My Interfaith Son: The Bar Mitzvah and Coming of Age
My son chanted from the Torah with a new silk tallit (a Jewish prayershawl) draped around his shoulders last Saturday, flanked by two rabbis, and my 86-year-old father—his only Jewish grandparent.
Yes, we have chutzpah. We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because his Judaism is patrilineal. We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because he has been educated in both of his family religions—Judaism and Christianity.
We listened respectfully to everyone who told us what a Bar Mitzvah should or should not include, and then we made our own decisions, and chose our own labels.
Our boy is becoming a man, not just as a Jew, but as a whole person, with an exuberantly complex and rich set of traditions. So this coming-of-age ceremony, from our perspective as an interfaith family raising our children in an interfaith community, needed to acknowledge and celebrate both his Jewish and Christian heritage. Preparing the way over the past year, together with my son, my daughter, my husband, two rabbis and a minister, confirmed for me, once again, that we are on a pathway that can inspire deep spirituality. We feel whole, as a family, and as a community, honoring both religions at this tender moment of transition in my son’s life.
So, we included the Torah reading, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah, the mourner’s Kaddish. We drew on the Shabbat theme of Shalom, of peace. My daughter, the proud big sister, led us in the haunting traditional Reform melody of “Oseh Shalom.” We sang a klezmer rendition (complete with sax and clarinet) of another peace song, “Lo Yisa Goy” (from the Biblical verse about beating swords into ploughshares). And when my son led a procession around the congregation holding the Torah, we clapped along to “It is a Tree of Life” with the refrain of “Shabbat Shalom” (Sabbath Peace).
All of this might have happened at any Bar Mitzvah. But then, an uncle, who is studying for the Episcopal priesthood, read from the gospel of Mark, from the passage in which the young Jesus affirms the importance of the central prayers of Judaism, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah. Our rabbi then reflected on this passage. Both Christian grandmothers gave readings. And we had two Christian hymns related to the environmental theme of my son’s Torah portion. One hymn was led by a band composed of one Sufi raised Christian, one agnostic Jew, one Buddhist Jew and one pastor’s daughter who prefers Judaism. My Jewish father pounded out the other hymn on the grand piano.
It was my husband who came up with the idea of asking the minister to give her final blessing during a “laying on of hands,” in which every person in the room connected to the people around them, and ultimately to our son. While this ritual may be most familiar to Christians, from both ordination of clergy and confirmation of adolescents, it has roots in Judaism. In Genesis, Jacob lays hands on his grandsons as he blesses them, and Jewish parents bless their children on Shabbat, placing hands on their heads as they do so. In our version, both grandmothers, but also both rabbis and the minister, reached out to connect with our son, initiating what ended up as a giant, group hug. So what may have seemed to some like a startling Christian element grafted on to a Bar Mitzvah, to us felt like a completely appropriate acknowledgement of the echoes and synergies in the sibling relationship between these two Abrahamic faiths.
We are neither forging a third religion, nor cowering safely in a “Kumbaya” common ground. We acknowledge the angular differences between our two religions, in the delicate politics of including Jesus in the ceremony, and in the arduous hours my son spent learning how to read the cantillation marks that guide the ancient melodies for chanting from the Torah. Our ceremony honored the shared space, but also the particularities.
On the day itself, I managed to stop worrying about balance and inclusion, and to be in the moment, feeling the love of all who were there as they shared this peak experience in our interfaith journey. Afterwards, non-Jewish friends and family remarked wistfully that they envy the Jewish tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. This week, we claimed that tradition for our interfaith son, as we did for our daughter three years ago.
We have so much to celebrate. We celebrate our son’s arrival at physical adulthood, his desire for independence, his readiness for mature responsibilities, and his years of study in the religions inherited from both sides of his family. We celebrate him as a full member of our interfaith community, and as someone ready to make informed decisions about his own religious future. How often will he use his new tallit? Or his uncle’s gift of an Episcopal hymnal? He may continue to use both, or neither. None of us can know where life will lead our children. Children grow up, and make their own choices, whether they are interfaith children or monofaith children. All we can do is prepare them with love, and with deep knowledge of our own traditions. And that is what we have done.