The Case of little Ela Reyes raises many thorny contemporary issues about church/state entanglement, parenting in a multicultural world, and the challenge of real religious pluralism. Ela’s parents, Rebecca Reyes (born Jewish) and her now ex-husband Joseph Reyes (raised Catholic, converted to Judaism, and now returning to the Church) found themselves in court over the issue of dad’s right to bring Ela to church. Cook County (Illinois) Judge, Renee Goldfarb has ruled that Mr. Reyes has every right to do so.
First, because the only basis upon which the judge can rule is what is in the best interest of the child, psychologically, emotionally, and educationally. A civil court judge should not be thinking theologically or factoring in religious rules which could be invoked in this dispute e.g. Ela is the child of a Jewish mother and therefore Jewish according to the standards of all Jewish denominations, her father converted and once a Jew always a Jew according to the Talmud, etc.
Second, there is no evidence which shows that kids are harmed by exposure to multiple faith traditions. While such multiple exposure certainly diminishes the likelihood of affiliated with a particular faith, the argument that such exposure creates moral or psychic confusion is simply untrue.
Third, unless one claims that one of these traditions, Judaism or Catholicism is inherently superior to the other or worse, that one of these faiths will harm Ela Reyes, there is no basis upon which to deny her participation in either church or synagogue. And even if one believes that there is such a difference between the two, it is certainly not up to the court to weigh in on that.
So Ela Reyes will do what more and more people, including the children of multi-faith families, are learning to do i.e. appreciate that they are part of multiple religious communities and figure out how to honor that reality.
And the process of creating new traditions, traditions which integrate the ideas and practices of many faiths, is not so different from the process which gave rise to all the religions which we now think of as independent and discreet faiths. While I am not suggesting that all syncretism (the concept of blending multiple faiths) is equal, it is simply a fact that each of today’s great faiths was built, at least in part, by borrowing motifs, practices, ideas and language from the larger cultures in which they were situated.`
Some will “choose a side”, but one hopes, without rancor toward those they do not pick. Others will claim multiple memberships, not unlike those who hold dual citizenship in two countries. Still others will create new traditions by fusing the multiple faith traditions which inform their life.
While some of these options may cause some of us discomfort, it’s worth remembering that all of them reflect genuinely positive realities which benefit us all and which virtually none of us would give up. The ability to affiliate with one tradition while genuinely respecting those who follow others is one of the central issues in contemporary public culture. We must learn to marry our passions, spiritual, political or otherwise to a capacity for civility or we really will destroy our world.
The possibility of multiple memberships, like the reality of dual citizenship, exists only because of fundamentally positive relations between the different groups. Were that not the case, it would not be possible to imagine being affiliated with the two entities simultaneously. There were not a great many Jewish-Catholics during the Middle Ages, when Church-sponsored anti-Semitism was the norm.
The only shadow cast by the story of Ela Reyes is that of her father having her baptized without her mom’s knowledge and then taunting Ela’s mom with pictures from the event. That is both lousy parenting, sadly typical in divorces, and a real abuse of faith, which raises questions about the Priest who did the baptism.
Why did the priest perform a baptism without any sense of the family struggle into which he was entering? Was he simply so eager to “save” this child that he didn’t care? If So, he was perpetuated an ancient practice of forcibly converting Jews and he should be ashamed. And what about the Church itself?
Now that this story is public, I wonder if the Catholic Church, presumably through the Chicago Diocese, will comment on this or discipline the priest. If not, then while I would still support the appropriateness of taking Ela to Church, I would say that she is attending a church which has no regard for the very ethics which form the basis of my support and that of Judge Goldfarb. And about that, we should be concerned.