Part-Time Judaism
Tue, 12/31/2013
Erica Brown
Erica Brown

As we look back on 2013, perhaps one article more than others jumps off the printed page. It is emblematic of where we are, particularly in light of the Pew Research Center study on American Jews. Susan Katz Miller wrote a controversial op-ed in The New York Times called “Being ‘Partly Jewish.’” She wrote about being part of a “growing movement” among parents to raise interfaith children with two religions. What these parents do is not news. But what is not insignificant in this piece is that intermarriage is called a movement. It is not a movement. It is a decision. Judaism has enough movements. What it lacks right now are passionate causes. And this is not one.

It is worth mining Katz-Miller’s subtle shift in language to understand what it says about our increasing need to validate personal Jewish choices so that they feel less personal and more communal.

Katz Miller refuses, she writes, to accept the blame or the pessimism for making what others consider a “potentially damaging choice” for interfaith children. Instead, she celebrates this decision and its wisdom. Her children, she claims, have a choice about religion rather than a coercive experience of Judaism. But, as anyone who has ever been a child knows, all children ultimately have choices to make as they take their own steps toward faith or any other significant life decision. “Dual-faith parenting is an exercise in letting go. We dare to give our children full knowledge of their religious backgrounds. We think it’s working: for the parents, for the kids and even for Judaism.”

One senses, however, that even if were not working for her family — and we will have to check-in in a few years to know how she defines success — she would not say so. It is working if you think it is working. What, we wonder, does she mean by “full knowledge of their religious backgrounds?” Information is no substitute for immersion.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his book “Growing Up Religious,” makes the case that any child who grows up with religion and maintains commitment undergoes some personal search, questioning or break with faith in order to establish it on his or her own terms instead of as a received inheritance. If you grow up part-time in any faith, you may not have a substantial enough foundation to make this break and reconstruction on your own.

Two reader response that were posted on the online version of the article were particularly striking. Some saw themselves in Katz Miller’s writing. Many, however, were skeptical of her premise and felt her to be naive. One person wrote, “Ultimately, you have four choices: Mom’s, Dad’s, something else or nothing else.” Another responded, “Atheists have no problems.” This is somewhat reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s line, “My wife’s Catholic and I'm Jewish, so we’re raising our kids to be sad.”

Katz Miller’s piece appeared not long after the Pew study was released and gave fuel to much thinking about affiliation or lack of it. Twenty percent of American Jews today do not affiliate with Judaism, and 25 percent of the intermarried families interviewed were raising their children as part Jewish and part something else. Children become “bilingual,” Katz Miller contends, the way that they might in a home where more than one language is spoken. But often what really happens in homes where two languages are spoken is that children are semi-lingual in both, unable to sustain a robust conversation in either.

No one wants to be left out. We all understand the value of boundaries until they are placed on us, and we are the excluded ones. But it is different to claim that a new movement that proudly loves on the margins is on the horizon. The test of virtually all Jewish movements is continuity over generations.

In response to this movement, perhaps we need to drop the perpetual use of the word “journey” in Jewish life in favor of the word “destination.” Journey feels like a lovely invitation for people to explore questions of meaning and relevance while advancing Jewish knowledge, but without pushing Jewish commitment. A journey is inherently safe and respectful. It helps us engage others with an attitude of discovery. Get people curious, the thinking goes, and the beauty of our tradition will be enough to turn tourists into genuine seekers.

What were we thinking? Journey can also imply a meandering, wandering, often destination-less trip that asks little and delivers even less. These journeys, when shared, are often tedious and passive records of decisions or events — like Hebrew school or bar mitzvah — often made by someone else. What are the real and transformative Jewish decisions that make for an interesting story? Many Jewish milestones are high on sentiment and weak on content, full of feeling but empty of depth. 

It is time to create Jewish destinations rather than mere journeys, causes rather than movements. It is a high time for high content and passion-filled Jewish moments that spill over with their relevance to the way we actually live our lives: in informing our values, in raising the ethical bar, in shaping our rituals, in giving us a spiritual language to articulate human purpose, in offering us a portal to God and transcendence.

Judaism, to be a thick identity, in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, is not part-time commitment with full-time benefits. It is the framework and the lens, the core and the vision. Why would you “affiliate” with anything that demands less of you? It’s not about affiliation. It never has been. It’s about meaning and wisdom. And our language must change to reflect this. This is the year when destination matters.

Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, writes the “Jew By Voice” column for the paper.