Interfaith Families: Pray Together, Stay Together

This week, a new study appears to provide evidence for the theory that the couple that prays together, stays together. That makes sense to me. However, my concern is that this study will be misused to support the mistaken idea that interfaith marriages are doomed, especially since it  comes on the heels of a very misleading Washington Post opinion piece which recycled, contorted and misinterpreted old (some of them very old) studies and drew a highly debatable conclusion about the risk of divorce among interfaith couples. Sadly, that bogus and outdated “statistic” is now being widely circulated, citing nothing but that opinon piece as a source. And the Washington Post has yet to admit that the author of that opinion piece is a paid affiliate of  the “Institute for American Values, ” a pro-marriage (and anti-gay-marriage) think tank.

In any case, the issue of sharing a religious background or label, and the issue of sharing spiritual experiences including prayer, can and must be separated. My husband and I come from different religious backgrounds, and neither of us has converted. But if you define prayer as moments of ritualized spiritual reflection, we pray together, both at home and surrounded by our interfaith families community.

We may have different religious labels, but we share a love of singing, a connection to family, an appreciation for beauty, a sense that gratitude helps creates peace of mind and peace in the world.  We share a belief that expressing our mindfulness of all that is good will help instill values in our children  including humbleness, creativity, desire to protect and heal the natural world, thirst for justice. None of this requires a shared mono-faith label, or for that matter, a belief in any sort of traditional God.

We pray together on Shabbat, we pray together at our weekly gatherings with our interfaith families community, and we have experienced powerful moments of prayer together at lifecycle events such as family church funerals and  my daughter’s interfaith coming-of-age ceremony. I am sure these experiences do contribute to the strength of our marriage. But, again, none of this requires us to choose one religion.

Raising Interfaith Children: Sunday School Flashback

Recently, I was visiting my parents, a pioneering interfaith couple. They still live in the house where I grew up, fifteen minutes from the temple where I was educated as a Reform Jew. When I visit now, I often sort through drawers and boxes and come home with a bag full of books, photographs, and childhood ephemera. On this visit, one of my finds was a book entitled When a Jew Celebrates, published in 1971, and used as a text in our temple’s weekly religious school.  The book, described as part of “The Jewish Values Series,” covers life cycle events and holidays and traditions in a manner both lively and learned, which may explain why it is still in print. I plan to try to persuade my teenagers (ages 16 and 13) to read it as a supplement to their religious education in both Judaism and Christianity in our independent interfaith community.

I will have to warn my children that the book includes one page entitled “Against Intermarriage” that makes the (to me, very questionable) twin statements: marriages between Jews are more likely to be happy, Jewish continuity requires marriage between Jews. I was not surprised to see these arguments made in a book written more than thirty years ago, and was even impressed by the authors’ admission that in Biblical times, Jews did intermarry. Ironically, the authors also state, “What you are, and what you stand for, is the addition of what your parents gave you, and what your grandparents gave them, and what your great-grandparents gave your grandparents–and on back.”

I could not agree more. When I read this sentence from my interfaith perspective, it explains precisely why I think all of my children’s grandparents should be acknowledged and honored, all of their great-grandparents, not just the Jewish ones.

In any case, as I was flipping through the book, an inscription on the inside of the front cover caused me to stop and breathe in sharply. In wobbly grade-school printing, one of my three younger siblings had written out a sort of survey or quiz–apparently notes copied from a religious school teacher:

How many times do they attend synagogue a year? What occasions?

Are the children in Sunday School?

Do they believe in God?

Do they care if their children intermarry?

These questions appear to be an attempt to determine….what? Whether a particular family is composed of good Jews? Whether a particular family is adequately guarding children against intermarriage? Were the two considered synonymous? Are they still?

I started musing about the questions I would choose to determine if someone is a good Jew, not that I would ever pass this kind of judgement. But if I were required to list criteria, they might be: Do they live by the golden rule and the ten commandments? Do they study and debate and question? Do they sing and make space for some form of Shabbat, for peace and reflection? Do they devote themselves to tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Do they do justice, love kindness, stay humble, as suggested by the prophet Micah?

The scrawled list also echoed in a most unfortunate way the list of questions that interfaith families face when they attempt to label their children as Reform Jews. In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of Reform Judaism, considered the Biblical evidence for patrilineal Judaism and (in my opinion, very wisely) specified that in the case of patrilineal interfaith children, “the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion.” So in my childhood, in the 1960s and 1970s, interfaith children were tolerated in Reform synagogues, without a lot of questions, and held to the same standards of Jewish practice as any other children.

But after 1983, the Reform movement declared that interfaith children (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) would be considered Jewish only if they performed certain mitzvot (commandments): litmus tests for being Jewish enough. The official list of “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people” includes circumcision, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation. Many of us who are interfaith adults practicing Judaism struggle with this list. Again, it does not align very well with my personal criteria for what makes a good Jew. And it irritates many interfaith adults who want to claim Jewish identity, since we know many “100% Jews” who have ignored some or all of those same mitzvot but do not have to defend their religious identity.

In religious school, I remember feeling marginal, suspect because of my interfaith condition, in spite of being an engaged and avid student. I remember lectures about the dangers of intermarriage from rabbis, from the bima (pulpit). And the notes inside this book, copied so carefully, are proof that some respected teacher described intermarriage as a threat, to one of my siblings. For me, the subtext is clear: your parents should not have married, no matter how happy they are, and your Judaism is questionable. Small wonder, then, that I have decided to raise my children in an independent interfaith community in which intermarriage is celebrated, rather than discouraged.

Balanced Advice for Interfaith Families

Today, you can read a Q and A with me over on a blog called Moms Are Human. Blogger Elizabeth Katz (no relation) is a young intermarried mom who contacted me for more information on the “both” option for interfaith families.

Maybe because my interfaith identity often means I see more than one viewpoint on an issue, I try not to go bossing interfaith couples around:  I do not rank the choices interfaith families have, or label any of them problematic. I understand interfaith families choosing Judaism. I also understand interfaith families choosing Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism…

If, on this blog, I continue to highlight the full exploration of both family religions, I do this because it is the journey of my own children, and the one I am best qualified to describe in real time. But also, I emphasize this option because it is the least understood, with little support from religious institutions, and little presence in the media or cyberspace.  As an interfaith child and a journalist, I feel compelled to provide counterweight: I am keenly aware of issues of balance. And so I blog to disseminate the existence of the “both” option, but I do not claim that it is the right option for everyone.

I  understand that alliance with religious institutions, and allegiance to a particular belief system, practically obligates a blogger to advocate one option over other options. Because independent interfaith communities do not prescribe to a particular set of beliefs,  we do not feel compelled to urge families to adopt a particular religious label (though some members of independent interfaith communities do label their children as Jewish, for instance, while still wanting their children educated in both religious traditions).

In the end, in spite of my ambivalence about giving advice, I did respond to Elizabeth’s request to provide specific strategies that will be helpful in raising interfaith children, no matter what choices a couple makes.

Walking to Church: Sabbath and Shabbat

photo by Adam Hickmott, freedigitalphotos.net

On Sunday morning, my husband’s family decided to walk to the chapel in the beach community where they have been summering for generations. I was pleased when my teenage daughter agreed to walk with us and attend the service. As much as I love our community of interfaith families, as much as I believe that community to be just as “authentic” as ancient religions, I also believe it is essential to expose my children to synagogues and churches. Whenever we visit a synagogue or church, I use these occasions to deliver some (not so) stealth religious education on ritual and customs, to reinforce ties to family history and culture, and to create space for my children to feel comfortable in diverse sacred spaces.

And so we set off into a glorious Fourth of July morning, the air sweet with lilacs, the intense blue of hydrangeas set off against the weathered grey shingles of the summer cottages in the lanes. Despite the very Anglo-Saxon Protestant setting, I could not help feeling like a family of Orthodox Jews strolling to shul. While I love to claim my bothness, as someone who was raised as a Jew and still identifies myself as a Jew, I have a strong tendency to compare and contrast any new religious experience with Jewish practice. Anyway, on the walk to church, I suddenly understood the deep pleasure of walking to synagogue. Walking, observing the Sabbath with our bodies, we were on a family pilgrimage, removed from the household, chores and work. You can argue about the logic or pragmatism of the Orthodox prohibition against driving on Shabbat. But you can’t really argue against the tonic of a good family walk.

But when we got to the church steps, I felt a momentary and involuntary skittishness, even though the official greeters were old family friends and could not have been more pleasant and welcoming. I did not grow up going to churches:  entering a church will never feel completely natural to me. The problem is not so much theological—I understand Jesus as a great metaphor, just as most of my liberal, progressive Christian friends do, and I am open to studying his words and discussing his inspiring life. The problem is the weight of history, culture, and the lingering effects of my own narrow and defensive religious education.

I don’t want my children to feel the way I do: I want them to be able to feel at home in a church, if they end up finding churches that feed their souls, or nurture their families. So I sat in the pew, feeling vaguely “other,” but taking pleasure in the fact that my daughter now sees the list of three-digit numbers posted behind the pulpit, numbers that would have mystified me at her age, and understands them as representing the hymns in today’s service. Without glancing at me, she reaches for the red hymnal, and with simple grace and confidence, finds the opening hymn.


“Being Both” as a Political Liability: Nikki Haley’s Religions

I find myself in the very odd position today of empathizing with a Republican gubernatorial candidate from South Carolina. Yes, I speak of Nikki Haley, who hopes to win  her state’s primary tomorrow. Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and raised in a Sikh family from India, but converted to Christianity at age 24 and was baptized as a Methodist. What’s interesting to me is the degree to which her perceived religious “bothness” is being used against her by political opponents.

Haley “admits” that she and her husband went through two wedding ceremonies—one Christian, one Sikh. And she has the chutzpah to continue to celebrate Sikh holidays with her extended family. Sounds familiar to many of us in interfaith America. One Pastor Ray Popham of something called the Oasis Church International told CNN: “I think she needs to be straight up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front.”

It comes as no surprise that there are still regions of America where proving your Christianity is important in the political arena. President Obama certainly learned that lesson early on. I can only imagine what folks like Pastor Popham think of the idea that one could somehow be both Christian and Sikh. What really interests me in this story is the growing acknowledgement that there is even a possibility of identifying with more than one religion, of believing in both (even if the acknowledgement is tinged with the implication that dual-identity is wrong-headed).

I am exhilarated by the inevitable conclusion that the demographic reality of bothness is lapping at the feet of even the most conservative and Christian Americans.  I realize that Nikki Haley probably needs to deny her “bothness” right now and assert that she is 100% Christian through and through, if she wants to get elected.  And I probably hate Haley’s positions on all sorts of issues–afterall, she has been endorsed by Sarah Palin. But I can’t resist the urge here to send out a message of support to her as an interfaith person.

Nikki, you are not alone. Like more and more of Americans, you are both, by virtue of family history and personal experience, whether the Pastor Pophams of this world like it or not, in fact, whether you like it or not. Interfaith families are everywhere now, not just in New York and Washington and Boston, but in Utah and Iowa and South Carolina. We welcome you, and encourage you to claim your right to being both.

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.

Blessing of the Interfaith Babies

April showers bring May flowers, blue robin’s eggs, newborn lambs and foals. Even though human babies are born throughout the year, it seems appropriate somehow that our interfaith community welcomes new babies as a group in the spring. Our minister and rabbi work together to bless these tiniest and newest members of our community.

Our interfaith ceremony is neither traditionally Jewish nor traditionally Christian, nor is it meant to supplant the ceremonies of either tradition. Many of our interfaith babies have had a Bris, a Naming Ceremony (for Jewish girls), a Baptism, an individual interfaith Baby Welcoming Ceremony, or more than one of the above. This group ceremony specifically welcomes all of these babies, no matter what religious label their parents have chosen for them, into our interfaith community, and in so doing, recognizes that they share a bond. Our baby-blessing ceremony does include elements of both Christian and Jewish traditions, so if that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading here.

Last Sunday, we began, as we do must Sundays, by reading our interfaith responsive reading, affirming our sense of community. Then we recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Shema, the central prayers of each tradition represented by our families. Next, four community members held up a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and the babies and parents crowded underneath it, echoing the ritual of the wedding chuppah. Our rabbi led us in reciting the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of thanks for reaching any milestone or holiday or new experience.

Then we read from Genesis of the promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as grains of sand on the shore. These interfaith children are indeed descendants of Abraham, and part of my personal goal for my interfaith children is for them to know and remember this fact, above and beyond all the debates over “Who is a Jew?”

Next, our minister touched each baby’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth with a daisy and led us in a Unitarian blessing of children. A couple of the fussier babies went quiet at the tickle of the petals.

Bless our children’s minds with intelligence and wisdom

Bless their eyes so they will see great vistas

Bless their nose with delicious and fragrant aromas

Bless their mouth for the enjoyments of tasting and talking

Bless their hearts with deep love and a strong stady beat

Bless their arms for embracing friendship and love

Bless their feet so they will carry them happily through their days.

When these young families returned to their seats, they each clutched a daisy–a small reminder that their new interfaith child will be not just tolerated, or grudgingly accepted, or allowed to participate with qualifications, but fully welcomed and nurtured by our community as a creation as perfect as any flower.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor

In today’s “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau acknowledges the interfaith zeitgeist. In the strip, a medic informs a military chaplain that a patient is going to survive and won’t need last rites, after all. The medic notes that the patient “was worried he wasn’t eligible for rites. He’s from some sort of multi-faith family.” The chaplain replies that this would not have been a problem. The medic asks, “You do mash-ups?” The chaplain responds, “It’s not pretty, but yeah.”

In a handful of words, Trudeau touches on several key interfaith family issues.  First, note his use of the term “multi-faith family,” which indicates to me that perhaps my insistence on using “interfaith,” which I defended in a recent blog post,  is indeed behind the times. Trudeau has an ear for the sound of the future; I am reconsidering my stance.

Calling an interfaith prayer or ceremony a “mash-up” is awfully clever, and appeals to me as a tech-savvy adult (and obviously would appeal to my iPod-addicted teens). On the other hand, I think I will resist taking up this term. I am just too old-school I guess. To use a musical analogy, when I hear appropriated bits and pieces of music in a current hit, I enjoy them, but for me, the joy is in using the mash-up as an opportunity to teach my children about the original music being mashed.

For instance, both my teens and I love Sublime’s 1996 hit “Doin’ Time.” My kids happen to know that it is based on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” because I sang the original to them as a lullaby, and because my father and my son both play the tune as jazz pianists. We are educated insiders, we get the reference. I worry about kids who are ignorant of Gershwin, who don’t understand that Sublime did not actually write the hook on which they are caught.

In the same vein, I worry about mash-up interfaith prayers or services: unless our children understand the references, appreciate the originals, they lose the historical context. I believe interfaith children should be grounded in the classics, in the rites and rituals of both their Christian and Jewish heritages. Am I just uncool?

At the same time, I understand the gleeful power of the mash-up. My teens, all teens,  resonate with the harmonics and the dissonance, the new produced by combining and overlapping old tracks. They have an intuititve understanding of Ecclesiastes (that “there is nothing new under the sun”): that  all religion, and art, evolve through recombination.

Trudeau also touches on the reality that clergy are acting, by necessity, as deejays: they are innovating, riffing on traditional rites for every life transition, in order to accomodate their interfaith flocks. Often, they are writing and performing new rituals quietly, without permission from institutional authorities, because institutions lag considerably in comprehending that this is the dawning of the Age of the Interfaith.

Trudeau also hints at the truth that many clergy are ambivalent about their roles on the cutting edge of creating and leading interfaith liturgy. “It’s not pretty,” the chaplain sighs. The mash-up makes her long for the original, the unadulterated Gershwin. But Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, was appropriating, transforming, mashing-up the African-American gospel form with jazz and opera. And religions have been cross-fertilizing since the beginning of time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Finally, Trudeau refers, obliquely, to a conundrum facing this first great generation of interfaith families as we age: how do we gracefully ritualize the end of our lives in an interfaith world? I personally know a Jewish man whose wife was exhumed after someone decided to enforce a prohibition against non-Jews being buried in a Jewish cemetery. My own mother, after more than fifty years of interfaith marriage, makes nervous jokes about needing to do a deathbed conversion before she can be buried in our family plot. Our interfaith community is seeking a solution: a final resting place for interfaith families. Or, if you will, a final mash-up.

Your Turn: Grandparents and the Interfaith Child

Grandparents are often relieved when their intermarried children choose a religious home for their grandchildren, regardless of what home they choose. Their biggest fear may have been that the children will be raised “Godless” or “rootless.” While choosing to raise children in an interfaith community may be an uncommon (though growing) and unfamiliar choice to the grandparents, it is often perceived of at first as “better than nothing.” Over time, many grandparents come to realize the benefits of allowing both sets of grandparents to more fully share their religious beliefs and life with grandchildren.

My own mother, who married my father more than 50 years ago, is envious of the interfaith community in which we are raising her grandchildren. She often says that she wishes such a community had existed in the 1960s. My parents love to visit our Sunday gatherings, wear badges that read “Interfaith Pioneer,” and get respected as the wise elders that they truly are. The wisest thing they ever did was to get married.

If you’re intermarried, how do your parents feel about having interfaith grandchildren? How do they feel about your choice of a religious home for your children, your family?  And let’s hear from some interfaith grandparents about how they feel (my mom loves to comment). I invite your reflections…

Identity Labels: Interfaith, Multifaith, Dual-faith, Bifaithful, Cross-cultural?

Is “interfaith” the best word to describe my family, and my community of families? Recently, a reader of this blog  wrote in, expressing ambivalence about the term, and proposing an alternative:  “I sometimes wonder about the term “inter”faith, which to me seems to imply stuck between two faiths, like someone in a boat stuck between two islands. I am wondering if “multi”faith might work better, at least for my family.”

Well, first of all, whatever works for your family, works for your family! I absolutely endorse the right of interfaith children, and interfaith families, to self-identify, create their own labels, as described in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Claiming a label is a powerful act of self-definition and empowerment for any group that has been marginalized. And yes, interfaith people and families have been marginalized.

I, too, have mixed feelings (pun intended) about the interfaith label, though primarily because the term is in wide use to express something very different: dialogue between religious institutions or representatives determined to keep rigid, impermeable boundaries between them. For interfaith families, osmosis across “cell walls” not only happens, it is often the defining, and joyfully positive, characteristic of our religious or cultural identity.

I can also empathize with those who are uncomfortable with the emphasis on “faith” in interfaith. Often, these folks are secular, atheist or agnostic Jews, since Judaism puts more emphasis on ritual practice and less on credo. Christians sometimes struggle when they encounter practicing, atheist Jews, though this is a common paradoxical state. (There is a parallel, growing cohort of secular Christians who acknowledge Christianity as their formative religious culture but might be equally uncomfortable with talk of “faith.”) Those squirmy with the whole faith concept (I count myself here) might gravitate towards “cross-cultural” or “multicultural” as labels, though these terms are already in wide use with other (distracting) connotations. And they do not express the reality that in many interfaith families, faith of one sort or another does play a role.

On the other hand, I do not share the reader’s discomfort with “inter” as a chosen Latin prefix. My community, the Interfaith Families Project, uses a Venn diagram to represent the interlocking rings of Judaism and Christianity. The central, overlapping “inter” space is not an empty ocean between two islands, but the most vibrant and full part of the metaphor: the place where Judaism and Christianity share history, theology, ritual, and ethical grounding.

I worry that the concern over being “stuck between two islands” stems from immersion in the dismal soup of interfaith family portrayals in literature and on the internet. Most of these negative images are created through a process funded or influenced by religious institutions that are anti-intermarriage, or anti-interfaith-families, or anti-interfaith-families-raising-kids-with-both.

Well, but, what’s wrong with “multifaith?” Nothing, except that to my ear, “multifaith” strongly connotes more than two religions. The word does reflect the reality of a small but growing cohort of interfaith kids (those with, say, one Jewish grandparent, two Christian grandparents, and one Hindu grandparent). On the other hand, it seems to invite the all-too-frequent criticisms of “mile wide, inch deep” religious education. Teaching more than two religions with depth and meaning is a daunting task, though one that is admirably tackled by Unitarians, and Baha’i.

So if the family in question wants to embrace “multifaith” as their label, perhaps because they share more than two faiths, I cannot possibly object. In the end, for me, the strongest reason for sticking with “interfaith family” and “interfaith child” is a practical one: the relatively long history of using “interfaith” in this context, and the ability to google-search whatever resources and literature are available on the topic.

But also, I happen to have positive associations with “interfaith.” The linguistic harmonics include intersect, interweave, interlace, interdependent, interact and intercourse. Oh, and intertwine! (A word I have to stop myself from intertwining into each blog post.) Anyway, all good stuff. And none of it really works with “multi” as a prefix (multisect, multiweave, multilace, multidependent, multiact, multicourse, multitwine?). Though I suspect those lively words may evolve at some point in the near future, and I welcome them, as I welcome future multifaith families.

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: