I’m a big fan of Julie Weiner’s blog at The Jewish Week. It’s one of those blogs that I read fairly regularly, not because I find myself agreeing with everything she writes (and I’ll admit that I, like many, tend to read people with whom I agree). Rather, I read her blog because I find that she challenges many of my borders as a rabbi in ways that are intelligently and often compellingly stated.
This week she brings our attention to a new feature at another site that provides an incredible resource to interfaith families – interfaithfamily.com. They are now hosting a parenting blog where non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids, and Jewish parents in interfaith households, are writing and reflecting on their experiences in Jewish life, family, and community.
The presence of these multi-varied families in our communities is raising new questions and challenges that rabbis must respond to. And different rabbis will respond in very different ways, based on a range of factors that include halachic frameworks, pragmatic considerations, pastoral support, educational opportunity, and sociological reality.
In this area of my professional life, I find that I am still learning. My borders, so to speak, are shifting. Some of the kinds of questions and situations I find myself challenged to consider:
- A convert to Judaism wishes to name their baby daughter after her deceased, Christian mother in a Jewish baby-naming ceremony.
- A non-Jewish parent who has lived in the Jewish community and participated actively for over 10 years wishes to recite the blessings for an aliyah at their son’s bar mitzvah.
- A parent of a bar mitzvah student who, themselves, was raised with “both.” As an adult, they have been living a Jewish life, learning Hebrew, and studying Judaism. Can they participate in the bar mitzvah as a Jewish parent?
- A young adult was raised with “both.” They have decided to affirm Judaism as their sole religious identity, and go through the process of conversion. Now they are marrying a Christian and would like a rabbi and a minister to be part of the wedding ceremony.
- A Jewish and non-Jewish parent have a newborn son. What role can the non-Jewish side of the family play in the brit milah?
- A child is being raised with “both.” The Jewish mother brings him to a rabbi, asking for a program of Jewish study and a bar mitzvah. It is currently unknown whether a subsequent ritual (baptism, first communion, etc.) may be a further part of the child’s introduction into his parents’ faith communities.
These are just a handful of the real-life scenarios that I have encountered over the years. The issues they raise from a purely halachic perspective are different. Some are, actually, relatively straightforward. Others, however, will receive very different responses from different rabbis, determined by the factors above that may be more or less dominant in the approach of the particular rabbi, perhaps also informed by a Jewish denomination’s official position on the matter.
They are the reality of living in a world where we are blessed, in the USA, to live at a time when so many non-Jews choose to support Jewish choices for their children and choose to fully participate in Jewish family and Jewish community. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with high school students in our religious school program. We were beginning a course on comparative religion and I asked them to share an experience that reflected an interfaith exchange. Several students remarked that they had friends in public school who would describe themselves as “half Jewish” or even “a quarter Jewish” (with one Jewish grandparent). My students were skeptical. Having spent years in formal, Jewish education, studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, and more, they questioned the rights of these friends to lay claim to any part of their religious identity.
While I did not deny the complexities of how individuals, let alone the organized Jewish communal world, should respond to these statements of identity, I offered my students the following food for thought. We forget easily, but it was only a few decades ago that almost no-one who wasn’t bound into the Jewish community by birth would choose to identity with us. To do so would have excluded you from full participation in many strata of American society, denied access to certain clubs, and discouraged from living in certain neighborhoods. How amazing that a teenager with a relatively tenuous connection to Judaism chooses to identify with that part of their family heritage as a badge of pride!
I recently met a young woman who has had no formal Jewish education but the matrilineal Jewish line has been preserved. But she had to go back to the burial records of her great-grandparents to prove her Jewish ancestry. Both her Jewish grandmother and her Jewish mother had married non-Jews. Having attended a Birthright Israel program, and subsequently returned to Israel for a longer visit, she is now preparing to make aliyah. What an incredibly journey!
I have no easy answers to the complexities that rabbis and Jewish institutions face in navigating the new landscapes of identity and belonging that are emerging. But what I can say is this. My perspectives have shifted as a result of the conversations I have had with those who are traveling through those landscapes. I have gained a profound respect for those whose path is not straightforward. And, increasingly, I have understood my role to facilitate entry into richer Jewish life and ask myself, in each instance, how my role as gatekeeper might alter the path of the person I encounter. The answer may not always change, but the conversation most certainly is transformed.
As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts. Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable.
Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.
Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.
So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself? Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who, yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.
At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one, there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.
And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.
Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah. The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage. Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.
Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School. As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate. They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah. They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview. In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice. But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.
My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah. They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in. If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that. What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity. They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.
My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent. But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.
I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking. This class will end the year with Confirmation. I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony. They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities. The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony. And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.
So then I tried them on weddings. What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony? Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line? ’No’, my students told me. If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony. Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage. For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual - a child.
Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages. I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them. So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality. We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice. So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.
I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students. The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years. But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey. While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality. This was the approach that my students chose. I think they are ready for their Confirmation.
Like it or not, intermarriage is a fact in Jewish life.
And for the most part the Jewish community has learned to live with it. Sure, different movements deal with it differently. Sure, some congregations are more adept and accommodating. But from Renewal to Orthodox we no longer assume that a Jew by birth will marry another Jew by birth.
But as demographics shift in the United States, the nature of intermarriage is changing too. And the Jewish community will need to adapt if it hopes to continue to create spaces for these new Jewish families.
In particular, my concern is with multiracial and multicultural families. There is nothing new about Jews from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews in Ethiopia centuries before there were Jews in Poland and Jews in India before there were Jews in Spain. Jewish institutional life in the United States, however, has largely been built on the presumption that Jews are white. And our welcome to interfaith couples has similarly assumed that intermarriages between one white Jew and one white non-Jew.
But interracial marriages are at an all time high in the Unites States, a trend that is expected to continue as the population becomes increasingly more diverse. And Jewish households are clearly part of this trend.
We will need to change our language and approach in order to live up to the welcoming image we have of ourselves. Having become accustomed to Jews who have blond hair and blue eyes or wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, we need to be open to those with dreadlocks or who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Because these new members of our extended community come from many different backgrounds, we cannot make assumptions about how they understand religion, community, or family. We will have to personalize our approach. We need to meet others who see Jews not just as a religious minority but as part of the white establishment. We need to broaden our own learning, so that we understand and appreciate the cultural challenges and gifts that they bring.
In the last year I’ve attended several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that exemplify the power of embracing multiracial, multicultural Jewish families. At one service, the boy chanted from the Torah while wearing a Korean hanbok. Blessings were said in English and Korean as well as the traditional Hebrew. At another the bar mitzvah spoke of being half Japanese, half Australian and fully Jewish in a synagogue decorated with origami chains for the occasion. At another, the bat mitzvah took the occasion to also take on a traditional Japanese name sharing her multiple new identities with the congregation. In each case conversations had to be had about how to bring together multiple elements of identity into what is so clearly a Jewish setting. In each case, thought and respect were evident throughout.
These are the success stories, families who feel fully welcome, fully empowered. They are passing on Jewish traditions even as they expand them. They shine of an example of that to which we can all aspire.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi. A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish. I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.
I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com. This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families. They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more. They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children. They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family. And much, much more. One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage. This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.
Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues. And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any. But today I’m not writing about that choice. I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.
But I am fascinated by my recent experiences. One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew. One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.
In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route. She is the child of an interfaith couple. She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law. But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.
In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce. The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue). What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life. This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.
In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage. She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents. The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.
As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument. There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices. There are many rabbis who do so passionately. I certainly do not seek to judge that path. At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking. And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.
In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’