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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
We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”
Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”
Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.
In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:
It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.
I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.
Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.
If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.