Can We Talk?

  

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.

I do not think it means what you think it means

  

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,
“A Counter-Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Ties”:

Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.

Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.

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:

By stating that the Jewish people’s “witness to the kingdom … must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity,” the document “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews,” they added.

(emphasis mine)
There is a big difference between Judaism and Catholicism, and it is this: we do not think it’s a big favor to people to proselytize them. I’ve had people who were raised Catholic ask me if that was because Jews were snobs, which is funny if you know how negatively Jewish religion and culture both view proselytization. Some interpretations of Jewish law consider proselytizing coercive and a way to invalidate a conversion! It’s a very different view of what shows respect for another religious group, and I think we have to keep reaching out to each other to bond over that shared difference. 

Jewish Congressman to Marry Muslim State Department Aide

  

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn, Queens) is engaged to marry Huma Abedin, a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff at the State Department, the New York Daily News reported Sunday. Weiner is a strong supporter of Israel in Congress, leaning to the right on many issues, as the English-language Israeli news website Arutz Sheva reported. Continue reading

The Jews of Iquitos

  

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! Continue reading

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

  

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

Rabbinical School and the Interfaith Marriage, Part 2

  

Last week Ruth Abrams blogged about an important article by Jeremy Gillick in New Voices, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi, about men and women seeking to attend and be ordained by rabbinical schools that will not accept them because they are intermarried.  Shortly before the New Voices article came out, we published Why I’m Not A Rabbi, in which Edie Mueller explained her experience of this rejection 15 years ago. I’d like to now explain our position on this issue, prompted in part by a parallel discussion that is taking place on the Jewish Outreach Institute‘s JOPLIN listserv. Continue reading

Can You Be for Inmarriage Without Being Against Intermarriage?

  

Can you be for inmarriage without being against intermarriage? My gut says yes. But explaining it is the tricky part.

When people of different religious backgrounds ask what I do, I tell them I work for a Jewish non-profit that provides resources for interfaith couples with a Jewish partner. “So you encourage Jews to marry Christians?” they inevitably ask. Well, no, I stammer, we don’t promote intermarriage, but if people do intermarry, we’re all for welcoming them and showing them the beauty, joys and community of Judaism. Their eyes are usually glazed over by that point.

Continue reading

Madoff and Intermarriage, Part 2

  

 Last week, Micah Sachs posted about Jonathan Tobin’s first article as editor of Commentary magazine. In a time of limited resources and funding difficulties facing Jewish non-profits, Tobin is arguing for a “circle the wagons” approach against reaching out to interfaith families. I wanted to share the letter to the editor that I’ve submitted:

Dear Editor,

I take exception to Jonathan Tobin’s comment (The Madoff Scandal and the
Future of American Jewry, February 2009) that “the results of the past two
decades suggest that the outreach model is a failure.” Tobin quotes Gary
Tobin’s estimate that the annual amount of Jewish philanthropic giving is $5
billion.  InterfaithFamily.com tracks all outreach programs that target
interfaith families; the Jewish community spends less than $4 million on
such programs — less than 1/10 of 1% of its total spending. The outreach
model cannot be deemed a failure because it has never been implemented on a
national scale. Continue reading

Inside-Outsiders?

  

Many progressive Jewish organizations have made great strides in recent years in creating a welcoming environment for intermarried members and visitors, but what of those who work for the organizations themselves? Does the same attitude of welcoming apply to the organization’s intermarried employees?

There is no definitive answer. But the Jewish Outreach Institute is starting an email discussion forum for intermarried workers in the Jewish communal world who want to talk about the issue. It’s a good idea, and a good start. In the Jewish communal world, it seems to me there is a (sometimes not so) subtle peer pressure to prove one’s Jewish bona fides. It can sometimes be easier to let people think you go to synagogue more than you do or not to mention that your partner is Christian. I certainly see this tendency among young adults from interfaith families who are working in the Jewish world; whenever I go to a conference with other Jewish organizational professionals, these impassioned young people seek me out to talk about their background. They don’t hide their past exactly, but they certainly don’t broadcast it.

I hope this small step will help Jewish organizations become more comfortable with the intermarried individuals working for them–and help those intermarried workers become more comfortable with themselves.

Art Imitating Life or Beating us to the Punch!

  

A question that has always boggled my mind is “How popular must a particular cultural phenomenon be before TV producers choose it for sitcoms?”

TelevisionThe CW’s hit series Gossip Girl recently aired an episode with an interfaith wedding, co-officiated by an Episcopal priest and a rabbi. The Forward ran an article about this episode.

The ceremony even had the traditional Hebrew phrase “Ani L’dodi…” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s one thing to have a Jewish wedding with an interfaith couple. It’s another to see television writers showing a co-officiated wedding with the clear expectation that the audience to get the cultural jokes made out of playing the stereotypes off each other. And, knowing that TV producers aren’t willing to risk airing a joke no one will get, it is clear that they know that co-officiated weddings are at least normalized enough to get people to pay attention to the jokes and not the be distracted by the scene itself. Continue reading