won’t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people don’t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to “be good people” and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who aren’t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isn’t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights our theological differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writer Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her: “Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflicted…I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time…local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.”
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may we know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s Will
Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says “That’s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!” Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.
Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they can’t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering one’s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to one’s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your household’s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.
I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brother’s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didn’t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.
Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep South—finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, “Shouldn’t you be used to the cold by now?” I responded, “I guess the novelty has worn off.” Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.
Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.
Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?
Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it. If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.
While you are dating, “what if” scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, “Vive La Différence!” but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling “alone” in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.
Many parents avoid being divided on issues big and small with our kids. We particularly try to present a united front about discipline, decision making and responsibilities and attempt to not get triangulated. But what about God? Do we need to believe the same thing, or at least tell our kids we do? My partner and I don’t like lying to our kids…about anything. We don’t tell them things they can’t yet handle developmentally, but we don’t avoid the tough subjects when they ask.
So what about God? We are unique in that both of our work lives involve religion. Part of her job is teaching the history of Judaism and Christianity to college students. She is enticed by the history, texts and language of religion but her role is to deconstruct it. I am a rabbi who is drawn to the spiritual and I look for ways to see the divine in everyday life. Even though we both highly value religion and its study, we have very different approaches to theology.
So what do we tell the kids? We have decided that as we don’t lie to them about other things, we will not lie to them about God. I read them books about God, encourage thanking God before meals, and provide as many ways as I can for them to envision what God might be. I share with them my own theological struggles. My partner tells them that she believes humans created the idea of God and when talking about the Bible she refers to God as a character in the story. In all of these conversations, I make sure that our kids know that debating God doesn’t have anything to do with them being or feeling Jewish. Since there are myriad ways Jews define ourselves, belief is certainly not a litmus test. In fact, about half of American Jews report doubting God’s existence.
Why have my partner and I rejected the idea that we must agree theologically, or that we should pretend that we do?
First, no two individuals are alike in their beliefs. Why would we expect two parents to share a theological view? Sure, some do, or their visions of the divine are close enough to present one shared story to their children. But the great majority do not. It is not only parents from different religious backgrounds who struggle with this question. Two Jewish, Catholic or Muslim parents can easily hold radically differing theological views and most traditions hold within them disparate views of divinity as well.
Second, we believe that parents shouldn’t refrain from teaching kids what they think just because they don’t agree with one another. Children are far more capable of handling complexity than we imagine. I encourage parents to talk it through between them first, and then commence sharing with their children what they think about the big questions and even how views evolve and change over time. By doing so, we will be teaching them personal integrity, authenticity, and the Jewish values of intellectual and theological struggle. I think children can handle that complexity. What is tougher to handle is a lack of clarity when parents haven’t figured out how they are going to talk to them about their differences.
On a related note, I don’t believe that kids will be confused if they are exposed to many ways to think about God. For me, this goes beyond what they are learning from us as parents. My theological views often differ from their religious school teachers’ views. I wouldn’t expect them to talk about God exactly as I would. I engage my children about those views as well and ask them what they think. In our home, we talk about God and gender. We sometimes change liturgical language to fit our ideological or theological beliefs, such as excluding language in our Friday night Kiddush about Jews being the chosen people. I don’t believe that God acts in human history (as in God being our salvation in a battle). There are times when I disagree with how a movie, book or teacher presents God and I welcome those opportunities to refine how we communicate about belief as a family.
Last and most important, I want to teach my children about telling the truth. The value of trust is higher for me and my partner than anything else. If they find out someday that we misrepresented ourselves, they could question other things we had said along the way as well. So we tell them our viewpoints, and we fess up when we aren’t sure.
The result? At this moment, our kids approach God differently. Our 7-year-old made up a joke that God was walking around one day and the big bang blew him up. He says he doesn’t believe in God and often has much to say about the subject. Our 9-year-old thinks God exists but struggles with the Shema prayer because he really likes the polytheism of the Greek myths. Under the sukkah recently, we got into a philosophical discussion with them about whether there was some kind of matter present before the universe came into being or if it was born out of nothingness. Everyone had an opinion and struggled with the question. We are pleased. We aren’t teaching them what to believe, but they know how the two of us feel about God. We are teaching them how to think about their relationship to the world around them and giving them language to speak about it.
For further reading…
Children’s theological books:
God’s Paintbrush and God In-Between by Sandy Sasso
Because Nothing Looks Like God and Where is God? by Karen Kushner and Lawrence Kushner
The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles