V’shinantam: It’s Not an Ashram – Helping Intermarrieds With Their Children

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On my personal Facebook page I recently posted this:

For the intermarried to say they will let their child decide what religion she will follow when she grows up is to pass the buck to the least qualified person to make that choice.

I was a bit surprised at responses I got, not so much for what was said as for what was left unsaid.

On the saying side of things, people talked of how they found their best spiritual path independent of their parents, outside of their tutelage,  and generally after leaving home, and as my friend Ben articulately emphasized, often when they hit college. My friend Slade Henson (what a name!) offered that if we leave the child uninstructed and leave the decision up to them,  “the child will either choose the option that requires the least conviction, or they will choose neither.”  Finally another friend wryly pointed out that one’s children are going to make their own choices anyway.

Likely true!  All of them!

It is not surprising and a sign of the times, that most respondents and most of our western contemporaries default to individualism, assuming that faith decisions rightly fall to the child when that child is grown up. But that is all besides the point of my question. The point was  that both biblically and historically the responsibility for spiritual identity falls on the parents.  And even if the facts in the West indicate that such children will do whatever they will when they leave the home, does such tutelage not remain the responsibility of parents?

Perhaps you will join me in saying, “Yes, it does,” and, “In many cases this is a responsibility parents avoid, or seek to outsource to institutions.”

There’s a lot that could be said here, and since this is a blog and not a scholarly article, I will have to restrain myself from saying too much. So for today, let’s look briefly at two avenues of response. First, what is the biblical foundation for parental responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their children? Second, how effective is it to outsource children’s spiritual formation to schools or houses of worship?

What is the biblical foundation for parental responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their children?

Even assimilated Jews know at least part of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of allegiance to God found in Deuteronomy chapter six. After declaring, “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” But the text goes on to remind us, “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

Here you find four integrated responsibilities:

  1. Parents are responsible to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. That is, parents are responsible for the intensity of their own spiritual commitment,
  2. Parents are responsible to know God’s commands and to internalize them as controlling factors in how they live. His words on our hearts–the control center of our lives.
  3. Parents are responsible to inculcate God’s reality and his ways in their children. “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” The Hebrew says, “v’shinantam l’vanecha” and it means to teach through repetition, repeated exposure. The Cambridge English Dictionary reminds us that “inculcate” is a good English equivalent, as it means, “To impress (something) upon the mind of another by instruction or repetition; to instill.” And the Merriam-Webster Dictionary reminds us  it means “to cause (as a person) to become filled or saturated with a certain quality or principle.” Precisely.
  4. And this causation is not simply by repetition, as in memorization,  but through repeated and consistent exposure–and this includes the patterns of living which children observe and experience at home and witnesses in their parents’ comings and goings. We might term this integration. Allegiance to God (the Shema), God’s reality, and his ways, are to be part of the observed and experienced patterns of life which surround a child.

How effective is it to outsource children’s spiritual formation to schools or houses of worship?

Robert Wuthnow is Gerald R. Andlinger Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University. His book Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith  examines and compares how Jews and Christians experience spirituality in the context of their families of origin, and especially focuses on the factors fostering inter-generational persistence or erosion of religious commitment.  Two brief quotations from his book bring into focus the lessons he has learned through his extensive research on the comparative roles of home life and institution involvement in shaping the spirituality of children.

Effective religious socialization comes about through embedded practices, that is, through specific, deliberate religious activities that are firmly intertwined with the daily habits of family routines, of eating and sleeping, of having conversations, of adorning the spaces in which people live, or celebrating the holidays, and of being part of a community.   Compared with these practices, the formal teachings of religious leaders pale in significance.  Yet when such practices are present, formal teachings also become more important [xxxi-xxxii].

Spirituality has been most effective in shaping the values of children when it has been practiced at home as well as in formal organizations.  In the past, people practiced spirituality at home under the most diverse (and adverse) conditions.  The lesson from this history should be that spirituality is likely to survive as a feature of American childhood–if parents and grandparents are committed to its importance” [236–the last words of the book].

Some final words . . . for now

In a New Testament context, Paul summarizes for us the gist of what I have been saying, when he writes to his protegé Timothy,  “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well ” (2 Timothy 1:5).  That is the way it is meant to be, you know. As the Ashrei (Psalm 145) reminds us, “One generation shall tell your works to another and proclaim your greatness,” and as the Song at the Sea reminds us, “This is my God and I will praise him, ,my father’s God and I will exalt him.”  Yes. he is the God of personal experience. But shouldn’t that experience first have been seen in one’s parents before being experienced in their children?  I think so.

Here at Interfaithfulness we have a three tiered agenda, expressed in the three categories found on our website landing page. Our second tier is, “Enriching Jewish and Intermarried Household Spirituality.”  We are specialists in helping people make progress in this area, especially dealing with roadblocks people encounter, even when those roadblocks are either their own spiritual reluctance or their uncertainty about how to proceed.

Let us help you. And meanwhile, help your children.

Remember, v’shinantam is not an ashram. It’s a mandate for you to teach the reality and ways of God to your children.

Maybe we can help. Let us know.

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