Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Many people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.
1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.
2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:
a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.
b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.
c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”
d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another. It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.
3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.
4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.
5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Moabite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.
6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom. All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism. People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.” You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.
7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.
You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful. On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.
I will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the well-known and still profound statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children; young and old; and leaders as well as people in the community.
Here is what I believe:
Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.
If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.
If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.
There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.
You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.
…if your child tells you they are dating someone from another religion (race, culture or same gender).
By Wendy Armon and Joycellen Young Auritt Ph.D.
What you should do:
1. Breathe and smile. Your child has just told you that they are seeing someone seriously. Your child is happy and is hoping for your approval of their happiness.
2. Be happy that your child is happy. Think about the joy in your child’s face. Does your child seem happy for the right reasons? Does this person make your child feel confident? We want our children to have happy and stable relationships where they can evolve into the best versions of themselves. If you think that the person is a bad fit for your child, proceed cautiously with concrete examples of your concerns. The fact that their partner wasn’t brought up the way you had hoped becomes a lesser priority if you feel that their partner is not kind, accommodating or considerate of your child. Such concerns can and should be expressed in a careful and thoughtful way.
3. Think before you talk. You may have told your child that you hoped they would marry someone of the same religion, race or culture. Do you still feel the same way? Think about what you are afraid might happen if this person is your child’s partner for life. Are you worried that your child will reject their upbringing? If you say something negative, realize that your child may fulfill your fear of rejection of their upbringing—this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. With positive reinforcement, you are likely to encourage your child and/or their partner to have good feelings about their upbringing.
The best way to express your concerns is through general, positive and thoughtful questions. Your concerns could be valid, but your child may not realize it so don’t expect an immediate revelation. For example, if you feel that your child has a dramatically different background and value system, a conversation might begin with this type of statement: “That is terrific that you and your partner are able to work out the differences from your backgrounds. I’m glad that you two are so thoughtful that you can work out such dramatic variables. I don’t think I could do that. I am very impressed.”
4. Encourage compatibility. It is OK to remind your children (throughout their childhood) that it is important to consider compatibility qualities in their future partners. Similar values in financial management, politics, education, family and discipline are all important in a long term relationship. Many clergy encourage couples to complete a survey to analyze and discuss these similarities and differences. Compatibility is very important and it is an OK topic to ask your child about delicately and privately.
5. If you are upset, think about why. Do you feel rejected? Your child didn’t reject you, he/she simply fell in love. (See Rabbi Robyn Frisch’s blog “Marrying Out is Not Abandoning Judaism”) Do you feel like you did a poor job raising your child? Think about whether your child is a kind person who is leaving a positive impact on society—if you can say yes, you did a great job as a parent. If you are upset that friends and relatives may be upset, you should relax. Any friends are likely to be supportive and to have experienced similar situations. Judgment from family members is an unacceptable reason to reject your child and their relationship. People who love your child and you will adapt and support their happiness if you set a positive example.
6. Be welcoming. If you are worried that your future grandchildren won’t be raised in the manner that you had hoped you should understand that you are not going to have control over how your grandchildren will be raised. Accept this lack of control. Then, embrace the couple and their future offspring. Only good can come from welcoming. Encourage them to participate in your holidays and culture. Positive behavior can lead to positive results. Negativity usually causes a backlash down the road.
What not to do?
1. Don’t be angry. Your child probably isn’t trying to make you angry. Even if your child is trying to be spiteful, reacting in a negative way will simply fulfill your child’s goal. Being angry serves no benefit. Your response to your child when your child tells you that he or she is serious with a potential life partner will be remembered.
2. Don’t threaten or reject your child. Your child needs to know that you will be there no matter what. This feeling of security that you will continue to love your child will provide satisfaction in the future. You will likely want your child to feel comfortable and unjudged if there are problems in the future. We all want have a safe place to go with our joys and our sadness. The arms of our parents should always provide us with that loving safety net.
Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.
For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.
My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.
Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.
I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.
Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.
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.
“Ben Zoma asks, ‘Who is worthy of honor?
The one who treats others with honor.’” Pirkei Avot (4:1)
My wife and I are always reminding our children that there is nothing more important than being kind. Hearing the “mean talk” of children’s taunts or playground mishaps—which of course happens everywhere—makes our ears perk up. Mess up on your homework, that can be resolved pretty quickly, but if you treat another person with disrespect, the consequences can be devastating.
The Hebrew word for respect is kavod. It is also translated as honor, dignity, and even glory. Kavod is a cherished word in Judaism. The Hebrew root of the word, (KVD) likens itself to weight, importance and abundance. Simply stated, kavod is not something to be taken lightly. It is all about how one treats their fellow person. This is ascribed an indisputable holiness that is essential in Jewish philosophy. Right in the heart of the Torah, we are instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
A psychologist studying the aftermath of a Golden Gate Bridge jumper in 2003 said, “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner. The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’” (New Yorker, 2003)
Apparently no one smiled at him and the rest is a tragic moment in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and suicide in general. Of course, there was a deep psychological imbalance in his life that led to such a horrific decision. Yet, the fact that people continue to regularly disregard each other is troubling. Admittedly, no one passing by this tortured soul could have known the level of despair he was in, but perhaps back then and even now, people could make an effort to show a stranger in our midst a little pre-emptive kavod. Surely all of us have felt uplifted by the gift of another’s smile in passing. How much the more so for people we know!
So what are you doing to show honor and respect to the ones you love? How do you express dignity and kindness to the people you meet? The littlest gesture can make such a difference.
Interfaith relationships offer an incredible opportunity to contribute to Judaism’s enduring strength and diversity. All people should be welcomed and included in Jewish rituals that are such an incredible source of value and meaning to all who participate in them. Perhaps the question when planning life cycle events should not be what are you going to get out of this moment or the person involved in the ritual, but rather, what can you give to the relationship? How can you help break down the barriers and include others?
I invite you to think about this as you peruse our interfaith forums and dialogues here at InterfaithFamily. Let’s open our hearts and minds, for kavod is all around us and it all starts by recognizing the holiness inside you.
There are many things that I am proud of about my background. I am proud of my heritage, my hometown and my family. Being proud helps our self-esteem and drives us to reach for new goals. But from time to time, when speaking about my background, I want to be careful that I am not insulting another person’s background. Sometimes I worry that pride can cross a line and become insulting or even prejudice. I’m going to put it out there: I am a conservative Jew who likes country music and cheers for Duke and the Phillies. But many people who I adore are Catholic, like heavy metal, are UNC fans and love the Red Sox. OK—I said it. We all make our own choices.
No one would argue that being proud of your family, school, city and heritage is a wonderful thing. Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombings, it was powerful to see the slogan “Boston Strong.” The concept of uniting the city to find the bombers was a crucial first step in the healing process for a city that had suffered such a devastating event. Similarly, I greatly admire people who serve in our military because they love our country so very much that they put their lives on the line. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being attacked, so it makes sense to unify as a community or country to take back a feeling of control.
In the past 100 years there were two World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. During the Second World War, Jews were targeted and murdered. As a result, many Jews have had a strong sense of pride as a way of overcoming such a horrific event in history. After centuries of persecution, many Jewish people felt very protective of their religion and culture. Many people dedicated their lives to working for Jewish causes. That sentiment is weakening as younger generations feel a distant connection to the Holocaust. Currently, some Jews do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism and feel very welcomed into American culture.
Here’s the problem. Pride is a wonderful motivator and generally exudes positive energy. However, sometimes pride comes at the expense of another city, town or culture or religion—and becomes prejudice. It is a very fine line between the two. The risk of misinterpretation or offending someone is constant. (And, there will always be people who are overly sensitive.) Yet, people don’t want to have their thoughts censored in their effort to be politically correct. It’s OK to have an opinion and to express it. But I think it is infinitely important to be aware that pride can easily step over the line and become prejudice.
Here is my recommendation: Think of pride versus prejudice like a sporting event. Everyone can and should cheer for their team. Competition is a great motivator and perseverance leads to wonderful self-esteem. Players and fans should exercise good sportsmanship. Occasionally there is a player or fan who steps out of line. Occasionally a player breaks a rule or there is even a flagrant violation. That doesn’t indicate that every player on that team is vindictive. We should exercise good sportsmanship and sensitivity and maintain the balance between pride and prejudice.
As a rabbi, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):
1. Your child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism”just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewish—and they can love you too!
2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterday…), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.
3. Accept that these are your child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.
4. Be honest, but respectful. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isn’t to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.
5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that won’t be productive for either of you.
6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.
7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.
What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?
Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselves—people with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.
We don’t live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met “the one”—even if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.
Many people, before finding their mate, have a “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.
For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.
I’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.
These people didn’t see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people I’ve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.
The fact is that in today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.
So don’t just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity aren’t important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.
One of my favorite camp counselors from my youth, now a respected university instructor and demographer, Marc Dollinger, Ph.D. is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He recently posted the following query on Facebook:
“…how many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.”
I was intrigued, so I started reading the 45+ comments. Professor Dollinger offered additional insight about the class that he was teaching when the question was posed: “Today’s lecture on post-Enlightenment denominationalism, at 75 minutes, was supposed to cover classical and modern Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (overviews on questions of God, Torah, authority, practice) but we didn’t get past classical Reform. Thrilled with the student interest and passion. More queries coming…”
Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: “…I know you stated you need a number, not a theory. However, I don’t believe this question can be answered that way and be authentic to Reform [Judaism]. As you know, Reform Judaism is non-Halachic. Its starting point is the premise that the mitzvot and other traditions are not legally binding on us. It was and is up to each one of us to learn and interpret these traditions in our own generation…”
As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he “taught how the early Reform theologians employed rationalist thought to determine which mitzvot remained relevant in modernity and which were considered dated in light of the rapidly changing world. In this sense, wearing kipot and talit would lose value while commandments against murder and stealing would, logically, remain. Students had a deeper concern that once Judaism becomes ethics, what makes it Jewish anymore?”
Rabbi David Cohen, also formerly from the Bay Area and now at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, chaperoned my teen trip to Israel (many years ago). He offered that “the classical reformers distinguished between rational, ethical mitzvot and non-rational ritual mitzvot. The rabbis of old would have called these mishpatim and khukim. Ethical mitzvot were obligatory; ritual mitzvot were optional. Each Jew was to make a personal, informed choice, choosing to perform a ritual mitzvah if s/he found it spiritually uplifting.”
He points out that a distinction is made between ritual (i.e. religious) and ethical commandments. Fast forward to today. My post read as follows, “I’m curious how your students would respond to the recent Pew Study finding that most of their contemporaries would describe themselves as non-religious Jews. Is this the same or different from classical Reform Judaism shifting away from halacha? It seems that among the non-Orthodox Millennials today, ethical/cultural Judaism is their focus of interest, over religious Judaism.” The distinction between religious and ethical continues.
So, what happens when Judaism becomes ethics? What do you think?