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When it comes to religion, many parents donât want to choose for their kids. Their hesitation isnât just about choosing a single religion over anotherâthey are hesitant to make any choices about religious education for their children at all. What I most often hear is that people want to allow their kids to choose for themselves.
In an age when we value our kids for being independent thinkers and want to allow them to develop freely, I completely understand this sentiment. Many adults donât look favorably on the religious education they received when they were children. They donât want to force their own kids to believe anything in particular. And if they are part of an interfaith couple, they often donât want one religion to take precedence. The result is that they often doâŚnothing. Or very little.
Even though I can see where this well-intentioned reasoning is coming from, Iâd like to play the devilâs advocate. Hereâs why:
1)Â Â Â Â Â Every adult has the option to make choices around religion. In fact, adult children will make decisions about religion no matter what we have given them. So I would like to eliminate this as a concern for parents raising young children. No matter what you do, they will choose what works for them.
2)Â Â Â Â Â Parents are scared of indoctrinating their kids. I know that the word sounds terrible, authoritarian. And of course Iâm using it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make a point. All Iâm saying is that parents try and pass on what we hope our kids will learn according to values we think are worth living by. Call it âparentingâ or âteaching.â We teach our kids about our values in many arenas: political and social values, the importance of education, open mindedness, how to treat others. We âindoctrinateâ from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they lay their heads down through the stories we tell, the schools we choose, the way we talk about daily events. We teach them the value of music as we schlep them, often against their will, to piano lessons. Itâs not a bad thing.
We are teaching them the values we hold dear because we believe that our values lead to treating others well, and a life well lived.Â So why do we feel terrified to teach our kids about religion? If you develop a clear idea of what values, traditions, holidays and ritual are important to you and your family, there is nothing wrong with teaching them what it looks like to live within that framework. If they donât like it, they will reject it, or pieces of it. But they will never be able to say that they didnât know what was important to you.
3)Â Â Â Â Â Give them some knowledge! If they know more about the traditions represented in their home, they will be better able to make those decisions as adults we all want to see them make. If you give them nothing or very little, from my experience, they will grow up having many questions, little foundation, and perhaps feel frustrated that they were cheated out of not one, but TWO great legacies. Give them the knowledge and experience so that they can be better educated choosers. If you donât, they will likely grow up feeling like they donât know enough to even walk into a religious institution. (I have to thank my father for this one. He enrolled me, reluctantly, in Hebrew school as a kid. He argued that I would clearly rebel against it as he had, but wanted to ensure that I knew what I was rebelling against. He ended up with a kid who is a rabbi. See how you just canât control them no matter what you do?)
4)Â Â Â Â Â That leads me to my last point.Â One thing is for sure: You canât win! I know plenty of adults who felt they received far too much religious instruction, and plenty who complain that they were given very little.Â As with everything in parenting, follow your instincts and know that your kids will, indeed, be independent thinkers and not necessarily follow your pathâŚno matter what you do.
I am fully aware that I inculcate my values at home. I send my kids to a dual-immersion Spanish program because I want them to value other cultures and be able to see from the inside what another personâs experience of the world might be like. I tell them who Iâm voting for, and why. And I teach them Jewish values. I tell them as we are stopping by the road to give a homeless person some food that the Jewish value, tzedakah, means that humans are responsible for bringing justice to the world.
At Passover time, I press the idea that no one should ever be enslaved and we need to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up. Every time we say âmotsi,â the Jewish prayer before eating bread, I am teaching them through a Jewish lens that we must pause in gratitude before delving in.
I am inculcating values they will live by and someday grapple with as they are deciding who they want to be. Sure, Iâd love for them to always value the same things I do, but at some point they will grow to be independent beings who may reject any or all of what weâve given them. Which is what we all want in the first place.
This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.Â
I recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in.Â She wasnât working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didnât know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fineâjust a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldnât every encounter be this way?
What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.
Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.
In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarahâs hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.
What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarahâs guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we donât know across the globe with that degree of humanity?
Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesnât think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah.Â But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they areâwhen they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.
The most chilling song I have ever heard is Leonard Cohenâs âWho by Fire.â His deep, haunting voice is perfect for the lyrics, which acknowledge that none of us knows how our lives will come to an end. In case we are morbidly curious, the song lists some possibilities: âWho by fire, who by water, who for his greed, who for his hunger.â And it gets darker: âWho in her lonely slip, who by barbiturateâŚWho by his lady’s command, who by his own hand.â For those familiar with the legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, itâs not the only time he takes us to that place we have been trying to avoid.
But this idea wasnât actually his. Cohen, well versed in Jewish practice and liturgy, based these lyrics on a dramatic piece of the High Holy Day liturgy called the âUnetanetokef.â The prayer is named for its powerful, opening words, âNow, we declare the sacred power of this day.â The Unetanetokef brutally reminds us of how fragile we are by asking who, in the year to come, will live on and who shall die. Who will die by the sword, and who by the beast. It sounds like a dirge, adding to the drama of the prayer. The perfect melding of these two artful pieces, the prayer and the song, is when some synagogues sing the Unetanetokef to Cohenâs melody.
The tough part of this piece of liturgy, theologically speaking, is that it sounds like all of this is preordained: On Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed! I think the prayer is saying something else. In a world in which we think we are totally in control, we have to be reminded from time to time that we arenât. The High Holy Days bring our mortality front and center.
From the Yom Kippur fast that makes us feel like we are barely alive to the custom of wearing white or even a kittel, a burial garment, we are asked at this time of year to face our mortality and fragility head on. Hopefully, that confrontation affects how we will enter the New Year and how we will live our lives. Both the prayer and Leonard Cohenâs version are a calling to keep it all in perspective and thank our lucky stars that we are alive another day.
P.S. If you havenât heard the song, check out a great rendition from YouTube before the holidays:
Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question.Â But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a âSaturdays Unpluggedâ event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their familiesâ journeys.
The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, âWhere am I from?â I started to think about how complicated this question is.
So I asked one of my own kids: âDo you know where youâre from?â He started breaking it down into âsidesâ immediately. âMama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommyâs side is from Germany, Scotland, FinlandâŚâ I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isnât biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donorâs ancestry. After all, he wouldnât be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.
What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely AshkenaziâŚbut is he âfromâ Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?
Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasnât born one.
One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these âtwo distinct definitional standardsâŚthe religious and the ethnic.â [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.
A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, âJews Untitledâ and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined âJewishâ and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?
I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parenting about creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her childâs family story into a neatly defined map with two âsidesâ that she decided it needed to go.
For many of us, two âsidesâ doesnât tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, âIâm half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.âÂ She has four sides! But, really, who doesnât? We all have more complicated stories than âtwo sidesâ allows. Sheâs a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.
Do you need a little lift amidst the conflict in the Middle East? A growing movement of Tweeters are telling the world that âJewsandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies.â Documented in the article, âUnder Muslim-Jewish Hashtag, Sharing a Message of People Over Politicsâ by Maayan Jaffe, the campaign was started by two college students from Hunter College in New York.
Syrian Dania Darwish and Israeli Abraham Gutman began a trend when they posted photos of themselves with the hashtag written in Hebrew and Arabic. The campaign is bringing out scores of people who are friends, romantic partners or spouses across these two religious lines. Assumed to be the mix of traditions that cannot possibly be joined, many of these pairs are the children of intermarried Muslims and Jews or intermarried themselves.
The stories they are collecting challenge the notion that interdating and intermarriage threaten those established traditions. One Jewish partner in a Jewish-Muslim relationship, Matt Martin, commented that, âA product of the media mainly, it seems you always have to marginalize people, paint someone as the bad buy or good guy. But there are two sides and people from different backgrounds can get along, work together, be as successful and happy as other friends or couples that are from the same background.â
This theme was reiterated by many contributors, viewing intermarriage as a way couples can grow by relating to someone with a different background. In the words of Dr. Sahar Eftekhar, an Iranian Muslim dating a Jewish American, âSometimes it is hard for others to put themselves in someone elseâs shoes or to see the world through someone elseâs eyes. I think this is a very dangerous thing. Underneath those stereotypes, which we have placed on each other, we are the same. We are all humanâŚI hope our generation will be more open-minded and spread this message.â
Another post by Martha Patricia reads, “My mother is Jewish. My father is Palestinian. I am their face.”
Check out the tweets and enjoy the love, from pictures of people kissing to kids from different backgrounds hugging or sporting an Israeli flag on one cheek and a Palestinian flag on the other.Â My favorite of the day is from Gutman himself: Hate is a waste of time.
I spent last week at Californiaâs Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their âTaste of Campâ (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who arenât ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each otherâs backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.
Excitedly, one girl told the other, âMy Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.â
The other smiled and piped in, âIn our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.â
This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, âAre you Hanukkah or Christmas?â The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are âHebrewâ and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.
What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.
I donât know the full picture of these kidsâ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and othersânot in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their âreligious planâ is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as wellâregardless of what the plan actually is.
What is the âreligious planâ for the little girl who says she is âmostly Jewishâ? I donât know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is âmostly Jewishâ and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.
Weâve all heard about âhalf Jews.â And people who say they are âpart Jewish,â or âa quarter Jewish.â I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.
The summer months are usually filled with life cycle events and celebrations, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It can be a challenge to find the perfect gift for the couple or young person, especially if you want to give something Jewish and are not sure what might be appropriate or where to find a particularly meaningful gift.
For weddings, a couple will register for toasters, dishes and small appliances but they may not think to list typical Jewish ritual items (Judaica) in their registry. The basic items that most Jewish couples might want to include in their Judaica collection are Shabbat candlesticks, a challah plate or board, a challah cover, Kiddush cup, a mezuzahâone or one for each doorway (except the powder room), a Hanukkah menorah, a dreidel and a small collection of Jewish books, such as a Siddur (prayer book), Tanach (Hebrew bible), Haggadot for Passover and a general book about Jewish rituals. You can also consider a seder plate for Passover, noise makers for Purim, apple and honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah or a cheesecake plate for Shavuot.
There are lots of places to shop for Judaica, online and in your community. You can Google âJudaicaâ or check out Fair Trade Judaica for wonderful handmade items that are crafted with no child labor, fair pay, and safe work conditions. You can also visit a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and purchase something from their gift shop. A portion of your purchase will help support them and there will always be a very helpful salesperson who can help you to choose something special.
Books can be found at the Jewish Publication Society or at most online retailers. IFF/Bay Area created an extensive reading list relating to marriage that I urge you to make use of. Â My Jewish Learning has an extensive list of recommended books. One of my favorites is Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant & Howard Cooper. You can also choose something from InterfaithFamilyâsÂ list of interfaith-related titles.
Another option is to choose a family heirloom from your Judaica collection. I was given an old brass menorah by my stepmother before she passed away a few years ago and it remains a cherished memory of her faith, our roots in the old country and reminds me of the strong presence she had in my life.
When my husband and I got married a year ago, we decided that we preferred not to receive gifts, and instead, we chose four charities and asked our guests to send a donation in our honor. You can find a great source of charitable ideas on the Charity Navigator website, including ratings and top ten lists to browse through. You can also think about what issues are important to the recipient and donate to a nonprofit that supports that issue.
No matter what you choose, you can be certain that a gift of Judaica or help for a non-profit will be appreciated and remembered fondly for many years.
If you havenât read Anita Diamantâs bestselling novel, The Red Tent, here is some extra incentive. Lifetime is launching what they call an âepic movie eventâÂ on December 7, starring Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin and Debra Winger based on the book. Even if it doesnât go on your summer reading list, here are five fun facts that will make watching it even more fun. Did you know that:
1) Â The book was a sleeper until Diamant got the idea to send doomed-to-be-shredded copies of the novel to rabbis who then used it in their teachings and made it a worldwide phenomenon?
2) Â Diamant used the first chapters of the book of Genesis as a launching pad for her creativity, based in the silence of the character of Dina who is said to have been raped in Genesis, Ch. 34?
3) Â Goddess worship in the novel is based in scholarship of the biblical period? In fact, even the Torah itself tells us of the matriarch, Rachel, taking off with the household idols.
4) Â The Red Tent purposely gets the birth order of the tribes wrong? The author plays throughout the novel with the ideas of storytelling and authorship, maintaining that women were absent from the construction of the Torah and, therefore, left out of the telling of our history.
5) Â Countless midwifery communities have named themselves, The Red Tent, after the novel?
And now a bit of explanation.
The Rent Tent was published in 1997 with limited success, and within a few years went from being unheard of to a bestseller. What turned it into a book group phenomenon? Anita Diamant was well-known long before the novel for those of us who help people create Jewish life-cycle rituals. She wrote several how-to Jewish books that are the first ones I recommend when someone is planning a Jewish wedding, baby naming or thinking about conversion (The New Jewish Wedding Book, The New Jewish Baby Book). But then Diamant wrote her first novel, The Red Tent, an imaginative telling of the life of the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. When the book wasnât finding great success, the author got an idea. She sent copies of the book to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, many of whom knew her earlier work well, and later to women ministers and independent booksellers. Leaders found that the book opened up a much needed conversation about women in our texts and historical silence. Before long, no book group was without its Red Tent month. It became a bestseller.
You donât have to know the story of Genesis to appreciate the book. But many readers have found that they want to crack open a Torah for the first time in eons to distinguish what is actually written in the Torah about the matriarchs of Genesis and what is Diamantâs creative retelling. She jumps off from the Genesis stories, only using them as a frame. But even the pieces she fabricated are largely based in research. Not only did she include details that come from traditional Jewish sources like the Midrash (see below), she based much of her story in research about the lives of women in the biblical period. She studied daily life in the region at that time, including ancient goddess worship, birthing rituals and midwifery, medicine and funeral practices.
The worship of gods and goddesses, for example, is rampant in her story which reflects what scholars know about near Eastern practice and is hinted at in the book of Genesis and the prophetic writings of the Torah. The matriarch, Sarah, is referred to as a priestess in The Red Tent, another gleaning from early feminist biblical scholarship. She gives names to women who are left unnamed in the Torah. She imagines that Dinah was following a tradition of being a midwife when the events of Genesis 34 unfold.
She once said of her novel, âDinah is one of the silent women of the Bible. Her silence intrigued me…gave me a window. Where there was silence, I created three-hundred pages.â [Cynthia Dettelbach, âEntering The Red Tent With Anita Diamant.â The Cleveland Jewish News 74, no. 2(1999): 4]Â In her version, women tell their own stories and, at times, are frustrated at hearing them mis-told by the men in the family. She goes as far as to insinuate that the âwritersâ of the biblical tales made mistakes because womenâs voices were not involved in the construction or transmission of the Torah.
Within Jewish circles, there has been some controversy stirred by the novel about who is âallowedâ to interpret and reinterpret Jewish texts. Diamant says she wrote a work of historical fiction, not midrash (a creative elaboration of the Torah, filling in the gaps in the Torah narratives), but still some argued that her work pretends to fit into that textual tradition dating back to the Rabbis of the 2nd-6th centuries BCE. Her response to one such opponent was that, âIt is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to ScriptureâŚEvery word of Torah has seven hundred faces of God and six hundred meanings. There is no one correct interpretation of Scripture as Jews have made up storiesâŚfor centuriesâ. [Joan Gross, âJacobâs Daughter Hits the Bigtime in 2001.â The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California 105, no. 13 (2001): 40.]
The first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. Judaism takes that very seriously. One blog sums it up this way: âJewish mothers like to bug their kids about âhurrying up and getting married and giving me some grandchildren already before I die because Iâm not going to be around forever you know my health isnât what it used to be.ââ Judaism is so concerned about the next generation that in some families, anything and everything is forgiven as soon as there are children involved.
We come by this emphasis on children honestly. Judaism is a small minority and there is profound panic that a people with a deep history, wisdom and beauty will die out if we donât procreate like crazy. For a tiny tribe to grow to survival, and then withstand the many historical trials we have endured, reproducing ourselves at a rapid rate has truly seemed a necessary component of our survival. Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting. More of us who do want kids are delaying until later in life, facing more difficulties getting pregnant and having fewer of them. Some Jewish leaders have made it their mission to encourage people to marry younger and start bringing in the babies. So I know Iâm going against the grain of thousands of years of Jewish thinking, and contradicting scores of contemporary Jewish thought leaders. But I have some serious fears about our procreation-obsession.
Here are my top 4 reasons we should ease up on the pressure:
1) Â Many people donât want children. And who would want a person who doesnât want kids to actually become a parent? Childrearing is tough enough even if you really wanted them.
2) Â Some want themâŚbut not yet. By pushing women to find mates earlier and start reproducing, we are reversing decades of feminist progress that afforded women a wider array of choices about childbearing.
3) Â There are so many who cannot have kids, due to fertility challenges, societal, economic or other personal issues. Within the LGBT community, although it is far easier than it once was, having kids can still be challenging.
4) Â Finally, I believe the emphasis on children has great implications for interfaith couples. When a couple from different backgrounds is pondering questions about religion in their home, often the first thing we ask is, âWill your children be Jewish?â How we ask this question is crucial. I am a huge proponent of couples exploring this question long before there are children. I have seen countless families struggle because they avoided these tough conversations when it was still hypothetical. But more often, the tone of this question is one of urgency: All is not lost if we can make sure the kids are Jewish.
The results of this pressure are manifold. People who choose not to or cannot have children are left to struggle with their sense of purpose Jewishly. Not having children can be a source of pain and even a feeling of rejection from Judaism.Â Some who do have kids donât know why they should raise them Jewishly because they donât know for themselves why Judaism is important.Â This can even affect those who do raise their kids in the Jewish tradition. I remember a feisty and resistant bar mitzvah student asking his parents point-blank why Judaism was important to them. They were dumbfounded by the question.
My overarching fear is that Judaism appears more concerned with our survival than perpetuating something worth keeping alive. We pay an inordinate amount of attention to âpediatric Judaism,â the overemphasis of the childâs experience of Judaism. Donât get me wrongâI strive mightily to make Jewish holidays, rituals and values engaging for my own kids and in my teaching in the Jewish community. It is crucial to introduce children to an active, relevant and joyful Judaism that will carry them through a lifetime of meaningful Jewish connection. This is a central piece of my work, and I love and value it. But I fear that while we are fretting about the kids, we sometimes forsake adultsâ spiritual journeys.
If Judaism is to survive, it is often times because an adult discovers that it is centering to light Shabbat candles after a long day at work on Friday night as she takes in the warmth of the fire. It is because an adult who loses a parent finds that the Jewish shiva rituals give him the time and space he needs to mourn. It is because an adult finds a community with which to celebrate, learn and argue. This is not to say that kids cannot also discover those experiences for themselves, but the vast majority of the time, itâs the adults who will feel compelled to pass on Judaism because it is a frame for the values they are trying to live and instill in their kids if they have them. Those kids will see their parents engaged and fulfilled by Jewish ritual, activism or conversation. What they will preserve is a meaningful tradition that enables them to live life with more depth, inquiry, and intention.
You matter. You, the adult reading this blog, matter. Your spiritual journey is important and of immense value. Your questions, brilliant insights and challenges are part of the continuous unfolding of the Jewish story, whether or not you were raised in this tradition. Itâs not only about the kids.
I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isnât 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 Adamâs 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 didnât 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 âgood girlâ to Lilithâs strong-willed and demanding âbad girl.â 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 donât feel this way.Â But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who donât know enough: We donât know whatâs going on during services, we donât have the right parentage, we donât know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We arenât 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 donât quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or arenât 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 âotheringâ 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 wasnât Jewish. I didnât 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 wouldnât 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 usânot 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 canât effect change from within.