So eight years later, when, shortly after her first child was born, she said that she would likely ask me to stand godmother to a future child, I thought, Why not? Ours was a friendship of firsts, and now I'd be the first Jewish godmother in her Lutheran family.
I sat with Lisa, her husband, Sean, her newborn baby, Gabriel, and Gabriel's godparents the afternoon before his baptism in her pastor's study in suburban Chicago. At the end of the session, as the minister finished explaining the godparents' responsibilities in Gabriel's life, Lisa asked if the church would object to my being godmother to one of the future children she and Sean hope to have.
The minister thought about it for a moment and responded that he wouldn't object; but I would have to consent to answering "I do" to a paragraph in the Lutheran Book of Worship. This paragraph states that I will do anything I can to make sure the child attends religious school and church services, develops Christian faith, and learns the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed, and the Ten Commandments. It does not require me to say anything about my own faith; its main intent seems to be to ensure that the child will be raised with spiritual and moral values.
And the idea of accepting such an honor as someone from another faith--as positive a development as that was--made me uncomfortable. I tend to be sensitive about the extent to which I will participate in--as opposed to simply attend--other religious services. This stems from an experience I had
in high school. At a Catholic friend's brother's baptism, I'd gone up to the front of the church when everyone else did at the end of the service. To my horror, I realized when I got to the front that the priest was giving Communion. Red-faced and confused, not wanting to offend, I took the wafer. I swore after that day never again to give the world a mixed message about my personal faith.
But on the other hand, Lisa was not asking me to accept the body and blood of Jesus--she was asking me to be a moral, ethical, and spiritual role model for her child. From all of our long conversations through the years, I knew that she revels in religious difference; she would want her children to understand that there is a whole world of belief systems out there.
I went to my favorite theology professor with the quandary. An Orthodox Jew renowned for his conservative theology, he wouldn't let me off the hook with any watered down rationalization. Nor did I want to rationalize. If I were to accept the role of godparent, I wanted to do so wholeheartedly as a Jew.
My professor's assessment gave substance to a vague feeling I'd had. As much as I wanted to accept the honor that Lisa was offering me, I felt a bit like a kid at a costume party whose costume looked a little too real.
Uncomfortable--and still unsure of my answer--I approached my own rabbi with the dilemma. She listened attentively as I laid out my concerns and expressed my desire to be both true to my religion and a true friend to Lisa.
She approached the matter logically: If either of the parents-to-be were Jewish, particularly the mother, there would an onus on me to ensure that their child would be raised in the Jewish tradition. But since both parents are Christians, I would have no such obligation; as godmother, I would see the child raised precisely as the parents wished.
But, she continued, gentiles are held responsible to the "Noachite Laws," the commandments that God gave to Noah to seal the covenant between God and human beings after the flood. Included in these are the injunctions not to murder, steal, commit adultery, or blaspheme. And the Lutheran Church adheres to these commandments in its moral teachings. As godmother, I would make sure that the child learns and appreciates the importance of these shared teachings.
Moreover, my being godmother would be an opportunity to ensure that the next generation has one more Righteous Gentile, the kind of person who, like so many during the Holocaust, would risk his or her life to shield Jews from injustice and persecution. What a wonderful chance to show this child as he or she grows that religious pluralism comes with a face, a name, and a bond that began in infancy.
So I decided that should the day ever come that Lisa and Sean honor me with an invitation to stand godmother to their baby, I will joyfully accept. For who could turn down an opportunity to open a young mind, support a young heart, and embody 5,000 years of tradition at the same time?