What does “interfaith” mean anyway?

I was completely unprepared for this question. 

When I signed up to attend a new mom’s group through jBaby Chicago, I wasn’t worried. Okay, maybe I was a little worried about my three-month-old getting over stimulated and having a meltdown (yup, it happened). But I wasn’t afraid of the questions I might face as a Jewish believer in Jesus coming to a group like this one. I figured I’d already heard it all.

I passed the first session with flying colors. The facilitator didn’t miss a beat when I told everyone I was a Messianic Jew and worked for Jews for Jesus. She launched right into a typical inquiry- whether we were going to raise our daughter celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas. I was ready for these questions. “We follow all of the Jewish holidays, but incorporate our faith in Jesus into them. Belief in Jesus as Messiah fits beautifully into a Jewish lifestyle.” Phew. Nailed it.

As the weeks passed, and I really came to look forward to this time of connecting with first-time Jewish moms, all contemplating the same sort of things I was. Are dreidels a choking hazard? Does iTunes have a Shabbat playlist? And most importantly, how come no one on Etsy has made infant hamantaschen Purim costumes yet?

So at our last session, I was caught completely off guard when, during a group discussion about raising Jewish children, the facilitator singled me out and asked, “Do you and your husband consider yourself an ‘interfaith’ family”?

My mind started racing. Well, our family does adhere to both Jewish and Christian beliefs and practice, so that’s sort of “interfaith,” right? But if Jesus is the Messiah, then believing in Him is just a natural continuation of the Judaism of the Hebrew Scriptures, so no, we’re not “interfaith”-we follow Judaism. But my husband and I both have one Jewish parent and one Gentile parent, so maybe we were raised in “interfaith” families, which makes ours one as well? After a few seconds of awkward silence, I managed to mutter something along the lines of, “A little bit, sort of, yeah.”

The conversation moved on, and probably all the other moms were too preoccupied with their little bundles of joy and drool to even recall this interaction a few minutes later. But for the rest of that day and over the following weeks I kept thinking to myself, what does “interfaith” mean anyway?

Naturally, I took my question online. I quickly found Interfaith Org, which proudly calls itself the world’s largest independent faith website, and is basically the Wikipedia of alternative spirituality and ancient mythology. The navigation bar on the site included a world religion I had never heard of (Zoroastrianism). But the interfaith dialogue forum is where the discussion really gets going, with the thread on Abrahamic faiths alone containing 98,702 comments. I appreciated the comment of someone on the forum who stated, “I run into people/organizations that claim they are interfaith but they really seem to have the goal of opening a dialogue with the end result being you participating in their belief system.”

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had mixed feelings about the term “interfaith.” Reverend Donald Heckman, the executive director of the International Shinto Foundation and former member of Barak Obama’s “Inter-Religious Cooperation Task Force,” doesn’t embrace the term “interfaith” either. “’Interfaith’ is such a plastic word that it doesn’t mean much of anything,” Heckman wrote in the Huffington Post. There are even ‘interfaith’ ministers and interfaith ‘churches’ where people who concurrently hold multiple affiliations can find community with the same. The problem is that some of the folks—all using the same word, “interfaith,” mind you—don’t want to be caught dead with the others. Not a very nice thing for a bunch of folks who are supposed to be spiritual or religious, is it? Most often it is the single faith/institution folks not wishing to congregate with the multiple-affiliation folks, because it challenges the integrity of the boundaries, authority, and truth claims that they hold dear.”

I could easily see how some people might put Messianic Judaism in this category. Aren’t our synagogues and congregations places of worship where people who concurrently hold multiple affiliations find community with the same? Our multiple affiliations challenge boundaries of a truth claim that mainstream Judaism holds dearJews are not supposed to believe in Jesus. But calling a Messianic congregation an “interfaith” house of worship discredits the very point the community is trying to make: that assimilating Jesus into Jewish practice does not mean introducing a new religion, just a new relationship.

In contrast to Interfaith Org, InterfaithFamily.com is a Jewish nonprofit focused on “supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life.” InterfaithFamily, founded by Harvard Law School alum Edmund Case, explains, For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice…“Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background.” But some people like Allison McMillan, managing director of the Israel on Campus Coalition and a former program director at University of Michigan Hillel, feel that this definition is too narrow. There are not two options anymore, interfaith or Jewish, and the situation is not black and white,” McMillan writes in an article titled “Intermarried, Not Interfaith,” “There are many shades of grey…” Much to my amusement, Case himself commented on McMillan’s article, stating, “I invite her to consider the extensive resources offered at InterfaithFamily–which are designed for couples coming from a range of perspectives but all exploring Jewish life and community.” I wondered to myself if debating these types of minutiae was like arguing with my husband over whether or not I qualify as a “90s kid” since I was born in 1989.

Clearly the internet was not going to solve my dilemma for me. I was going to have to figure this one out the only way a 90s kid knew how: old school, Harriet the spy style. Clue #1: “Interfaith” usually refers to spiritual syncretism in general. But “interfaith family” seems almost always to refer to Jews. I decide to put this theory to the test using the ultimate 2017 barometer of culture: Instagram. I searched #interfaith and scrolled through hundreds of images of people in traditional Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Catholic garb posing for group pictures together, smiles all around. But when I searched for #interfaithfamily, the first picture that popped up was of a teenager putting a Star of David on top of a Christmas tree.

I deducted Clue #2: the Jewish community doesn’t prioritize communicating with someone of another faith until that person marries a Jew. And then we care. A lot. This is not surprising; family is central to Jewish culture because it is central to our covenant with God. I think back to a great line I read in Edmund Case’s published remarks from 2010 at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America: Most Jews would say they want their children to marry Jews. But what they really want is for their grandchildren to be Jewish”(emphasis mine).

For Clue #3 I had to think back to my own childhood. My generation was the result of the biggest intermarriage boom in Jewish history, and I’ve met plenty of peers who say things like, “I’m half Jewish and half Italian/Puerto Rican/Catholic.” (Can you tell I’m from New Jersey?) My own husband grew up across the country with the nickname “Blewish” since his father was black and his mother was Jewish. But I always introduced myself with one identifier: Messianic Jew. I never saw myself as “half” anything. I was fully a daughter of Zion. My family’s reasoning, which became my own, was this: if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, then following him and making him central to our liturgical worship is the most Jewish thing we can do. And I wasn’t any less Jewish than King David himself, whose Gentile ancestress Ruth chose to call the Israelites her own people.

The clouds surrounding my understanding of interfaith families started to clear. An interfaith family is like a family that hyphenates their last name: O’Malley-Levin, Lopez-Schwartz, Rosen-Nguyen. Two distinct heritages, both embraced while remaining separate, in the best-case scenario blending in a beautiful spiritual harmony. But I was doing something different. As Messianic Jews, my family and I have just one faith.

As much as I would like to go back and explain to my new mom’s group why I don’t consider my family to be interfaith, I know that actions speak louder than words. A common attack against Jewish believers in Jesus is that their children have no Jewish identity or a highly diluted Jewish identity at best. The way I was raised, the way I live my life, and the way I will raise my family are all a testimony against this argument. A Gentile parent or grandparent doesn’t water down my Jewish faith or that of my daughter. The Hebrew Scriptures themselves teach that when Messiah comes, the Gentiles will also seek him (Isaiah 11:10). He is one Messiah for all of us, Messianic Jew or Messianic Gentile; those who follow him are united in one faith.

Case closed. Interfaith is not a descriptor for my family. For us, believing in Jesus is part of being Jewish, not a separate category.