“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
According to the National Jewish Population Survey, there are approximately 1.5 million non-Jews helping to raise Jewish families in the United States.
Certainly, this reality is prevalent in the Southern Jewish communities I work with, and we often face the question: “To what extent can these non-Jews participate in the rites of Judaism?”
This question becomes front and center as a family prepares for a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. With its focus on the “transmission of Torah,” this event is full of symbolism. Recreating the Mt. Sinai moment, the rabbi often will take the Torah from the ark and pass it to the grandparents, who then pass it on to the parents, who finally give it to the child.
But, which family: non-Jews, or just Jews?
Obviously, this question is highly charged, religiously as well as relationally, both for the family and the officiating clergy. Because, how can one honor a child’s entire lineage while maintaining our unique Jewish legacy? Recently, officiating at a Bat Mitzvah held in a 100 year-old Mississippi Delta congregation, I approached the challenge in this way, attempting to honor both family and history:
“Here stand the generations of this Bat Mitzvah’s family. Though all may not be able to trace their lives back to Sinai, surely all have transmitted Torah to this child. For some, it was done through the written word. For others, it was done through action, as they maintained a life in accordance to the eternal values of our faith. There are those who say this is odd; our Sages disagree. For, they questioned, ‘Why was Torah given to the people on Mt. Sinai and not in the land of Israel?’ Because, they answered, ‘had God delivered Torah in Israel, the Israelites may erroneously think it as their sole intellectual property. But, as Torah was given in an ownerless place (i.e. the wilderness), it is and should always be open and available to all.’ [Numbers Rabbah 1:7]”
Thinking and acting as if Torah belongs to Jews and Jews alone would have been a mistake then, and now. Sure, it is our honored responsibility to ensure Torah’s existence from generation to generation, but we do so in order that others may have the opportunity to freely live by its lessons. That what’s occurring in this family, and so many others throughout the Jewish world, where non-Jews are actively molding the next generation of Jews.
So, we all must ask ourselves: how are we ensuring that the blessing of non-Jews within the Jewish community is being celebrated?
How do you (or your congregation) work to include non-Jewish community members in your midst? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
The month of May, known as “Liberation Month,” contains Cinco de Mayo (celebrating Mexico’s liberating victory over the French in 1862), America’s Memorial Day (recognizing all those who died in defense of our freedoms), Mother’s Day (marking a mother’s independence from pregnancy – all right, so that one might be a stretch!), and also usually contains one of two Jewish freedom festivals: either Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) or – today, in fact! - Shavuot (marking our freedom from Egypt with the gift of Torah).
But there’s also another, perhaps lesser known holiday this month: May The 4th, marking the glorious defeat of the evil Empire by the Jedi and their allies.
Okay, okay, it’s a cinematic feat and not a real one (even I know Star Wars is a work of fiction!) But this day has become known as Star Wars Day, and on May 4th, it’s a blast (pun intended) to dress up as our favorite characters and relive the unforgettable scenes from the films. Before departing from like-minded, Jedi-inclined souls, we say to them: “May the 4th be with you!”
After this year’s celebration of May the 4th, I found myself looking at the little guy I share my office with, Yoda. (That’s us in the picture above.) Inspired by him, and in the spirit of the recent Star Wars holiday and this entire month of liberation, I now offer you three simple proofs to Yoda’s Yiddishkeit, or Yoda’s Jewish soul.
First, his name. Yoda, it can be argued, is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew yo-dei-ah, meaning “knowledgeable/wise.” Surely, a fitting title for this man renowned for his intelligence in the ways of the Force (that Essence which pervades all life)!
Second, his speech. Yoda speaks the way Hebrew would sound if translated word for word. For Hebrew, particularly in the Bible, is often written verb first, then either the direct object followed by the subject, or vice versa. Case in point, in Luke’s Jedi training, Yoda says to him: “Judge (verb) me (object) by my size, do you (subject)? Hmmm?”
Third… well …. And in case points one and two don’t persuade you that Yoda is indeed Jewish, then allow me to articulate my third and final point. Yoda is an old… short… bald man… who kicks major tuchus (booty)! Could there be anything more Jewish than that?
So, here’s to having another member of the Jewish Jedi tribe! May the force be with y’all!