I do not think it means what you think it means

It’s very easy to bond with people over shared experiences. That’s a lot of what the personal narrative essays on this website are about. What’s more exciting is when people bond over shared differences–not in spite of having different beliefs, history or culture, but because of it.

That’s why the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a “clarification” of an earlier 2002 document on Catholic-Jewish relations seems to be going over like a lead balloon in the Jewish community. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unless “clarification” always means “complete reversal of previous position.” As J.J. Goldberg writes in an article in the Forward,
“A Counter-Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Ties”:

Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.

Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.

Goldberg also notes, to me most significantly, that the Council of Bishops did not discuss this with Jewish dialogue partners while it was in process or even give them a warning that it was coming out. Orthodox groups that had been part of the dialogue responded in kind, shooting from the hip with an immediate response June 29, while other Jewish groups tried to engage in discussion for a month and a half before they expressed “serious concerns” about the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Reading another piece in my local Catholic paper The Boston Pilot, “Jewish leaders say bishops’ June statement could hurt dialogue”, I had some insight into why Catholics might not understand the (to me entirely predictable!) negative Jewish reaction. Some Catholics may have had concerns that Jews were not allowed to convert to Catholicism:

By stating that the Jewish people’s “witness to the kingdom … must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity,” the document “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews,” they added.

(emphasis mine)
There is a big difference between Judaism and Catholicism, and it is this: we do not think it’s a big favor to people to proselytize them. I’ve had people who were raised Catholic ask me if that was because Jews were snobs, which is funny if you know how negatively Jewish religion and culture both view proselytization. Some interpretations of Jewish law consider proselytizing coercive and a way to invalidate a conversion! It’s a very different view of what shows respect for another religious group, and I think we have to keep reaching out to each other to bond over that shared difference. 

Comfort? Or Causeless Hatred?

I fasted yesterday for Tisha B’Av. It’s often hard for me to do that, because as a Jewish historian, I wonder whether we would have evolved this amazing religion and culture if the Romans had not destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., so how sad can I be? On the other hand, the fast day is also to commemorate the sinat hinam, the causeless hatred, that the rabbis believed enabled the Romans to quell the Jewish rebellion and burn Jerusalem. In my job, I monitor Jewish news, and believe me, there are more than enough stories of causeless hatred in the Jewish community to motivate a person to fast.

I’m not even sure how many of them to bring up here. After all, this is a site where we work hard to encourage interfaith families to affiliate with the Jewish community. But if we respond to these divisions, we can find the seeds of comfort, which we are meant to find this week on Shabbat Nachamu.

Aliza Hausman wrote a response to racism against Jews of color inside the Jewish community, in “A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?”. It’s really time for Jews to end this particular variety of causeless hatred.

"AlizaHausman" wrote:
“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.

There is hope for the Jewish community to be more inclusive to everyone: to interfaith families, GLBT Jews, Jews of color, people with disabilities. But it’s not something someone else is going to do for us. Do you ever say “I’m not racist, but…”? It’s time to take stock.

Right now the Jewish community is riven over how to react to crimes committed by Orthodox Jews. These crimes, if the accusations are proven, constitute a major sin in Judaism–a desecration of God’s name. As an Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Rosenberg, wrote in A Light Unto the Nations Or a Cautionary Tale? yesterday in the Forward,

"MosheRosenberg" wrote:
Are we worse than other ethnic groups when it comes to white-collar crime? No, but we are obligated to be much better — the commandment “You shall love the Lord, your God” is explained by the Talmud to mean, “The name of heaven must be made beloved through you.”

It’s really easy for Ashkenazi Jews to point fingers at Syrian Jews or for Reform and Conservative Jews to mock the hypocrisy of supposedly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet we are one people and we have responsibility for each other. Certainly when Bernard Madoff ripped off Jewish charitable foundations, he hit all kinds of Jews. We were all angry that someone ripped off the tzedakah box and we were all worried that all Jews would be targets because of damage to our reputation. This is the same thing.

This is the period in the Jewish calendar when we move from mourning our historical tragedies to hope for the future, and an intention to reform ourselves personally. That’s the other plus of reading a lot of difficult stuff. It gives me a personal direction.

We Are Here–In Vilna and in Abilene

I met Wyman Brent on Twitter–he’s a librarian, which already biased me in his favor. Today he posted to tell his Twitter followers, “Tomorrow at 12 I sign agreement for Vilnius Jewish Library. 1st real Jewish library in Lithuania since war.” In an article in the Baltic Times, “Making the Vilnius Jewish Library a Reality,” he explained,

“It’s kind of strange because I’m not Jewish and I’m not of Lithuanian descent,” said Brent.
As Brent describes it, it’s not so much a project as a labor of love.
“I’ve always loved libraries, I’ve been volunteering in them for years. I love reading, that’s something my parents gave me, and I’m fascinated with Jewish culture. I fell in love with Lithuania when I went there the first time in 1994. So it was kind of like, I love libraries, I love Jewish culture and I love Lithuania, so let me put this all together into this Jewish library,” explained Brent.

There is still a small Jewish community in Vilnius, once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. (In Yiddish, it’s called Vilna.) This is very interesting to me as a person working for an organization that serves interfaith Jewish families, since most of the small remnant of the formerly vibrant and large communities in Eastern Europe are in such families. And also — it’s Vilna, where Hirsch Glik wrote the stirring song of resistance with the chorus, “Mir zaynen doh” — we are here.

Another web resource about small Jewish communities is the Small Synagogues website, http://www.smallsynagogues.com/. It contains the sweet stories of synagogues in small towns like Abilene, Texas and Sheboygan, Wisc. I really liked the warm tone of Sherry Levine Zander’s articles. That, too, has overlap with the lives of a lot of children of interfaith families who grew up as the only Jews in small towns.

Who is a Jew? (Do you want your government to answer that?)

Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.

If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!

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The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! Continue reading

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

May Is Jewish-American Heritage Month

Hey! It’s Jewish-American Heritage Month! Apparently President Obama declared it yesterday! I didn’t know that was coming, even though I follow the White House blog feed. The president called on all Americans to recognize Jewish American contributions to society.

And I’ve had to come back and edit myself here because–we have this every year! I trained as a historian and I didn’t even know that. In fact, according to the Library of Congress, the first president to declare Jewish American Heritage Week was Jimmy Carter in 1980. I was already bat mitzvah by then. I’m very surprised that we didn’t get any heads-up at the time, at Hebrew school.  (Mom? Nu?) I got such a kick out of the announcement in Ha-Aretz that I’m kind of sorry I didn’t hear about it back when I was 14.

The Jewish Women’s Archive is celebrating–it’s a great place to learn more about Jewish women’s history. I’ll add more links as I find them. Feel free to comment with your favorite website, book or other resource for learning about American Jewish history and heritage.

An Orthodox Rabbi Who Does Not Think Intermarriage is the End of the Jewish World

Nearly three years ago I moved to St. Louis. A friend of ours insisted that we join a local synagogue with a rabbi he described as the most thoughtful and knowledgeable he had ever met. It sounded like a plan–the synagogue was a quick walk from our home. The next day was Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation, and I was eager to see why my friend was so enthusiastic. I was shocked. There were Jews from every denomination attending classes taught by rabbis and teachers from every denomination. (This is really unusual in an Orthodox synagogue.)

Over the next two years, I got to know the synagogue’s rabbi, Hyim Shafner, who insisted I call him Hyim and not rabbi, which is also unusual. I was always struck by his spirituality and how he helped everyone who walked into Bais Abe to connect with their Judaism and spirituality. He just concentrated on helping those around him and developing a community of like-minded individuals. He never judged and I rarely saw him criticize. He is also a great counselor.

Rabbi Shafner just finished writing The Everything Jewish Wedding Book . A wedding blogger who reviewed the book interviews Hyim about intermarriage in the context of being an Orthodox rabbi. When asked how he feels about interfaith weddings, Rabbi Shafner puts interfaith weddings into both a historical and spiritual context:

Half the Jews today marry someone who isn’t Jewish. Fifty years ago, people married non-Jews as a way of leaving Judaism and becoming more American. Today, it’s almost the opposite. For some people, the first time they start to think about Judaism is their wedding. For some Jews, intermarriage is a gateway into Judaism.
The goal of Judaism shouldn’t be to have Jews marry other Jews. The goal of Judaism should be to get something out of Judaism. To have a connection with God and to live a spiritual life.
An interfaith wedding can be useful, it can help people re-engage with their religion.

Rabbi Shafner is certainly not advocating interdating or intermarriage, but does not discount the impact a wedding can have on one’s spirituality and connection to their heritage.

European Leaders Changing Ways on Intermarriage?

Munich synagogueMost European Jewish leaders support liberalizing their approach to intermarriage and conversion, a new survey shows.

As the JTA reports, 85 percent of the 251 respondents to a pan-European survey of Jewish leaders felt it was “not a good idea to strongly oppose intermarriage and bar intermarried Jews and their spouses from communal membership.” Further:

… fewer than 27 percent of respondents felt that only those who were born to a Jewish mother or who have undergone an Orthodox conversion should be allowed to become a member of the community. Even among those describing themselves as Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, 43 percent believed that those who have undergone conversion under rabbinic supervision from any denomination should be allowed to join. Similarly, 46 percent of Orthodox respondents agreed that one Jewish parent was enough to justify membership in communal organizations.

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