(Amanda Sowards — AP)
I sometimes remark to friends that I must be the only Christian in the world who participates in three or four Passover seders a year. Even active Jews don’t attend so many. Why would they, after all, unless they’re working, as my wife often is—leading them.
My wife is a rabbi, and when I’m at a seder, I am gathering together with my primary congregation, even though I’m not Jewish. The other reason why I attend seders is that I like them. I find them spiritually meaningful. Every religious tradition marks God’s activity in the world as something akin to freeing slaves, and Judaism does it memorably.
One particular seder two years ago became a turning point for me. My wife and I were fresh off a painful experience in Florida where she hadn’t gotten a pulpit job because of me, because her husband was a Catholic. For the first time in my life I felt judged for my religious orientation because although I am about as supportive of a clergy spouse as one could be, it seemed that all they saw was a cross on my forehead.
So as this seder was about to begin, one of the men around the table said, “I notice that we are all interfaith couples around this table, that we are all Jewish-Christian.”
He went on, “So, I’m wondering, you Christians who are here, why are you? I mean . . . I’m Jewish and I know why I’m here; I know what I get out of these things. But what do you get out of this? What brings you here?”
The first person to answer his question was a middle-aged woman sitting to my left, who is married to another woman. She gave the perfect progressive, mainline Protestant answer: “As you may know, this week is also Holy Week in the Christian world, and I was just at the Maundy Thursday service at my church last night. It was beautiful. We talked about the life and Judaism of Jesus, and the focus of the service was to remember the seder that Jesus and the disciples shared together on the night before he was crucified. So, I am fresh off of that powerful experience and I’m delighted to be able to continue thinking on those things by being here with you, tonight!” She beamed, and everyone thanked her.
The next answer came from my friend, Jack. He was sitting beside his wife of 40 years, our friend, Susie. “I’ve been coming to these things for decades,” Jack said with a grin, “and I mostly come for the food!” Everyone laughed.
I was already uncomfortable by this point. While the other Christians at the table answered the question, I was trying to find a way to leave the room. Thankfully, our daughter was fussing, so I stood up with her and walked into the kitchen. I was still visible to those around the table, but now there was a convenient wall between us. I missed the third answer.
Then, I wandered to the doorway between the rooms for the fourth answer, this one from a Montessori teacher and activist, who was raised Catholic. She said, “I have little connection with my childhood faith anymore, and that’s fine with me. But I am a spiritual seeker and I always enjoy the seder.” Again, everyone smiled and thanked her.
I was the only one left, and I began to inch back into the kitchen. I figured they would just move on. Clearly, I had to care for the baby and was too preoccupied with that important task to answer this little question. But Jason, who’d posed it, wouldn’t let it go.
“Jon, what about you? We haven’t heard from you, yet,” he said in full voice, reaching me through the open doorway. I shifted Sima to the other hip and took two steps back into the dining room. I was steaming, and had suddenly figured out why.
“To be honest, I was trying not to answer ” I began, but then changed my tone, “because frankly, the question kind of pisses me off. I mean, it bothers me that I have to be here at this seder table as something. Why is that?” Everyone turned to face me, clearly surprised at the emotion in my voice.
“Do I have to be here as a ‘Christian’?
“I am married to this beautiful woman,” I said, motioning toward Michal. “Together, we are raising our daughter as a Jew. We pray and together we follow the practices of Judaism. Yes, I am also a Catholic, but for good and for bad I have thrown in my lot with the Jewish people.
“I’m not here wearing a sign. I’m not here tonight as a ‘Christian.’ There’s no imprint on my chest. It is not an ontological condition. Can’t I just be here as a human being?” With that I took a deep breath and went to sit down. On the way to my chair, dear Susie grabbed my hand and whispered, “Yes.”
Religious identity is not what it used to be. It certainly is not necessarily singular. In fact, I am finding more and more affinity, today, with people who feel simultaneously religiously committed and religiously amorphous.
I am a Catholic whose spiritual practice is mostly Jewish. That may sound strange to you, but it is not as odd as it seems. It makes sense in my life.
Every faith is a way of relativizing God, and to be a Catholic is to identify myself with a tradition, a liturgy, and a group of people down through history. I am (mostly, certainly increasingly, now with Pope Francis and all) proud to do that—and to call myself Catholic. But I don’t believe that anything I believe can make me different from you.
It seems to me that what I do is what is important. The values I hold and the ways I try to practice those values whether I’m among Jews or Catholics or anyone else for that matter. The beautiful thing about my life is that, whether I am practicing Judaism in the home or at shul with my wife, or following the traditions of progressive Catholicism, the values tend to coincide. Trust me, it works, even though it can look confusing.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author, together with Rabbi Michal Woll, of the forthcoming book, Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century (Jericho Books; October 15, 2013). They live in Ann Arbor, MI.