Being Both, Being All

Three Ring Venn Diagram
                                                                        By Susan Katz Miller

 

For Being Both, I interviewed Ivan Kruh about his Jewish and Christian and Buddhist family. Today, more than five years later, Ivan updates us on how his family goes beyond both, to being all, in the context of interspirituality. Not all interfaith families become interspiritual families, and not all interspiritual people come from interfaith families. But, there is an overlap. Ivan sees his family as part of a larger circle encompassing all three of the family religions represented in the Venn Diagram above. Here’s his guest post:  

It is funny how some things that feel so organic to one family can be so radical within the larger society. My wife and I found that people thought we were nuts when we both went half-time at work after our son was born. And they thought we were even crazier when we told them we planned to raise him as a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian. But my family has three traditions – I am Jewish and also a Buddhist (what some people call a “Jew-Bu”), and my wife is a Christian. The decision to raise him “all” – connected to all three of these traditions – feels so natural to us. As Susan’s book and blog attest, the number of interfaith families choosing to raise their child with connections to more than one religion is growing. But we are also raising him “all” in a deeper way. Because beyond being an interfaith family, we consider ourselves an interspiritual family.

The term “interspirituality” was coined by the Catholic monk Brother Wayne Teasdale to reflect our human potential to see and be transformed by the shared spiritual truths that form the core of all great religious traditions. For example, my wife and I believe the following truths are at the core of the practices, rituals, songs and traditions of our three religions, and that they form the heart of what we want our son to understand:

  • “See yourself clearly in order to forget your self;”
  • “Love and serve all beings and your world;”
  • “Live with simplicity;”
  • “Walk humbly with your God.”

Interspirituality does not equate all religions, but sees each as a particular way of expressing these kinds of truths in much the same way different languages could be used to explain the same experience. Clarifying that religions are each merely fingers pointing to the proverbial moon, interspirituality allows individuals to live with strong, deep connection to one or more traditions, yet open from traditional boundaries to include, hold, respect, and benefit from the full family of human spiritual traditions.

My wife and I discovered we were interspiritual early in our dating relationship, though neither of us knew there was a term to describe what was unfolding. As we talked about our religious study, spiritual practices and the insights that came out of both, we found (once we each did a whole lot of explaining of vocabulary) that we believed many of the same things and had a very similar vision about what it takes to live a good life. We began to share our spiritual practices with one another and discuss our experiences. And through these practices and conversations we each developed a true appreciation for the other’s religion while deepening our relationships with our own religions. We each experienced great spiritual nourishment in this process. It became obvious that we could each be devoted to our own different spiritual paths and simultaneously devoted to one another. We were married by a Rabbi and a Minister in a ceremony that joyfully reflected all of this.

And now we have a four-year-old son. Raising him within our interspiritual relationship means that we seek to raise him to also see the universal truths that form the core of his Jewish, Christian and Buddhist heritages. We hope to raise him like a strong tree – firmly rooted in the sacred ground of our three traditions, but with branches that open to all religious and spiritual paths so that he can find his own way toward truth and sacredness.

We know that this is not the view or intention of most interfaith parents. But it works well for us. Take, for instance, the painful conflicts some interfaith parents experience during holiday seasons, like the approaching Easter/Passover season. Some couples worry about whether to host a seder and dye easter eggs in the same home, or how to talk to their children about the Israelite Exodus at the same time they are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. The interspiritual family does not see the confluence of Easter and Passover as a dilemma at all – but a fortuitous opportunity to explore two different expressions of a universal spiritual message – that moments of all-encompassing hardship and fear can give way to unfathomable transformation when one trusts the sacredness of reality. When we approach the holidays in this way, I feel no conflict greeting my wife and her Coptic Orthodox family, ““Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen),” and my wife feels no conflict singing “Dayenu” around my Jewish family’s seder table. And my son just absorbs the joy and the power of these rituals and songs, growing into each holiday story with no need to rigidly adhere to either as true or false.

Yes, we have found that when a family begins to creatively explore the underlying teachings of multiple traditions, beauty emerges. One of the weekly rituals in our home, for example, is to re-enact the Maundy washing of the feet and then offer tzedakah (charity). When we wash one another’s feet, we talk about how Jesus taught the importance of caring for one another – and when we deposit quarters in the family tzedakah box which will later be used to buy food bank donations we extend that same care. In this way, when our son gets older and I teach him about the Buddhist bodhisattva vows or he discovers the Hindu seva (service) tradition or Islam’s pillar of zakat (charity), I trust that he will see these, too, as unique expressions of the universal truth of compassion. I trust that he won’t worry so much about which ways of understanding or practicing compassion are “right” or “best,” but rather he will be curious about the songs, stories, rituals and practices each religion uses to support awareness of the truths. My hope is that no matter what paths he chooses for his own spiritual journey, the universal teachings will rest in his bones and rush through his blood from his Jewish-Christian-Buddhist interspiritual childhood.

I want my son to be gifted an interspiritual lens because I believe it is a true lens. But I also hope he will cultivate this lens because it is what the world needs. These are challenging times. Distrust between people of different religions is running very high. I firmly believe that children who have grown up in a situation that supports them seeing how religious differences point to spiritual commonalities will be in a unique position to help our world toward healing. One foot-washing and tzedakah ritual at a time, one Easter/Passover season at a time, one child at a time, this world can be healed.

 

Ivan Kruh is a juvenile forensic psychologist in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

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

 

 

 

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Ask Interfaith Mom: Is it OK for Interfaith Parents to Adopt Interfaith Identity?

Path Through Dunes

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I’m the Jewish parent of my interfaith family. My husband and I are raising our children in both traditions. He grew up Methodist. What we are discovering is that we don’t want our interfaith children to have a different religious identity from us so we’ve decided to call ourselves “interfaith” also. I try to celebrate and dive into Christmas just like my husband dives into the Hanukkah nights. Now we are all “interfaith”!  What do you think of this?

–Interfaith Family

Dear Interfaith Family,

First of all, if it’s working for you, it’s working! And I like your feisty and creative attitude. What I see as important here is that you feel a sense of unity, and mutual appreciation, and you are giving your children knowledge of and access to their complete religious heritage. The labels are less important.

Families want to feel unified. For some interfaith families, the solution is to choose one religion and have that be the family religion (whether or not the “out-parent” converts). This choice can work if there is one parent willing to forgo, or minimize, their religion. Other families decide to unify around being secular humanists or join ethical societies, dropping religious tradition and ritual altogether. This can work if neither parent feels attached to the God concept, or the specifics of their original religion. And still other families choose to unify around a “third” religion, such as Unitarian-Universalism (UU), Buddhism, Baha’i, or Quakerism.

For families in which both parents want to continue to celebrate a religion, and share that religion with children, we now have interfaith family communities providing dual-faith education, and the opportunity for families to sit and sing and reflect together as equals, with no “out-parent.” This can work when both parents are open to learning about and sharing, on some level, the spouse’s religion. Clearly, this is the case in your family.

You are not alone in feeling that the interfaith identity label, the label more and more of us have chosen for our children, has unique benefits and positive associations. I feel that way myself. In telling your story, you still identify yourself as the Jewish parent. It makes sense to continue to embrace the fact that you are the parent who brings Jewish extended family and Jewish history to the family. Surely your children know this, even if you have all adopted the interfaith label. I don’t think this complexity of religious identity will be confusing to them. It represents a reality. They have one parent from a Jewish background, and one parent from a Christian background. As an interfaith family, you practice together, unified by shared rituals and love.

Those of us in complex families often give more than one answer when we are questioned about our identities, as psychologist Maria Root has documented. I continue to claim my Jewish label, particularly in the presence of anti-Semitism, and I expect my children to do the same. But I also claim the right to celebrate my interfaith identity, as my children do. And you have that right, as every human being has the right, to self-identify in whatever way best describes your very individual and interior religious and spiritual landscape.

In short, I think it is marvelous that your whole family shares an interfaith identity. You must be prepared to have to explain how this works to those who will question and challenge you. But as interfaith families, we will face questions of one sort or another, no matter which pathway we choose. What I love is the joy you have found in sharing traditions with each other. Your children will benefit from this joy.

Interfaith Mom

Raising Interfaith Children: Search for Online Support

One of the goals of this blog is to support couples raising children with two religions. Based on the internet search terms people use to arrive here, I feel encouraged that people who are seeking reassurance and specific examples of success are finding their way to onbeingboth.com.

Some of the most common of these search terms include, not surprisingly, “raising interfaith children,” “raising children with two religions,” and “successful interfaith marriages.”

Other search terms document the fact that it is not only Jews and Christians who are intermarrying or claiming two religions these days. In the past month alone, people searching for information on how to celebrate the Muslim/Christian, Catholic/Buddhist, Muslim/Jewish, Hindu/Christian, Buddhist/Jewish and Muslim/Yoruba religions simultaneously, or raise children in both of these religions, all surfed here. Even though my own family grew from Jewish and Christian roots, I think many of the posts on educating children in two religions, and claiming an identity drawing on more than one religion, will be relevant to them. And I hope that these visitors discover the right-hand column of the main page of this blog, listing links to sites addressing many of these religious combinations.

Some search terms remind me that, while my interfaith families community experiences great joy and fulfillment on our interfaith pathway, many families still struggle with the disapproval of family and institutions when they intermarry. In the past month, people arrived at this blog searching for help with the terms “jewish parents giving up sons over interfaith marriage,” “opposition of interdenominational marriage,” and “jewish why gay marriage okay but not interfaith.”

Other online seekers this month asked the questions, “can you be jewish if you’re mixed race?” “can babies have a baptism and a bris,” “can my child be taught two religions,” and “can a child have two religions?” I hope they found the answers they were clearly seeking on this blog: yes, yes, yes and yes.

The Appeal of Buddhism in Interfaith Families

We are raising our children with Judaism and Christianity, the two religions in our family. Yet various friends and teachers have also exposed them to Buddhism, and at 14, my son currently identifies his religious identity on Facebook as “Jew/Christian swirl interested in Buddhism.”

Buddhism, like Unitarianism-Universalism (UU), has long provided a home for interfaith families and adult interfaith children, especially in places where there is no community specifically for interfaith families.

One of the friends who has brought Buddhism into my family is Sharron Mendel Swain, who was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent, found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and now runs a UU religious education program. Her Buddhist practice is based on the teachings of peace activist and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr., and created the Plum Village community in France. Recently, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as an interfaith child.

Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some intermarried or interfaith people?

The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose.  For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”?  Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US:  “are you Vietnamese or are you American?”  Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both!  It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”?  Of course you are the child of both. . .

One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.”  Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos.  Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.

For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience.  Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.

Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?

Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia.  The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction.  Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature.  It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.”  This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith.  Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.

And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised.  This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.

Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to combine the practice of Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity, than it is to combine Judaism and Christianity?

The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that.  Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith.  Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution.  The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.

Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism.  People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that.  There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that.  It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering.  We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too.  This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”

This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.

Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?

The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:

1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

Has Buddhism been helpful to you in your interfaith family? Post your comments…

Bar Mitzvah of an Interfaith Child: Creative Ferment

In the final days before my son’s Bar Mitzvah and interfaith coming-of-age ceremony, we have been blessed with many opportunities for philosophical discussion (as well as a certain amount of inevitable logistical and sartorial tussling). Last Friday night, our Rabbi and our Reverend, who will co-officiate at the ceremony, came for Shabbat dinner, and we reflected together on the balance of the songs and readings: Judaism and Christianity, King David and Walt Whitman, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I left my son at the computer, with instructions to finish his D’var Torah: the speech reflecting on the Torah portion he will chant in Hebrew. When I returned a while later, I discovered that instead, he had been researching quotes that inspire him from Buddhist thinkers, for possible inclusion in the ceremony. Well, okay, great idea! We talked about all of the people in his life (including our minister and his official, chosen Spiritual Mentor for his coming-of-age year) who practice Buddhism. Then he wanted to know the definition of dharma. I could tell him that the dharma concept is common to a set of Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), in contrast to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Then we huddled over the laptop together, surfing through pages on the many meanings of dharma.

I remembered that at about my son’s age, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. In more recent years, I  have tried to keep up with all the brilliant contemporary novels by Indian writers (Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Abraham Verghese). This year, I bought my son a signed copy of Rushdie’s current coming-of-age tale, Luka and the Fire of Life, and he enjoyed the mix of adventure and philosophy. Part of the tremendous excitement of coming of age, to his bookworm mother, is that my son can now begin to devour all of the great literature of the world.

So, after an evening of possibly tangential but certainly important research and discussion on world religions, the speech remains incomplete. But we are both, mother and son, more enlightened (or at least educated)  than we were yesterday. My life has also been enriched by the daily decision-making required by the ceremony, through constant consultation with my two teenagers, my parents, my husband, our siblings, our clergy. Could my mother (Episcopalian by birth) read her favorite Bible passage from Genesis, or will she be interpreted as a creationist? (Hmmm, thinking). Are my son’s keen young eyes strong enough to read from our community’s tiny Torah, the one that will fit him so perfectly in the procession around the sanctuary? (Yes!) How do we handle being called to the Torah, when many of our family members (including my Jewish father) do not have Hebrew names? (Consult the rabbi).

We are creating this new interfaith tradition as we go along, guided in our decisions by the environmental theme  in my son’s Torah portion, and evident in his life, and in the life of our think-global-act-local family. Long before we chose a Bar Mitzvah date, my son had plunged in the freezing Chesapeake to raise funds for climate action, and written a ballad about global warming. In this spirit, could he wear one of my brothers’ (barely worn) timeless blue blazers from the 1980s, instead of buying an entire suit he will outgrow next month?  Yes. Could there be a perfect pair of penny loafers at Value Village, the used clothing store? Yes. But perhaps we should spring for the colorful Fair Trade yarmulkes imported from Guatemala by a former Peace Corps volunteer? Yes.

I am trying to find calm in these last whirlwind days before my son officially becomes a man. I love the idea of meditation: I have had little success with it, personally. My monkey mind races, my to-do lists proliferate. I do stop, at times throughout the day, to take a deep breath or two. And to focus on thankfulness: to my son and daughter and husband for taking on this challenge, to my extended family and friends for understanding the importance of the day, to my interfaith community for pioneering such a radically-supportive context.

Annoyed by the Dalai Lama

No, really, the Dalai Lama is a lovely man, wise and full of goodness. But his editorial in The New York Times today plucked on my last interfaith nerve. He writes of being inspired by an early meeting with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and goes on to announce, “I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks.”

Well, it’s all fine and dandy when a very holy and celibate Buddhist monk and a very holy and celibate Catholic monk have “personal contact” and dialogue. But when mere mortals have personal contact, they sometimes fall in love and create families. Then sometimes these “dialoguers” begin to have second thoughts about how personal the contact should be. And then they retreat to citing the importance of maintaining boundaries, and tribal purity laws. I’ve written about this before. What bothers me is what feels to me like hypocrisy: do reach out and touch somebody from another religion, but for God’s sake don’t take the ultimate step of actual intimacy.

A lot of what the Dalai Lama wrote in today’s paper is great stuff: the yearning for peace, the importance of learning, the defense of maligned religions. Refreshingly, he admits that as a boy he thought Buddhism was superior to other religions. He goes on to underscore his support for Karen Armstrong’s marvelous “Compassion movement,” and is careful to include Islam as a partner in this. But then, I couldn’t help noticing that his new book is subtitled “How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.” For those of us who are the products of this coming together, it is hard not to see that title as naive, or perhaps ironic.

I tried to explain my annoyance to my teenage daughter, who has grown up with Buddhist mentors in addition to Jewish and Christian family and education. She is far less cynical, and in general, far less annoyed, and far more, well, Zen,  than I am. “You’re looking for a problem, Mom,” she said. “As an interfaith person I’m not offended by that at all if they want to stick to their own religions, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” Ah, but so many of them do.

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.