by Rabbi Adam Roffman
While driving around Dallas this week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Dr. Duane Bidwell, a professor at the Claremont School of Divinity. The topic of the interview was his new book, When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritual Fluidity. His argument, essentially, was that there are a growing number of Americans who don’t identify themselves as being solely Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish but rather a combination of different religions. While much of this 21st century phenomenon is the result of intermarriage (he cites marriage between Jews and Christians as a primary example,) he argues that in today’s society it is becoming more and more acceptable to take on a much less dogmatic, more flexible religious identity.
Needless to say, despite my continued insistence that Jewish communities be more welcoming to and celebrate families with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent who commit to Jewish life and who choose to raise their children as Jews, I was not impressed by his argument. And though I tried to call into the show to ask Dr. Bidwell about some of my concerns, his thinking clearly touched a nerve because the line was busy for the more than 20 minutes I spent trying to reach the radio station. So, instead, I’ll share with you some of the deep flaws I found in his thinking.
First, the idea of “picking and choosing” the relevant and meaningful parts of different faith traditions and combining them into an individual religious practice simply flies in the face of what the Abrahamic faiths, in particular, are founded upon and ignores the fundamental differences between them.
If you’re Jewish, you’re an ethical monotheist—you profess your faith in the oneness of God. And though Christians also believe in one God, they believe that God is comprised of three parts—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that in order to achieve salvation, one must accept all three.
If you’re Muslim, you believe that our Bible, upon which Judaism and later Christianity were founded, contains inaccuracies (like the fact that they believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the one almost sacrificed on Mount Moriah) that are rectified in the Qur’an.
And if you’re Christian, you believe that Jesus found early rabbinic Judaism and the rituals and laws that emerged from it to be overly complex, archaic, and too easily subject to corruption.
Sure, pretty much everyone makes decisions about which religious “rules” to keep and which to ignore, but that’s not the same thing as discarding central tenets of your faith to reconcile ideas that are incompatible with each other. (When the interviewer asked Dr. Bidwell, for example, how his “fluidity” influenced his concept of salvation, he said that, as a Christian, salvation is not central to his faith. Which is like a Jew saying that the Torah isn’t that central to her Judaism.)
Second, frankly, the idea of religious fluidity, of smoothing over the significant differences between different belief systems to create one that “speaks to you” is both intellectually and spiritually lazy. Every religion has challenging ideas, ideas that don’t seem logical or relevant at first. You could adopt those of another faith instead (maybe you find the ethical vegetarianism of Jainism more compelling,) or you could challenge yourself to deepen your understanding of your own tradition. For many, many years I didn’t “get” kashrut, a practice that Christians say is part of the “old law” that died with Jesus on the cross. Then, when I found myself living in Jerusalem for the first time, I decided to try it. That was 12 years ago. Clearly, I was convinced. Part of what religion is supposed to do is restrict some of your choices in order to point you toward a sacred path that often calls the values of the world around you into question (e.g. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want.)
Finally, and most importantly, for Jews, Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a culture, a civilization, and a peoplehood. If religion was fluid, there would be no reason to have a State of Israel. And if religion has no boundaries, we risk losing the distinctions that make us uniquely Jewish.
Truth be told, I sometimes find other religious spaces more inspiring than some of my own. How many times have I left a church and thought to myself, “Wow! These people pray with passion and conviction!” How many times have I heard a Muslim talk about Ramadan or memorizing the Qur’an and remarked to friends and colleagues, “Islam truly is a religion of tremendous discipline and focus.” I wouldn’t mind spending a month meditating in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet (well, maybe not a monastery, but you get the point.) But never, ever, could I imagine compromising or sharing my Jewish identity with another religious identity because that would be a betrayal of my people. As a rabbi, it’s my job to take the inspiration I receive from other faith traditions and try to bring that into our synagogue in ways that are compatible with our faith.
And actually, it’s not that hard! Because many Jewish communities do these things already and have for hundreds if not thousands of years. I don’t need Jesus to believe in sacrifice, salvation, God’s love, or a messianic era. I don’t need Islam to believe in the power of fasting, or divine justice, or the need to go on a religious pilgrimage. And I don’t need Buddhism to give me tips on mindfulness; the rabbis of the Mishnah used to meditate for an hour before they began prayer!
It is challenging enough to be a multi-faith family. It is sometimes hard to go to Grandma’s house for Christmas and Zeide’s house for Chanukah. (By the way, do yourself a favor and get the PJ Library book Nonna’s Chanukah Surprise, you’ll be weeping by the end!) The people who do it and yet maintain their own individual commitments to their faith while at the same time raising their children in a tradition that they did not grow up with, have tremendous conviction, patience, and courage. And yes, there are some important points of connection between different religions that bring us together towards a common goal: making us better people and the world a better place. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that goal is better served by watering down our distinctiveness or appropriating ideas that don’t belong to us.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share