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The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabeth’s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabeth’s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call “organized” Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didn’t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish home—don’t ask me what a Jewish home is—many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ish…not a practicing anything else but hasn’t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seems—the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline read “More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope: Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations.”
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people won’t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people don’t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to “be good people” and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who aren’t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isn’t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights our theological differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writer Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her: “Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflicted…I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time…local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.”
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may we know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s Will
I have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.
Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.
My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.
At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.
Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).
What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.
Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:
As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.
Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.
The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”
I’ve watched this video a few times and I’m still not sure how I feel about this.
Did you catch that? Trevor’s already turned 13, and they’ve decided to throw him a “
As I said, I’m a bit confused by this.
And, with that confusion, I can’t decide what I think of a “Christian bar mitzvah.” The bar mitzvah traditionally marks a boy (or girl) taking status as an adult in the Jewish community. With that, they’re now able to perform commandments (mitzvot) reserved for adults, like being counted in a prayer quorum (10 adults needed to form a minyan for prayer services). The question posed on twitter was, “blatant misuse of Jewish ritual or can we choose to borrow from other faiths? If so, how?”
What do you think?
There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:
My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?
Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:
Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace).
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.
Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.
There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.
The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness. Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you.
Beyond the Psalms:
In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):
Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.
There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.
Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.
Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.
Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.
This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.
The current Pope has signed a decree heroic virtues for two previous popes: his predecessor, John Paul II, and Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War. This is one step before beatification. Predictably, some Jews have already pointed out why they wouldn’t make Pius XII a saint–most historians believe he did little to save Jews from the Nazis.
Deborah Dwork, a historian and Holocaust expert at Clark University, and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who runs interfaith work at the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an editorial condemning the move as an attack on Jews. Further, the editorial discusses and dismisses historians arguing that Pius XII did more behind the scenes to save Jewish lives than he seemed to have done in public. The Catholic League responded with another editorial that called Dwork and Greenberg’s criticism “unseemly” and pointed out all the things Pius XII was known to have done to save Jews. (To me, it’s not all that impressive, but you read it and see what you think.)
Tracking the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations for this blog has been very interesting for me. I grew up post-Vatican II and most of my adult life has been during the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who did the most to foster positive relations between Catholics and Jews of any pope, ever. The current papacy has made a series of missteps with relation to Catholic-Jewish relations–and people in my generation did not expect them, I think.
It’s true Pope Benedict XVI is German and a voice on the right on Church matters, but he was completely on board with John Paul’s gestures to the Jewish community–in fact, he was the one who prepared a definitive church document, Memory and Reconciliation, that outlines the Church’s responsibility in past anti-Jewish violence. We had reason to expect him to continue in the same line. Ruth Ellen Gruber’s JTA article, After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance, outlines the back and forth of recent papal decisions.
I really don’t know the truth about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. No one does, because the documents historians want to see to find out are in closed Vatican archives. It’s possible that the current pope knows something we don’t. I was trained as a historian and even if I weren’t Jewish I would probably be on Deborah Dwork’s side about opening those archives.
I was very happy to see a report on Beliefnet that the US Council of Catholic Bishops apologized to Jewish leaders for “feelings of hurt.” This wasn’t a fauxpology either. They actually spelled out, “Jewish-Catholic dialogue… has never been, and will never be, used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism, nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”
I blogged about the so-called “clarification” that led to this moment back in the summer. Over 40 years after Vatican II, the US Bishops seemed to be reversing course, last June, on the validity of Judaism as a separate religion–and more importantly, to view interfaith dialogue as a chance to “invite the dialogue partner to baptism.”
In this apology the Bishops acknowledge what ought to be obvious to everyone–Jews and Catholics have a very different perspective on proselytizing. Jews don’t find welcome in proselytizing and we don’t have a tradition of proselytizing non-Jews. (I know there are some historical exceptions to this which would be interesting to discuss, but–let’s just say no one is going to be ringing the doorbell at your house at random and asking if you want to read the Torah.)
Who knows what made the Council of Bishops think it was a good idea to imply that Catholics ought to proselytize to Jews–even in the context of interfaith dialogue–in their earlier document last June? Whatever the internal political or theological reasons were, now both groups can sit down and discuss it.
It’s very easy to bond with people over shared experiences. That’s a lot of what the personal narrative essays on this website are about. What’s more exciting is when people bond over shared differences–not in spite of having different beliefs, history or culture, but because of it.
That’s why the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a “clarification” of an earlier 2002 document on Catholic-Jewish relations seems to be going over like a lead balloon in the Jewish community. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unless “clarification” always means “complete reversal of previous position.” As J.J. Goldberg writes in an article in the Forward,
Goldberg also notes, to me most significantly, that the Council of Bishops did not discuss this with Jewish dialogue partners while it was in process or even give them a warning that it was coming out. Orthodox groups that had been part of the dialogue responded in kind, shooting from the hip with an immediate response June 29, while other Jewish groups tried to engage in discussion for a month and a half before they expressed “serious concerns” about the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
Reading another piece in my local Catholic paper The Boston Pilot, “Jewish leaders say bishops’ June statement could hurt dialogue”, I had some insight into why Catholics might not understand the (to me entirely predictable!) negative Jewish reaction. Some Catholics may have had concerns that Jews were not allowed to convert to Catholicism: