We are not religious but our son was raised as a Jew and had both a (reformed) rabbi and priest perform his wedding ceremony. He has never converted but his wife has asked him to wear a cross and we find this very offensive. What can we say to him to explain the reason we are so hurt by his seemingly insensitive action?
Thank you very much. Elaine
Thank you for your letter. You write about your son, whose Christian wife has asked him to wear a cross. You are looking for a way to express to him the hurt you feel about this request.
A cross is just a symbol, right? Well, symbols matter a great deal. That is why people use them.
Many Jews who do not feel any particular sense of religious obligation, still place a mezuzah on their front door because of its symbolic power. The mezuzah proclaims, "We are Jewish." When people put symbols on their doors -- or even more, around their necks -- it proclaims their allegiance.
A few years ago, a committed Christian asked me if it would be acceptable for him to place a mezuzah on his door. After all, he explained, as a Christian he accepted the words of the Hebrew Bible that are written on the mezuzah scroll. I advised him to consider that Jews -- seeing a mezuzah on the door of a Christian -- would not regard it as an homage. Rather, they would see it as an affront to the cultural significance of the mezuzah as a symbol of Jewish identity.
That may be what you experience when you think about your Jewish son wearing a cross. Without having strong negative feelings about Christianity or toward your daughter-in-law, you may view the cross on your son as a statement declaring allegiance to Christianity and of rejecting Judaism. I think it is fair to say that this is how most Jews would interpret it.
It is important to acknowledge, though, that this may not be the meaning your son intends. To him, the cross may simply be a way to express his attachment to his wife. Just as the Christian who wanted to put up a mezuzah intended only to honor Judaism, your son may not understand why the cross around his neck elicits such a strong negative response from you and, perhaps, from other Jews.
Try talking to him only in terms of your feelings. Avoid making accusing statements. Let him know that when you think about seeing him wearing a cross, you feel rejected and hurt. Be willing, also, to hear what he says about it.
This could be an opportunity for you to think about your own sense of Jewish identity. What is it about your Jewish identity that means so much to you? What can you do for yourself to satisfy your own desire to "feel Jewish"? How can you make your Jewish identity more than just a symbol?
I wish you the best.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser