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: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/opinion/being-partly-jewish.html?_r=0
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.