My Label-Free Children

"Hey guys - do you know why there's no school today? It's Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and the most important Jewish holiday."

It was September 26th, and I was taking the kids and the coon hound to the dog park in the minivan. As I sometimes like to do when the kids are strapped down in an enclosed space, I was trying to educate them a bit.

"Really?" my eight-year old son Austin replied "I though Christmas was the most important Jewish holiday".

Oh dear.

After further discussion in which we reviewed what Christmas was all about (the birth of Jesus, not receiving new Lego sets), and the fact that Christian views of Jesus are different from those of non-Christians, Austin's twin brother Andrew piped up with a question I'd heard many times before:

"Wait, Mom, what are we again?"

I gave the same answer I'd given many times before:

"You are being raised Christian, but I also want you to have some understanding and exposure to Judaism since I was raised Jewish and my whole family is Jewish."

Later that night I began reading Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan et al. and came across this statement among a list of 'best practices' for raising freethinkers:

Leave kids unlabeled. Calling a child a "Christian" or an "atheist" is counterproductive to encouraging genuine free thought.

I realized at that moment that in fact I never clearly answer my children when they ask "what are we". In fact it is not a question I want to answer. Just as I refer to myself as a Jistian because my religious views don't fall neatly into one bucket, ultimately I want my children to develop their beliefs based on what makes the most sense to them. I never want them to blindly adopt a packaged set of beliefs or unthinkingly embrace a given religious identity.

My aversion to rigid religious identification probably comes from my rather unconventional German Jewish upbringing, where we served pork for Passover and latkes at our Christmas tree trimming parties. Although I always knew I was Jewish and attended Hebrew school for many years, I always felt like my religious identity was, to put it mildly, complex. It remains so today, since to my mind one never stops 'being Jewish'. I just happen to have discovered a spiritual side to my life through studying Jesus, and have acted accordingly.

I see people struggling with these same issues of religious identity all the time.  This past weekend I participated in an orientation for a new member class at our church, and almost everyone in the group had some sort of mixed religious background - Catholic, other mainline Protestant or even completely secular. Most of these folks were still feeling their way - trying to figure out exactly what they believed. They were looking for a community where they could wrestle with these issues while beginning to provide their children with some form of religious education. In fact many people who attend our church have connections with other religious institutions, and our church supports and respects the need for people to maintain those relationships.

Our church is not that unusual. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that roughly one quarter of Americans (24%) sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own (this number excludes people attending services for things like weddings or funerals). This same study also documents that Americans' beliefs often include elements that are not part of the orthodoxy of their faith (in particular, it documents the high percentage of Christians who believe in various elements of Eastern religion). As the study so aptly puts it:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories.

This willingness to seek God through many paths and worry less about following strict rules for one's religious identity seems like something that Jesus might actually have approved of. As his story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or his criticism of the Pharisees (Luke 11:37-43) demonstrate, Jesus didn't think righteousness was automatically secured just by being a part of a given religious group.

Just as racial intermarriage is creating a generation whose racial identity is fluid, I sincerely hope that interfaith marriage will lead to greater nuance in religious identity, with more people challenging and evaluating their beliefs and practices and coming to a place of faith that is authentic for them. As for my own kids - I guess I hope at least one of the boys will end up meeting a nice Jewish girl who, just like my mother's family, will enjoy putting out Easter eggs on the Seder plate.


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