When Barbara and Jeffrey Kendall married in 1988, he was a lapsed Catholic and she was a Reform Jew. By 1994, he had joined the fundamentalist Boston Church of Christ, and she had become a strictly observant Orthodox Jew. Their marriage, needless to say, broke down. They were divorced in 1996. And that would be the end of the story — were it not for the Kendalls' three young children, Ari, Moriah, and Rebekah.
No one disputes that the Kendall kids are Jewish. Barbara and Jeffrey had discussed religion before getting married, and agreed that any children they had would be raised as Jews. And so the children were given Jewish names, Ari was circumcised according to Jewish law, and he and sisters were enrolled in a Jewish school. Judging from their own words, Ari and Moriah identify strongly with their faith (Rebekah is only 4), even as they realize that their father doesn't share it.
But Jeffrey is no longer willing to abide by his prenuptial agreement. As a fundamentalist Christian, he now believes that the souls of Ari, Moriah, and Rebekah are in peril, and that unless they accept Jesus as their savior, they are "damned to go to hell" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth." Accordingly, he has testified, he "will never stop trying to save his children."
Some differences cannot be split. One of them is whether to raise children as devout Christians or observant Jews.
Save them, that is, from being Jews.
But the children don't want to be "saved." Their mother, who was awarded custody, fears that they will be emotionally harmed by Jeffrey's attempts at "salvation" when the kids come to visit. Those attempts have been energetic. He has forced them to attend his church and warned them that unbaptized souls face the tortures of the damned. He has cut off Ari's sidecurls, which many Jewish boys and men grow as a sign of piety, and compelled him to violate the Jewish Sabbath. When Ari told his father that he "wants to celebrate Shabbes and not do stuff that I'm not supposed to do," his father replied: "We'll discuss that with the lawyers."
Ah, yes — the lawyers. The dispute went to court. Judge Christina Harms ruled that "if the children continue to be caught in the cross-fire of their parents' religious difference," they were very likely to be harmed. Their father's "religion may alienate the children from their custodial parent (she is bad, she will burn in hell), and may diminish their own sense of self-worth and self-identity (Jews are bad, Jews will burn in hell). At minimum," she wrote, "they will be called upon to 'choose' between their parents, in itself a detrimental result."
Accordingly, she ordered Jeffrey not to engage in any religious activity with his children that "promotes rejection rather than acceptance of their mother or their own Jewish self-identity." This did not mean, she ruled, that he had to remove pictures of Jesus from his home, or that he couldn't have the kids for Christmas and Easter. It did mean that he had to stop telling them they'll be tortured in hell if they don't accept Jesus.
It is hard to imagine a more reasonable ruling, but Jeffrey appealed anyway. Last week the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously against him. And, my oh my, the howls of disapproval — from right and left — that ruling has triggered.
In the Boston Herald, the normally gentle Joe Fitzgerald, a religious conservative, labeled the decision "hostility toward evangelical Christianity." Caring fathers are supposed to share their beliefs with their children; how dare these judges order Jeffrey Kendall not to?
Meanwhile my Boston Globe colleague Eileen McNamara, an acclaimed liberal columnist, is shocked by this "stunning opinion." It sends "a message that ideas, in and of themselves, are dangerous to children," she writes, "and that intolerance of different religious beliefs is compatible with American law."
To be sure, fundamentalist Christians are in many cases the victims of prejudice. But not this case. Suppose the facts were reversed: Suppose the children had been raised as Christians, were living with the Christian parent, and were being pressured by the Jewish parent to renounce Jesus or go to hell. Any sensible judge would order the Jewish arm-twisting to stop. Would that be anti-Semitism?
Of course it wouldn't. It would be concern for the best interest of the children — and a recognition that some differences cannot be split.
Jeffrey Kendall's sincerity is not in question. But sincerity does not justify scaring young children with hellfire if they remain true to the God of their mother and the religion in which they were reared.
If left-handed children were being browbeaten by their father to use their right hands when writing, who wouldn't condemn him? If children raised as strict vegetarians were being hectored by their noncustodial father to eat meat — and threatened with dire results if they didn't — who wouldn't be appalled? If on such relatively minor issues as writing technique or diet we would spare children painful emotional turmoil, how much more so on a matter as grave and fundamental as their relationship with God?
Children cannot be raised in two incompatible faiths. If Jeffrey Kendall wants to proselytize his children, he will have to wait until they are older. If he didn't want to end up in this predicament, perhaps he shouldn't have married a Jewish woman. There is no happy solution to this conflict, only a correct one. The judges reached it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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