Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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.
This blog post arose after a conversation about the challenges for interfaith families in which one parent is a practicing Christian trying to raise Jewish children. We were speaking about many hot topics including:
So, here are my top five reasons for congregations to consider the idea of holding religious and Hebrew education on Shabbat morning given how many interfaith families are now in Jewish life. This switch of days could help with some of the above challenges.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze). She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.
And while you’re thinking about Passover and Easter, take our 2015 Passover/Easter Survey for a chance to win $500!
Like all Jewish holidays in my family, Passover with my family is an entirely interfaith affair. There are Catholic adults and kids, Jewish adults and kids, Christian adults and kids and one 92-year-old Russian Orthodox (Christian) grandma.
But the emphasis is on the kids: Between my brothers and me, we have 10 children. My brothers’ are Catholic and Christian and mine are Jewish, and so, it’s important to me that the Passover seder is interesting and fun and meaningful for them.
For as long as I can remember, our family has used the Maxwell House Hagaddah. The old one…from 1932…which I love and have fond memories of. But I wanted something different, something more accessible for the under-18 crowd and for a group that is mostly not Jewish.
I never thought about creating my own until my friend and colleague, IFF COO Heather Martin, told me about the one she created for her family, and shared it with me. I was hooked. I wanted our own personalized haggadah with silly Passover songs sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame!” You see, while this may not constitute a very traditional haggadah, what’s important to me is creating a seder in which family members who are not Jewish feel comfortable and connected, and in which all of the kids participate and enjoy.
And so, using Haggadot.com and JewishBoston.com and some of Heather’s haggadah as a jumping-off point, we made our own. We cut and pasted and pulled bits and pieces from different sites, including a quiz for the older kids at the end.
It was a big hit—the seder was fun and silly (vital for the under 7 crowd) and accessible and interesting (important for everyone else). Most importantly, it was relevant to our family—it made sense for the people sitting around the table, who mostly weren’t Jewish but were there to celebrate Passover in a way that was meaningful. We left a lot out in order to create an abridged version that worked for my family, and I made sure to include the pieces that were most important for me to share the meaning of the holiday. Yours might look completely different, but you’re welcome to use this as a starting off point, or even to bring into your seder if you wish.
Here it is—take a look. Like it? Hate it? I’d love to hear what you think.
On February 17, after enjoying having my three kids off for four days for President’s Weekend, I was ready for them to return to school, and for me to get a lot of work done. But by 5:45 am I learned that their schools were cancelled because of snow. By 11:30 am, as I was trying to respond to work emails, my daughter Tali was complaining that she was bored and wanted to me to play Rummikub with her. My two sons each had friends over, and all of the boys were playing on various electronic devices.
I wrote down what went through my head for the next ten minutes. Here it is:
Really? A snow day after they’ve been off school for the last four days. Why not just a two hour delay? The streets don’t look so bad. How am I supposed to get my work done today? I have 22 emails to respond to already. How on earth could I play Rummikub with Tali now? I feel guilty that I don’t have time to play with her (and it would be fun)…did I really just tell her to go watch TV?
Ugh! Now the phone’s ringing. Who is it? Oh, it’s my friend. I’m not picking up. Should I text her that I’ll call her later? Now I just lost my train of thought. What was I thinking about?
Seriously…there are four boys sitting in the family room all on different electronic devices. My oldest son Benji is watching a movie on his laptop while his friend is playing a game on his phone. My middle son Noah is texting his friends as part of a “group chat” (boy do I hate the “ping” sound that goes off every time he receives a text…didn’t I ask him to disable that sound a hundred times yesterday?) while his friend is texting from his phone. Why do they even bother to have friends over if they’re not going to interact with each other? Should I make them go sledding outside?
No! They’re old enough to figure out what to do themselves. And I need to get back to work. Now I have 26 emails in my inbox. Sometimes I feel like my life is just one long to-do list. I feel like that woman in the commercial from when I was a kid who said: “Calgon, take me away!” She had lots of chaos at home, and she probably didn’t even have a job. I want to relax in a quiet bath like she did in the commercial…or at least not have to answer 26 emails…and not feel guilty that I’m not interacting with my daughter and instead sent her to watch TV.
I wish I could just shut down my computer right now…and my phone…and turn off the TV…and go take the various devices out of all of the boys’ hands….and we could all just hang out and play Rummikub.
OK, I can’t realistically do it right now. But I CAN unplug—and I can encourage my whole family to unplug—as part of the National Day of Unplugging on March 6-7. We already do things differently on Shabbat than we do the other days of the week. I love it that as a family we always say the blessings and have Shabbat dinner on Friday night (no phones at the table—that’s one thing I insist on every night!), even if I do have to rush off at 7 pm to get to services at my synagogue. And though it’s not always easy being a family in which both parents are rabbis, I do especially enjoy those Saturdays when my kids and I go to my husband’s synagogue for services and we’re all together. Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t use my phone or computer at all on those days? Could I really do that? Not check my email, voice messages or texts, before leaving for services on Saturday morning? And not check them when I get home?
I could just put my phone in a drawer Friday before sundown and not take it out until Saturday after sundown. I remember when I went away on a Jewish meditation retreat last year and I had to put my phone away from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. It felt weird…even scary. And refreshing. And nice. It was humbling to realize that everyone I know (in that case even my husband and three kids, because they were home without me) would be just fine without me. And they were. And I had two days to just BE…to appreciate life…and creation. It was hard…really hard…not getting that dopamine rush I get when I get a text or email for two days straight…not having anything to distract me…but it was also wonderful…really wonderful.
I could recreate that wonderful feeling on the National Day of Unplugging. That feeling of being more fully present in the moment. Rather than emailing, calling or texting people and making plans for when Shabbat is over, I could be more truly in the moment of Shabbat. Rather than playing my favorite game on my phone as a way of relaxing after services, I could finally play that game of Rummikub with Tali. And the boys would probably play too. We always have a lot of fun when we all play games together. And we really don’t do it enough.
But for now, back to work….there it goes again, the annoying “ping” letting us all know that Noah’s getting a text. And now I have 35 emails in my inbox. How many more days until March 6th? I don’t need Calgon. For me, it can be “National Day of Unplugging…Shabbat…take me away!” And by “take me away” what I really mean is: “Take me away from technology…and let me be present right where I am.”
Do you plan to unplug on March 6-7? What will you do with your tech-free time?
My 7-year-old lost another tooth last night. Since we have been through many of these over the last couple of years, the two of us agreed to put aside any pretention that it would end up under his pillow. He is a non-believer and finds the story of the tooth fairy to be the most ridiculous of all of the farces adults tell children. From an early age, he dismissed anything beyond his definition of “real” as utterly ridiculous. Since my partner and I have agreed to tell our kids the truth when they ask directly for it (lest they grow up not trusting us), we let him know from early on that his suspicions were correct about the incredulity of these tales. The one rule is that he isn’t allowed to go to school and burst someone else’s bubble.
My 9-year-old, on the other hand, has a more complicated relationship with reality. For years, he has regaled us with stories rivaled only by Dr. Seuss’ I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Tales would begin in our sphere of reality but end in a fantastical world. We were never quite sure if he knew where the line was between fiction and non-fiction, and only now that he is older does he sometimes fess up to knowing the difference.
Our elder child recently came up with a way to distinguish his penchant for fantasy from his brother’s realism. Some people, he explains, are “myth blind” and some are not. Some are able to see past everyday reality while others just can’t—it is part of their nature. Both kids seem satisfied with the terminology, and quite out of character, they don’t seem to preference one above the other.
This conversation in our home is juicy enough that the kids reintroduce it periodically, adding on layers and meanings. Recently, this category was stretched to include one’s proclivity to believing in God. The “myth blind” child sees himself as an atheist, and easily links not believing in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa with not believing there is such a thing as God. The one who is not “myth blind” remains intrigued by theology and asks lots of questions about God. They have also surmised that one of their parents seems to be myth blind while the other is not. This observation is astute, and we don’t mind being included in this categorization.
As the “not myth-blind” parent, I have to confess that I like the sound of this category. It goes beyond the usual definition of a believer being one who is somehow able to suspend reality, as if the rational mind is just waiting to pounce, bringing us back to our senses. One who is not myth blind sees another layer of reality and is not terrified by it. To be not “myth blind” does not necessarily mean you believe, he explains. It simply implies that you are open to the idea. Furthermore, his use of the word “myth” acknowledges that whether or not the story is “True” is inconsequential. It is, in fact, more important than “True”: it is real, it is powerful.
There is a Jewish mystical concept that while we are living in the “real” world every day, there is another layer of reality beneath it or beyond it. Sometimes we get a peek, usually just a fleeting moment, when we see that there is something more real beyond the particulars of our daily lives. Our material world is dressed in the colors, human structures,and natural world we see around us. But there are moments in our lives when a veil of sorts is lifted and we see that there is something else, something deeper. This can happen during meditation when everything “real” can seem to disappear for a moment, or when the body is being supported by a yoga mat at the end of a practice and feels like it is suspended and weightless. Or when you’re watching your kids grow and it seems like no time has passed, and simultaneously that eons have elapsed, crunching and expanding time in ways our minds can’t understand. It can happen when we gaze at the stars and feel the concept of space and time changing as we try to picture what “everything” really entails. I think that not being myth blind is about being able to lift the veil for a moment, experiencing another way of seeing the universe.
I don’t need my kids to believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t think I did, even as I carefully placed my teeth in a special white tooth-sized pillow someone gave me. I commend my 7-year-old for being confident and bold enough to come to his own conclusions and challenge what he hears around him. But someday both kids will learn that most of us would place ourselves somewhere between these poles rather than identifying wholly with one category or the other, seeing the nuance and challenge of complex philosophical ideas. For now, it’s an interesting way to start to make sense of their stories in relation to who they are becoming. I do hope that as they grow up they will be critical, but also that they might feel comfortable stretching their minds and being open to mystery.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
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
When it comes to religion, many parents don’t want to choose for their kids. Their hesitation isn’t just about choosing a single religion over another—they are hesitant to make any choices about religious education for their children at all. What I most often hear is that people want to allow their kids to choose for themselves.
In an age when we value our kids for being independent thinkers and want to allow them to develop freely, I completely understand this sentiment. Many adults don’t look favorably on the religious education they received when they were children. They don’t want to force their own kids to believe anything in particular. And if they are part of an interfaith couple, they often don’t want one religion to take precedence. The result is that they often do…nothing. Or very little.
Even though I can see where this well-intentioned reasoning is coming from, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate. Here’s why:
1) Every adult has the option to make choices around religion. In fact, adult children will make decisions about religion no matter what we have given them. So I would like to eliminate this as a concern for parents raising young children. No matter what you do, they will choose what works for them.
2) Parents are scared of indoctrinating their kids. I know that the word sounds terrible, authoritarian. And of course I’m using it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make a point. All I’m saying is that parents try and pass on what we hope our kids will learn according to values we think are worth living by. Call it “parenting” or “teaching.” We teach our kids about our values in many arenas: political and social values, the importance of education, open mindedness, how to treat others. We “indoctrinate” from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they lay their heads down through the stories we tell, the schools we choose, the way we talk about daily events. We teach them the value of music as we schlep them, often against their will, to piano lessons. It’s not a bad thing.
We are teaching them the values we hold dear because we believe that our values lead to treating others well, and a life well lived. So why do we feel terrified to teach our kids about religion? If you develop a clear idea of what values, traditions, holidays and ritual are important to you and your family, there is nothing wrong with teaching them what it looks like to live within that framework. If they don’t like it, they will reject it, or pieces of it. But they will never be able to say that they didn’t know what was important to you.
3) Give them some knowledge! If they know more about the traditions represented in their home, they will be better able to make those decisions as adults we all want to see them make. If you give them nothing or very little, from my experience, they will grow up having many questions, little foundation, and perhaps feel frustrated that they were cheated out of not one, but TWO great legacies. Give them the knowledge and experience so that they can be better educated choosers. If you don’t, they will likely grow up feeling like they don’t know enough to even walk into a religious institution. (I have to thank my father for this one. He enrolled me, reluctantly, in Hebrew school as a kid. He argued that I would clearly rebel against it as he had, but wanted to ensure that I knew what I was rebelling against. He ended up with a kid who is a rabbi. See how you just can’t control them no matter what you do?)
4) That leads me to my last point. One thing is for sure: You can’t win! I know plenty of adults who felt they received far too much religious instruction, and plenty who complain that they were given very little. As with everything in parenting, follow your instincts and know that your kids will, indeed, be independent thinkers and not necessarily follow your path…no matter what you do.
I am fully aware that I inculcate my values at home. I send my kids to a dual-immersion Spanish program because I want them to value other cultures and be able to see from the inside what another person’s experience of the world might be like. I tell them who I’m voting for, and why. And I teach them Jewish values. I tell them as we are stopping by the road to give a homeless person some food that the Jewish value, tzedakah, means that humans are responsible for bringing justice to the world.
At Passover time, I press the idea that no one should ever be enslaved and we need to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up. Every time we say “motsi,” the Jewish prayer before eating bread, I am teaching them through a Jewish lens that we must pause in gratitude before delving in.
I am inculcating values they will live by and someday grapple with as they are deciding who they want to be. Sure, I’d love for them to always value the same things I do, but at some point they will grow to be independent beings who may reject any or all of what we’ve given them. Which is what we all want in the first place.