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!
Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)
On Tuesday night, I hosted a large Passover seder at my home in Jackson, Mississippi. Out of love for this Jewish dinner party, I may have opened my big mouth—then, inevitability, my door—to a few too many friends.
I realized this seder would be different as I prepared the charoset. Ever since I was old enough to wield a knife, I have been the one to slowly hand chop apples and walnuts for our family seder. It’s cathartic for me to count down the apples, add lemon juice so the apples won’t brown, and stir in the honey with my hands. After about two minutes of chopping, though, I realized my stack of apples was taller than usual; they went straight into the food processor – and this year, convenience trumped tradition, resulting in charoset with more liquid than usual.
Yikes! Why was I compromising my usual charoset consistency? Because I was too excited about sharing Passover, and ended up inviting 30 people for seder. And no, these weren’t just Jews who needed a place to go, I had 13 seder virgins! I chose to invite my non-Jewish friends and neighbors because most of them didn’t grow up in places with a significant Jewish population and had never been invited to help celebrate Passover. In fact, many of my guests don’t know many Jewish people besides, other than myself and other members of the ISJL staff.
We went through the seder with some moments of quiet reflection, and some of laughter and levity. I encouraged guests to read along with the Hebrew transliteration, and my heart swelled when everyone’s voices joined together for “Go Down Moses.” We had a surprisingly successful gefilte fish tasting, sang a song about the afikomen to the tune of “Oklahoma” and answered a lot of questions about matzah.
Was it the most traditional or religious seder? No, not by any means. But I made that clear to my guests and encouraged them to take home the haggadahs to study up for next year. But even with soggier charoset, I’m glad that I was able to provide some of my guests their first Jewish seder experience.
I enjoy having my home filled with friends and food, so it’s understandable why I got so excited about hosting a Passover seder. It’s a tradition that lends itself to bringing people into your house and sharing a meal that’s interactive, educational and delicious. I’m already planning for next year—with a tent outside!—and you are all invited.