My three Reform Jewish children have each married non-Jews. Each of them are raising their children as Jews. What is the best practice with respect to Christmas trees in their homes?
[Administrator's Note: A question on this topic arises periodically, particularly in the December timeframe (for obvious reasons). For related responses that may offer additional information, please see other questions on the JVO website that address this topic.]
Naturally, your question raises a whole host of issues, not the least being the fact that your children chose to marry non-Jewish partners over Jewish ones. It is surprising that all three of them chose to intermarry or “marry out.”
I must respond in accordance within the context of traditional Jewish practice and values.
I am aware of the fact that Reform Jews refer to themselves as “Reform” and not “reformed.”
Moving forward, Jewish religious status is defined by the ‘halakhah’ (Jewish Law) and Orthodox Judaism as a child born of a Jewish mother or having been converted through an halakhically acceptable ‘giyur’ (conversion) procedure.
It is difficult to discern the true status of your ‘Jewish’ children based on what you have written and even what they mean by their decision to raise their children ‘Jewish.’ If your children are males and Jewish, and their children are born of non-Jewish women, their children are non-Jews in the eyes of halakhic Judaism.
If on the other hand, your children are Jewish females who have taken non-Jews as spouses, then your grandchildren are considered halakhically truly Jews. If they are Jewish and are being raised as Jews, all efforts should be taken to create an appropriate environment for them to nurture their Judaism.
Of course, Christmas trees are not conducive to raising a Jewish child and would only bring confusion and conflict in the mind and psyche of the Jewish child.
I believe that it is a wrong reading of Christianity to minimize the significance of the Christmas tree, defining it as ‘merely’ a cultural, seasonal symbol.
If your children still listen to you and accept your advice, then I would do whatever I could to compassionately persuade them to create a ’Jewish incubator type’ environment for their children, if they truly desire to raise them as the Jews they are.
One of the greatest gifts that a parent can give their child is a religious identity. We hope that our children will be rooted in something that is enduring, meaningful and deeply enmeshed with values. By giving our children the gift of religious roots we help them grow up feeling secure and confident in who they are and connected with a community that supports and embraces them. For these reasons, it is important for an interfaith couple to make the often difficult decision of raising their children within a single faith, rather than giving them a mixture of identities. As study after study shows, children raised with multiple faiths most often wind up identifying with none at all.
While the Christmas tree can more easily trace its origins to pagan nature worship than anything truly connected with the Christian faith, it has become a ubiquitous symbol of Christian culture in our society. Having a Christmas tree in a home in which the parents have committed to raising their children as Jews sends a mixed message to kids about the identity and values of their home, and so should be avoided.
That said, for many non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children (and there are thousands across the country who are daily making this remarkable life-choice) Christmas is often the single most difficult element of their own identity to give up. Christian parents who have no trouble driving their kids to Bar Mitzvah lessons or shlepping the Passover dishes up from the basement, sometimes have a hard time with the idea of not sharing their most deeply held Christmas memories with their children. While your sons and daughters-in-law may be genuinely committed to raising their children as Jews, it is important to respect how difficult that choice can be around this time of year and sometimes, like in all matters of family, compromises must be made.
The most important thing that you can do, as a Jewish grandparent, is to make your home a welcoming, engaging Jewish space-- full of tradition, learning, and celebration. You cannot control what your children ultimately decide to do in their own homes, but you can make sure that your grandchildren experience your home as a place where they are proud to be Jews and can form life-long Jewish memories of their own.
[As aside, the liberal movement in Judaism calls itself Reform. There is no "ed." The distinction means to describe a process of continuity and change rather than only an event in the past – like the Dutch Reformed Church, which is a reference to a specific moment in history (in that case, the Protestant Reformation).]
[Administrator's note: I have edited the question to make the change from 'Reformed' to 'Reform'.]
With regard to the specific question, I suggest "least worse" response rather than best practice may be a more realistic way to address the query. Further, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this challenge. As opposed to my suggestions, the level of observance, if any, by the adults of the home is the critical, if missing factor in a family decision. And while the questioner indicates grandchildren are being raised as Jews, that is not always the case. Sometimes, and I would add with all the prejudice of an advocate for Judaism, that is true, but there are circumstances in which people determine to have their children immersed in the limbo of neither and/or both traditions.
In the circumstance above, best practice would mean only one tradition in the home, which obviously suggests there is no room for a tree. If, however, there is to be a Christmas aspect present at all, I would urge a scenario in which the Jewish parent and child mark Chanukah as the non-Jewish spouse helps them, even as they assist the non-Jewish partner mark his or her holiday with a clear understanding that this is the way we help that person with their commemoration, but it is not our sacred time. As analogy, going to a friend's birthday party is one of life's important lessons. The gifts aren't for me, but I am there to help my friend celebrate a milestone. In short, the effort is to teach lessons of respect, caring and difference. Something does not always have to be mine in order to appreciate it or to assist others in their celebration. That approach may minimize the potential danger of a parent feeling like a stranger in their own home. In a mixed marriage setting, at least as I have seen it, the tree, if any, is a very small addendum to the dominant Chanukah spirit of the home.
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