The Fundamental Flaw in Susan Katz Miller’s Theology

 A few days ago Susan Katz Miller published an op ed piece in the NY Times about the virtues of raising children to be both Christian and Jewish.  She argued in the piece (she has written a book about the same topic) that in the end this can only be good for the children and the Jewish people.  Good for the children because they will be better prepared to live in our increasingly pluralistic world;  and good for the Jews because it will increase the number of people who feel connected to the Jewish community, and might decide to hang (at least some of) their hat there.  You can find a complete text of her piece at this link:

First a disclosure:  when interfaith couples come to talk to me about how to raise their children, I urge them to pick a single faith tradition.  I tell them that as a rabbi I obviously would prefer they pick Judaism, but that I would rather they pick Christianity than try to raise children who are both Christian and Jewish.  That may seem surprising, but it does indicate how strongly I believe that telling children they can be both Christian and Jewish does not work well.  

One reason for this is that a child who is raised in two faith traditions in the end will not be serious about either one.  Not to say they might not go to synagogue or church, not to say they might not celebrate holidays at home, pouring 4 cups of wine at the seder and decorating a Christmas tree in late December.  But their religious practice will be surface level, and we in the ‘religion business’ hope to help people become serious about their faith – not surface level.

Why will it be surface level?  Because once you begin to dig down a layer or two, and to work your way into the nitty gritty of belief, you will see that although Judaism and Christianity share many things, they do not share everything, and in fact differ quite sharply in a number of areas.  How Jews and Christians mourn, how they understand death and the afterlife, how they emphasize faith and works, are all dramatically different.  And if we are giving our children a serious religious education, it won’t take them long to understand that you can’t be both things.  How can you, for example, both worry about the idea of original sin (important in some Christian faiths) and not worry about it (the concept doesn’t exist in Judaism) at the same time? On a simple level, that is like telling a child they are responsible for making their bed every day, and telling them they are not responsible for making their bed every day – how are they supposed to know what to do?  You cannot both make your bed and not make it.

At the end of the day, the most serious flaw in Katz Miller’s argument has to do with the figure of Jesus.  For in all Christian faiths Jesus is a central figure, and in many he is understood as the Messiah, and sometimes as the literal son of God.  These are fundamental principles in Christianity.  But just as fundamental to Judaism is the principle that none of the above is true.  A person cannot be Christian and Jewish.  If they believe in Jesus (in any of the ways delineated above) they are Christian by definition and not Jewish.  And to be Jewish, they cannot believe in any of those ideas, and so cannot be Christian.

Maybe it is time to push back a little bit against the post-modern idea that all things are good for all people at all times.  It isn’t easy to make a choice, especially about something like religion which is so deeply intertwined with our identities.  But for religion to have a chance to be truly meaningful to people, the choice must be made.  Only then can a child fully delve into a faith traditions’s great riches and deepest meanings.  Only then will the true rewards of faith have a chance to become part of a young person’s life. 



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5 responses to “The Fundamental Flaw in Susan Katz Miller’s Theology

  1. Jill

    Many valid points, but I must ask something: the central argument here is that you cannot raise children with two contradictory fundamental beliefs about religion – in this case, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Jesus is not the Messiah, so therefore someone cannot be both Christian AND Jewish. But in our modern progressive world, how many of us actually define our religious beliefs based on the actual fundamental religious principles? For example, I don’t say “I’m Jewish because I believe there is one God, I believe in the 10 Commandments, and I believe in how Jews mourn.” I’m Jewish because I was raised that way, because I celebrate the holidays, and because that’s how I identify culturally. I think that’s how many liberal Jews identify today. Under this logic, can one conceivably be raised within two faiths…but perhaps a major issue is that some aren’t even getting the fundamentals of ONE.

    • I hear you, and no question there is a strong trend towards identifying more ethnically as a Jew and less religiously, as you say. The recent Pew Study results supported this, and it may be that in the years to come organized Jewish life (synagogue and Federation, etc) will need to adjust. I guess my question would be this – if someone is culturally Jewish, and they believe in Jesus, are they Jewish or not? I would argue they are not – believing in Jesus and being Jewish are incompatible.
      Or, to follow your argument strictly, if someone is culturally Jewish (i.e. celebrate holidays as you say above) but they also celebrate Christmas in a cultural way, are they Jewish? What about Easter? Are we willing to say that someone who celebrates both Christian and Jewish holidays, but mostly feels Jewish, is a full fledged member of the Jewish community?
      The last question is this: if we get to a point where we are almost exclusively ‘culturally Jewish’ we will even be able to sustain an identity over the long run? Without people who have a deep knowledge of the traditions, without people who actually practice those traditions? I wonder if that is a sustainable model long term, and I worry that it is not –
      thanks for your thoughtful response!

  2. Wayne

    It if difficult to understand how one could raise a child as “interfaith” and still imbue the child with a coherent religious identity. I will share that in my interfaith family (my wife is Jewish) our children were raised as Jews but they attend church with me (mostly on holidays) and join me in celebrating Christian holidays. On the other hand, I attend shul and observe Jewish holidays along with my family. As a result, they have an understanding of (and I trust respect for) both faiths but recognize who they are, what they believe, how how their beliefs differ from their dad’s.

  3. Tracey P

    As you know, I am in an interfaith marriage and think that Susan Miller is completely wrong. Chidren need an identity, a cohesive narrative of who they are – and they get by being a part of a faith larger than themselves. I do believe I am Jewish not just because I was born that way, but for that I learned Judiasm stands for and I accept to be true (even when I’m wrestling with it). I also believe that when you try to stand for everything, you stand for nothing, so there can be respect, welcoming, and dialogue, but you can only be Jewish if you believe in the tenets of Judaism. Perhaps most importantly, when interfaith couples try to make their children “both”, they are essentially abdicating their parental responsibility and asking the child to chopose a faith, which the child experiences as “choose mom” or “choose dad”. Tremendously unfair to children.

  4. Pingback: Can the interfaith family overcome Jesus? — Jewish Journal

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