The many Jewish holidays of autumn have concluded with Hanukkah, and winter now provides a time for interfaith families to connect to Christian relatives and traditions. Even if raised Jewish, or as atheists or humanists, many interfaith children will celebrate the secular, or Pagan, aspects of Christmas: the sparks of light and gold in the darkest season, the sweetness of gingerbread, the bright warmth of holly and peppermint, the scent and promise of evergreens.
In interfaith families like ours, raising children with both religions, this is a season for educating our children about the religious meaning of Advent and Christmas while celebrating our family’s Christian heritage. This year, the season began with a momentous occasion: my husband’s brother was ordained as an Episcopal priest. My husband is the great-grandson of an Episcopal Bishop of Newark; his uncle is also an Episcopal priest. My mother, too, was raised as an Episcopalian. While Jews think of religion as a birthright, Christians are more likely to believe that religion requires adherence to a creed. And yet, clearly, the existence of Christian family history and culture, and attendance at family weddings and funerals in churches, has a formative effect on interfaith children, whatever religious beliefs they discover in themselves, whichever religions they decide to practice or not to practice in adulthood.
And so it was that I found myself part of an extended family in a glorious 19th-century Gothic cathedral recently, celebrating this ordination. As an interfaith child, I claim cathedrals. Though raised Jewish, I had an early epiphany about the power of cathedrals at Chartres, and another at a concert at Saint John the Divine in New York, and yet another at the otherworldly modern Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Gaudi in Barcelona. I find inspiration in the soaring symmetries, the secret nooks, the historical and theological symbolism, and the superb music.
As the ordination service began, the organist played the “Wachet auf!” (Sleepers Awake!) theme from a Bach cantata, and I felt deep pleasure. Is this because my (Jewish) father still plays Bach at age 89? Or because I grew up listening to the lowbrow but irresistible pop jazz version by the Swingle Singers of “Wachet auf!” in the 1960s? And resonating too, is the fact that at a family Bat Mitzvah just the week before, my cousin the violinist played another Bach cantata, commonly referred to as Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Is it even possible to completely disentangle Jewish and Christian culture, in my life, in my family, in general?
As an interfaith child who was raised in and still claims Judaism as my religion, I do not take communion in the Episcopal Church. But nevertheless, I felt awe and joy at this ordination. I felt enveloped by the superb choir, I harmonized with family on the hymns, I pondered the mysterious verses from Isaiah about a six-winged seraph. Through art and music and poetry in this setting, I felt connected to both my Middle Eastern and European ancestors: to ancient Judaism and to early Christianity, to the darkness of the Middle Ages, and the glory of the Renaissance.
At the heart of the ordination came swinging incense, the Bishop with his ornate crosier, the vestment, anointment, and the ancient ritual of laying on of hands: all to mark a sacred moment. For me, the moment is indeed sacred: a celebration of the decision of the ordinands to devote their lives to the spiritual care and comfort of those in need and and to creating more sacred spaces, sacred moments, in which I hope to share. The way I see it, believing that this moment is sacred does not require me to have any particular belief about the divinity of Jesus, or divinity in general. I claim this moment as part of my inheritance as an interfaith child, and as a human being who responds to the transcendence of cathedrals.
Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.