I have recently enjoyed Philip Rosenbaum’s book, The Promise, on the commandment to honor one’s parents. To summarize briefly (since I recommend reading the book!), Rosenbaum argues that, as per Ephesians 6:2-3 (“Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with promise, that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth”), failing to honor parents – which, unfortunately, is a way in which most of us have failed and may still be failing – leads to profound lack of wellness, undermining our relationships with God, with our spouses, and with our children.
I know my parents feel dishonored by my conversion, and I know they are not the only Jewish parents who do. It’s not the kind of dishonor that more traditional parents may feel when their child refuses to follow in their intellectual footsteps: they did not raise me religious, and have probably even less regard for observant Judaism than for Christianity. It took me years to understand – or, rather, to stop denying – that the root of their sadness and anger is that they see my becoming a Christian as choosing another family over theirs. They see my godparents as substitute parents that I have chosen over them, my Christian friends as a substitute extended family; and while they accuse me of having chosen to love strangers more than family, they also blame themselves for, allegedly, being such bad parents (which they weren’t at all!) that their child had to go looking for an alternative family.
I believe that this all comes down to the argument I was trying to make earlier – that the landless condition of the European Jews (among other factors) has led them to define Christianity and Christians as an enemy people rather than a competing religion. My Jewish-Israeli friends refer to Gentiles as Christians, with no discernment as to whether a given Gentile is actually a member of any church. To convert is to switch out your people – to reject your extended family on earth for an adopted family in heaven. Naturally, nothing can seem a greater dishonor to parents!
This leaves me with two questions. First, is it helpful to expose and debunk this misconception to our families (gently, of course) in an attempt to alleviate their sense of rejection? If so, perhaps one ought to start from the argument that Christianity is not an ethnicity, rather than that “I can be Christian and still Jewish” – a line that, no matter how true it is, Jews never seem to buy.
Second, how can a Jew’s relationship with the Gentile Christian world – a relationship that is quite likely to lead to marriage to a non-Jew (as it will in my own case) – be less like rejecting one’s mother and father and more like cleaving to one’s spouse? Some insecure parents may feel rejected when their children marry, but most parents don’t, and instead rejoice both at their child’s happiness and at the opportunity to acquire new relatives through the marriage. Is there a way for a Jew to think and talk about his relationship with the Church as a marriage – a true and fruitful metaphor in any context – rather than as a replacement of family?