We are Jews. However, between Ken and me we are occasional temple going, theoretically God-fearing, skeptical, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Ladino, Yiddish, kosher non-kosher eating Jews. And at the end of the day we transcend our internal conflicts, our spiritual doubts to do our small part for Jewish continuity.
I thought even more about the religious legacy we are handing down to Anna and Adam after I heard from a friend who is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. She is writing a book about bringing up her children to identify as both Jews and Christians. She was brought up in the Reform movement and remembers her Bat Mitzvah as important and affirming to her identity as a Jew. Then in college she dated a Jewish man who told her their relationship had no future because her mother was not Jewish According to halacha or traditional Jewish law she was not a Jew. She was shocked. And then she was angry. I can’t help but thinking that the Jewish establishment drove her to find another way that sacrifices Jewish continuity.
Through the years I have respected my friend’s intelligence and insights even as they moved further away from mine. A couple of years ago I sent her my column about The Conservative movement’s decision to accept gay and lesbian Jews as clergy and married couples. She wrote back urging me to read my essay through the eyes of a “’halachically non-Jewish’ Jew. We always find it quite amazing that many Jews will accept homosexual marriage (which of course they should) but not a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, or an interfaith child.”
Her words moved me to seek a thoughtful, principled answer to her quandary. After culling the wisdom of rabbis, teachers and community leaders, I have concluded that the two issues—accepting gay and lesbian unions between two Jews and the marriage of a Jew and non-Jew—are completely unrelated. The first is in line with Jewish continuity; the other is not. The chances are greater that the children of two Jewish parents—gay or straight—will be raised as Jews. According to the National Jewish Population Survey “nearly all children (96%) in households with two Jewish spouses are being raised Jewish, compared to a third (33%) of the children in households with one non-Jewish spouse.”
The question of determining Jewish identity through matrilineal or patrilineal descent is a separate issue that is uniquely addressed within Judaism’s movements. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews recognize the child of either Jewish parent as Jews. Conservative and Orthodox Jews are unwavering in their conviction that only the mother determines the religious identity of a child. I am a Conservative Jew who is thrilled to see the child of one Jewish parent—mother or father—identify as a Jew.
Still, it is crucial for me to walk step by step through the reasoning that has shaped Conservative Judaism’s views on interfaith marriage in order to understand and ultimately support a tenet that at first glance seemed unsympathetic to me. I remember feeling uneasy when we filled out Anna’s application to Solomon Schechter Day School. There in the fine print was the caveat that applicants must be the children of Jewish mothers or be converted in keeping with the standards of the Conservative movement. I was used to reading fine print proclaiming that an applicant would not be denied admission or employment on the basis of religion, gender or sexual orientation. I was at a loss. Was this prejudice or faith?
It all boils down to answering that familiar and uncomfortable question—Is it good for the Jews? The Leadership Council on Conservative Judaism, an umbrella organization that includes the Jewish Theological Seminary and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, bluntly asserts “the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non- Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. …We want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews.”
Jewish outreach or keruv to interfaith families—whether it is through Web sites like Interfaithfamily.com or synagogue programs—unequivocally advocates for interfaith families to raise their children as Jews. My friend’s children are not being strictly raised as Jews. Her ecumenical approach works for her family, but sadly I have to acknowledge that raising them in two religions is not in the interest of klal yisrael—the Jewish community. Our diverging views on interfaith issues have created a divide between us that I pray will someday be bridged.