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.

The First Synagogue in the New World

My kids hate museums, or so they claim. My daughter, 15, says she doesn’t like the way the objects are taken out of context, isolated and pinned to white walls like butterfly specimens.

So on our trip to Brazil last month, I only dragged them through one museum: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, commemorating the site where the first synagogue in the Americas was built around 1636. As an interfaith parent, I could not resist the opportunity to weave this thread of Jewish history into our lives.

When we lived in Brazil in the 1990’s, archaeologists had just uncovered evidence of the synagogue’s location—a mikvah, or ritual bath, made of stone. My children were less than four and one when we left the city of Recife after living there for three years.  By the time we returned last month, twelve years had gone by and a museum had grown up around the mikvah, which is now covered with clear plastic so that you can walk over it and peer down in.

The museum chronicles how Jews arrived in northeastern Brazil with the Portuguese explorers and played a key role in the thriving colonial sugarcane plantations in northeastern Brazil under Dutch rule, until the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654 and imposed the Inquisition. Some Jews fleeing Recife ended up in New York, where they founded the first congregation in the city, Shearith Israel.

The museum is modest–the mikvah is about all that is left from the original building. A new synagogue now crowns the building, and I felt the deep satisfaction of connecting my children to another synagogue that plays a role, no matter how small, in our family chronicle. For an hour, they absorbed another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. And I was satisfied to inject an hour of thinking about Judaism into our celebration of the boisterous pagan and Catholic Sao Joao (Saint John) festival–two weeks filled with bonfires, fireworks and dancing.

After patiently touring the Synagogue and Museum, my children stepped back out onto the street, beneath a canopy of fluttering Sao Joao flags and lanterns. On the map of Recife, this street is marked the Rua do Bom Jesus: the Street of Good Jesus. But I know, and now my children will never forget, that the first name for this street was the Rua dos Judeus: the Street of Jews.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.

“How Can You Be Both? What About Jesus?”

I didn’t grow up with Jesus. My parents raised us as Jews, and the topic never came up at our dinner table. So no, I don’t believe Jesus is my personal savior. So you could call me a Jew who is particularly knowledgeable about Christianity. Or you could call me a Unitarian I guess. But go and ask ten of your Christian-born friends if they believe that Jesus is their personal savior. If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to make an educated guess that most of you born or raised Christian think of Jesus as a role model, an important historical figure, a revolutionary rabbi, an inexplicable mystery, or even an inspiring myth. Or as the son of God, in the sense that we are all sons and daughters of God. All of which works for me just fine. It is rare that I find I actually disagree on theological grounds with the Christians in my circle of family and friends.

It wasn’t until I came of age, and got safely through my Bat Mitzvah, that I began to tentatively probe at my Christian roots. As a teenager in the 1970s, I would privately indulge in Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell and feel like I was gobbling forbidden fruit. Jewish composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz apparently understood the primal appeal of the Jesus story. I’m glad that he, and so many other Jewish writers and artists throughout history, felt free to infuse the story with such passion (so to speak). And I’m glad that my children can feel swept away by these stories, without feeling a lot of Jewish guilt. The head rush I know as spirituality is almost always the direct result of great art, music, or community action. Ideology, not so much.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.