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I’m a Jewish man married to a non-Jewish, not at all religious woman. I believe in God and she doesn’t. Our 5-year-old is starting to ask the big questions about what God is and whether we believe and we now feel like we have to get our story straight on this whole God thing, but don’t know where to start. Should we explain to him that we have different point of views and just be honest? Or, my wife’s idea, should we come up with one answer that is less about us and more abstract and inclusive? If the latter, any ideas? She says she doesn’t want her lack of belief to get in the way with his potential for belief. Help.
LAUREL SNYDER: This is a personal decision, and I think that what you tell your kids needs to be an extension of what you can sustain in your household. Does that make sense? Kids don’t need one answer one time. They need an answer that can filter into everything, become a part of their world-view. So if you guys can come up with an answer that suits you both, and then live that answer for the next 18 years or so, that’s fine. But I’d find that difficult.
For me, personally, it would be much easier to share different ideas with the kids, and explain that people don’t always agree about God. I’d tell them that God is personal, different in different lives. God can be debated. Explain that Mom and Dad also disagree about other important things, that it’s okay for people who love each other to see the world differently. I might go so far as to get some books, full of folk tales and myths.
I have often felt that the real theological issue in most interfaith homes is that faith becomes binary, and competitive. Which really makes no sense. There are not TWO WAYS to understand (or not) God. There are endless ways. Kids have an easier time with that pantheistic approach than grownups, I’ve found.
All that said, I want to add that identity has as much to do with practice as belief, and in that, I think you guys will want to present a unified front. Kids can grasp big philosophical ideas, and wrestle with them, but I think they’ll want a straightforward answer for the question, “Are we Jewish?” Whatever you decide to explain about your differing views on God, I’d hammer out a single definition for household practice. It can be creative, but it shouldn’t be in conflict.
ALANA SUSKIN: This kind of question will come up often as you raise children. Sex, God, death… they all arise in all types of relationships and it is normal that both partners in the relationship will have different ideas about these things. That’s why it is important to remember that you only need to answer the question that your child asks, and not necessarily to have an entire theory worked out ahead of time.
That said, your answer should depend on the decision you have made about how you want to raise your children religiously — and you should make a decision about that. If you want your child to be raised as a Jew, you will want to offer different answers than if you have decided to raise your child non-religiously, or in another religion. It’s important for you to make that decision, though — because not making a decision is also a decision, and that decision often results in confused children who aren’t really sure where their place in the world is.
When your child asks specifically about your beliefs, it is important to answer honestly. When they are younger, you can say that people have different beliefs and explain what each of you believe. Something like, “Dad believes that there is one God who created everything, Mom doesn’t believe that God created everything. We both hope that you will have the capacity to believe in God, and so we are going to teach you by [whatever you’ve decided to do to teach him].” As he gets older, you can give more sophisticated answers by providing him with religious instruction combined with honest responses that are appropriate to his age.
In any case, as he grows to adulthood he will find his own way, no matter what you do. And it’s clear from the way you phrased your question to start with, that you are both sensitive people who are going to lay an excellent groundwork for your child’s spiritual development.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is a writer, educator, and activist. She sits on the executive committee of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is a Managing Editor of Jewschool, a leading Jewish faith blog, and was a founding fellow of Clal’s project, Rabbis Without Borders. She is the Director of Strategic Communications for Americans for Peace Now.
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: I am all for honesty here. In my experience, and in my research with hundreds of interfaith families, I found that the spiritual and intellectual lives of interfaith children can be enriched when parents bring two worldviews to the family, and that includes non-religious worldviews.
Children grow up to make their own decisions about belief, practice, and affiliation. I see a parent’s role as providing a foundation in terms of familiarity with religious history, texts, and practices, and also opportunities for spirituality. You will probably find that your son’s personal beliefs will shift over time, through childhood and beyond. I don’t think it is useful or healthy to try to shield him from the beliefs of his parents.
What will be essential will be to respond to his questions with “I believe this. And you should ask your mother what she believes.” If you model respect, strong communication, and love across the religious/non-religious divide, he will feel secure in his ability to wrestle with these big questions. You might want to take a look at a new book being published this week by Dale McGowan, In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Non-Believers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families. While it focuses primarily on Christian/secular relationships, it contains helpful advice for all couples, and interesting case studies. McGowan writes, “Both parents can and should wear their own identities proudly, even as they point to each other for alternate points of view.”
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).