Ed Gaskin

Jewish, Christian Interfaith Families: Practice One Faith or Two?

Jewish and Christian or Jewish or Christian

Admittedly I am talking about a relatively small number of people because both conservative Jews or Christians wouldn’t marry outside of their faith. We are talking about liberal, non-practicing believers or cultural Jews and Christians. So what do you do when you have children in interfaith marriages? When you have interfaith families, some believe it is best if the child is raised in one faith tradition or another. My view is the faith tradition not practiced is the one that is understood to be inferior.  I think children should be raised in both faith traditions, the same way a child learns to speak two languages at home. Something similar occurs in interethnic and intercultural households. Are we going to raise our child as “white” or “Black,” as Mexican or American?

This issue seems to be becoming increasingly important as the incidents of antisemitism increases and more Jewish children raised in Jewish families don’t want to identify as Jewish or become a bar mitzvah. However, there is always the fear of assimilation.

In terms of the weekly Shabbat or Sunday service, is there anything inherently contradictory in the liturgy? Perhaps not unless it is a church that has a weekly alter call or communion service. Communion service could be for those Christian congregations that don’t practice an “open table.” An open communion allows anyone to participate without distinction or qualification. Most Christian churches allow or even extort those who don’t believe to not participate in that part of the service.

I can understand some of the practical objections such as time management. People don’t attend on a regular basis anyway, the demand of going to service twice a week, Friday and Sunday might be too much. Or attending once per week, but rotating worship services between the two traditions. And there are certain rituals such as confirmation, baptism or become a bar mitzvah that require a decision be made. Does belonging to a church and synagogue require paying tithes in church and membership fees to the synagogue? The four women Rabbis I spoke to objected to raising children in two faith traditions for theological reasons. Such as:

Jewish and Christian faith systems are too different, often contradictory, and thus too confusing for the child. And leads to the child ultimately feeling like they must choose between mom or dad. Sharing in dad’s Christmas celebration but knowing that Christmas is HIS holiday, and that the family celebrates Hannukah, or vice versa.)

Or practical reasons,

“I have heard too many stories about children who felt like they had to choose between parents when asked questions at school or had to select friends and community by valuing one faith over the other.  I feel strongly that a child (and an adult) needs a one-faith identity – that the identity makes them stronger.  I tell couples that although I hope they will choose Judaism, I would rather see them choose another faith over no faith or overexposing the child to both faiths and letting the child choose later in life.  There is great value even in cultural or traditional identity, where religious observance is minimal, but identity is strong.”

In the first example when talking about two different faith systems that are contradictory, I imagine it might be difficult trying to explain to a child in a white, Black relationship about racism, white supremacy, white guilt, white privilege and so on when one of the parents is white and the other is Black. Or the types of questions that arise with same sex marriages. It is difficult, but I believe it would be wrong not to do so. Meaning we must explain difficult things to children all of the time.

In terms of “Jewish and Christian faith systems are too different, often contradictory, and thus too confusing.” My experience, cultural Jewish or Christian practitioners don’t really care much about these distinctions and focus on the common moral or ethical similarities, not the differences.

I do agree with the second comment, “There is great value even in cultural or traditional identity, where religious observance is minimal, but identity is strong.” I would identify as a Christian who practices Judaism. People pick and choose what they want to believe and how they want to practice all of the time. In other words, people might identify with one religion and practice aspects of other religions. Yoga is adopted from Eastern religions and many Jews and Christians practice it.

I thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of a lay person who said,

I am an atheist Jew married to an agnostic Catholic we’ve raised our son with no specific religion but with the traditions of both our families. I would say that my son has not grown up confused, but he also does not know a whole lot about either religion, as we don’t attend services except for events like b’nai mitzvot, weddings, and funeral masses. If you ask him, he’ll say he’s Jewish and Christian.

Here’s another . . .

The faith that isn’t practiced is left behind and I am a firm believer in exposing kids to all traditions.

The Passover/Easter dinner dilemma is funny in relation to Easter candy!!! But all joking aside, our family has discovered how much overlap there is between Passover and Easter foods because of the shared roots of the start of spring i.e., lamb is common to both, and we typically eat lamb and potatoes! It’s also interesting because growing up, we always celebrated Christian holidays with our closest family friends at their house, and Jewish holidays at our house. Never phased me, but I remember as a teenage struggling to understand why my Jewish friends judged me for going to an Easter celebration!

Here’s another . . .

“I come at this most from an interfaith perspective — both as the daughter of an interfaith marriage (father Jewish, mother non-practicing Christian) and as a person in an interfaith relationship (me, Jewish — husband non-practicing Catholic.) I think there is a lot of fear within the Jewish community, a minority, to allow multiple practices or faiths, especially surrounding holidays — almost out of a scarcity mindset. If we celebrate Christmas or Easter, will my kid resent less fun holidays like Chanukah or Passover? Who will want to eat matzah if they can eat a basket of candy? Is there enough “love of religion” to go around?

Many Jewish interfaith (and non-interfaith) families celebrate Christian holidays, especially Christmas — but there is a strange feeling of shame associated with it. I’m embarrassed to tell my Jewish friends that I put up Christmas lights and a Christmas tree each year, for example — and why? I think a lot of the discomfort comes from years when Jews felt deep persecution from their Christian neighbors or felt more intentionally and unintentionally separated from them by different dietary laws, customs, etc. Assimilation is a historic fear from the Jewish community — if we assimilate too far, will we lose ourselves? Will the Jewish people exist? Will Judaism exist?

On a practical level, I do sometimes feel the tension of trying to practice two traditions.

For example, when I am observing the dietary laws of Passover, it is sometimes at odds with time spent at an Easter dinner where leavened bread is common. Typically, I have to make a choice — do I make myself uncomfortable in this space, trying my best to only eat traditional Passover foods? Do I “break” Passover to be a good guest and eat the delicious food provided for me? If so, when do I go back to the meaningful tradition of eating a specific diet during the week of Passover? Every year, I think about the decision.

What you are suggesting is a mindset not of scarcity but of abundance. If we celebrate more holidays, we should feel grateful for more ways to mark sacred time, to connect to sacred rituals and traditions. If we belong to more than one religious institution, we should feel lucky to have different sources of inspiration and meaning in our lives. If we welcome more than one identity, we should embrace the two, as different aspects of ourselves.”

Being both Jewish and Christian must mean more than you get twice as many holidays off as those who practice one religion or another.

I have watched Jewish children watch Christian animated Bible videos on both the Old and New Testament Bible stories, that included the life and times of Jesus and Paul, just like they would watch any other cartoons, without confusion.

Being Both by Susan Katz Miller

As I was completing this article, I came across the book, “Being Both” by Susan Katz Miller.  From the promotion of the book, it says,

“Susan Katz Miller grew up with a Jewish father and Christian mother and was raised Jewish. Now in an interfaith marriage herself, she is one of the growing number of Americans who are electing to raise children with both faiths, rather than in one religion or the other (or without religion). In Being Both, Miller draws on original surveys and interviews with parents, students, teachers, and clergy, as well as on her own journey, to chronicle this controversial grassroots movement.

. . . and there are now more children in Christian-Jewish interfaith families than in families with two Jewish parents . . . In some cities, more interfaith couples are raising children with “both” than Jewish-only. What does this mean for these families, for these children, and for religious institutions?

I would really like to hear the views of the readers. Are you a rabbi, or the child of an interfaith marriage or a parent in an inner faith marriage, I would like to hear from you.

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
Related Topics
Related Posts