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!
You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 3-4)
I’m wondering about “graven images.” Specifically, I’m wondering if Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille have helped or hindered us with their images.
When I taught 5th grade religious school, at the end of every class I took about 15 minutes to tell the story of the Torah portion of the week. And when Exodus came around, I used one entire class time to tell the story of Moses from his birth through the giving of the 10 Commandments. Though I am not a master storyteller, I did get quite good at this story, and each year took great pride in the wide eyes looking back at me.
Then one year, as I explained my vision of the golden calf (“imagine all the women in your family and your classmates’ families taking off their rings and bracelets and necklaces and melting them down to make this idol, it must have been about this big…”), and held my hands about two feet apart to demonstrate the size of the idol, a child interrupted me to tell me that I was “wrong” about the size. It was large enough to ride on, he said, and he knew this because he had seen it in the movie The Prince of Egypt!
Needless to say, we spent a long time that day discussing the difference between faith, and film, a religious vision, or someone else’s artistic vision, and that any one person’s vision is not necessarily “the truth.” I realized it’s not just that student’s generation that sees something onscreen, and then associates the film image with the Biblical story represented. I thought about my parents’ generation, and their ingrained vision of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.
The images of God as an old man in the sky, or Charlton Heston as Moses, or a golden calf of a certain size in a movie, are all very Hollywood, and also childlike. The problem comes when we outgrow those images and do not grow into our own adult visions of faith. I think the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bath water. If you can’t believe anymore like you did as a kid, then for some it is hard to have faith in anything as Jewish adults.
So I ask you: are the images from Mr. Spielberg and Mr. DeMille “graven images”? And even if they are not technically “graven images,” are they helpful or hurtful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?