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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŠ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŠ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŠ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
Hi, Iâm Rabbi Jillian Cameron, the director ofÂ InterfaithFamily/Boston. While many people have at least some idea of what a rabbi in a synagogue does, my work might seem a bit more mysterious; I thought Iâd provide some clarity, in case what I do could coincide with your work or your life.
InterfaithFamilyÂ is a national organization dedicated to connecting interfaith couples and families to Jewish life in whatever way is comfortable.
Right off the bat, you might be wondering how we define âinterfaith.â Well, for our work, âinterfaithâ means a couple or family where one person identifies as Jewish and one person identifies as something other than Jewish. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different combinations this loose definition can make, from families who are very connected to their respective religions, to couples who struggle with their connection to religion, to everything and anything in between.
Of course, this adds a complication because not everyone likes and identifies with the term âinterfaith.â I often use the words âintercultural,â âmulti-faithâ and âdiverse,â among several more, just in case those better align with a coupleâs identity.
When all is said and done, no matter how a couple or family might define themselves, if they are interested in exploring any facet of Judaism, from just dipping in a toe, to jumping in completely, it is my job and my passion to help them find a way in.
One of the best parts of my work is listening to everyoneâs storiesâI mean everyone, from children of intermarriage, to the couple themselves, to their parents or grandparents, extended family and even friends. While interfaith families and couples are often viewed through the lens of statistics, I have found there is such beautiful and significant diversity in each personal journey and story. So I listen, informally compiling this important narrative of the Boston Jewish community, and then I try to help, using all my resources: knowledge of all that exists here in Boston that could be of interest, welcoming communities, events that coincide with existing interests, other Jewish professionals and organizations who are creatingÂ amazing things, classes to take and more.
Sometimes what a couple needs is just to talk to me, to work through questions they have individually and as a couple about the role of religion in their lives, as they are thinking about moving in together, or are getting married, having children, dealing with loss or great joys. Sometimes interfaith couples are interested in finding other similar couples to talk with, hear how they have made decisions and perhaps not feel like they are the only ones like them out there. This is why I created InterfaithFamily/Bostonâs Coffee & Conversation, a once-a-month informal gathering for interfaith couples at Bostonâs best coffee shops. (For our next date and location, clickÂ here.)
Other times, a couple or family is looking for a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle event. Helping to connect the right rabbi with a couple or family is another piece of my work. InterfaithFamily has aÂ national clergy referral service, providing information for interfaith-friendly Jewish clergy around the country. In Boston, sometimes itâs me, but there are a wealth of local rabbis and cantors who are proudly on our list and who create incredibly meaningful lifecycle moments for so many interfaith families and couples. While youâre onÂ our website, you can also check out the plethora of resources we have, like guides for lifecycles and holidays, and a whole host of stories from people we have encountered since our creation in 2002.
The Boston Jewish community is a special one, both in its makeup and offerings. Organizations and professionals work together, support each other and create incredible things in partnership. I work to create interesting, fun, creative and intellectual programming with any number of other Jewish organizations, as well as help those same organizations think more deeply about the diverse population that might walk through their door. I want the Jewish community to continue to be innovative, relevant and welcoming and engaging to all.
I love being a rabbi and I especially love being a rabbi who works at InterfaithFamily in Boston. If Iâve piqued your interest, if you would like to hear more about what we do, if you want to tell me your story, if you want to explore Judaism, if youâre looking for a good cup of coffee and a good listener, Iâm here and more than happy to help in whatever way I can.
Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com
You have chosen the date, the place, the guest list. But who will officiate at your ceremony? A family member? Friend? Clergy person? Justice of the peace? A celebrant?
Asking friends or relatives to officiate at wedding ceremonies is a relatively recent phenomenon with numbers rising in just the last decade with the advent of online ordination. If you have a friend or relative whom you believe to be the right officiant for you, this can be a very meaningful option. But if you are still deciding, consider a clergy person or other trained celebrant to lead you through this sacred moment in your life.
When you are standing before your family and friends exchanging vows, your life changes. You take on a new status, a new legal category. A clergy person or celebrant is trained to usher you through this life-shifting moment. We strive to deepen your experienceânot only on the dayâbut throughout the process. By the time you take your places in front of your loved ones, you will hopefully see yourselves as participating in a timeless ritual, connected to couples who have taken this step throughout the ages.
Many couples shy away from inviting a religious leader to officiate at their ceremonies because they donât consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But regardless of your religiosity, a wedding ceremony is sacred, out of the ordinary. It marks one of the most significant choices you will ever makeâand that is not to be taken lightly. The person leading your ceremony needs to know how to create sacred space, a practice clergy people hone over many years. We set the mood through words and song, and explain rituals in a way that is steeped in tradition and relevant to you. We come prepared to lead you through a process that is individualized for you, yet we arenât starting from scratch. In fact, we have a storehouse of great material to work with.
As part of our seminary training, we learn about the essence of ritual and how rites like this one carry us safely through liminal, life-changing moments (regardless of how religious you are). We create meaningful ceremonies that flow seamlessly and get to the heart of why you are making this life choice.Â A friend or relative is often just figuring this out for the first time (they often call our offices seeking guidance, reassurance and outlines!). You might need someone who can put you and others at ease amidst wedding tensions rather than trying to keep their own nerves under wraps. We honor the generational nature of weddings, acknowledging the process of each family member as roles, relationships and names shift.
If you arenât sure how religion will play into your lives, this is precisely the time to figure that out. A clergy person can help you discern how religious or spiritual life can deepen your relationship and what is authentic to you both. With so many options today, choosing a clergy person is not the fallback that it once was. But if you come from a religious or cultural tradition, this is an opportunity to explore its meaning for you as an adult and avail yourself of the accumulated wisdom that tradition holds.
Many couples are concerned that a clergy person will not be respectful, accepting or inclusive of their non-traditional religious views.Â In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people may assume that there are no clergy people who understand and celebrate their relationships or identities.Â In both of these cases, there are clergy people who would be thrilled to work with you, many of whom might share your worldview and even your identities. Â It may not be the pastor of your youth, but taking the time to seek out someone who is aligned with your values and commitments could have a profound and even healing impact on your lives.
Interfaith couples often worry that they donât yet know what elements of their respective traditions they will bring into their homes, so how can they decide what kind of clergy person should officiate?Â Meeting with potential officiants can help you sort out what makes sense for you and it might even be a great way to introduce one another to some of the wisdom and depth each of your traditions hold.Â Your wedding ceremony should reflect the choices you are going to make in your home and for your family. Donât put off this important decision until the next major milestone. Officiants listed through InterfaithFamilyâs officiation service are sensitive to these issues and will honor both of your backgrounds.
If you are not at all connected to any religious group, find a secular celebrant. They are trained to make your day sacred and meaningful, but often not from a religious perspective. Many are experienced in leading you through the important counseling work as well. But if you have some inkling of a religious or cultural background, I urge you to interview some clergy people. You arenât the first couple to ask for a ceremony that is deeply meaningful without God language, or to want certain rituals while leaving out others. Many clergy people are prepared to engage with you about what matters most, and figure out how to create something that feels authentic to you.
Although the day of your ceremony is momentous, the most important part of your weddingâŠ is not actually the wedding. Itâs the work you do leading up to it. You are taking this step because you are marking that your lives will now be intertwined. Clergy people are trained in pastoral counseling and guide people through deep, spiritual work focusing on communication, finances, intimacy, religion, interfaith issues and end of life decisions. We lead you through the most profound spiritual questions so youâre prepared. Your friend probably canât do this for you. If you do choose someone who is not trained in this area, sign up for couples counseling before the wedding. In the words of one couple, âWe were both told on the wedding day that we seemed very calm. That is because we were completely ready.â
The expertise you get with a clergy person usually does come with a cost. But compared to what a typical wedding couple budgets for flowers and music at the party, itâs not much considering that it is most likely what you will most remember from the day. The officiant does not charge a fee merely for the time of the wedding ceremony but for the knowledge, time preparing a unique ceremony and counseling. For many, this is the core of their work and livelihood. If you are truly on a shoestring budget, be honest with potential officiants. Many clergy people are able to slide their scale for you or refer you to a colleague if you ask.
I often hear couples express that they donât want a stranger to marry them and that they want the ceremony to feel personal. Believe me, this person wonât be a stranger after you have talked through the deepest questions, concerns and joys in your life. No, they didnât know you when you were 5. But that isnât necessarily what you need to prepare yourselves for a lifelong commitment.
Have questions? Email me at email@example.com.
Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
[* Note that either a rabbi or cantor can officiate a Jewish or interfaith wedding ceremony. InterfaithFamilyâs Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were âinterfaith weddings,â yet they were all very different. And each rabbi and cantor has different comfort levels and boundaries as to what they will do as part of an interfaith wedding.
One rabbi said to me recently: âI officiate at weddings where one partner isnât Jewish, but theyâre really âJewish weddings.â Essentially I do everything the same as I would do for two Jewish partners, with a few minor changes. I never let clergy or relatives from other faith traditions have any role in the ceremony, and I would never include a New Testament reading or any kind or any reference to or ritual from the other partnerâs religious tradition.â
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: âI think itâs really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isnât Jewish if they have a clergy person or other representative from their religion that they want to invite to take part in the ceremony. If not, I encourage them to think about including readings or rituals from their religious tradition that they find meaningful.â
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddingsâand most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is ârightâ or âwrongââbut it can be frustrating and uncomfortable for a couple to meet with a rabbi or cantor who falls toward one end of the spectrum when theyâre really looking for someone who falls toward the other end. Needless to say, this can be uncomfortable for the clergy as well.
So what should a couple do when theyâre searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right âfitâ to officiate their wedding?
1. Â First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about whatâs important to them in their wedding ceremony. How does each partner feel about having Jewish clergy? Assuming that they want to have a Jewish officiant, they should decide: Do we want clergy of another faith to participate as well, and if so in what way? Are there rituals from the religious tradition of the partner who isnât Jewish that they want to include? Are there elements of Judaism (e.g., use of Hebrew, mention of God) that they are not comfortable with? Do they want their ceremony to take place before sundown on a Saturday? (Rabbi Keara Steinâs blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Â Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesnât already have a relationship with a rabbi or cantor, they can go to interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi and fill out a brief form with some basic information, and we will email them a list of rabbis and cantors in their area who officiate at interfaith weddings. Among other questions, the online form asks if the couple plans to have clergy of another faith participate in the serviceâif they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Â Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, itâs time for the couple to reach out and talk to them. The couple and the rabbi or cantor need to be very clear up front about what their expectations and comfort levels are when deciding if they are going to work together. As I often say when I met with couples (whether both partners are Jewish or theyâre an interfaith couple): âThis is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If Iâm not OK with something thatâs important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you donât feel like Iâm the right âfitâ for you, it doesnât mean that Iâm not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.â
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what theyâre expecting their wedding ceremony to look like. They should also feel free to ask any questions (after all, for most people this is their first time having a wedding, so they shouldnât feel like they need to be an âexpertâ), and to be honest if there are some things theyâre not yet sure about. Similarly, the rabbi or cantor should be clear about what they are and are not comfortable with.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, the couple will be very excited about the person they choose to officiate their wedding. Ideally, it will be just the beginning of a relationship that continues not only through the wedding, but for many years into the future.
Itâs 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to âon dutyâ and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbieâs there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New Yorkâs Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: âYou know, this is crazy. I donât even know your full name.â
Man: âBernieâŠ.Steinberg. Whatâs yours?â
Woman: âBridgetâŠ.Bridget â Theresa â Mary â Helene â Fitzgerald.â
Then they both say at the same time: âI think we have a problem.â
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the coupleâs interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish communityâand certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didnât care about Judaism. When you âmarried outâ you were seen as âwriting offâ your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who âsat shivaâ (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who âmarried out.â The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernieâs interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fadingâat least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In todayâs worldâa world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isnât Jewishâitâs not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegeâs recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who arenât Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we canât just âcancel the showâ and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish communityâs response to intermarriage was to preach against it.Â Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernieâs marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. Weâd want to celebrate Bridget and Bernieâs marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our âLove and Religionâ workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online âRaising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Familyâ class to consider âhowâ and âwhyâ to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, âprimetimeâ is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who arenât Jewish; to let them know that we donât just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. Itâs a time to let those Jews who have partners who arenât Jewish know that not only are we not âsitting shivaâ for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we donât see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. Itâs a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish communityâand we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the âBerniesâ out there know that we donât love them any less because they love âBridget.â And for all of the âBridgetsâ out there, we hope that just as you love âBernie,â you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.
When I became a rabbi, my own rabbi at home told me that the most important thing I had as a rabbi was my integrity and Iâd have little left to offer if I ever let that go. I think about that almost daily and certainly when tough decisions come up. Yet what I find the most difficult about maintaining integrity is not knowing what my boundaries are, what I believe in, stand for and represent but rather how to express and enact all those things. Sometimes itâs easy and the choices are obvious but more often than not, the nuance and shades of gray make integrity anything but easy to maintain. Moreover, while integrity can and should be a constant, it does not preclude evolution of practice, thought and boundaries nor does it give us the right to be judgmental or unkind.
I meet with a wide variety of interfaith couples on a regular basis, whether through a simple email exchange or a series of in-person counseling sessions. By far, the most common story I am told breaks my heart every time. It usually starts with the joy of an engagement and ends with the sting of rejection and judgement, whether from family members, community members or more often than not, clergy.
I have the utmost respect for those rabbis and cantors whose integrity, ideology and sense of purpose precludes them from officiating at interfaith ceremonies. I have seen the struggle amongst my colleagues and the true thoughtfulness with which so many make their decision. But I also see the struggle of so many interfaith couples who are less likely to engage in Judaism not simply because a rabbi said no to marrying them but because of the way in which a rabbi said no.
In an effort to practice what I preach and acknowledge the gray, I of course recognize that there will always be a certain number of couples who will only hear the no, no matter how kindly it is given, and will feel rejected. This is our reality. But I think we can do better for those who come to us, wanting a connection, no matter how tenuous. We owe it to ourselves, to our integrity and to the greater Jewish community, to express first the joy, purpose and possibility of Judaism rather than just the boundaries. We know Judaism has so much to offer: Why else would we want to protect it and cultivate it? Why else would we have spent years learning in order to make it our lives work?
Why not start with words of yes even when we have to say no? Â
In the face of what we donât understand, practice kindness.
Toward that which makes us uncomfortable or worried, practice kindness.
To those who make different choices than we do, practice kindness.
To those who yearn to belong, practice kindness.
The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.
Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase âCan we talk?â it wasnât that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didnât want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasnât for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to sayâŠand she wanted our undivided attention.
Many of us like to talk. We have something to say â perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as activeâŠit involves doing something.
We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passiveâŠas if we donât have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isnât always easy and itâs certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skillâevery bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. Itâs incredibly powerful for a person to know that theyâre being listened toâthat theyâre being âheardâ (and this often involves much more than just words)âby someone else whoâs taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.
In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means âHear.â Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.
When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue usedâit was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called âListen.â It began as follows:
Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!
But what does it really mean to hear?
The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,
Hearsâbut does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of the birds
And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hearsâbut does not really hearâŠ.
I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment âŠ of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.
Iâm not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushnerâs poem âListenâ and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses Iâd add would be:
The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partnerâs, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child âintermarryingâ as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancĂ©, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hearsâbut does not really hear.
The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is âwelcomingâ of interfaith families but isnât comfortable with those who arenât Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hearsâbut does not really hear.
When it comes to interfaith relationships, many peopleâthose in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and othersâmay have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.
In the recent article in The Forward, a Rabbi in Los Angeles explains that he will officiate for an interfaith couple at their wedding if they commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and a Jewish home.Â A Conservative Rabbi who left his rabbinical union over being able to officiate at interfaith weddings quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres saying: âItâs not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.â The only condition he has is that an interfaith couple getting married âshould commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.â
Some rabbis may make all couples (whether they are both Jewish or only one is Jewish) promise to raise Jewish children in order to marry them, but many only speak about this test for interfaith couples. It makes sense for rabbis to speak about how the couple will raise their children. Couples often sit with the rabbi who will perform their wedding for several meetings which gives them ample time to plan the ceremony and usually also time to discuss where they are with religion, extended family issues and what they are thinking their home will look like in the years to come. If a couple wants a rabbi at their wedding, they care about Judaism in some ways. Certainly a conversation can be had about how they plan to live Jewishly and raise their children.
However, I think that too much focus, as is clear from this Forward article, is placed on having a premarital couple talk about Judaism only in terms of how it will affect their children. I for one care more about what the adults who will stand under the chuppah with me think about their own Judaism.
Do they know anything about the religion that they think they donât want in their lives? Do they know what Judaism says about the major questions of life such as the meaning of sin or suffering or ideas about afterlife and heaven? Do they understand who is Israeli (and for that matter when, why and how Israel exists)? Do they search for calm, anecdotes to stress, balance, order, meaning, peace, love and purpose? Judaism addresses these areas of our lives.
Did they once attend religious school at a congregation and even celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah, but have not gone into a synagogue since (maybe except for some High Holiday services as a passive participant?) I hope that by developing a relationship with the couple as we plan their wedding that the couple will think about exploring Judaism in new ways. I hope that the Judaism they find is open, accessible, relevant, realistic, challenging, inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, joyful and sophisticated.Â If adults are turned on by Judaism; if they are called to action, supported by community, filled with pride at Jewish accomplishmentsâŠif they cook the food, live the values of tzedakah and menschlekeit (being a good person), if they visit Israel, find the words of the prayers to resonate, they will want their children to experience Judaism.
Are there congregations where one can experience Judaism like this? There are. Are there study groups, trips, volunteer opportunities and cultural events that have this kind of Jewish vibe? There are.
If we ignore the Jewish life of adults and simultaneously try to get them to follow the patterns of their parents in joining congregations so that children can have a bar or bat mitzvah, that experiment is over. We canât infuse guilt or a sense of responsibility or obligation as the vehicle to promulgate Judaism to the next generation. People getting married arenât swayed by that. Instead, we need to ask these adults getting married to give Judaism a second chance for the sake of their own souls.