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The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabeth’s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabeth’s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call “organized” Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didn’t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish home—don’t ask me what a Jewish home is—many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ish…not a practicing anything else but hasn’t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seems—the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline read “More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope: Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations.”
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people won’t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people don’t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to “be good people” and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who aren’t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isn’t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights our theological differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writer Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her: “Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflicted…I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time…local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.”
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may we know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s Will
Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:
As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.
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.
When you fall in love and decide that your partner is going to be the person you want to share your life with, life can seem blissful. If you start thinking about children, the future seems rosy and exciting. Some of you might be aware that the Jewish population may be at risk for certain genetic diseases. When a couple is from two different religious backgrounds, a they may think they are in the clear. A mix of genes from a variety of cultures should lead to a more robust gene pool, they think. Remember we learned in high school that both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be at risk. So an interfaith couple should be unlikely to produce a child with genetic issues, right? Maybe not.
I recently saw a news story that members from the Irish community were having children with Tay Sachs (a genetic disease that can occur with people from eastern European descent). This got me thinking. Do all of us truly know who our great, great, great grandparents were? Is there a chance that our ancestors left Spain in 1492? Is there a chance that one of our ancestors was born to Jewish parents but decided to become another religion to avoid religious persecution? I realized, this entire country was founded upon the basis of freedom of religion! Obviously, throughout the world, the freedom to practice one’s religion has been (and in many places continues to be) at risk. So chances are high that one of our ancestors could have been from a different religion or culture. With such a possibility, it makes sense that we might not truly know our genetic makeup. When I think about it further, anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. So the chances that an ancestor was Jewish and then converted to another religion to avoid persecution is possibly quite high.
At the Victor center, statistics say that one in four Jews is a carrier for at least one of 19 preventable Jewish genetic diseases. The mission of the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is to ensure ongoing access to comprehensive genetic education, counseling services and screenings. This is accomplished through Jewish community education programs and screening programs for healthy individuals at risk for being carriers of a gene mutation for any one of these diseases. The Victor Center recommends that the Jewish partner be tested first. If the Jewish partner has no issues, then there is no need for additional genetic testing.
It is obviously a scary proposition to think about “what if” and what decisions that might need to be made if there is a problem. That is the point of testing. Then you know and can move forward. More important, once you know that you are in the clear, you can stop worrying about genetic diseases. Genetic counselors can explain all the issues, risks and options. Genetic testing is a simple blood test but it can provide peace of mind. With peace of mind, you can start focusing on the other exciting aspects of upcoming parenthood.
If both are carriers, what are the reproductive options?
There are many reproductive options available to carrier couples, including prenatal diagnosis (chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gamete donation and adoption. Genetic counseling is recommended to learn more about all of the reproductive options. To speak with the genetic counselor at The Victor Center, please call (215) 456-8722. Additionally, your rabbi or other clergy may be able to provide insight and help in making these decisions.Everyone is different and every couple is different. The point is this: You and your partner should just think about being tested. It is a good discussion to have and there are genetic counselors ready to help no matter what you decide.
Read one couple’s story about coping with genetic disease
I’ve watched this video a few times and I’m still not sure how I feel about this.
Did you catch that? Trevor’s already turned 13, and they’ve decided to throw him a “
As I said, I’m a bit confused by this.
And, with that confusion, I can’t decide what I think of a “Christian bar mitzvah.” The bar mitzvah traditionally marks a boy (or girl) taking status as an adult in the Jewish community. With that, they’re now able to perform commandments (mitzvot) reserved for adults, like being counted in a prayer quorum (10 adults needed to form a minyan for prayer services). The question posed on twitter was, “blatant misuse of Jewish ritual or can we choose to borrow from other faiths? If so, how?”
What do you think?
There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:
My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?
Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:
Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace).
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.
Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.
There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.
The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness. Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you.
Beyond the Psalms:
In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):
Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.
I had the privilege to sit on a panel Monday night, May 20th, joining other clergy in expressing our views on interfaith marriage. This discussion was sponsored by the Winnetka Interfaith Council. The panelists were: Jena K. Khodadad, Bahai Faith; Rev. David Lower, Winnetka Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Samuel Gordon, founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette; Rev. Christopher Powell, Rector of Christ’s Church in Winnetka; and Herb White, from the First Church of Christ Science. It was moderated by John Lucas, MAPC, a counselor with the Samaritan Counseling Center.
Interestingly, the other clergy on the panel from Christian faiths and from Bahai had little problems with a Christian marrying a Jew. In fact, they emphasized Judaism as the root of Christianity and the parables of Jesus often mirroring narratives from the Hebrew Bible. They are not worried about the continuation of Christianity; they feel children in such families are doubly blessed. Interfaith marriage for Jews is so much more complicated, both theologically and because of the relatively small size of our community. However, when the progressive Jewish world thinks creatively, lovingly, openly, honestly and respectfully about how to make room for interfaith families exploring all aspects of religion, the Jewish community is indelibly strengthened and enriched.
The following questions generated some interesting discussion. I’m sharing my responses here. Let me know what you think.
In your experience, what challenges are there in trying to raise children of an interfaith marriage in both religions and what recommendations do you have to those who are trying to decide this issue?
It is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian. If one accepts Jesus as divine and savior, this belief takes the person outside the realm of Judaism. However, I do feel it is possible to be enriched by two faiths. I do think children can benefit from being exposed to the faith, traditions, customs, narratives and cultures of both parents’ current religious identities or affiliations.
This belief is very controversial within the Jewish world. Many worry that children who grow up with two religions in the home will end up confused and angry. They may not come to affirm a strong Jewish identity. They may feel mixed-up and not know where they belong or fit in among mainstream religious organizations as adults. They may feel resentful of the need to “choose” a religion and feel that they will hurt one parent or another by “choosing a side.”
However, this need not be the case. A Pew study reported that 60% of adults practice a religion other than the one of birth. Identity is fluid today. People go in and out of faith communities. Children who have been passed literary and a love of two heritages by their parents may feel blessed and whole.
The challenges to raising children with an appreciation of two faiths is that they will be denied access to some Jewish organizations and other communal aspects of the religion, such as synagogue religious schools. These families will have to find welcoming synagogues, alternative havurot (Hebrew for fellowships, from the same root as the word for friends, this is a term used when families come together to learn and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together) and other avenues for being part of religious communal life including worship and learning.
Other challenges will arise in how to understand the theology of both religions and how to involve extended family who may have strong opinions about what children should and should not be exposed to religiously. These kinds of religious decision-making may add stress to a marriage or may enrich both parents as each one seeks to get in touch with what he or she really believes and wants to pass on to the children.
In doing premarital sessions with couples, what do you say to interfaith couples and what issues do you suggest that they discuss?
InterfaithFamily/Chicago offers a workshop called Love and Religion which helps couples learn how to talk about religion in their lives. In a group setting, couples begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion. If you are engaged or newly married and would like to join in the next session of Love and Religion, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In your experience, what are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work?
Interfaith marriages need support and resources which are specifically designed for couples that come to a relationship having grown up in two different religions. InterfaithFamily.com seeks to offer content to interfaith couples through narratives written by others in similar situations about how they handle certain things, and literacy about the meaning of different Jewish traditions and observances so that both partners understand aspects of Judaism. As well, the Network enables couples and families to “meet” each other online and discuss challenges they may share. Parents and couples blog about their experiences as well. We offer free, downloadable booklets and other articles which can be shared with extended family so that everyone can feel part of the religious lives’ of the couple. Both partners may feel that they have been challenged to be open, honest, flexible and giving in ways they may not have anticipated… but many say that their respect and love for each other is deepened through navigating an interfaith relationship.
A difference between Christians and Jews, one could say, is that Christians believe the Messiah came (you might have heard of him – a fellow named Jesus?), while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. Over the years, this basic difference has become, amongst some sects, more confusing:
But, Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.
Boteach said he regrets that Jews allowed Jesus “to be ripped away from them without even a fight.”
The excerpt, from an interview with Ha’aretz, continues. Let me quote Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com:
Enter Jesus, the latest subject of Boteach’s ‘scholarship.’[/quote]
What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Will it further relations and bridge-building between Christians and Jews? Are you, like Shmarya Rosenberg, skeptical and worried?
Thanks to all of you who responded to our December holidays survey.
The results are in! Earlier this morning, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.
Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children
Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!
There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.
Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.
Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.
Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.
This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.