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God Squad: When it comes to raising kids, you can't have it both ways

QUESTION: We are reform Jews with a strong Jewish identity. We light candles on Shabbat, observe major holidays, don't eat bread on Passover, and have visited Israel many times, although we typically go to synagogue only on yartzheits or for the High Holy Days. Our children attended religious school and were bar and bat mitzvahed. Our son, now 30, has been dating a wonderful woman for two years and they're contemplating marriage. She's Catholic and wants her children to be baptized and confirmed. Our son wants his son to have a bris and his children to be bar or bat mitzvahed. Their discussions about religion usually end without resolution. At one point, they thought about raising any children with either no religion or both religions. At this point, they feel the need to either marry or break up. They love each other very much. Can a child be raised both Catholic and Jewish? Will the church and the synagogue allow this? Being raised with both religions would seem to me a better option than with no religion.

-- C., via email


ANSWER: You raise a painful but common question, and the simple answer is no (with love).

Churches and synagogues either strongly urge or absolutely require that children enrolled in religious education classes not take classes in another faith. The reason for this is obviously that a child could be deeply confused faced with patently contradictory teachings.

How can a child be taught that Jesus is and also is not God? How can a child be taught that the sacraments of the church are both necessary and unnecessary for salvation? How can a child be taught that the winter/spring holidays are Christmas and Easter, and also be taught that the winter/spring holidays are Hanukkah and Passover? How can a child be taught to take and not take communion? These and other contradictory teachings inevitably produce children who believe they are and are not Jewish, and that they are and are not Christian. Children have many inalienable rights, and among them is the right to know what religion they are.

This can only be done by making the choice to enroll children in either a church or a synagogue religious school.

The process I used to help couples like your son and daughter-in-law decide which religion to give their children started with a ruler. I'd take a 12-inch ruler from my desk and place it before them. Then I'd tell them to use the ruler to rank the strength of everything they believed.

Things that didn't matter much to them were near zero on the ruler, and things that were central to their life were near 12. We'd rank a variety of things this way, from food preferences to neatness, sports and sexual ethics. Then I'd ask them to place their religious beliefs on the ruler. If one of them set faith near 12 and the other ranked it near zero, the choice was obvious. The "12 person" got to raise the kids in his or her faith, simply because religion was much more important to him or her.

Problems arose when two religious 12s came to see me. In my experience, most decided not to marry.

"It's sad but true, rabbi, but sometimes everything in a relationship is perfect except for one thing, but that one thing is enough to keep it all from working," one such candidate told me. I agree.

The fact that your kids have not been able to resolve this issue may mean that religion is just too important for either of them to surrender what's given them such comfort. Trying to raise their kids as "boths" would just push their conflict onto their children, which is not fair.

What I pray for is that your grandchildren will be able to enter a church or a synagogue and in one of the two places be able to say and be able to feel, "I am home here."

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