Is it preferred for an intermarried family, in which there is a celebration of both Jewish and Christian traditions, both to light a Chanukah menorah and to decorate a Christmas tree in their home, or should they just have the Christmas tree? In particular, what is preferred when the circumstances involve the teaching of their children about Jewish tradition? What is best way for them to proceed?
This is not a question that is designed to make a rabbi happy. :-(
This is a hot-button issue for me.
You pose a no-win situation.
I am not speaking to the issue of interfaith marriage, but the situation as you describe it.
The factors that go into this issue, to my mind, are these.
First, it is inappropriate for a Jew to practice any other religion (just as it is inappropriate for a faithful and believing Christian to practice another religion, or a Muslim to practice another religion, or …. Etc.). The Jewish spouse in this scenario is already on shaky ground, before we even start to look at the details.
Second, this is presumably being done ‘for’ the children. In reality, I believe, it is a completely selfish and egocentric response on the part of one or both parents, who would seem to be unwilling or unable to act as adults and parents, and to make the hard choice of what they will do and teach, so they can offer their children something substantive to help support them later in life. As one of my colleagues (Rabbi Sue Levi) has often said, children are either apples or oranges; they are never fruit salad. All that children can gain from the approach of ‘both’ is to be confused by, distant, disaffected, and alienated from both religions.
Third, choices such as religion are not possible until a child is ready and able to make a meaningful decision. That does not happen until sometime in the mid- to late-teen years for most children. Younger children developmentally do not deal with ‘gray’ areas well: the world is pretty much black and white, right and wrong, this or that, to them. To give them ‘both’ is to provide neither, and worse, it sets them up as seeing that making a choice for one or the other religion is actually about choosing one parent over the other. That is a completely unacceptable place to put a child – and all the more so when it is done because a parent or couple refuse to or can’t make a decision for themselves, and therefore stick their child with the responsibility to choose.
In the instances where a couple has come to me asking about the possibility of an interfaith wedding, and it has become clear in our conversation that they have not decided on a religion in which to raise their children, I have said to them that I would far prefer that they go have a Church wedding and raise the children in that faith, than to subject them to the generally unworkable and therefore damaging fraud of ‘both’. I also have said to them that I would be even happier if they decided to raise their children as Jews, and have only one religion practiced in the home.
I realize that this is not likely a popular view, nor does it seem ‘warm and welcoming’, but I hold the interests of the potential children to be of higher value than the comfort of the couple. The children, after all, have no choice in the situation into which they are brought. If the couple are unable to decide for themselves when it affects no one but the two of them, how can they possibly justify putting children in the same position without guidance?
So the bottom line is that I would have to inform this couple that in my considered opinion they are acting contrary to the best interests of the children, and that this is not an approach that they should continue to follow. It would be far better if they wish to choose only one religion to practice and teach the children. If they choose Christianity, then they must do so fully and with an open heart. Similarly, if they choose Judaism, it must be fully and with an open heart. Of course, I would personally prefer to see them choose Judiasm, but either way, they must choose for the sake of the children.
I think this is the kind of question that pushes a framework like Jewish Values Online to its limits. From an Orthodox perspective, I can understand how it comes about that a family feels the need to celebrate both Jewish and Christian traditions, I can empathize with the Jewish parent who finds him or herself in this situation, and I can applaud the hope to transmit a sense of Jewishness to one's children. But after that, there's little advice to offer.
In this case in particular, it seems hard to imagine how to transmit a Jewish tradition of Chanukah in such a family, since the basic, fundamental message of Chanukah was that Jews realized they could not be both Hellenists and Jews, that a small band of Jews realized they were being asked to mix their Judaism with another culture in a way that just did not fit. It was the Syrian-Greek attempt to assimilate the Jews more into their culture that led to the Maccabean revolt; to try to twist that experience to have it fit smoothly with a life that is doing that same thing-- letting Judaism be subordinated to, mixed with, a completely different culture, religion, and worldview-- seems to me self-defeating.
The message of Chanukah was that Jews realized they needed to tread their own path in life, one that can easily take from other traditions, but cannot be mixed with or subordinated to those other traditions. With all respect, with a sense of sadness that I cannot offer better advice, I cannot see any way of celebrating both Chanukah and hte holiday of any other religious tradition without completely upending the message of Chanukah itself.
Ah, the December dilemma! Let me be straightforward. I believe that children should be raised with unambiguous religious identities – even if their parents’ faith traditions are different from one another.
It is, of course, edifying for children to learn about other religious traditions – especially if one of their parents has a religious identity different from their own. But there’s a difference between educating children regarding how other people celebrate holidays -- which I think is a good thing – and expecting a child to observe other people’s holy days -- which I don’t think is a good thing.
One’s religious practice should flow from one’s religious identity. Jews with strong Jewish identities naturally celebrate Jewish holidays, whereas Christians are naturally drawn to celebrate Christian holidays.
If one is raising Jewish children, they should, of course, be taught about Hanukkah, encouraged to light hanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs), and celebrate the holiday.
And what should they do when Christmas comes around?
I don’t believe that they should celebrate Christmas, but if one of the parents in the household is Christian and wants to observe Christmas, I don’t see anything wrong with the others in the household (including the children, even if they are Jewish) helping that parent accomplish that goal.
Can this be done without compromising the religious identity of the Jewish children? I think so. In the words of Jewish educator Joel Grishaver, Jews should feel free to “visit” Christmas, but shouldn’t themselves observe the festival. If a Christian parent in an interfaith household needs some help, for example, decorating a Christmas tree, then the others in the household can and should be responsive. Why? In order to help that parent celebrate his or her holiday -- which is a beautiful gesture.
The critical distinction is this: whatever the Jews in the household (including the children) do in connection with a Christmas tree in the home, it should be with the awareness that the tree is not there for them; it is not there to help them celebrate their holiday. Their involvement with it is a way of lovingly helping their (non-Jewish) parent celebrate his or her religious festival.
That, it seems to me, is very much in the spirit of the season -- whatever one’s religious tradition.
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