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"Why Don't You Just Convert?" The Story Of My Interfaith Family

Religion was meant to be a positive force in our lives by instilling moral values and a vision of social justice. It was never meant to pit "us" against "them."
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"Oh Paul, why don't you just convert to Judaism?"

This invitation was extended to me after a book talk in Washington D.C. and I have to admit it took me by surprise. First, I had always heard that Jews aren't supposed to proselytize. Second, I'm not just a blank slate; I'm a Christian minister by profession, and the book talk I had just given was about a Christian book. And the third reason for my surprise is that two people who posed the question were my cousins.

Let me back up a bit and tell you how I arrived at this moment. I'm from an interfaith family. My side of the family is Christian, and my cousins are Jewish. The reason my family went to church at all was because of my mother, Marylu Raushenbush. Every Sunday she would wake up her four resentful children by snapping up the rolled shades and greeting us with a pointedly bright voice, "Good morning!" This was not a casual "good morning," this good morning meant that if you were not up in five minutes the next greeting would be much less pleasant. So up we would go from our Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home to our Frank Lloyd Wright inspired church--complete with the wide open sanctuary space, and stain glass that served as a great distraction during the services.

My father, Walter Raushenbush, was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church, which is surprising to people who know his background. Dad's mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. So, according to Jewish law, my dad was Jewish. However, my dad's father, Paul, was the son of the social gospel pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch, and my grandfather was raised Christian.

While my grandparents' professions were influenced by the prophetic and justice elements of their respective traditions, neither felt strongly about their religion. So, like many such couples, they briefly tried to raise my dad as a Unitarian, which also failed to stick. I once asked my dad, who is judicious and agnostic by nature, if he had ever had what he would describe as a "religious experience." He told me that the only moment he might be tempted to describe as religious was the first time he saw my mother and, in his words, "I immediately knew I wanted to spend my life with her." Which is exactly what he has done.

By contrast, my mother was a conservative Presbyterian when she met my dad. Before she would marry him, she insisted he be baptized because she wanted not only to spend the rest of her life with him, but also the rest of life after life. My mother has since expressed embarrassment about asking him to undergo what Oscar Wilde might describe as "this terrible ordeal." But my father has never expressed regret. And so our family went to church on Sunday mornings -- if not always joyfully, at least consistently -- and my parents were leaders in the church.

There is a history to all interfaith families that involves some kind of negotiation of how religion will function within the family. My family is Christian because one of my parents felt strongly about their religious commitments. Now that I am a minister, I occasionally counsel couples that do not share a religious tradition and who are considering marriage. I never downplay the difficulty. You have to decide either to try to honor both religions, to ignore religion all together, or to concentrate on the religion of one of the parents, which is what my family did and how we became Christian.

However, the cousins my siblings and I spent the most time with were from the Jewish side of the family. Louis Brandeis had two daughters: my grandmother Elizabeth, and her older sister Susan who married another Jew and raised her family in that tradition. The sisters inherited adjoining properties in Cape Cod and each summer we would spend weeks with our cousins who are essentially our own age. While we were competitive with them in some areas of sports and academics, our religious differences were never brought up. I never once heard that it would be better if our Jewish cousins were Christian or that we might be better off as Jews.

This was made easier by the fact that our family as a whole had a particular approach to religion. Religion was meant to be a positive force in our personal, and communal lives by instilling moral values and a vision of social justice, a sense of gratitude and duty, and an openness to the wonder and mystery of the world. It was never meant to pit "us" against "them." My family unconsciously adopted a model of interfaith cooperation that continues to influence my understanding of inter-religious engagement as a religious person and leader.

When we were in our late twenties one of my Jewish cousins began a spiritual search and came to me for advice. My response was for her to start by going to synagogue. My approach leaves some of my co-religionists wondering if I truly believe Jesus is the only way to God--and I have to reply that I don't. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. I know people can live full, beautiful, meaningful lives by practicing Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and any number of other faith traditions, or none at all. I also know that professing a certain faith tradition is no guarantee of a Godly or good existence. As far as the afterlife goes, I'm willing to trust in God enough to not have to make decisions about people down here. Not to say that I don't have thoughts on the subject. To put it bluntly: if I can't hang with my Jewish cousins up in heaven, then it doesn't sound much like heaven to me.

While I was surprised that my cousins invited me to convert to Judaism, I just laughed and took their invitation the way it was meant: as a compliment. In hearing me talk about the moral imperatives of my Christian convictions they recognized those same convictions in their practice of Judaism. By inviting me to be Jewish they were basically saying that they think I might have what it takes.

That said, I don't want to be Jewish, though I am proud of my ancestry and cultural identity. I am a Christian; I love Jesus' life, his teachings, and the entire Christian narrative that offers me the Way to live my life. Yet I thank God for my family that has nurtured my interfaith heart. My heart guides my work with colleagues who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and others. Being a religious person for me is about expressing my solidarity and love for people who do not profess what I do, yet are those whom Jesus described as my neighbors...and my family.

This essay is an excerpt from "My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, And Transformation" from Orbis.