God and Jesus in an Extended Interfaith Family

By Paula Lee Hellman


My first husband was raised a Methodist. He went to Sunday School every Sunday. His home was one in which the words “Christian” and “duty” were linked and parties (other than church suppers) were non-existent. His first wife sang weekly in the choir of her Presbyterian church. They married and decided that organized religion was not for them. They did not baptize their son, Tarn.

When I met my first husband and we discussed God, religion, and the raising of children, our God-views were quite similar. I, too, had left organized religion. As a “sophisticated” college student I studied many religious traditions and had experiences of God in nature, with family, and in various church buildings, as well as in my home synagogue. At the time of my marriage, I thought that religion was a creation of individuals, and that God was real.

My first husband and I agreed that God was real and that God was One and Universal. We agreed that God provided many languages through which individuals could attain a relationship with God. And that we wanted to cultivate in our future children a spiritual connection to God, but not necessarily through a traditional religious path. We planned to celebrate holidays, both Jewish and Christian, in our household, and we did: Christmas and Easter; Hanukkah and Passover. We loved celebrations. Focal points of our year were festivities on Labor Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July (which had also been celebrated in our natal homes). We also hosted elaborate group gatherings at the Summer Solstice.

I had been educated through Confirmation in a Reform Jewish congregation in New York City in the 1950s. My family was largely assimilated, yet completely identified in their minds and by the community as Jewish. My family taught me to accept all peoples, regardless of religious, national or cultural background. Judaism for them, and for me in those days, was primarily cultural and historical.

What I was unprepared for, in my marriage to my formerly church-going Methodist husband, was his family’s relationship to Jesus. What I still find terribly painful is my extended Christian family’s belief that without baptism, heaven is unattainable.

Both my first husband and I thought of Jesus as a metaphor–a metaphor for acting peacefully, behaving kindly and accepting others. We thought of Jesus as a teacher, as a Jewish teacher whose teachings were extended into the gentile world by Paul. Neither of us saw Jesus as God. Otherwise, our marriage (doomed by alcoholism) would not have been possible.

But it is not just two people who marry. Families are also involved. My first husband’s mother agonized that her grandson Tarn was not baptized. She lobbied for that event. She believed with all her heart that without baptism Tarn’s soul was doomed. Eventually, Tarn married into a religious Episcopalian family. To his grandmother’s great relief, he was baptized at the insistence of his wife and her mother. My then mother-in-law admired Jews (she had heard Jews were intelligent and charitably inclined), but she didn’t understand why I wasn’t a Christian, since I would be denied entrance to heaven. Neither I, nor my Christian husband, nor the majority of our non-Jewish friends, held that belief. But she did.

When my daughter married the son of a Baptist minister, her future mother-in-law was shocked to learn that Jews weren’t baptized. “But Jesus was baptized, and he was a Jew!,” she exclaimed. And from then on, she lobbied (successfully) for my daughter’s full immersion.

I have had to wrestle not only with God, but with my extended family’s relationship to Jesus and to baptism. “There’s none so blind as those who will not see,” Tarn’s mother-in-law once said to me at the last Christmas I celebrated with her. And Tarn’s wife recently confided to me that she finds some relief in knowing that although Tarn has a debilitating illness (A.L.S., or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), “…at least he’s been baptized.”

It’s hard for me to hear that. It implies a pity that is uncomfortable. I also think it isn’t polite. Fortunately, I don’t feel pity from Tarn, who has developed a strong faith in God. His faith is not exclusive of mine.

It is difficult for me to socialize with people who believe that neither I nor my Jewish husband will be allowed into heaven. I don’t believe that. Neither does Judaism, which welcomes the righteous of all nations into Olam ha’Ba, the World to Come. Judaism believes there are different places for differing paths, but still that there is a universal welcome.

My God-view hasn’t changed over the years. I believe that God is real. God is One and Universal. God speaks in many languages to many peoples. I speak to God through Judaism. However, my attitude toward organized religion has been transformed. I now think that a single-faith religious upbringing, even while celebrating another parent’s religious holidays, is important. And I also think that Judaism is an excellent choice of religion.

I have come to learn that Judaism offers a complete path, a non-exclusive path, to developing a personal relationship with God–one in which I am free to question, argue, fight and praise. One in which I can express my feelings, and ask for and receive comfort and strength from God.

Some people think that a personal relationship with God is what differentiates Christ-believing Christians from Jews. Christians, as I understand it, believe that Jesus is their personal savior. I, through my study and understanding of Judaism, have a distinct relationship with God that teaches me my own responsibility for my future growth, guided by my ability to listen to God.

I feel and am embraced by the religious/spiritual dimension of Judaism as well as a historical and cultural connection to an amazing and diverse people. I am proud to be a Jew, privileged to be a teacher who can convey the fullness of Jewish tradition, liturgy, culture and history–and that a relationship to God through the language of Judaism is real.

And I have learned that marriage involves more than the individual couple. It incorporates families with world views and religious ideals that may bump up against those of the marriage partners. There are many Christian families who embrace their Jewish grandchildren and do not think that belief in Jesus is the only conduit to God. I think it is those families who make the most successful intermarried families, since within the family there is acceptance of a wide God-view that teaches that there are many paths to God and that the clearest expression of a relationship to God is through our actions on this planet. That view is both Christian and Jewish.


About Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.