Finding Interfaith Spirituality

Labyrinth at Lama, photo Sue Katz MillerI subscribe to the theory that spirituality is primarily a neurochemical response to music, dance, beauty, and sense of community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I seek out the rush of spirituality, and have found it in synagogues, churches, nature, and concert halls. I have felt that rush in a crowd of people transported by the live music of Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Regina Spektor.

Clearly, I’m not alone. All mystic traditions make use of these same elements to inspire spirituality, and the fact that these elements are common across the lines of dogma and theology, across even the boundaries of monotheism, polytheism and atheism, confirms my interfaith perspective. The Chasids, the mystics of Judaism, know the power of dancing and chanting, as do the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. The Jewish Renewal movement is reclaiming this power, uncoupling it from the orthodoxy of Chasidism and merging it with a more progressive framework.

Many recent studies have tracked the shift by Americans away from religion, even as they seek and experience more spirituality. Other studies have implied that it is spirituality, not religion, that breeds happiness.

As an interfaith child, I have had profound spiritual moments in the dim stained-glass light of Chartres Cathedral, while listening to Bach’s Easter Oratorio at the Peabody Conservatory, while dancing and chanting a Shlomo Carlebach song with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and while dancing and chanting a Sufi zikr in the thin air of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains in a sacred grove at the Lama Foundation.

My interfaith children have deep grounding in the specific traditions of Judaism and Christianity bequeathed to them by ancestors. So you could say that they have “permission” to access the swell of emotion invoked by singing Handel’s Messiah in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church at Christmas. And they have “permission” to feel the primal call of the shofar penetrate their souls. But as interfaith children primed to seek out the spiritual, their comfort zone expands far beyond these two inherited traditions. My 12-year-old son has gone on more than one Buddhist retreat. My artist daughter feeds her soul on the ephemeral outdoor sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. Deep is good. Tradition is good. But for our family, more is also better. We want as much singing, dancing, beauty and community as we can fit into our lives. We seek out these experiences wherever and whenever we can find them.

Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

A Wandering Jew on Yom Kippur

photo Susan Katz MillerI have a confession.  I am not taking my children to a High Holy Days service at a synagogue this year.  When they were small, I took them to free family services at a local synagogue where they handed out kazoos, presumably on the theory that these plastic noisemakers resemble shofars. As soon as the kids got their hands on the instruments, chaos ensued. The Rabbi spent the rest of the service trying to regain control of his mutinous miniature congregants. The atmosphere was not particularly conducive to deep contemplation.

Last year, I thought my children were old enough to go to an adult service with me, so I bought tickets. I did my research and chose a congregation known for its choir. I was hoping to replicate my positive High Holy Day experiences growing up in a Reform Synagogue. We had a gorgeous choir with a ringer Irish soprano: the music is what got me through those long and hungry hours, and even inspired glimmerings of spirituality. But the morning I took my kids happened to be one that did not feature the choir after all. And it went on, and on, and on, with heavy Hebrew and unfamiliar new tunes. In terms of helping my children feel positive about going to synagogues, it was what they would term an “epic fail.”

When I can, I try to fly home to my parents for these holidays, to the synagogue of my childhood. But the congregation has tripled in size–I don’t know anyone anymore. The rabbi who refused to officiate at my interfaith marriage has retired. Realistically, I cannot fly my children to Boston for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while school is in session. And I also know that this congregation, as with most congregations, would be challenged by the idea of how to truly welcome children with only one Jewish grandparent–and a Jewish grandfather at that.

So on Yom Kippur, we will be where we feel most at home, with our interfaith community. Our service is only an hour long, at the close of the day, to accommodate those who go to work, and those who go to temple services. But honestly, it is just the right amount of time for kids and Christian spouses. And we know for darn sure that the sermon will not be about the “dilemma” of interfaith marriage, or who should get to be a Jew, or whether we are passing all the litmus tests for raising our children correctly. And we will know just about everyone in the room. These are my people now.

Jewish Autumn, Christian Winter…

Fall Leaves, photo Susan Katz MillerGrowing up, my family often went apple-picking after Rosh Hashanah services. My Jewish New Year memories are intertwined with the cidery scent of apples rotting in the grass, the sound of bees buzzing, the long angle of late New England sun, and the brisk air that meant the excitement of new school clothes.

In autumn, our interfaith community celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the harvest festival of Sukkot. It may, in fact, appear that we are giving Christianity short shrift, because the “must do” Jewish holidays are stacked up front. When prospective members come to check us out in the fall, the Jewish partner in the couple tends to feel perfectly comfortable. If I can, I give those Jewish partners a heads up that as winter approaches, they will need to reckon with Christianity.

After a transition through the mostly secular Thanksgiving period, we shift into what I think of as our Christian season, with Advent and Christmas. We celebrate Hannukah of course. But since Hannukah is not actually among the top five Jewish holidays in terms of importance, we don’t attempt to give Hannukah and Christmas equal weight. “Being both” is not about distorting either religion to create false equivalencies. We do not have a Hannukah bush, or menorahs on our Christmas tree. Instead, we celebrate Advent and Christmas with as much historical integrity and spiritual depth as we can muster, to offset the commercial Christmas so prevalent in American culture. Jewish partners learn to accept, or not, seeing their children light Advent candles, sing carols, and talk about the birth of Jesus, that nice Jewish boy.

In spring, “being both” comes to a head with the twin week-long celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. Most interfaith families know this as the season of true “interfaith dilemma.” Jews are forced to confront the idea of resurrection. Christians are forced to confront the historical anti-Semitism associated with Easter. Everyone in the family must negotiate the “chosen people” language embedded in the Passover Seder, and the horror of the drowning of the Egyptians. And we must be nimble diplomats to avoid making a mishigas of meals with extended family featuring Easter buns, matzoh balls, ham and brisket.

With the end of the school year, our interfaith community goes into sleep mode, as do many religious communities. For some strange and convenient reason, there are no major holidays in either Judaism or Christianity during the summer. Instead, many of us use this time to reflect on whether or not we will recommit ourselves to the communities we have chosen—especially those of us who are wandering Jews, wandering Christians, or both.

 

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.

Rosh Hashanah, Interfaith Style

Rosh Hashanah apple--photo by Susan Katz MillerYesterday, our interfaith community celebrated the Jewish New Year. Yes, we are early by a week. We want our members to be able to go to synagogues next weekend with their extended Jewish families, with parents and grandparents.

As it happens, my own parents were visiting yesterday and came to our early Rosh Hashanah. They stood up as I introduced them to our community as interfaith pioneers. At ages 85 and 79, they are celebrating 50 years of interfaith marriage this year, proof that it can be done, and done with incredible depth and style.

The presence of my own personal wise elders was fortuitous. Our Rabbi, Harold White, reflected on Jewish respect for old age as a thread that runs through the Jewish New Year. We read about Abraham and Sarah, delighted in old age by the birth of their son Isaac. The rabbi pointed out that we celebrate the New Year, not in spring as one might expect, but at the end of the agricultural cycle, in fall. The autumn of our years, he explained, is just as important to Jews, just as much an integral part of life, as birth.

Yesterday, my Jewish father got to sit next to his grandchildren while singing “Oseh Shalom” and “Adon Olam” hearing the call of the shofar, reciting the Shehecheyanu, and the Reader’s Kaddish.

And my Christian mother got to sit next to her grandchildren as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Why the Lord’s Prayer at a Rosh Hashanah celebration? The Rabbi pointed out that this Christian prayer appears to be based on the Kaddish. And that the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in the streets of Jerusalem.

My Jewish father recited the Lord’s Prayer along with us—it happens to be lodged deep in his memory. In small town Pennsylvania in the 1930s, children recited the prayer each day in his public schools. There is no mention of Jesus in the prayer. Dad says, “I didn’t know it was a Christian prayer until about ten years ago.”

Celebrating the New Year a week early may seem like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. But an interfaith celebration, while it may be devoted to a particular Jewish or Christian holiday, has unique flavor because it inevitably touches on the historical reality of the interplay between the two religions. And it creates a way to celebrate these connections—whether we are interfaith children, interfaith parents, or interfaith grandparents.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

T-shirt, emma's revolutionMy children were four and seven years old on 9/11, though they both remember that day. In shock, we wandered to the center of town, and found a spontaneous gathering at the gazebo singing peace songs. I felt helpless: singing seemed to help.

Singing together, like drumming and working with clay, stems from a primal impulse. Song soothes the fretful, the sad, the cynical, the terrified. When my children were babies, I sang lullabies to them each night, including peace songs passed down from both sides of my interfaith family: “Oseh Shalom” and “Sim Shalom” in Hebrew, but also “Dona Nobis Pacem” in Latin. (I was not making a conscious effort to be even-handed: in those long sessions in the rocking chair, I sang every scrap of music lodged in my brain, including selections from “The Music Man” and “Hair.”)

The song I now think of as the quintessential interfaith song was written in the aftermath of 9/11. Our musician friends Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow (known together as emma’s revolution), created a healing chant: “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.They performed it for the first time in New York City in the first large peace rally after 9/11, and 10,000 people wound through the streets of the city singing it for hours.

At my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony last year, we were privileged to have Pat and Sandy (an interfaith couple!) lead our family and friends in singing “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” This song, with one essential word in Arabic, has now joined the Hebrew and Latin lullabies in our interfaith family canon. The words are deeply embedded in my children, and only good can come of this.

As 9/11 recedes into history, as our memories inevitably fade, we must remember those who were lost, and our troops overseas, and all who live in fear of war and terror. But I also want to remember the way trauma brought us out into the streets to try to conjure peace. Tomorrow, I will wear my “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” shirt. If you see me, let’s sing together.

 

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.

Interfaith Marriage…in Israel and Lebanon

Mediterranean Coastline--photo Susan Katz Miller

If you think being intermarried in the United States is challenging, consider what it would be like in the Middle East. This week’s Economist has an interesting article about the prohibition on interfaith marriages in Lebanon. Couples who are Muslim and Druze Christian, or Jewish and Greek Orthodox, must fly to Cyprus, half an hour away, to tie the knot. That’s because there is no provision for civil marriage in Lebanon.

I raised my eyebrows at the mention of Cyprus. As a “patrilineal” half-Jew, Cyprus already has dark resonance for me. In Israel, I am not a “legal” Jew despite learning Hebrew, becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and all of the sacrifices made by my Christian mother to raise me without any Christian influence. But if I marry in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to do it. If I die in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to be buried. Is it any wonder I have deep ambivalence about Israel?

Speaking of Israel, the government there unveiled a campaign this week against interfaith marriage, comparing those who have married non-Jews to abducted missing persons. And yes, I know all the arguments for why a tiny and embattled religious minority feels the need to define and guard its tribal identity. Many of us believe that this aggressive and exclusive stance will drive away more “could be Jews” than it will attract. And it is simply offensive.

Meanwhile, newsflash–people from different religions are going to continue to marry each other, and even have the chutzpah to create children together. So be thankful if you live in the USA, where we have civil marriage, the right to raise our children as we please, and the right to be buried in our own country.