A couple of years ago I received a call from a long-time congregant, Steve (I’ve changed his name and other identifying details). He’s very nice, not very involved in synagogue life at this point, though he might have been when his kids were in religious school, before I was the rabbi here. The particular role he takes on, year after year, is setting up for the break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. He enjoys it, and it’s important to him. A few years ago his wife died, too young. I did her funeral.
His call was to tell me that he was getting married again, to a Jewish woman—would I perform the wedding? Yes, I said, because under many circumstances, I do perform interfaith weddings. You see, my congregant was the one who wasn’t Jewish.
Steve’s first marriage had been an interfaith marriage too—she was Jewish, he wasn’t. He and his wife raised their kids Jewish, and he did not convert. When she died, he continued as a synagogue member. Naturally, when he was remarrying, he called his clergy-member: me, his rabbi. I think he probably would have called me about doing the wedding even if he had fallen in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish.
I am not alarmed by intermarriage (and it wouldn’t do any good if I were). I believe in raising our children to be joyfully Jewish, with Judaism ingrained in their lives so that they will want the families they form to be Jewish too, no matter who they marry. I am encouraged by the rising levels of children of interfaith marriage who identify as Jewish, and by all the interfaith families in my congregation who are raising Jewish kids. I’m also deeply grateful to the non-Jewish parents who have agreed to walk with their spouses and kids on a Jewish journey. They are wonderful.
When we talk about intermarriage, though, the conversation seems always to be about the beginning of it. Who will officiate at the wedding? How will the children be raised? We need to be aware that there are interfaith questions at the other end too. If our policies don’t allow a non-Jew to be a member unless married to a Jew, that can become a problem. We’ve welcomed the non-Jewish spouse as part of the community. If the Jewish spouse dies, we’re not going to tell the surviving spouse that they can’t be a member of the synagogue anymore, that they can’t have that support, are we? That would be heartless and wrong. And yes, if I am that person’s rabbi, I’m willing to do their wedding if they remarry, if they want a Jewish wedding.
We have arrived at a time when rabbis like me must be able to serve our Jewish and non-Jewish congregants alike, throughout their lives. This does not mean we have to compromise ourselves by performing liturgy that isn’t Jewish or invoking forms of the Divine that are not ours—I would never pray in the name of Jesus, for example. (I did once encourage a non-Jewish congregant to start going to church again, because it was clear to me that that was what her soul was hungering for.)
In the congregation I serve, though, everyone does Jewish, whether they are Jewish or not. I am proud to teach Torah to everyone in my Jewish community, whether they are Jewish or not, and to embrace them when the interfaith questions arise—at the beginning of a marriage and at its end.
As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each year—and today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.
At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.
When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.
There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?
Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.
While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”
Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worry—we are a people of hope.
To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.
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We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.