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“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isn’t mentioned in the book of Genesis, but the opera based itself on early Jewish tales of a woman who was created before Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unlike Eve, who was born out of Adam’s side, Lilith was created from the earth at the same moment as Adam. They fought about everything, especially her refusal to assume his desired sexual position. Adam made it clear to God that he didn’t appreciate this insubordination and wanted her out. Lilith left in a huff, followed by three angels who implored her to return to the Garden of Eden. When she refused, they told her that she would spend eternity as a demon, bearing and killing hundreds of demon babies daily. With Lilith gone, Eve was created, destined to play the obedient and submissive “good girl” to Lilith’s strong-willed and demanding “bad girl.” The legend also provided a rationale for the high numbers of babies and women dying in childbirth. Lilith became the scapegoat for the unexplained mysteries of life and death.
Lilith rose in contemporary times as a model of strength, and has an all-woman folk music festival named for her as well as a Jewish feminist magazine. Treating her as a feminist icon, we often conveniently forget the part of the story when she turns into a baby-killing demon. Or perhaps we quietly recognize that so often women have been metaphorically demonized when they demanded personhood.
But Lilith is also beloved because she is the quintessential outsider, allowing us to easily identify with her. It is an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum peeking in. In truth, I have met a handful of Jews who don’t feel this way. But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know enough: We don’t know what’s going on during services, we don’t have the right parentage, we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We aren’t wealthy like other Jews. We were not born Jewish, or we are in an interfaith relationship. Like a kid on the school playground, many Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities see ourselves as the kid left out of the club. Other people are the ones who really belong. If only we knew that most everyone feels this way.
Unfortunately, too many of us have actually been told at one time or another that we don’t quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or aren’t following the rules. This is natural within a community that defines itself both as one people, yet also contains within it many distinct ways of defining itself. Furthermore, throughout our history, Judaism has had to create walls to define who is in and who is out for its own survival and we still struggle over the height of those boundaries. Reality, yes. But it still hurts.
The problem is, I see us “othering” ourselves. Once we feel or are told that there is a bias against us, we often glorify our place on the outside. We revel in it. We define ourselves by it. We become Lilith peeking in at what everyone else is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There was a time in my life when I identified strongly with the figure of Lilith. I was a rabbinical student dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t even know if I would finish my studies to become a rabbi. I felt like a boundary-breaker and wanted to own it. Perhaps even to flaunt it. I studied Lilith. I wrote about Lilith. I read every reference to her I could get my hands on. Except for the baby-killing part of the story, I wanted to be her. But I received some good advice from a trusted mentor to be wary of overly identifying with her. She was right. I was basking in my feelings of otherness. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to see myself as a change-maker from inside Judaism.
Feeling that I was on the outside woke me up to how so many people in Jewish communities feel. And I started to realize what a loss it is for everyone if we accept a seat on the outside. Jewish communities need all of us—not just the ones who fit nicely into a box.
Lilith has a lot to teach us. She teaches us to figure out who we are and stand up for what we believe is right. And she teaches us that if we allow others to cut us out, we can’t effect change from within.