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Marrying a Buddhist is Marrying Out, Right?

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

Last month our daughter got engaged to a young man who was born to Jewish parents, raised with Judaism-light, and then became a Buddhist during college. It was not until after he proposed did my wife and I come to understand how serious a Buddhist he is. Our daughter tells us that Buddhism and Judaism are very compatible, and that she still plans on keeping a Jewish home for her future family, just like the one she was raised in. We think she might be living in denial about the challenges of an interfaith home, mostly because of what we see as her level of ignorance (whether willful or not) about the fact that Buddhism is still a different religion with its own theology. Seesaw, do we explain to her that she is, in fact, choosing an interfaith life, or let her figure it out on her own? — Less Om, More Oy

Commonalities Don’t Equal Compatibility

HAROLD BERMAN: In Roger Kamenetz’ “A Jew in the Lotus,” an entrenched Jewish Buddhist describes himself as having “Jewish roots, Buddhist wings.” This may describe your daughter’s fiancee. Unfortunately, as Kamenetz found, many Jewish Buddhists seem unaware that amazing Jewish wings also exist, and are there for the taking.

Buddhism and Judaism do share commonalities. So do Christianity and Judaism. And Bahai and Judaism. And, and … But commonalities don’t equal compatibility. One can easily find similarities between Judaism and Buddhism. But one need not look far to find significant differences in worldview and approach to daily life.

While some Jewish Buddhists insist that their Buddhism is compatible with Judaism, Messianic Jews say much the same thing about their practice of Christianity. Such superficial syncretism is not only unfair to Judaism; it is also deeply disrespectful to Buddhism.

You question is whether your daughter’s ignorance is willful. This is key. If she is unaware, you only need to give her the facts. If, as is much more likely, she is emotionally invested in reconciling her fiancee’s Buddhism with her intention to create a Jewish home, then she will be resistant and you need to tread lightly.

It may be helpful if you (or better, a friend she trusts) can open a conversation about how she envisions her Jewish home. Gentle, direct questions may help her probe more deeply. Does her fiancée share her goal of raising Jewish children? Will he be supportive of a Jewish home? Is he willing to learn more about Judaism? Will he participate in the children’s Jewish upbringing? Have they discussed any of this?

An excellent book for all of you to read, is “Letters to a Buddhist Jew.” It represents a two-year correspondence between a prominent rabbi and a Jewish Zen Buddhist. It delves deep and can be a source for learning, questioning and serious discussion.

Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”

There Are Many Different Buddhist Traditions

SAMIRA MEHTA: I hear your concern that your daughter may be entering into an interfaith marriage without really realizing that she is doing so, but it is likely that she knows more about her fiancé’s beliefs and practices than you do.

It might be helpful to remember two things in approaching their relationship and decisions. First, there are many different Buddhist traditions. While some traditions are extremely different from Judaism, in the United States, many Buddhist traditions were specifically shaped to be appealing to Western practitioners and to complement their already existing values and identities. If your future son-in-law belongs to one such tradition, it may well be highly compatible with Judaism.

Second, over the past half-century or so, many American Jews have, like your daughter’s fiancé, been draw to these practices and communities. Some of them have continued to maintain Jewish religious lives. Others identify strongly with a Jewish ethnic identity.

Perhaps your future son-in-law continues to connect to his Judaism alongside his Buddhist practice. Even if he doesn’t, his Jewish upbringing means that he will likely be familiar with the traditions that your daughter wants to maintain in their home. There may even be traditions that are also important to him. You might want to learn more from your daughter and her fiancé about the home that they intend, trusting that your daughter has had time to form her own judgments about whether Buddhism, as it exists in his life, will be something compatible with the home she envisions.

Samira K. Mehta, PhD, is a public fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies. She is currently working on a book entitled “Beyond Chrismukkah: Christian-Jewish Blended Families is the United States.”

Yes, By Definition, They Will Be Creating an Interfaith Home

SUSAN KATZ MILLER: I agree with you that, by definition, they will be creating an interfaith home. From my point of view as an interfaith child and parent, I think inevitably they will be an interfaith family, no matter which religious label and formal religious education they choose for their children. But I doubt that your daughter is in denial about this, or ignorant. As someone engaged to a man who practices Buddhism, presumably your daughter has been learning about Buddhist worldviews and traditions, and she knows that many Jews practice Buddhism, without conflict.

Instead, in emphasizing her attachment to Judaism, I think she is trying to reassure you about her intention to pass on Judaism to her children. I think the best course of action is to do everything you can to help her maintain Judaism in her family, as wonderful (future) Jewish grandparents, rather than trying to presume and project that problems will arise.

Most likely, your daughter has already read some of the classic works by people who claim Judaism and Buddhism simultaneously. I recommend you read them as well, since being part of a successful interfaith family means educating yourself in order to better understand the worldview of family members. And as the in-laws of a Buddhist, you will be part of an extended interfaith family. You could start with “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist” by Sylvia Boorstein.

I recognize that as a parent, you want to protect your child from a life that sounds to you like it will be harder. But I urge you to focus on the idea that being part of an interfaith family can be spiritually and culturally and intellectually enriching. All of you will be happier, if you do everything you can to reduce the challenges for your daughter in maintaining her Judaism and passing it on, while also being part of an interfaith family. Most of these challenges come from outside the interfaith home: from the resistance and negativity of institutions and individuals that don’t understand that there are benefits as well as drawbacks for interfaith families, and that love can indeed prevail.

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).

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