Do parents need to present a united front…about God?

Mychal's kids

Mychal's kids playing at the beach

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

For adults:

The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles

‘Til Faith Do Us Part

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage

Back in February, my colleague, Rebecca, blogged about a debate between two Reform rabbinic students: should the Reform rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, accept students who are intermarried?

Rabbi Mark S. Miller

Two current students at HUC in New York, argued opposing sides in Reform Judaism Magazine. Rebecca summaried, “Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no.”

Fast forward, and the debate is still raging. Not surprising, Kirzane has faced some attacks from classmates and rabbis, both Reform and those from other denominations.

The most recent comes from Rabbi Mark Miller, who shared his opinion in The Times Of Israel. He starts by explaining that there are two remaining lines that “cannot be crossed in Reform Judaism”:

a Reform Jew could not legitimately believe in Jesus and a Reform Rabbi could not marry a non-Jewish spouse.

He continues, explaining that while Kirzane’s position is grounded in the Reform movement’s outreach and inclusion of interfaith couples and their families, Miller actually sees that as the demise of Reform Judaism.

This position is the logical and lamentable outcome of Reform Judaism’s embrace of assimilation, of wanting to be everything to everyone, and of exalting the individual at the expense of the community. There are simply no standards, imperatives, or obligations. The adoration of autonomy led first to compromise, then to appeasement, and now to anarchy. For Rabbis to say there is no difference between the marriage of two Jews and a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew has led to the spectacle of Reform Rabbis officiating at intermarriages with non-Jewish clergy on Shabbat in churches. The response from Reform officialdom, if any, is tepid.

There is no greater threat to Jewish continuity than intermarriage. As Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen conclude in The Jew Within, their study of American Jewry, “Group identity cannot but weaken when Jews increasingly find themselves on both sides of ethnic boundaries.” For all the anecdotal “success” stories, interreligious marriage is not Jewish. Period! As for the wedding, you can stand under a chuppah, wear a large tallis, recite ceremonial texts, drink l’chaims, invite the non-Jew to utter Hebrew words, and break a glass, but the ceremony will remain a charade. The officiating Rabbi can impose conditions, offer counseling, and modify the rituals, but one-hundred Rabbis will not make a non-Jewish union into a Jewish marriage.

Ah, yes, intermarriage as the great assault on Judaism. We’ve seen this argument many times before. I don’t think there’s anything I can say here that would dissuade Miller. But I do think it’s a shame that he believes that “intermarriage usually occurs between people whose faith is not central to their lives, but an afterthought.” For some couples, sure, but for all? Couldn’t it also be argued that when Jews marry other Jews oftentimes their faith is an afterthought? How else would we explain the many Jewish families not marking Shabbat or celebrating holidays, not giving their children any sort of Jewish education? I’d rather see faith as an afterthought than no thought at all. But I digress.

What do you think of Miller’s arguments against admitting to rabbinical school those students who have intermarried?

Edited to add: As so quickly pointed out on our Facebook wall about this blog post, “Why are these the only two lines? Can a Reform Jew legitimately commit murder?” Other lines are listed too. And the idea of officiating weddings on Shabbat is called in too. Respond with your thoughts on Facebook, or here!

A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted to Jewschool.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing, Revisited

Almost three years ago, in April 2010, I complimented the Forward’s Editor-at-Large, for an essay he wrote about a family member’s bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. I said then,

It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child, to question “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed,” and to give praise (very well-deserved, in my opinion) to [a rabbi] who “dared to open [his community's] gates as few other rabbis have done.”

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.” I hope Goldberg’s essay will help move us in that direction.

Unfortunately, Goldberg’s current essay, How Many American Jews Are There?, makes me wonder about progress. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of Jewish population estimates, Goldberg mentions “certain new discoveries that are changing our understanding of how Jews view themselves that aren’t fully absorbed into survey methodology.” One of them is, “there’s a growing, still unmeasured tendency among children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish” — something that could certainly be taken as very positive.

Sadly, however, Goldberg adds: “perhaps because it’s fashionable in Washington and Hollywood.” Why the gratuitous slap at children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish? Does Goldberg think his cousin, who impressed him so much at his bar mitzvah three years ago, identifies as Jewish because it’s fashionable?

This follows on the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, writing For 2013, A Marriage Agenda. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of marriage and birth rates, she gratuitously mentions being “haunted” by whether marriage-age children will marry other Jews — again with no recognition whatsoever of the potential for positive Jewish engagement that could result.

I would hope that leading Jewish journalists like Goldberg and Eisner would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.

Community’s Response to Intermarriage

Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.

I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”

Eisner’s conclusion?

We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.

And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.

Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.

How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.

A great point to start us off. He continues,

Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.

If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.

By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.

Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.

Welcoming in Philadelphia

Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.

Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:

For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.

We certainly hope we are!

For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.

Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.

The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.

One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)

InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.

But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.

There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:

For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.

And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.