Tony Castleman is senior program officer in the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance Project at the Academy for Educational Development, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. He provides technical assistance to governments and NGOs to improve policies and programs addressing hunger and malnutrition in Africa and Asia. Tony is also a Ph.D. candidate studying development economics at George Washington University.
Walking Seven Circles
July 25, 2006
Editor's Note: InterfaithFamily encourages interfaith families to make Jewish choices, including raising their children with one religious identity. We do not recommend that parents try to give their children two religious identities. From time to time we publish thoughtful articles by parents who take a different approach because we feel they may be helpful to our readers in coming to their own decisions.
My wife and I completed our wedding ceremony by walking seven circles together. Not the Jewish tradition of the bride's seven circles around the groom, but the Hindu tradition in which the bride and the groom lead each other seven times around a ritual fire, their silk scarves tied together (literally tying the knot). The ritual symbolizes seven promises the bride and groom make to each other for their life together.
Rajni and I were married in 2000 in Lucknow, India, where she was born and brought up, and where I had been living and working since 1994. A few months after the wedding, we moved to the U.S. We have each continued to practice our respective religions--Hinduism and Judaism--with the same moderate degree of observance as before marriage, and we frequently join each other in our practice, especially for holidays. This has worked quite smoothly, and despite some animated debates about religion we have yet to experience any conflict or tensions stemming from the difference in our religions.
Even well before our son was born, the most common question we were asked by friends, relatives, and curious acquaintances was what we call "the children question." Though usually not worded so directly, the gist was essentially: "That's nice you both support each other to follow your faiths. But how do you plan to bring up your children?" My evasive, smart-aleck answer was: "With unconditional love and appreciation for the wonder in the world. How do you bring up your children?"
In fairness, though, the instinct behind the children question is correct. Continuing to practice two separate and quite different religions can be relatively problem-free as a couple. The challenges come with children. Parents are faced with minor and major choices about names, rites of passage, diet, ceremonies, etc., for which following one tradition can preclude following the other.
The most difficult situation we have faced to date was the decision whether or not to circumcise our son. I wanted to for cultural reasons, for health reasons, and at some level simply because I am circumcised. Rajni did not want to because she felt inflicting unnecessary pain on an infant was cruel, and because of the deep cultural taboo it carries in her community. In India Muslims are circumcised, Hindus are not, and many still remember periods of partisan violence when mobs of both religions stripped male victims to identify their religion and murdered them or let them go based on circumcision status.
After numerous discussions and debates, it became clear that Rajni felt even more strongly than I did about the issue, and we decided not to circumcise. The process of deciding was difficult, but once we decided, respect for each other's views helped us support each other in dealing with the subsequent reactions from family members. And despite joking warnings from friends, our son's intact foreskin did not disqualify him from entering Jewish preschool.
The circumcision experience has been the exception; generally it has been feasible and quite satisfying to include both traditions in our son's upbringing. It was important to Rajni for him to have a Hindi name, and it was important to me to follow the Jewish tradition of naming after a deceased relative. He has a Hindi first name and a middle name after a favorite aunt, with a corresponding Hebrew name.
Rajni and I have been warned that two halves can sometimes add up to zero. That our son may end up confused and lacking any religious identity at all. But both religions are part of our family and we feel both should be a part of his life. We realize at some stage he may gravitate to one religion and choose to identify with it alone. We also realize he may never have as "strong" a religious identity as he would growing up in a single religion home. But a strong religious identity is not necessarily the most important goal, and it feels more natural to follow the grain of our interfaith family. With intolerance--religious and otherwise--causing conflict in so many parts of the world, perhaps there's even a need for more of the internalized recognition and acceptance of multiple belief systems that growing up in a tolerant, two-religion home can bring.
We continue to believe, perhaps naively, that it is the respect for each other's beliefs and practices and the love that is present in the household that matter most. That these are the factors that will have the greatest influence on our son's happiness and whether he lives what both our religions teach is a good life: kindness to others, tolerance of those who are different, courage to follow what is right.
Several years before either of them were married, Rajni's older brother explained to her why he planned to have an arranged marriage with a woman belonging to his religion and caste. "There are so many other challenges in life to tackle," he advised her, "one should keep one's home life as smooth and uncomplicated as possible." His sister took a different route. And while there is undoubtedly an important place for smoothness in one's life, sometimes it is the contrasts and incongruities that we learn the most from, that stimulate and stretch us to expand ourselves and our compassion, that deepen our lives.
Tony Castleman's mother wrote a companion piece about her reaction to her son's wedding and decision to raise his son in both religions. Read Coming to Terms with My Son's Choices.