The PBS Religion & Ethics News program chose to inaugurate 2015 with a feature titled “Raising Kids in Two Faiths.”
In my book, “Jewish, Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish? Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium” — which explains why they came around to interview me — I call such individuals, with tongue in cheek, chewish. The program focused on a Jewish mother, a Christian father and their four chewishly raised children.
In this book on marriage, I make the case that chewish kids can be happy, but the pathway is fraught with pitfalls and is dangerous in many ways unforeseen when parents make such decisions.
In my rabbinate practiced in seven decades and over 50 years, I have published the reasons why the decision is ill-advised and often a serious family blunder, potentially aberrant in several rather bizarre outcomes.
To a young couple raising a chewish family, several important questions must be addressed.
Does it disturb you as parents that your four children are all choosing different faiths, and therefore how tight-knit, intimate or closely connected will they and their children be celebrating different calendars and adhering to contradictory understandings of the world they live in? Already each child knows that the burden to choose or remain bisected does not reside with the parents’ responsibility but has been placed upon them to decide who they are to be. Except for their religious identities, all other profound choices of upbringing are being made by their parents.
Clearly, when a family is of one faith they have much in common and their children’s children are likely to be of one identity and one faith. Isn’t that preferred by most families? One of the boys, the eldest has already selected their mother’s Jewish identity and is studying for his bar mitzvah; predictably the other younger siblings are already reacting to their brother’s choice and profess to be leaning or reacting to or balancing their brother’s choice by inclining towards the father. Siblings already off in different directions!
Mind you, unlike their children, neither parent had been brought up with a split religious identity. Yet they are inflicting this condition on their children. No parents I’ve known would prefer different religions for all their kids. How will that keep them close?
For some reason the parents were not asked, “Does not the likelihood of a religiously split family register as important in your choice of going both routes simultaneously and is not chewish really choose-ish, choosing certain members of the family with whom to align and with whom not to align? They are, after all, children. And have not the children been put into a position of choosing?”
They cannot be choosing between two religious identities having had little experience with either over any length of time enabling them to make such a profound judgment. In truth, the only way to make such a choice is to live three lives, the first Jewish, the second as a Christian and then one perhaps may decide which is to be preferred for the third lifetime; unfortunately we are only provided one lifetime.
A child, by definition, has not grown mature enough for such a mature decision. Important decisions are made by parents. The two parents remarked that they each did not wish to have their children deprived of what they each received growing up. And neither parent expressed maturity by willingly dropping me-me for the sake of we-we, thinking not what’s best for the children but what meets the needs of “me.” Can it really be best for the children to have to decide so profound a thing as their identity? How can children not be choosing between their parents and how can they possibly have developed an understanding of belief systems?
And what of time otherwise spent on sports, music, dance, something else? Two religious calendars to follow in a home not especially committed to either? What does the family give up, defer or neglect? Will not such an upbringing invariably be mostly superficial? Is not the chewish upbringing a gauntlet to traverse? So have I understood that pathway of life in over five decades as related to me by the now adult offspring of such a bisected upbringing.
I’ve been counseling couples to choose the minority route if they want both because the minority gets the majority.
Moreover, Christianity is rooted in Judaism as branches are attached to the trunk which makes Christians partly Jewish, and Judaism their common denominator. Isn’t it appropriate to contend that chewish is neither Judaism nor Christianity but something else entirely?
None of these issues were addressed in the program.
In the interview of well over an hour, mostly dropping to the cutting room floor, I spoke at length about why convergence is to be preferred over conversion in Jewish priorities. I also explored the importance of recognizing the ascending lineality or retrojected identity dynamics based on the thesis that children transmit identity to parents — not solely the other way around — and that two born Jews raising Unitarian children are Jews no longer.
And a non-Jewish parent raising Jewish children – also understood by Reform Judaism as presumptively Jewish children – might deserve the innovative classification, the Toshav Zedek, and are like the erav rav mixed multitude leaving Egypt who have become us.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Bet Chesed in Bethesda.