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“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.
When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.
You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.
When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.
While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.
And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.
My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at email@example.com). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.
On Friday evening, July 18, I had a great time welcoming Shabbat. My family’s Shabbat dinner guests were six young interfaith couples who I’ve come to know over the past year—either through officiating at their weddings or through my work at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. My IFF/Philadelphia colleague Wendy Armon, her husband Bruce and daughter Tess also joined us.
It was wonderful celebrating Shabbat with these six couples. For some of the attendees who were not Jewish it was their first time attending a Shabbat dinner and I felt privileged to be able to make this happen for them and to share in their experience.
After everyone arrived and had the chance to meet one another (none of the couples knew one another previously) and talk for a while, we all gathered to recite the Shabbat blessings. Anyone who wanted one was given a kippah and/or a copy of InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” booklet. Then I lit the candles and recited the blessing. Before Wendy and I blessed our kids with the traditional Friday evening blessing for children, I pointed out that the blessing for sons begins with the phrase “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Interestingly, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons in the Bible) was Asenath, an Egyptian woman. It felt quite appropriate to bless my own son Benji with the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” (two men who grew up in an “interfaith” family in the Bible) as I was surrounded by interfaith couples who will one day have families, like Joseph and Asenath’s, where the parents are from different religious backgrounds.
I shared with the couples how in some traditional Jewish homes the husband sings Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”—from Proverbs 31) to his wife. Rather than reciting “A Woman of Valor,” I invited the couples to each share with their partners what they loved about them, or perhaps a wish for the week ahead. Each couple did this as Wendy and I blessed our children.
My son Benji recited the kiddush (blessing over the wine) after which I invited each couple to share from their own cup of wine (just as those who were married had done at their wedding ceremonies). In truth, my impetus for doing this was that I had enough silver kiddush cups for six couples, but not enough for twelve individuals.
After we said
My hope is that the interfaith couples who attended the Shabbat dinner at my house will now “pay it forward” and host Shabbat dinners of their own. IFF/Philadelphia wants to help them with this, so we have created a Shabbat Dinner Program. Here’s how it works: Anyone who attended our Shabbat dinner—or who has participated in one of our Love and Religion workshops for interfaith couples or our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in your Interfaith Family” classes for parents of young children—is invited to host a Shabbat dinner of their own, which will be subsidized by InterfaithFamily. We encourage participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat with them so that they can create a community of their peers. However, we also believe that inviting guests from different backgrounds can help inspire a lively discussion about Shabbat and Jewish life, so participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program are also welcome to invite others who are not in interfaith relationships to their Shabbat dinner.
IFF/Philadelphia will not only provide those participating in the program with resources for hosting a Shabbat dinner, we will also help pay. And while the Shabbat dinner at my house can be a model for those who attended, we encourage people to “make Shabbat their own” in a way that feels right for them.
For those of you who are alumni of one of our workshops or classes, please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we are happy to tell you more about our Shabbat Dinner Program and give you any assistance you need in planning your own Shabbat dinner. If you happen to live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and you aren’t yet connected with IFF/Philadelphia but would like to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by an interfaith couple or family, let us know and we’ll try to hook you up with someone who is hosting a Shabbat dinner near you.
And finally, even if you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, consider having a Shabbat dinner of your own. All you need are two candlesticks and candle holders (or you can use two tealights) and matches; a kiddush cup (though any cup is fine) and some wine or juice; challah (which, depending on where you live, you can probably get at a local bakery or grocery store, or you can make your own—Rabbi Mychal Copeland recently shared her recipe) and a challah cover (or you can just cover your challah with a napkin); and kippot for your guests if you want to offer them. You can print out InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” Booklet for explanations, blessings, etc. And you don’t have to make a big deal about dinner: You can make or order something simple, or you can even make it potluck. The point is that you’re together with others to share the beauty and joy of celebrating Shabbat.
We’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences. Whether you celebrate Shabbat regularly in your home, or whether you just hosted or attended a Shabbat dinner for your first time, tell us about it. Who did you invite to share Shabbat with you? What was your favorite part of the evening? What will you do the same next time? What will you do differently?
Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.
I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:
1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.
2) It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it. But saying it will feel really weird too.
3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings. Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.
In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.
It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.
I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.
Sweet Egg Bread (Challah)
5-6 cups of flour
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.
1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:
a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.
b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.
c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.
Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.
2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.
3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.
Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun. Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.
4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.
In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!
5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.
6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.
7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.
Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!
We have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of
Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.
Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.
But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?
In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way. I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.
So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.
I have visceral memories of Passover as a child. It was a time, not a meal. My mother who worked more than full time was home.
We would rush to the kosher butcher for a huge slab of brisket. I loved going (this was the only time we went to the butcher during the year) because I felt part of something. There were so many other women there shopping for their Passover food. We spoke the same language, we were sharing the same busy-ness. It didn’t matter who was Orthodox and who Reform. We were one extended family. We brought a list to the supermarket for our food and other items (something that signified major cooking). We bought Manishevitz at the liquor store. I felt that everyone knew we were celebrating Passover. I felt that each stop was one step on the journey of doing Passover. We bought flowers for the table at the florist.
There was adrenaline and joy in my young soul. I was with the women of my family. We did Passover the same way each year. The familiarity of our preparations was warm to me, and precious. We set a beautiful, fancy table. I loved setting the table as a child. I had a job. It was a real job. People admired my work.
My beloved grandparents were at my house. I dressed up and so did everyone else. My Papa, of blessed memory, sang Chad Gadya in one breath. We dipped fingers in wine for the plagues. I proudly sang the Four Questions, showing off. We looked for the afikomen and claimed our dollar prize from a man at the table—tradition?
Fresh, bright, spring, freedom.
I loved eating matzah with cinnamon and sugar. I don’t think I can replicate this heaven. My family is scattered geographically. My child doesn’t sit still. I don’t cook like my mom did. I am a rabbi married to a rabbi. You could have predicted my profession from my love of Jewish holidays.
Now I have two lenses by which I view Passover. I think about the seder in terms of my kids. I think about the seder in terms of interfaith families. How does someone who didn’t grow up with Passover experience it in a loved one’s house with their family? When does one become part of the family? How does the message of going from slavery to freedom translate? How can someone with no memories of a holiday come to make it their own as an adult?
But the truth is, only my family has the memories I have. It draws us close and it is fun to reminisce. Those years are forever a part of me. What memories will stay with my children about Passover?
Who will they remember?
What foods will they long for?
What traditions will they hold in their hearts?
Following a special diet can be a challenge. Most of us have followed a diet in the past to lose weight, or for humanitarian or health reasons. Some of us are on one right now. In my own small circle of family, friends and colleagues, almost all of the major diet categories are covered. We have gluten free, low fat, dairy free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, high protein and low carb. Passover is coming and my diet-centered world is about to short circuit. What kind of meals can I make if I have to eliminate gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, eggs, meat and all of the items that are not consumed during Passover from the list of acceptable ingredients?
There can be some confusion about how to make our choices about what to eat during Passover. Tradition plays a strong role for religious Jews and can influence the decisions we make in our modern interpretation of our holiday observance. Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim) refrain from eating Kitnyot (KIT-NEE-OT) during the eight days of Passover. Kitnyot are grains and legumes such as, rice, corn, beans, soy, peanuts, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, seeds (sesame, poppy, sunflower, etc.), and their derivatives which can be found in corn starch, corn syrup and soy sauce. Jews from other lands (Sephardim) do eat Kitnyot during Passover. Why is there a distinction?
The Torah tells us not to eat leaven (also called Chametz) during the holiday of Passover. Chametz consists of “five grains” from wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. In ancient times, a strict observance of this commandment caused the Jews in lands where these grains were grown to be extra careful. All grains were stored in the same type of sack and could be easily mixed up or misidentified. The only way to be sure of not eating the five grains was to avoid any foods that could possibly have a similar appearance. Sephardim did not have this tradition because the five grains were not grown in their lands.
A little research on the Internet results in some obscure and interesting items to avoid during Passover. Who would have known that organic lipstick may contain wheat or oat flour? We must also avoid eating anything that contains vinegar like ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles, anything with glucose or dextrose, such as sugar alternatives, and decaf coffee and tea, which are processed using an additive called Maltodextrin, which is made from starch. Whisky and beer are also prohibited because they contain wheat or barley.
There are some very good menu and recipe suggestions available if one is willing to dig around a bit on the web. Daniella Silver has a list of Healthy Gluten/Dairy Free Vegetarian Passover Recipes that look very yummy. I am definitely going to try the Garlic Sweet Potato Rice and the Triple Chocolate Hamentaschen. My favorite site is from Shana Lebowitz called 34 Healthy Passover Recipes and it is full of interesting Passover relevant twists on regular dishes. Try her Grain-Free Banana Bread (it does include eggs) or the Bitter Herbs Salad that she found in a 2012 New York Times post.
It is a highly personal decision to change our diet for eight days. Whether or not you give up just bread, bread-like foods, or choose to follow all of the ancient traditions is up to you. Please share your favorite healthy Passover recipe with our readers so that we all have more food options to consider as we decide what our own unique celebration will entail.
Chag sameach (Happy holiday)!
This year is particularly exciting on the interfaith front regarding Purim and St. Patrick’s Day, as they coincide within one day. St. Patrick’s Day is Monday, March 17, as always and Purim starts the evening of Saturday, March 15. I see some green bagels in town, which is not quite the same as a fine pint of Guinness Stout, but it’s nice to see everyone getting involved and joyfully celebrating. Break out the green hamantaschen!
I love tradition. I love holidays. I love people. I love any time taken apart from the ordinary to celebrate life and freedom, be with our friends and family and offer a toast to what we value most.
Saint Patty’s Day represents the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and is greatly celebrated by the Irish diaspora. In America and other countries, there are parades, festivals, everybody wears green and celebrations abound with eating and drinking, song and revelry. What a perfect blend of holidays coming on the heels of Purim! As a Jewish American who married a girl from a proud Irish Catholic background, the opportunities to honor both holidays while having quite a festive time are fantastic.
Purim also celebrates with lots of eating and drinking. Some people like to get so “religious” that they can’t tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman (not an easy feat of drunken revelry) when you hear the traditional reading of the Megillah. Costumes are key too, turning the roles and appearances in our daily life on their heads.
Rather than expound on the story of Esther, which you can find in our interfaith resources by clicking here, I decided to explore the sacred origins of how Jewish people relate to those who are not Jewish. More specifically, I want to examine the tradition of alcohol in celebration.
We learn early on in the study of Torah that we are all descendants from original creation in the story of Adam and Eve. And since all of us are descendants from Adam and Eve, we are created in the image of God. Everyone is holy and no one is better than another person inherently by birth. That is clear.
It is also chiefly undisputed by Jewish scholars that Adam and Eve were not “Jewish.” Judaism was not created until much later in the Torah when Abraham comes into the picture. The great tale of Noah and the flood provides a nice segue between these tales. Noah was a tzaddik, a righteous person. And what does he do in his first act as a free man in a new land? Noah plants a vineyard of grapes, makes wine and gets drunk. (Genesis 9:20) That’s right, the first order of celebratory business was to imbibe in alcohol. Perhaps planting vineyards was his new line of work in the New World that he was building.
Shortly after Noah’s debaucherous celebration of the new promise, the very first blessing ceremony in the Torah as far as I can tell involves Malkezedek, King of Salem, who brought out the bread and wine (sounds like kiddush) and blessed our father Abraham of “The God Most High.” (Genesis 14:18-19) Not only another celebration, but also a measurement of how indeed to do a timeless blessing.
There is a time and a place for everything. And when it comes to joy, open doors are much better than a “members only” mentality.
I hope that the Jewish community will continue to open our doors to all to share the joy and fun of Purim as the Irish Catholic culture has done to embrace the world in celebration. Because the more the Jewish world shines our light from our beautiful tradition and shares the fun with our families, the brighter our collective light of humanity will be shining in the world and back to our Creator.
A couple of months ago I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful couple—the bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian. Several days after the wedding, I received the following email from the bride, Susan (not her real name):
I have a question for you about Purim. Esther married the king, who wasn’t Jewish, and ended up saving her people. If she had not married the king, all of the Jews in the kingdom would have died. Extrapolating from this example, why is it considered such a bad thing for one to marry outside of the Jewish faith?
What a great question! Susan made a good point. In Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, where we find the Purim story), the beautiful young Jewish Esther marries the Persian King Ahasuerus. At first, following the instructions of her cousin Mordechai, Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. But when the evil Haman convinces the king that all of the Jews in the kingdom should be killed, Mordechai tells Esther that she should go to the king and reveal her true identity. At first Esther refuses, explaining to Mordechai that the king hasn’t summoned her for the past thirty days, and if she goes before the king without being summoned he may order that she be killed. But Mordechai replies, in words that have become very famous: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14 – JPS translation)
Having been convinced by Mordechai’s powerful words of her responsibility to her people, Esther, after fasting for three days, goes before the king. Ultimately, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, and she asks that the Jews of Persia not be exterminated. The evil Haman is impaled on the stake which he had put up for Mordechai, and the Jews survive.
So here’s how I responded to Susan’s email:
Over the years rabbis and Jewish commentators have offered various explanations about Esther’s marriage to the gentile Persian king. Of course the explanations/commentaries generally reflect more about the writer/commentator (who often has his—and historically it always was a “him”—own agenda/bias he is trying to promote when commenting on the text) than they reflect about the text. There are rabbis (clearly opposed to intermarriage) who have claimed that Esther was forced to marry the king against her will. The Zohar even says that the Shekhinah concealed Esther’s soul and sent another soul in its place, so that when King Ahasuerus slept with Esther, he wasn’t sleeping with the real Esther.
Of course the biblical text doesn’t say this at all. In the biblical text itself no judgment is made on Esther marrying out of her faith. And as you point out, by marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish, Esther ended up saving her people.
So here’s what I have to say about Esther: By marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish, and ultimately “coming out” to her husband, the king, as a Jew, Esther saves her people. The text doesn’t comment on the fact that Esther is in an interfaith marriage, and I agree that she should be held out as a positive example to interfaith couples.
In my view, the only thing Esther should be faulted for in the story is denying Mordechai’s first request to tell the King that she is Jewish, though she does this because she fears that the king may have her killed. But at Mordechai’s urging she ultimately reveals her true identity to the king and in doing so she saves the Jewish people. The bottom line is: There’s no problem with Esther’s intermarriage—the only problem would have been keeping her Jewish identity secret.
Esther can be a terrific role model for the idea that it’s OK to marry someone who isn’t Jewish so long as you openly and proudly maintain your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And just like Esther, you could end up “saving” the Jewish people along the way. The problem is NOT intermarriage…it is when someone stops identifying as a Jew.
Once again, Susan, mazel tov on your wedding. May you, like Esther, have a husband who supports you in that which is most important to you and honors your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And may you always be proud of your Jewish identity.