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As the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcome non-Jews into the community.
Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.
Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.
If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?
These are two different things.
Step one: You intend to welcome.
Step two: You actually welcome.
Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.
There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”
It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.
This essay was reprinted with permission from J. Weekly.
Earlier this month I was the rabbi at the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries’ biennial conference at City of Refuge Church in Oakland. I was invited to blow the shofar for the new Hebrew month of Av, and I lit candles to usher in Shabbat before the worship began. I returned to my seat, filled with love for the extraordinary Christian leaders I had met that day, honored to bring a taste of Judaism into their prayer space and feeling welcomed as someone who had entered that morning as an outsider, now an insider sharing a sacred moment.
Then came the scriptural reading from the New Testament: “Everything [the Pharisees] do is done for people to see. … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:5, 27, 28).
How should I react? Was anyone looking at me? Do I show my discomfort as a Jew listening to these words? I tried to be invisible, wondering if anyone who was standing up and calling out affirmations of this reading might be associating me, the very public representation of Judaism at this gathering, with a Pharisee. Were the rituals Matthew was criticizing related to ones I just performed? Were they viewed as empty, for show?
It was mere minutes later that I felt a tap on my shoulder. The presiding pastor presented a handwritten note. “Please forgive me for my choice of scripture, which I’m sure was painful to hear. … I felt pain as I listened. … and apologize for any harm this may have done to your heart just after you gifted us with a Sabbath Blessing.” I caught her eye, expressing how deeply this touched me. Her apology doesn’t erase the reality of the text existing, or being read as sacred Scripture, nor should it. But it brought me peace.
What followed was a regular part of the weekly liturgy at her church. The entire congregation recited a five-minute “Confession for the misuse and abuse of Scripture” that speaks, among other things, to the harm done to Jews and others as a result of the misuse of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. At this point, feeling a swell of gratitude, I wondered if we Jews ever ask publicly for forgiveness for any harm our texts have caused. In drashes, I have condemned our use of anti-gay verses, I have openly challenged Torah that oppresses women or further disempowers the powerless. But do we ever apologize directly to the people sitting among us who are squirming in their seats as a result of our words?
Because I was the direct recipient of someone’s confession, my mind is fixed on the people who sit and listen to sacred text being chanted in our sanctuaries. For the first time in a long stretch of history, a large percentage of people sitting in services are not Jewish. Most of them have entered our holy spaces because they love someone who is, and many have made personal sacrifices to raise Jewish families. This Shabbat, they may open the Chumash and read, “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and God’s anger will blaze forth against you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
This week, I would ask forgiveness from interfaith couples who came to synagogue in support of their Jewish families. They might historicize these verses (this addressed long-gone nations and a nascent people) or even think about our contemporary interreligious battles (Jews worry that their kids might worship the god of the very people who have tried to extinguish them for centuries). But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.
If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?
Today on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, “at least not right now.” She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an “interfaith couple,” a term which “does not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.”
I posted a response that I’d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesn’t mean a couple that is raising children “both” or in two faiths. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.
We think that the term “interfaith” has become what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term “interfaith” the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.
Allison writes that there are “plenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,” but doesn’t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition – and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than “interfaith.”
Allison writes in her article that her and her husband’s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are “many shades of gray.” But as we use the term, “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.
Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organization’s goal – which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations – is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.
Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*
Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to
Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.*
Son: Really? That’s so awful.
Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:
Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!
Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.
I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?
Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.
So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples: Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.
I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.
*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.
I love brainstorming ideas for Jewish education and engagement (outreach). One idea I’ve been tossing around is about supporting interfaith couples who have Jewish clergy present at their wedding or union. These couples are our future. These couples cared about and felt connected enough with Judaism to seek out (sometimes in a tough process) Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings.
What if every city’s Jewish community committed to supporting these couples for the first year (or two) after their ceremony? The time and resources spent continually working with these couples in meaningful ways would pay off ten-fold for the Jewish community — now and in the future.
What would this support involve?
In exchange, we would ask them to volunteer and get involved with a Jewish social justice agency. Each segment of the Jewish community who tries to reach this age cohort (25-35ish) would decide what services they would most like these couples to know about and participate in. The couples would receive information about their options in a gift bag or maybe receive a link to a YouTube video made just for them, or something else creative (maybe an app for their phone which would keep them updated about programs and events that might interest them?). The different Jewish organizations would pay for the programs they would offer these couples.
The point would be that couples (whether interfaith or not) who wanted Judaism at this most sacred moment in their lives would be welcomed into the community with open arms. We would see their want for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings as a sign that there’s more work for us to do. The outpouring of outreach to them would be a beautiful and overwhelming testament to the many ways to get involved in Jewish life and would present the rainbow of potential for each and every couple to gain meaning from Judaism and give back in significant ways.
Now. Who’s going to make this happen?