God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

I received lots of comments on my recent column about an interfaith couple having a tough time deciding whether or not to get married -- and if they did, how to pick the faith in which to raise their children.

D. weighed in with this: "My Catholic husband and I (Jewish) raised two boys. Both had a bris, both were baptized, and then both attended religious school and received their first Communion. I thought we were finished until my husband insisted that they also be confirmed.

"One son was confirmed in the Catholic church, while the other became a bar mitzvah. As far as we're concerned, both boys are Jewish and Catholic because that's what their parents are.

"I understand that religion is based on belief (sometimes opposing ideas and beliefs), but we feel that the basis for religion is to do the right thing and let your conscience guide you to be a good person. This is what our sons have been taught. If we're in a temple, they follow the temple routine. If we're in a church, they follow the church routine. Nobody has been hurt, and if anything, everybody wins. If everybody took the time to learn more about other people's religious beliefs, maybe, just maybe, we could find world peace."

B., a deacon in the Catholic church, had a different opinion: "Thank you for your compassionate and courageous column on interfaith couples. When I've shared these sentiments with couples meeting from the parish, I give them a real-life example.

"My wife's aunt, who's Presbyterian, married a wonderful Jewish man. They had two boys and decided to 'introduce' the boys to both faiths. When the boys reached early adolescence, they allowed them to decide which religion they'd follow. Both boys decided on no religion at all.

"About 10 years later, their father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. The family was devastated, especially the boys. And as they had no faith to fall back on, both were overwhelmed emotionally; one turned to drugs, the other, alcohol. As you so wisely state, children need faith, not confusion."

To D., I would say that she and her husband seem to have done exactly as I suggested. One of their sons is Jewish and one is Catholic. This gives each child the primary religious identity so important for clear self-understanding.

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It's also fine for a child to be raised with no religion, but with a strong core of ethical values. I understand how hard a choice this is to make, however. Passing on religiously based ethical values with no attachment to the theological beliefs that generated those ethics is not easy.

I don't agree that prospects for world peace are hurt by the fact that people practice many different religions. I think the world is hurt by having different opportunities for freedom and education. We all do the best we can to incorporate the traditions of two families when we marry. Incorporating different religious traditions is simply a more challenging difference to overcome.

The main point of my earlier column was that the more deeply held such different religious beliefs are, the more difficult it is to find a single religion for each of your children. For example, does your Catholic son feel left out when the family celebrates Passover? Does your Jewish son feel left out when you celebrate Easter? To Deacon B., I would say: Thank you for having the pleasure of understanding me. However, I'm not sure I'd agree that the emotional struggles of the two boys who lost their father were caused by their being raised without religious faith. Many people of faith are also broken by the death of someone they loved more than life.