Emulating Rebecca
Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light

Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Miller writes, "Children, whether or not they are interfaith children, go out into this world and make their own religious choices." Miller is herself the daughter of an intermarriage. She was reared Jewish, though she encountered some push-back from sectors of the Jewish community which don't honor patrilineal descent. She writes:

I believe my parents made the right choice for our family in that time and place. In the 1960s, when intermarriage was still unusual, without the possibility of finding or forming a comunity that would support them in giving their children access to both religions, they made a necessary and logical decision. I experienced the benefits of being given a single religious identity but also the drawbacks.

In a different era, in a different place, faced with the same decision, I have made a different choice. I am raising my children as interfaith children, educating them in both of their cultures, in both of their religions.

I particularly enjoyed Miller's descriptions of her early married life in West Africa. (As longtime readers know, my family also has a West Africa connection; my husband Ethan used to live in Ghana, and when our son was welcomed into the world we gave him a Ghanaian name along with English and Hebrew ones.) Anyway, after some years of living abroad in both Senegal and Brazil, Miller had reached a place where, she writes:

I began to understand that all religions have syncretic elements, in that they continue to evolve and change and influence each other -- even Judaism. And I began to resist the idea that this blurring of boundaries, this religious layering, threatens the well-being of practitioners. It may threaten institutions, but that's another story.

That puts me in mind of some of what I've heard Rabbi Irwin Kula teach about the impact of "mixers, blenders, benders and switchers" in today's religious world. An increasing number of Americans are tinkering with religious identity in ways which aren't one-size-fits-all. This might mean bridging or changing within the big tent of a single tradition (e.g. a Jewish family which changes affiliation from one stream of Judaism to another) or across different traditions (as in any interfaith marriage.) Countless Jews and Christians maintain meditation or mindfulness practices, even if they don't self-identify as Buddhists. Religious categories have become more permeable than they used to be. And, as Rabbi Kula notes, this shift brings with it both some loss, and the potential for a "richer and better world."

Miller's argument that this "religious layering" doesn't damage practitioners though it may damage institutions dovetails with conversations I've been having with colleagues in the wake of the Pew report. (For instance: as rabbis, to what extent is it our job to serve existing institutions, and to what extent is it our job to serve God and to serve Jews wherever they are -- or, perhaps, to serve humanity regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof?) In this world of "mixing, blending, bending and switching" -- in this world of what Jay Michaelson calls 'iSpirituality' -- people are taking ownership of their spiritual lives, making connections and choices and building bridges, in ways which would have been impossible a century ago. Mainstream Jewish institutions may argue that it's wrong (or impossible) to rear a child as "both," but the families in Miller's book would disagree.

While the historical and sociological material in the book is interesting (and is, I think, new -- I think this is the first substantive reporting which takes into account the perspectives of children reared in explicitly interfaith settings), I'm most interested in Miller's reflections on her own experiences and choices. She writes:

I wanted my children to be able to understand their Christian heritage, to be educated about and comfortable with Christianity in a way I had never been. I also knew I wanted them to be educated about their Jewish heritage, and to have a positive relationship with Judaism. I did not want them to feel that they were trying to 'pass' as Christians. And a more universalistic pathway, such as Baha'i or Unitarianism, seemed to ignore the detailed funk and grit of our two family traditions.

I like that line about the "detailed funk and grit," which speaks to some of my own discomfort with Unitarian Universalism even though I am a principled universalist. Miller and her family wound up joining the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. About that choice, she writes:

When I found IFFP, I found the community that I myself had been searching for all my life: A community where interfaith marriage was the norm. A community where no one would challenge my right, or the right of my children, to claim Judaism. A community where people with patrilineal and matrilineal Jewish heritage had equal standing. A community where I could safely explore the role that Christianity has played in the history of Judaism and in my family. A community where my husband and I could feel equally respected, where neither of us would feel like a guest. And finally, a community where I felt my family could be at the center, rather than on the periphery.

The need for interfaith families to be "at the center, rather than on the periphery" is something which I suspect Jewish leaders, even those of us striving to create open and welcoming and interfaith-friendly congregations, haven't though enough about. (There's a poignant quote about that need from Rabbi Nehama Benmosche later in the book, as well: "From a queer perspective, I know there's a difference between being accepted by the majority and being in a position where you are the majority," says Rabbi Benmosche.)

Here's the prayer with which the Interfaith Families Project's gatherings begin. It was written by Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, who used to serve the Interfaith Community of Palo Alto:

Reader:     We gather here as an Interfaith Community
                    To share and celebrate the gift of life together.
All:             Some of us gather as the Children of Israel
                    Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth
                    Some of us gather influenced by each

Reader:     However we come, and whoever we are
                    May we be moved in our time together
                    To experience that sense of Divine presence in each of us
                    Evoked by our worship together
All:             And to know in the wisdom of our hearts
                    That deeper unity in which all are one.

My reactions to that prayer are many and complex. I applaud the post-triumphalism inherent in "that sense of Divine presence in each of us" and "to know in the wisdom of our hearts / that deeper unity in which all are one." And yet I recognize that this prayer really pushes some boundaries -- as does the very fact of communities which identify as interfaith, not either/or but both/and. (Interesting related reading which also crossed my desk while I was writing this post: Rabbi Charles Arian's Christians and Jews: Praying Together With Integrity.)

My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) teaches that each religious tradition is a vital organ in the body of humanity. We need each to be what it most uniquely is -- were the heart to try to be the liver, or the lungs attempt to serve as the stomach, we'd be in trouble! But we also need each to be connected to and in conversation with the others. It's no longer useful (if indeed it ever was) to try to live in a world where one organ thrives at the expense of another, or where one organ tries to subsume another. I love that teaching. I share it as frequently as I can. The question, of course, is whether the bold interfaith communities which Miller describes are a dangerous blending (the heart trying to be the liver, as it were) -- or a new evolution of spiritual life, an interweaving in ways which can strengthen and enrich the whole. It seems to me from her descriptions that these interfaith communities are not one thing pretending to be another -- this isn't, for instance, Christian proselytizing masquerading as Jewish practice. I think these communities which are choosing to identify as "both" are something unprecedented and new.

In the interfaith experience Miller chronicles, there's a de-centering of individual tradition, a sense in which any religious experience is already part of a broader pan-religious context. I think that's actually true for all of us in the modern liberal-religious world -- but most of us don't enter into dialogue with other traditions quite so intentionally. I grew up learning Jewish prayers and practices in synagogue and at home, and Christian prayers and practices at school and in the broader world. Is the difference between that, and what Miller describes, a difference of degree or of kind? Of course, in my own upbringing I knew which prayers and practices were "ours" and which were "theirs," and I'm not sure that's a distinction which makes sense to kids growing up in the interfaith communities Miller describes. But I think the communities she describes may foreground and make explicit something which all of our families navigate, whether interfaith or single-faith: the process of navigating the boundaries, connections, similarities, and differences between and among different religious paths in an increasingly interconnected world.

In today's world most of us navigate communal boundaries as a matter of course. Outside of communities which are intentionally insular, we all interact with people from other religious cultures. As a rabbi and as a mom, I think a lot about how best to educate kids (and adults!) about the existence and value of different spiritual paths while also giving them a deep grounding in the richness of the Jewish path we've inherited. (This winter, for instance, I'm bringing friends who serve in a variety of traditions -- Christian, Muslim, Buddhist -- to talk to my b'nei mitzvah students.) I think it's valuable to know people who are part of other religious traditions, to have lifelong relationships with people who are walking different spiritual paths, to recognize that "our way" (whatever that way is) isn't the only way. I'm not entirely comfortable with all of the choices which Miller describes -- but I can see that those choices come bearing certain gifts, and that one of those gifts is a comfort level with and a consciousness of different paths toward God.

And I think that today's world is increasingly characterized by transcending binaries which had previously seemed oppositional, and bridging communities which had previously seemed wholly distinct. Miller argues that families who choose an explicitly interfaith identity are bridging religious divisions. Is that qualitatively different from other bridging of divisions which is taking place in other spheres?

Miller writes:

From a cultural point of view, of course, it is true that straddling two cultures is not the same as total immersion in one. Often, this is what people are referring to when they fear that teaching two religions will 'water down' the experience. Being raised in one religion does have benefits -- the main one being the strength and depth of identification with that faith. Those of us choosing both recognize that our children will not have this experience...

I like to use the metaphor that we are giving our children two roots, not leaving them rootless. The children of two Italian Catholics have one deep, thick cultural root to stabilize them. An interfaith child has at least two religious or cultural roots, by definition. If parents choose to nurture them, there will be two substantial roots the child can draw nourishment from.

I think this is a valuable book for both Jewish and Christian clergy to read. For Christian clergy it may open up new ways of thinking about Judaism and about preserving Jewish practice and tradition in a mixed-faith household. And for rabbis who serve increasingly varied and variable communities -- including a steadily-growing number of families with two or more religious heritages -- this book could spark substantive conversations which could help us both to refine our own positions, and to better relate to the people we serve. No matter where our personal lines are (do we or don't we officiate at interfaith marriages; under what sorts of circumstances; and so on), most of us serve in communities where dual-heritage families are increasingly common. The people we serve may not be explicitly making the choice Miller describes, but there are ways in which every dual-heritage family faces some of these challenges (and is, perhaps, open to some of these blessings.)

It's clear to me from reading the book that these ardently interfaith-identified families -- adults, children, and adolescents alike -- are making active choices to take their religious background(s) and practice(s) seriously. These interfaith families are approaching their worship lives, their educational lives, and their moments of lifecycle transition with thoughtfulness. This is not the path of least resistance; this is a path which requires tremendous investment of energy.

At one point in the book, Miller compares interfaith kids to "third culture kids" -- children reared in one country who come from another country, and as a result are uniquely able to bridge between their culture of origin and the culture in which they are reared. (That concept rang a bell for me right away -- Ethan's written about it in the context of homophily and xenophilia. Go and read his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.) There are ways in which interfaith kids can be natural bridges between religious communities. And maybe that gets back to Miller's tikkun olam assertion which I quoted early in this post. Miller writes:

By our very existence, strong interfaith families disarm those who believe there is only one true way to live a righteous life. By our very presence in the world, interfaith children make coexistence into a permanent reality. If the "other" is a wife or husband, if as interfaith children the "other" dwells within us, then there can truly be no "other."

It's a poignant hope. Imagine, for a moment, rewriting that paragraph with "intercultural" in place of "interfaith." Does that disarm it a little bit? And if so: what does it say that we're more comfortable with marriages and families which bridge nationalities or cultures than with families which bridge religious traditions in the ways that Miller describes?