Questions and Answers about Interfaith Issues

As asked of Rabbi Reuben by

Thanks for contacting me with your questions about interfaith family issues. Since I have been counseling interfaith couples and families for over 30 years and my latest book is There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2008) I am happy to share my own thoughts on the subject with you at any time. Here are my reactions to your questions:

Question #1: Is it important for young children, say under 12, to identify with one religion? (as opposed to two?)

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

I believe that religious consistency promotes emotional stability, especially for young children. Children are very flexible and they have no trouble saying, “My mom is one religion and my dad and I are another and we get to celebrate mommy’s holidays with her, too.” What is most difficult for children is when they are put into a situation where they have to say “I know what my mommy is and I know what my daddy is but I don’t know what I am.”

Question #2: Is it confusing or irresponsible to tell a young child that they can make up their own mind about which of their parents’ religions they should follow?

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

Telling children that they can make up their minds about which religion to be is putting an unfair and emotionally difficult burden on them. All children have the same needs- to feel that both of their parents love them and will protect them and keep them safe from life’s fears. The last thing that children want is to be in a position where they are asked to choose between one parent and another (that is what causes so many trauma’s among children during divorces) and asking them to choose one parent’s religion over another’s puts them in a no-win situation. Either way they choose they will feel that they are betraying one parent or another and thereby risking that parent’s love and affection. The reality of life is that all of us have the ability to choose which religion or spiritual tradition we will follow or embrace when we become adults anyway – that is why there are literally millions of people throughout the world who do in fact change from one religious tradition to another every year regardless of how they were raised. A parent’s job is to provide every child with the most stable, loving, nurturing, safe emotional environment in which to grow up that they can. My best advice is to raise your children in a consistent religious tradition, whatever that may be so that they will have a sound, emotionally secure religious identity out of which they will make decisions for themselves anyway as they grow older and meet others from different religious traditions.”

Question #3: What are some practical tips about how parents of two different religions should approach major holidays? (Should major holidays of both religions be celebrated? Should parent of that religion take the lead? Is it overwhelming for children to be exposed to too many different religious practices and holidays etc, will they not feel truly connected with either if one religion isn’t focused upon? What if one parent doesn’t want to participate in the other’s religious holidays, should the other parent carry on and celebrate with the children anyway?)

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

The challenge of an interfaith marriage is to create harmony out of differences, mutual respect and love in the midst of ambiguity and paradox. Learn to see differences as opportunities and gifts from which each in the couple can learn and which can add richness and diversity to your children’s lives as well. When couples can learn to see holidays through the eyes of their partners and not only through the lens of their own upbringing they can enrich their own lives and give their children the tools with which to experience different religious traditions in an open and nonjudgmental way.

Children who grow up in interfaith families have a right to love and respect and cherish all of their relatives regardless of their particular religious tradition. Therefore interfaith parents have a responsibility to teach not merely tolerance but nonjudgmental acceptance of the idea that there are many different legitimate paths to experiencing the sacred in our lives and no one religion is the “right” religion with all the others wrong – if that were the case then most people in the world would always be wrong and interfaith families above all others perhaps have an opportunity to experience and teach the lessons of inclusion and acceptance of differences.

Children can still feel a strong sense of identification with one specific religion or religious tradition of one parent and at the same time enjoy celebrating holidays, customs and traditions of the other without fear of confusion. In my experience with interfaith families over the years I have learned the simple lesson that when parents are confused kids are confused and when parents are not confused kids are not confused. It is helpful for parents to agree upon the religious identity of their children and to work together to reinforce that identity. At the same time every successful relationship, whether same-faith or inter-faith is a partnership. When parents make decisions together as partners then regardless of which specific decision they might make, their children will receive consistent messages and the emotional stability that such messages invariably create.

Only when couples establish what is important to them together will they be able to successfully pass those values down to their children. When parents cannot agree upon how or what to celebrate in their home or even the religious identity of their children they are running the risk of communicating that same ambiguity and spiritual insecurity to their children as well. Ultimately interfaith couples have both the opportunity and responsibility of creating their own unique religious lifestyle together – it requires patience, tolerance, flexibility and an openness to experiencing life in a different way from which they were raised. There is something wonderful about nurturing an attitude of openness and experimentation to new experiences and customs that can allow both parents and children to see themselves as partners on a lifelong journey of spiritual self discovery.

Ultimately someone in each couple will inevitably take the lead in creating the religious celebrations and experiences of the family and if you both partners are willing to share the experiences together and one person has to do it alone it is better to provide a consistent sense of religious identity for your children with one parent than to allow the other’s reticence to participate to deprive your children of the spiritual foundation that a consistent religious identity can provide.”

I hope these answers are helpful. If you have any other questions please feel free to refer to my books on interfaith relationships: A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage (Xlibris, 2002), and There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2008).

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