Intermarried, Interfaith, Intercultural, Interschminter?

Posted November 30, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, Interfaith children, interfaith families, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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Interfaith Rings, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

This week, the (Jewish Daily) Forward published my opinion piece on why we should move away from the term “intermarried” to describe interfaith families. I have strong opinions on this topic. You can click below to read my four main arguments (plus a bunch of cranky comments of the “you’re not even Jewish” or “interschminter” variety).

http://forward.com/opinion/355358/4-reasons-we-should-stop-calling-people-intermarried/

The response to the essay has been interesting. Many in the Jewish community have been quick to defend the use of “intermarriage.” One of the main points they argue is that “interfaith” doesn’t seem like the right language at a time when secularism is on the rise. I understand this, and I understand why some people prefer “intercultural” to “interfaith.” Clearly, we need to keep looking for the right language to describe our families, and our identities, in the 21st century. But I stand firm in my opposition to “intermarriage” and I wish more readers would respond to my critique of the use of this term.

Meanwhile, of those who have read my essay and did not grow up Jewish, virtually none of them think of these marriages as “intermarriages”–indeed they find the term awkward and uncomfortable. I believe that’s because the term “intermarriage” is tied to a long history of worrying about, excluding, sitting shiva for, and castigating those in interfaith families for their choices. It clearly marks those who use “intermarriage” as representing one side, one culture, one religion. In contrast, 21st century interfaith (or intercultural or interreligious) families refuse to be labeled solely in reference to their relationship to Judaism. They may have relationships with both family religions. Or they may have left behind both family religions completely. In either case, they do not see themselves as one partner who married “out” and one partner who married “in,” but rather as full partners, and therefore as equals.

What do you think?

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller

Kol Nidre… at Old St. Patrick’s Church

Posted November 27, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Catholicism, interfaith communities, interfaith education, interfaith families, interfaith family communities, Interfaith films, Judaism

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Every November, I find myself thinking about how to sustain the inspiration many of us find at annual interfaith Thanksgiving services. Right now, more than ever, we must look for ways to support and connect with each other across religious divides. So today, I am delighted to bring you this essay from guest bloggers David Kovacs and Steve Ordower. –SKM

It was a Sunday Mass at Old St. Pat’s. The city’s oldest public building (it survived the Chicago Fire), this downtown Chicago Roman Catholic Church has a 160-year history of hospitality, welcoming generations of immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere. Today its diverse parishioners come from over 200 zip codes. And for almost 30 years, Old St. Pat’s has welcomed interfaith families.

As always, worship began with the penitential rite, a shared meditative moment of confession. But this time, the music heard was Kol Nidre.

In two days, it would be the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when this haunting melody would touch Jews around the world. Rabbi Ari Moffic joined Father Pat McGrath to offer a blessing. She introduced the meaning of Kol Nidre as she invited 800 people to share the moment together. “It was profoundly spiritual,” she reflected. “For Catholics, it was a deeply meaningful way to experience that penitential part of the Mass. And for interfaith families, they could interweave these parts of their lives and their heritages through this music that’s part of their hearts and souls.”

We captured this remarkable event in a new Leaps of Faiths video. This project is a true “Leap” for us – we’re creating a documentary about interfaith families, the choices they make, and their hopes for their kids and their spiritual lives together. Our film will respect any choice a family makes regarding their home and religious life, while taking a closer look at what happens for those who decide to “do both.” Over a generation, we’ve seen they can raise children who grow up far from confused; indeed many often develop deep connections to one or both faith traditions. St. Pat’s has become a spiritual home to many of them: a Catholic community where Judaism is valued and honored, liturgically and educationally. Much of our footage is from the Chicago Interfaith Family School, hosted by St. Pat’s and run by interfaith families whose children grow though grades K-8 learning both faiths, taught by their parents.

Another arc of our story is what happens when clergy regularly co-officiate. Father John Cusick and Rabbi Chava Bahle led the first Kol Nidre experience at Old St. Pat’s a few years ago. For many years at St. Pat’s, under the leadership of Pastors Jack Wall and Tom Hurley, and at some Chicago area synagogues, rabbis and priests have often stood side-by-side. They have led worship experiences and celebrated sacraments and rites of passage. As they make interfaith families feel welcome, they also enhance these experiences for Jews and Christians together, breaking down divisions in polarized times. As one parishioner said after praying to the melody of Kol Nidre, “The way the world is going, this is what we need. Seeing this it gives me a little bit more hope.”

We hear her voice in the video, along with clergy, interfaith parents, and kids, reflecting about the experience. “There is a fear that if a family wants to raise children with a dual faith identity that their children will be confused about an authentic Jewish expression,” says Rabbi Moffic. “Interfaith education programs like the Family School and worship experiences like this show that these families want Judaism in their lives in real ways and seek it out. It’s incumbent upon Jewish leaders to support and foster that.”

Susan Katz Miller has been our friend for many years and will be another voice in our film. The Family School, the Interfaith Families Project in Washington D.C., and the Interfaith Community in the New York Metro area all started more than 20 years ago, and all are dedicated to the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children. More recently, the Interfaith Union School was established in suburban Chicago. We’ve learned from each other, cheering each other on as we’ve all grown.

We share the concerns Susan describes in her recent post about “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage” – a study by researchers at Brandeis University.  Like Rabbis Moffic and Bahle, we were puzzled by its conclusion providing “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.”

From our experience, first impressions mean a lot. What are Christian partners to think of the religion they are marrying into if it will not allow their own faith tradition to be represented at their wedding? And indeed, if a wedding is a day but a marriage is a lifetime, should the question of co-officiating be limited to a single moment? What can a more open-minded approach do for these couples as their families grow?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll raise in the film. We hope you’ll enjoy this video and the others on our website – please share them with friends. If you like our facebook page, or subscribe to our youtube channel, you’ll get word of new videos as we release them. And if you would consider donating to help make the dream of this project a reality, we would love to add your name to our growing list of supporters. In this season of Thanksgiving, we are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received, and look forward to telling the kinds of stories so many of us share.

David Kovacs and Steve Ordower are the co-producers of Leaps of Faiths, and also interfaith parents from the Family School. David and his wife Patty are one of the school’s founding families.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Pioneer: Rabbi Joseph Rauch

Posted November 23, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith dialogue, interfaith education, Judaism

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adathisraelbulletin

Yesterday, I drove my father to the house where he was born, for our annual Thanksgiving gathering. I woke early this morning and started sifting through old photos and letters. I kept returning to one yellowed pamphlet: the November 1952 bulletin from Temple Adath Israel in Louisville, Kentucky. The bulletin provides a snapshot of the community led by Rabbi Joseph Rauch, who was my great-uncle, and a pioneer in interfaith relations. Reading through this bulletin from a Thanksgiving season 64 years ago, I began to understand how extraordinary his work was, even by the standards of today. And right about now, in this very dark season in America, seems a good time to study how he went about weaving the social fabric.

But first, a little Jewish geography. My grandmother, Aimee Helen Rosenfelder, was born in Louisville, the youngest daughter of Rabbi Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder. Her sister Corinne married the brilliant young Rabbi Joseph Rauch, but she died very young. Uncle Joe (as my father called him) then married my grandmother’s other sister, Etta. So Uncle Joe married two of my grandmother’s sisters. He never had children, but my father–his nephew–spent the spring or summer of each year in Louisville, living in a great house with his many aunts and uncles, including Uncle Joe and Aunt Etta.

Joseph Rauch was a luminary in the progressive Jewish world. He was on the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, president of the Hebrew Union College Alumni Association, and a founder of the World Union of Liberal Judaism. But beyond the Jewish world, he used his pulpit to advocate broadly for social justice and interfaith education. He took the unusual step of obtaining a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is credited with helping to desegregate the Louisville library system, and he was an original panelist, alongside Christian clergy, on “The Moral Side of the News,’ which remains one of the longest-running public affairs programs in broadcast history.

 

rabbijosephrauch

Rabbi Joseph Rauch

The November 1952 temple bulletin I happened to find today in a shoebox is a testament to his interfaith work, and contains the following rather remarkable items:

  • A report that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth services at Adath Israel aired on Louisville television stations.
  • A thank you letter from the local Methodist church for welcoming over 100 church members to a Sukkoth celebration at the temple.
  • A proposal by Dr. Rauch (as he was known to his congregation) and one Sister Clara Frances to rename an alley that passes behind the temple, Nazareth College, First Unitarian Church, and Calvary Episcopal Church. The name they proposed: Interfaith Lane.
  • An invitation to join Dr. Rauch for a weekly adult education series in November including the following topics: “Introduction to the Religions of the World,” “Your and My Religion,” “How Much of it do we Share with Christians,” and “How Much of it do we Share with Mohammedans.”
  • An address by a University of Louisville exchange student from India, Naresh Shah.
  • Dr. Rauch’s recent addresses at four different Protestant churches.
  • Regular sermon topics, including “Religion in the public schools,” and “We need a world Thanksgiving.”
  • A detailed curriculum for the children’s religious education program at the temple, including an entire course on “Comparative Religion.”

In the midst of the current season of interfaith Thanksgiving services, this little bulletin speaks of a deeper level of interfaith engagement, a level we urgently need now. We need entire congregations welcoming each other, not just once a year, but on a regular basis. We need more interfaith education for all adults, and for all our children. We need to work together, to protect this vision of intellectual engagement and mutual support across religious lines.

josephrauchplaque

A Rabbi, a Minister, a Wedding

Posted November 7, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith marriage

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interlocking-rings-brooch

Thirty years ago, a rabbi and a minister co-officiated at my interfaith wedding. My husband and I felt strongly that both of our religions should be represented at this moment when we came together to form a family. It wasn’t easy to find a rabbi who would support us and celebrate our marriage with us in this way. Few rabbis did interfaith marriages, and even fewer would co-officiate with a minister. Many rabbis who would officiate tried to extract a promise about how the future children would be raised.

At the time, my family’s rabbi flatly refused to officiate at my marriage. My mother had to work all kinds of underground networks to find a rabbi willing to marry us. There was a risk that we would end up with a “sole officiant,” and that sole officiant would have been my husband’s beloved cousin, a minister.

I have seen progress in the Jewish communities in the intervening 30 years on many issues relating to interfaith families. Unfortunately, there is still tremendous pressure from Jewish institutions to force interfaith couples onto an “exclusively Jewish” pathway by putting conditions on the rabbi’s involvement at weddings. Ironically, some couples that want co-officiation would actually be willing to promise to give their future children an “exclusively” Jewish education and home. They simply want the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu) partner’s whole self to be acknowledged at the wedding, almost as a parting gift.

Recently, at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit organized by InterfaithFamily, researchers from Brandeis University presented new findings from a report entitled “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage.” Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok write that their study provides “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” They conclude that interfaith marriage may not be “devastating vis-a-vis the Jewish future.” But co-officiation is lumped in with Christian clergy officiation and secular officiation, with the result that the study is being interpreted as a call for rabbis to stick to sole officiation.

However, readers must resist the urge to assume that this report supports the idea that a wedding with a rabbi as a sole officiant somehow creates a more Jewish family than a wedding officiated by a rabbi and another clergy member. Beyond the greater philosophical and theological issues of what it means to be a Jewish family, or a “Jewish and” family, one must look at the context and assumptions made in producing this report.

First, as with previous reports from this group at the Cohen Center, the sample was drawn entirely from Jewish applicants to Birthright (the free trip to Israel for young people), so it excluded young people who would not or did not apply to Birthright for a wide range of political, theological, and sociological reasons. For instance, the Birthright website states that applicants must have “at least one Jewish birth parent” or have converted. A young person from the fast-growing demographic with only one Jewish grandfather, even if they identify as Jewish, is excluded. So, any result of this ongoing study cannot be said to apply to all interfaith couples, but only to interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner applied to Birthright, which is a strongly skewed subset of young Jewish people in interfaith marriages.

Second, the context here is that interfaith couples seeking officiants are often rejected by rabbis if they do not acquiesce to a list of conditions. (Less than a quarter of the interfaith couples in the Brandeis study had a sole Jewish officiant, and only 5% had co-officiants from two religions). First, many rabbis refuse to co-officiate. And even if the couple agrees to sole officiation by a rabbi, some rabbis will only perform the marriage if the couple agrees to raise future children in a “Jewish home” and withhold any interfaith education.

So those who end up with sole officiation are already a skewed sample of couples who have agreed to prioritize Judaism. It follows that of course they are going to have closer Jewish institutional ties—not because sole officiation by a rabbi magically makes them more Jewish, but because couples who want to acknowledge the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu, or secular humanist) partner in the wedding have been alienated. The authors write, “…it is clear that future research should explore what happens when a rabbi or cantor refuses to marry an intermarrying couple.” That is, indeed, very clear.

I asked two rabbis with extensive experience with interfaith families about how they see these officiation issues. “I have married many interfaith couples who are excited to meet with their local rabbi and join a congregation only to find out that that rabbi will only perform an interfaith wedding if the couple promises to raise exclusively Jewish children,” says Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. “Even if this couple intends to have only Judaism in the home with no religious Christianity, it is a turn-off. It is a turn-off because it seems to be based out of fear and a feeling of us-verse-them and this doesn’t feel comfortable considering that they have Christian family members who they love and who they want involved in their whole lives.”

Rabbi Moffic explains why she supports these interfaith couples. “These couples are hoping to connect with clergy who understand the beautiful messiness of modern families, and the layers and blending and dynamics that exist and how families are doing their best to pass on the traditions, customs and values that have been meaningful to them, to the next generation,” she explains. “But they are also trying to be respectful of their whole family including their partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism. They’re looking for clergy who will embrace an interfaith couple who does want Judaism in their lives and wants learning and social justice and holiday celebrations and Shabbat practices. They are looking for rabbis who also don’t cast judgment and set tests for couples to pass, which leads to ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ and people feeling shameful about the decisions they are making. If we stop with this ‘sole Jewish officiant’ and exclusive Judaism and understand couples are doing their best and aiming for shalom bayit (peace in the home) it will feel so much more affirming and realistic.”

Rabbi Chava Bahle describes it as a privilege to co-officiate with other clergy at interfaith marriages. “My lived experience is that meeting my intercultural couples where they are–whether I am a solo or co-officiant with Christian clergy—and helping them in whatever way they engage with Judaism has been very sweet for everyone involved, even relatives who weren’t so sure. I would suggest a study in which we ask where these folk find their meaning, and how we might invite them to dialogue with us. They have extremely important things to say to us, not only hear from us.”

For my husband and I, meeting with a rabbi and a minister before marriage, and having them work together with us on the wedding service, did not keep us from wanting to give our children bonds to Judaism. To the contrary, meeting a rabbi who was willing to respect my husband’s Protestant heritage and work in partnership with a minister inspired us, and inspired the family and friends who attended our backyard wedding in 1987. We appreciated the faith and confidence and bravery that rabbi displayed in agreeing to co-officiate at our wedding. And his act of supportive chutzpah played into our determination to ensure that our children celebrated Jewish holidays beyond Hanukkah, became b’nai mitzvot, and felt empowered to claim Jewish identity in the 21st century.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Families in the Jewish World

Posted October 28, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith children, interfaith education, interfaith families, Interfaith Identity, Judaism

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Philadelphia Sukkah, Leslie Sudock

 

How are interfaith families creating a new Jewish reality in America? That was the theme at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in Philadelphia this week, organized by InterfaithFamily. The summit was attended by some 350 Jewish leaders: rabbis, Jewish educators, leading academics who study Judaism in America, and Jewish funders. I was honored to be invited to speak there about interfaith families celebrating both family religions.

I had just five minutes, and touched on these points:

  • 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith relationships are raising children both, or “partially Jewish.” That’s more than the 20% raising interfaith children “Jewish only” by religion (Pew 2013). So the number of Jewish parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children is significant, and growing.
  • These “doing both” families want to engage with Judaism. So please engage with them, rather than excluding them from Jewish education because they also want interfaith education, or ignoring them with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the other religion in their lives.
  • Interfaith families doing both already exist in many Jewish communities. So the question is not whether you should include them, but how to acknowledge their presence, engage with them, and learn from them.
  • Rather than always asking about the difficulties and challenges, be open to hearing about the joys in interfaith families. Think about how your community can benefit from interfaith families as highly skilled bridge-builders and peacemakers.
  • Jewish leaders would benefit from working hand-in-hand with clergy from other religions to support interfaith families, rather than competing for souls.
  • Nothing about us without us! We need more adult interfaith children involved in organizing these conferences, speaking on the panels, telling our own stories, and shifting the frame into the reality of the present. That means listening not only to adult interfaith children who claim “just Jewish” identities, but also to those who have complex, fluid, flexible, intersectional “Jewish and” identities, including people who are multiple religious practitioners.

These messages echo my New York Times Op-Ed, published when my book Being Both, and the Pew Report on Jewish Americans, came out simultaneously in 2013. What has changed three years later is that now I am in touch with Jewish leaders from across the country who are working with “doing both” families, who feel less conflicted about the idea, and who see the logic of including rather than excluding people who want to be part of the greater Jewish community.

Going forward, it is clear that interfaith parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children are going to play a larger role in the Jewish world. The next question is which of the Jewish funding organizations at the summit will be visionary enough to invest in helping clergy, educators, seminaries, and Jewish communities to engage with this new reality. I stand ready to help, as a guide and interpreter, and as someone who has been thinking about these issues for a lifetime now.

(For more on the summit, see my tweets from the day on Storify here)

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A Death in My Interfaith Family

Posted October 23, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, interfaith families, Interfaith grandparents, Judaism

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martha-legg-katz-1961

Mom, Me, 1961

My mother, Martha Legg Katz, died last month. I have been uncharacteristically quiet here, in public, since she fell ill in the heat of August. When she died in September at home–my childhood home–I stood in the driveway watching the full moon rise behind a scrim of tall New England pines. Now it is October and the full moon has come and gone again. And so it feels like it is time to return to all of you.

In Judaism, there are special rules for shiva, the first seven days after the burial, and for  shloshim, the first thirty days. These rules help to insulate the mourner from the banality and hectic nature of the casual world, and help us figure out how to eventually emerge from the fog of grief and go on with life. Some of these rules–let your hair grow wild, wear old clothes–make sense to me in a primal way, and seem comforting. Others–no music, no luxurious baths–seem harsh and frankly counter-intuitive.

I do not feel bound by any of these rules, although I find them fascinating and in some cases helpful. Of course, my mother was not Jewish. She married a Jewish man, stopped going to church, raised Jewish children. Often alone on this journey in the 1960s and 70s, inventing as she went along, she created a role for herself as a pioneering interfaith spouse and parent.

My book, Being Both, opens with my mother baptizing me in the kitchen sink. The story of her successful interfaith marriage inspired my work, threads through my book, and comes up in every talk or workshop I give on interfaith families. The epic love between my parents has resonated with people around the country and the world who never met my mother in person. And so, although I have no great desire to mourn in public, I feel I have to acknowledge this immense transition in my life with public words, before I can really go on with writing about anything else.

Medieval scholar Maimonides traces shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, to Deuteronomy 21:13. In this passage, soldiers are commanded to allow a captive woman to “bewail her father and her mother a full month” before taking her as a wife. Here, the pain of mourning is compounded by the context of war—a context found in many ancient religious texts, all written by men. As a bereaved daughter, I do find poignant the brief pause in mayhem to acknowledge the depth of grief a daughter would have for lost parents. It is also interesting to note that this passage points to the ongoing intimate relations–in war and peace–between the tribes of Israel and neighboring tribes.

But, returning to 21st century America, I have been figuring out how to bewail the loss of my mother in the context of a contemporary interfaith family. As with any life cycle event in our family, that means thinking deeply about which Jewish practices and which Christian practices hold meaning for us. We get to decide how to intertwine them, while respecting the history of each, and also celebrating the reality of our successful interfaith family.

For us, this has meant balancing a desire to meet the needs of my Jewish father, the principal mourner, with the desire to honor my Protestant mother. As always with interfaith families, the way we layer or weave together two sets of rituals will look different for each family. For my father, burying my mother in his family’s Jewish cemetery was essential, so that is what we did. We embraced the Jewish idea of a closed wooden casket without metal fittings as resonant with environmental principles important to me and to my siblings. And we chose the Jewish ritual of watching the casket lowered into the grave, in order to experience the reality of burial, rather than leaving the cemetery while the casket is still above ground, as is common at Christian burials. Our brief graveside service culminated with saying Kaddish, because most of the graveside mourners were from my large and very close Jewish family–the family that embraced my mother 56 years ago when she married my father.

At the same time, it would have been clear to any observer that day that we are an interfaith family, not simply a Jewish family. Although traditionally there is no music at a Jewish burial, we began our service with an a cappella Protestant hymn—albeit one that was included in Reform Judaism’s Union Prayer Book. The family members at the graveside included an Episcopal priest, and three Catholic grandchildren who are altar servers. And various in-laws arranged for Catholic masses to be said in memory of my mother, at The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Illinois, and at Saint Peter’s in Rome. All this, both the Jewish and Christian ways of remembering her, would have pleased my mother greatly. A comparative religion major, she loved the ritual, and the mystery, of all our family traditions.

I find it encouraging that some interfaith family funerals now include Jewish and Christian clergy co-officiating. But we chose to have neither a rabbi nor a minister. Jewish tradition does not require clergy for a burial (or for a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, for that matter). Having a rabbi preside when my mother was not Jewish did not seem right. On the other hand, having a minister preside in a Jewish cemetery when my Jewish father was the principal mourner did not seem right either. And having both, and negotiating their roles, seemed like too much for our brief graveside ritual. So I led the service myself. I think this, too, would have pleased my mother. As an interfaith family, I believe we are called on to build bridges of peace in life, and even in death.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Posted October 3, 2016 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: holidays in interfaith families, interfaith communities, interfaith families, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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Over the past seven years, in some of my over 300 posts, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM

 

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, we have the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who spent 40 years in a Jesuit environment at Georgetown University. Recently, he shared some interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language. None of this is easy, but it is still essential experiential education for any family connected to Judaism. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides deep comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

 

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.


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