Without Jesus I Could Not be a Jew

Buddha in Adobe, Lama, photo Susan Katz MillerWell, that’s not exactly true. I’m riffing on the title of a new book by theology professor and former Catholic priest Paul Knitter: Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Peter Steinfels reviewed it yesterday in The New York Times in his “Beliefs” column, calling it a “compelling example of religious inquiry.” I have asked this before and I must ask it again: why is it considered groovy and intellectual to claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Buddhism and Judaism? And why is it, at the same time, considered deeply transgressive and troubling to claim Christianity and Judaism? Sigh. The primary reason seems to be that extreme Freudian tension in the Judeo-Christian family tree leads to discord and dissonance. In contrast, Buddhism is an alluring, exotic distant cousin: we are all on our best behavior when visiting Buddhism.

I have not read Knitter’s book yet–I really do look forward to reading it. According to the column, Knitter argues for religious “double-belonging.” I am very pleased to welcome a thoughtful and daring academic as he  throws in his lot with all of us who have been in the interfaith families movement for decades, “double-belonging” without the approval of religious institutions.

Columnist Steinfels remains skeptical. He asks whether Knitter can continue to call himself a Buddhist Christian, or whether he will have to become a Christian Buddhist. No. No. No. Do not take our “both/and” state and try to force us back into “either/or” boxes. That’s the whole point. We are both, or as Knitter says, we double-belong.

Steinfels’ binary question reminded me of a seminal episode in my education at Reform Jewish Sunday School. The teacher drew a line down the center of the room and asked us to stand on one side of the line or the other, based on whether we considered ourselves Jewish Americans, or American Jews. Stringing together identities like that, listing one as a modifier of the other, requires prioritizing. Even as a child, I understood that the terms were loaded. I understood that the teacher wanted us to choose “American Jews” because Judaism was more important to her than being American. I knew the truth was that I had two religious heritages, Judaism and Christianity. And the truth was that being in America was more important to me than either of my religious identities. I was utterly paralyzed. I wanted to straddle the line. As an interfaith child, I am allergic to choosing, and I defend my right to resist categorization.

I am not a Jewish Christian. I am not a Christian Jew. I am both. I am neither. I am an interfaith American. I am springing out of those boxes, along with an entire generation of interfaith children. We are waiting for academics, and religious institutions, and journalists, to catch up with us.

12 Replies to “Without Jesus I Could Not be a Jew”

  1. The discord and dissonance between Judaism and Christianity has too much history and blood to consider it a Freudian tension. Interfaith issues are critical to the Jewish community because it is in the best interest of Jewish continuity. That’s my 2 shekels.

    Happy Simchat Torah!


  2. Start with a detail: of course temporally there’s lots of Hamlet in Freud rather than the other way around.

    Christianity is the word become flesh rather than become for those who remain Jews, well, more words. Under the Romans, Judaism encountered a fork in the road and Jews took it. Some went one way and for them and the non-Jews who joined them, Torah was supplanted by Jesus of the Gospels and the Church. Most (I understand) went another way, a path along which Temple Judaism was transformed into rabbinic Judaism as built out in the Talmud and commentaries and codifications. (Many Jews were destroyed regardless which way they would have gone.)

    It is deeply transgressive and troubling to claim Christianity and Judaism for believing Jews because as a religion, Christianity avers to supplant Judaism, in particular, the texts that define religious and ethical Judaism, replacing those foundations with worship of a god who is anything but the ineluctable Jewish god.

    On the other hand, if you’re not much concerned with the religious orthodoxies, you’re not going find a whole lot of discord.


  3. Seth–
    Great substantive comment, and important history. None of the Christian clergy I interact with (let alone the Christian friends) has any desire or intention to supplant “the texts that define religious and ethical Judaism.” In fact, they hold them as precious. But no, I am not the least bit interested in orthodoxy. An Orthodox Jew would tell me I’m not the slightest bit Jewish despite learning Hebrew, having a Bat Mitzvah, and having more Jewish knowledge and experience than many of my “Jewish” friends. So the discussion kind of ends there for me in terms of orthodoxy.

    A growing segment of the American population has shifted away from religious institutions and dogma of any kind, let alone a particular “orthodoxy” (which shifted over time in response to history and wasn’t encoded until the time of Ezra anyway if you’re talking about halacha, so a somewhat random snapshot). Look at the flip-flop in Judaism from patrilineality in Biblical times to matrilineality. I’m descended from a Kohein–what could be more patrilineal than that? But it’s cancelled out by my “broken” maternal line. The system is not coherent or logical enough to compel me to conform to it, nor is it in my interest to do so if I want to retain some Jewish identity, which I do. It’s very inconvenient of me. But I am by no means alone at this point, in fact, I believe I will soon represent the majority (mixed blood Jews) in this.


  4. I really enjoy your questions, Susan, partly because I feel challenged by them. The tension between Judaism and Christianity can be so fraught with peril, as you know. But I think it’s important to explore the spiritual dimension of these practices and belief systems – to go beyond the particulars, which are, I guess, ultimately somewhat irrelevant. I’ve chosen Judaism as my personal faith system, but truly believe everyone must follow the path that works for them – it is not my place to decide for someone else what that might look like – I believe every spiritual path or set of technologies is a means to an end (connecting us to God) rather than an end in itself. As for Jesus, my understanding is that he lived right in the middle of the development of the Talmud, or perhaps at the early end of it, some 200 years after Judah HaNasi put the Oral Law in writing, if I have my dates straight – Jesus was very much a product of Talmudic Judaism, it seems to me – it is no accident that he taught about love, kindness, compassion, and generosity. We are all children of God. The biggest conflict I see is the belief that Jesus was an incarnation of divinity, which Jews don’t believe…and also the idea that he could atone for our sins, which as you know, Jews also don’t believe – we have to make amends and return to God on our own – no one can do it for us. So I guess what I’m curious about is what you take from each faith tradition. What does Christianity give you? Buddhism is different, in that it doesn’t seem to be in direct conflict with core Jewish or Christian beliefs, at least as far as I know. At the end of the day, regardless, I would hope we all strive to live our lives in such a way as to create a more loving world. (Did you read “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes”? It’s really good.)

  5. A few somewhat related comments:

    The Buddha did not concern himself with questions of whether or not there was a god (or gods). This allows Buddhism to sidestep a number of interfaith controversies.

    I am certain that many (though of course not all) Christian & Jewish leaders would consider Buddhism entirely incompatible with their beliefs and would prefer to point people toward meditation practices within their own religion or denomination thereof.

    To me the tension comes out of the fact that, at least in the US and Europe, Christians and Jews have a history of defining themselves in opposition to each other ~ partly around questions of “who is God really?” Then based on what the answer is, there are different answers for who really are “the chosen people” (substitute saved if you like).

    Here in the South, there are similar tensions between Christian denominations, where this one argues that that one is not going to Heaven. You allude to similar tensions within Judaism, where you are not considered a Jew by some Orthodox Jews. I could point to countless religious and non-religious examples of people trying to draw lines in the sand – who belongs in here with me and who is Other?

    I suspect there may be similar identity struggles between Jews and Muslims, or Christians and Muslims. What about Hindus and Muslims? Evangelical Christians and Unitarian Universalists, even! I wonder what Interfaith kids from those unions struggle with in terms of identity? ? ?

    So many things to ponder. . .interesting discussion – thanks for prompting it, Sue and others!

  6. Hi Sue,

    Powerful post, and I’m right there with you. I’m all for the double-belonging. I laughed when I read your comment about being on our best behavior when visiting Buddhism. This is a popular field of inquiry, where Western and Eastern teachings intersect. I blogged about this very thing and wanted to share, if I may:


    You might also enjoy this one I wrote about getting to know the Jewish Jesus as a means to growing closer to him, to Judaism, and to my wife:


    Again, this was a great post, another wonderfully open discussion of your feelings and full of insight and honesty. Thanks for sharing.



  7. Doug–Please get back to blogging on your fabulous site so I can start commenting there! In the meantime, so glad to have your wisdom as part of this discussion.

    Sharron–So glad to have you sharing your deep experience with three different faiths. I know Ju-Bu’s have the whole argument about how Buddhism can be practiced simultaneously with Judaism because there isn’t a conflict over God, per se. Couldn’t squeeze that in to the original post.

    I think you’re absolutely right about the line in the sand, and defining the Other. I’m going to dance on that line until it disappears in the sand. Folks raised with only one religion have to work through a lot of fear of the Other and have trouble reaching a deep understanding of the positive aspects of the inevitable disappearance of those lines.

    RE: Struggle. My hope and belief is that interfaith children of all sorts will not have to struggle the way those in our generation did. They have demographics in their favor. And we are preparing the way for them by educating religious institutions about who we are, and by creating spaces and communities where they will be not only welcome, but in charge.


  8. So your comments, Sue, suddenly brought back a flood of conversations I had when I was in college. One of my women’s studies professors was also an interfaith kid, and she was the first person who framed it for me as a positive – how we always can see more than one side of the issue, because we belong and don’t belong in two different camps. I’m remembering loads of reading I did of Black Women Writers (that was the name of a really popular class @ GU) who talked about being insider / outsiders. Also, I had a friend who studied World Literature @ UC Santa Cruz ~ she took a class on “Border Literature.” Those folks deal with the same issues we interfaith kids do. Funny to see it all coming together here in this discussion of “who is the Other?” Perhaps similar to the scorn that bisexuals sometimes face among folks who define their sexuality in more polar terms? All good food for thought. Keep writing!

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