Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

Interfaith Children Speak Out, #3: David

November 7, 2013

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the third in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms in these portraits (although the book itself is full of real names). However, these portraits are all of real people: they are not composites. 

David is an example of a child of interfaith parents, raised with both religions, who ultimately chose Judaism. Raised in Chicago by a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, he had both a bris and a baptism. He writes, “Not knowing what the future held, I am glad that I was welcomed into both religious communities at birth.”

In Chicago, interfaith families raising children with both religions receive extraordinary support from both churches and the Jewish communities there. David started in the Jewish and Catholic religious education program for interfaith children at Chicago’s Family School when he was five years old, and stayed in the program into his teen years. He had a First Communion, a Christian Confirmation, and a Bar Mitzvah. Looking back, David writes, “The coming of age rituals were extremely instructive. It was the preparation and completion of these that guided me to the path I am on today.”

Given the opportunity to create or choose all kinds of complex religious identities for himself when he took the survey at age 20, David chose one word: “Jewish.” Asked how he developed his Jewish identity, David writes that he “chose it for myself” at age 17. He explains further, “The work and personal responsibility involved in Bar Mitzvah proved to be extremely gratifying. It drew me closer to the Jewish traditions than I had ever been, and I cherished it. I also went through a Catholic Confirmation, but upon completion, I knew that it was not for me.”

Theologically, David has made a clear choice. He does not view Jesus as a messiah, although he has great respect for the historical Jesus as a result of his interfaith education. When asked who Jesus is for him, he writes, “A very wise man, or even a prophet, who sent a message of peace in a time of struggle. His message was, and is too often, ignored.”

David reports that he feels comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but having made a choice, he now attends only synagogue. Asked whether he found his education in two religions confusing, he says no, and explains: “It really isn’t all that confusing. It does require some thought, but isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? It is our responsibility to be informed about our decisions. How can we do so without being given all the facts?” And when asked how an interfaith education affects his worldview, David replies, “It has really helped me to be accepting and helped made me so eager to learn about the past and futures of both religions.”

In fact David, like most of interfaith children raised with an interfaith education who took this survey, wants to raise his own children someday with an interfaith education. He sees being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage, and he believes his parents made a good choice in raising him with both religions, in a community that allows children to feel positive about their interfaith status.

In college, David reports that he attends Reform Jewish services, Hillel events or community service every week, is involved in interfaith dialogue, and took a class in Eastern religions. On campus, he writes, his Jewish identity “has grown substantially. There is a great wealth of knowledge to be learned, and such a warm community to get involved with.”

People sometimes challenge David’s right to claim Judaism, because of his interfaith education, but he writes, “I am very proud of my background. If anything, it gave me a wider perspective than is conventionally possible. I am what I am, I chose this path because I believe in it. There is nothing to debate.”

“Mixed-Up Love”: Interfaith Marriage Between a Rabbi and a Catholic

October 15, 2013

Mixed-Up Love

           It is long past time to abandon the idea that those who marry across lines of faith simply do not care about religion. The most obvious counter-examples have been the Christian clergy, including Harvey Cox, Donna Schaper, and J. Dana Trent, who have written memoirs about their interfaith marriages. And now, we finally get to read about how a rabbi and her Catholic husband stay deeply engaged in two religions, while embarking on an interfaith marriage.

            For many Jewish institutions, the idea of an intermarried rabbi is almost as controversial as, well, the idea of raising children with both religions. The major rabbinical schools all refuse to admit or ordain rabbinical students married to non-Jews. This has forced potential rabbis to live in the “interfaith closet” or abandon their studies, which in turn has finally forced official reconsideration of this policy, at least at one seminary.

            Rabbis are going to fall in love, and marry, people from other religions. Rabbi Michal Woll and her Catholic husband, Jon Sweeney, bring us the first dispatch from this new reality. Woll was already a Reconstructionist rabbi when she met Sweeney, an author and religion scholar raised as a Protestant but in the process of converting to Catholicism at the time they met. Together, they have written an intimate and revealing memoir about their courtship and marriage, entitled Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.  A lively read, Mixed-Up Love is most compelling as a textured and nuanced portrait of one brave interfaith marriage. (Those interested the broad, historical sweep of their ambitious subtitle might want to also read Erika Seamon’s recent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America.)

            The joint memoir is a particularly useful format for an interfaith couple. One of the earliest examples is Mixed Blessings by Rachel and Paul Cowan, which described an interfaith marriage in the 1960s. Rachel eventually converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi, and their book, while useful, heavily promotes the choice of Judaism, and conversion. In contrast, Mary and Ned Rosenbaum, in another early joint memoir, Celebrating Our Differences, testified to the fact that their marriage strengthened, rather than diminished, their own devotion to Catholicism, and Judaism, respectively. While Ned was not an ordained rabbi, he was a Jewish studies scholar and lay leader of Jewish communities. In their memoir, Mary and Ned recount their pioneering interfaith marriage with great wit and honesty and tenderness, and also describe how they gave their three children education in both religions.

            Woll and Sweeney have decided to raise their daughter Jewish, and some of the reasons for their choice are obvious. Woll describes one congregation that refused to hire her as a rabbi because she is married to a Catholic. It seems evident that at least for now, an intermarried rabbi will have to raise children “exclusively Jewish” in order to be accepted by most Jewish institutions.

            Nonetheless, Woll and Sweeney talked to couples who had made different choices for their interfaith children, and researched some of the communities designed to support families raising children with both religions. In their book, they are thoughtful and open-minded about the possibility of raising children with both, although they chose another path. I found myself agreeing with the authors on many points: the importance of community support for interfaith families, the idea that interfaith marriage can be inspiring as well as challenging, and the importance for children of religious ritual in the home. In their conclusion, Sweeney and Woll write that there are “so many possibilities for creating lives full of spiritual meaning and practice in the world.”

            As in Celebrating Our Differences, Woll and Sweeney each contributed their own thoughts to this book in alternating passages, so that we understand their separate perspectives. Both their marriage and their child are still very young, but I suspect, and hope, that a sequel will eventually follow. In the meantime, Mixed-Up Love, the first memoir by a rabbi and a Catholic who share a marriage, is an important addition to the literature, describing the rewards and challenges of one of the many inevitable love stories in our increasingly interfaith world.

“Partly Jewish”: The Study, and the Book

October 8, 2013
A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

You may be wondering what I thought of the new national study from Pew, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which found 25% of intermarried Jewish parents raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” In short, I was not surprised. In researching Being Both, I found data on many individual cities (including Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia) where 25% or more of such parents are raising kids with two religions. The Pew study confirms that our grassroots movement is important on a national scale. And now, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family will provide the first glimpse of the first generation of teens and young adults to grow up in dual-faith education programs.

Meanwhile, the publication day for Being Both is just two weeks away, and the first big box of books just arrived on my porch. As I make final preparations for the book tour, you can help spread the word by posting the Facebook event pages for the readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, and at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in New York. I’ll be continuing on to Boston, Connecticut and California. Stay tuned for more book tour stops, coming soon.

Here’s how the American Library Association’s Booklist, a resource for librarians, described Being Both last week:

Beginning with the story of her family of origin, Miller surveys the burgeoning phenomenon of families who observe two religious faiths. Her Jewish father married an Episcopalian…So began a multigenerational interfaith reality, which Susan continued as another Jew married to a Christian, this time in a ceremony that honored both religions. Four years later, the couple joined the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Washington, D.C., whose mission is to raise member families’ children as Jewish and Christian. From the members, clergy, and teachers of IFFP and similar organizations elsewhere, Miller gathered the stories of how these families successfully raised children who are happily interfaith and intend to raise interfaith children themselves. Miller concludes this fine resource with a look at the next wave of, this time, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu interfaith families.

Successful Hindu and Christian Interfaith Marriage: Saffron Cross

October 1, 2013

The Saffron Cross

What the world needs now is inspiring models for interfaith families. Because love is essential, but not sufficient. This month sees the publication of my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But I am thrilled to be sharing my publication month with two other books on interfaith families (our books were featured together recently in Publishers Weekly). Rabbi Michal Woll and Catholic writer Jon M. Sweeney are publishing Mixed-Up Love (I look forward to appearing on a panel with them in the spring). And today is the publication day for Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, a memoir by Southern Baptist minister J. Dana Trent, about her marriage to Fred Eaker, a devout Hindu.

A lively read, Saffron Cross describes how the couple met through the Christian online dating site eHarmony. We then follow Dana as she and Fred attempt to figure out how to fit their religious lives into one marriage. The couple is determined not to “water down” their respective traditions in order to find common ground. Dana and Fred live and breathe theological debate and do not shy away from addressing differences. On a trip to India to gain deeper understanding of her husband’s religion, Dana lives with Fred in a temple compound and struggles through her own doubts, culture shock, and hilarious religious blunders. She proves a humble and charming guide, even when at times she is gripped by insecurity and tears.

But the point of this book is not how hard it is to be in an interfaith marriage. Unlike books warning couples away from intermarriage, Dana celebrates the rich texture of the life she creates with Fred, and the joy they experience exploring religion together. One of the secrets to their success is the “no separate worship” rule, which they developed after considering and discarding the rather lonely alternative as the “interfaith version of segregation.” So Fred goes to church with Dana. And Dana goes to temple with Fred. Yes, this requires a lot of time and they each have to compromise, as do any two people in a marriage. But when you agree to study and celebrate and worship together, you grow together, even, and perhaps especially, when studying and celebrating and worshiping in two different religious languages. This couple is new and young, their interfaith journey just beginning. Someday, I hope Dana and Fred will write a sequel on raising their (future) interfaith children. But for now, I am grateful for a new book celebrating one of the infinite possibilities for successful interfaith marriage.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

July 29, 2013

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Ask Interfaith Mom: What About Humanist or Atheist Interfaith Families?

July 24, 2013

Dear Interfaith Mom:

We’re a family that is interfaith by heritage, but we don’t belong to any religious community. And we’re fine with that. We’re atheists, we lead a secular life, and we already have plenty of communities (through our neighborhood, schools, family and work). Why do you put so much emphasis on the importance of interfaith family communities? Not every interfaith family feels a need to commune with other interfaith families.

–Sincerely, Happy Humanist

Dear Happy Humanist,

If you have the communities you feel you need, that’s great. There is no single “solution” that is going to work for every interfaith family. Some will be fulfilled choosing one religion. Some will be just fine choosing no religion. Some families with humanist or atheist parents have traditionally found homes in Unitarian-Univeralist (UU) communities, in Ethical Culture, or in Humanistic Jewish congregations.

With the increase in interfaith marriage, and the decrease in religious affiliation (the rise of the “religious nones”), innovative new communities have been growing at the grassroots. There’s been a lot of recent media coverage of emerging atheist congregations, designed with many of the benefits provided by religious communities (singing together, reflecting together, community service and support), but without the need for God.  In fact, this idea is not new: Ethical Culture (the movement that supports Ethical Societies in many areas)  has existed since the late 19th century.

But it’s not always easy for interfaith families to find the right spiritual, religious, or humanist community, and not every community specifically addresses the issues faced by interfaith families. That’s why I spend a lot of time writing about meeting the needs of interfaith families. The major communities designed by and for interfaith families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity (in Washington, Chicago, and the New York area) include many atheist, humanist or secular parents, as well as parents with a broad array of beliefs in God. The one thing these families share is a desire to give their children an educational foundation, or literacy, in both family religions. So parents who choose these communities need to be comfortable with their children learning about different approaches to God in dual-faith Sunday Schools (while understanding that these programs never tell children what to believe).

When the school-year ends, my own interfaith families community does not meet formally for Gatherings or Sunday School. But in this endlessly hot summer, I have still felt strongly connected to this community, in the way that many people feel connected to a synagogue, temple, mosque, or church. As a group, we are bringing food weekly to one family with a parent facing cancer. Last week, our minister organized a healing service for family and friends of a young adult child in crisis. Meanwhile, our rabbi is planning High Holy Day services for early September—a time when we will return to celebrate together the Jewish roots we share (through our own parents, or through our interfaith children and grandchildren).

In short, Happy Humanist, you may not want or need this type of community. But know that there are communities (whether UU, Ethical Culture, humanist, or interfaith families communities) that would welcome you as atheists, or with any theological or non-theological label you choose, should you ever feel that you want or need us.

–Interfaith Mom

‘Til Faith Do Us Part: A Contrary View

April 2, 2013

The world needs many more books documenting interfaith marriage and interfaith children in the 21st century. However, Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a strangely pessimistic stance. The book title itself compares the inevitability of interfaith divorce to the inevitability of death. As the daughter of parents who have been happily intermarried for over 50 years, and someone who has spent decades researching this topic, I have a very different view: one that celebrates the benefits of interfaith families. What’s more, I don’t believe Riley’s doom and gloom is supported by her own data.

A few years ago, Riley wrote a piece warning against interfaith marriage in the Washington Post, and was met with strong pushback and multiple critiques. Her work is funded by various conservative organizations and foundations. Quoting notably conservative Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources, Riley seems to be trying to dissuade people from intermarrying, despite the fact that she herself married a man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.

How might conservative funding affect Riley’s perspective and conclusions? She states that interfaith couples are ignoring the challenges of intermarriage because of “our obsession with tolerance at all costs.” She claims that her survey shows that interfaith marriages are “generally more unhappy” and “often more unstable.” She then goes on to state that she would be “sorry if too many people entered into marriages that were unhappy or unstable.”

One issue is that Riley’s survey only included 44 Jews, and most of her conclusions about “interfaith” marriage are actually based on what I think should more accurately be called “interchurch” marriage. She defines black Protestants married to mainline Protestants, or mainline Protestants married to evangelical Protestants, as “interfaith.” Riley’s own survey found “no discernible difference” in divorce between intermarried and same-faith marriages overall. She did find that evangelical Christians, specifically, were more likely to divorce if married to non-evangelical Christians–an effect I attribute to inflexible fundamentalist theology, rather than the risks of interfaith marriage. Those who believe the Bible is literal truth will find it hard to be married to those who believe otherwise.

The fact that most of Riley’s “interfaith” couples were Christian/Christian couples skews her data. For instance, she writes about how few couples had clergy co-officiating at their weddings. A Christian/Christian “interchurch” couple might not feel it is necessary to have both ministers involved in a wedding. A truly interfaith couple, whether Jewish/Christian or Muslim/Hindu, would have a lot more incentive to involve both clergy members, if they can find clergy to support them.

In short, intermarried Jewish couples (or anyone in an interfaith marriage other than Christian/Christian “interchurch” couples) should hesitate before applying Riley’s conclusions to their own families. Riley found more divorce among intermarried Jews, but because her sample was so small she admits the finding is “tenuous.” To bolster her claim, she goes back to Evelyn Lehrer’s 1993 study of stability in interfaith marriages. Given the dramatic recent shifts in attitudes towards marriage (whether interfaith or gay), I am not compelled by statistics from an era twenty years ago when Jewish families were still commonly disowning children for intermarrying. In contrast, my own surveys and interviews document people in happy 21st-century Jewish and Christian interfaith marriages, supported by family, friends and clergy.

In terms of marital satisfaction, again, Riley found that the evangelical Christians were the group most unhappy in “interfaith” marriages. Those with a creed centered around being born again or saved may find it difficult to be married to anyone who does not share those concerns. No surprise there. The surprise, for me, was that Riley found that Jews actually reported being happier in interfaith marriages than in same-faith marriages, though the difference was not statistically significant because of the small number of Jews in her survey. Or, maybe I’m not surprised, given the rarity of divorce among Jewish/Christian couples in our interfaith families community.

Riley states that “those who marry outside their faith tend to take religion less seriously or lose their faith entirely.” In my research, I found the opposite effect among couples celebrating both family religions. For instance, many a Christian spouse has testified to the fact that their Jewish spouse is far more engaged with Judaism after intermarrying.

While Riley’s detailed profiles of specific (though largely anonymous) interfaith couples are a contribution to the literature, I found myself simply disagreeing with many of her conclusions. She writes that the “cultural pressures of pluralism” are “pushing people toward interfaith marriage.” In contrast, my observation is that interfaith marriage is still something we choose in spite of cultural pressures, not because of them. And I believe our “obsession with tolerance” is a good and necessary trend, not a threat.

In her conclusion, Riley writes, “There is nothing about having diverse perspectives in a marriage that will make it inherently better–in fact, it may be less likely to succeed in the long run.” I don’t believe Riley’s own statistics support that statement. My own experience, and my research on interfaith families who chose both religions, brings me to the opposite conclusion. Diverse religious perspectives can lead to deeper questioning, deeper communication, deeper empathy, deeper bonds. And happy interfaith families.

Note: This post was updated on 6/16/13 in response to various recent articles.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 304 other followers

%d bloggers like this: