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Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, â€śWhy should I be Jewish?â€ť
To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.
So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?
I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:
How can you even choose?
Is it a choice to be Jewish?
Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?
What if you donâ€™t have Jewish family heritage?Â
How do you choose Judaism?
I want to add a few more questions to the above. If youâ€™re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggageâ€”why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?
Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?
How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?Â Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that youâ€™re not really Jewish, or your familyâ€™s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?
Love of the pastâ€”of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.
Love of the presentâ€”of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.
Love of the futureâ€”to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Taâ€™anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldnâ€™t offer him any fruit, he answered, â€śPerhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.â€ť This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.
Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. Itâ€™s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know thereâ€™s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.
Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe itâ€™s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.Â I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.
Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is â€śIâ€™m Dreaming of a White Christmas.â€ť Itâ€™s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (Iâ€™m an Arizona kid after all). Itâ€™s my favorite because it was my dadâ€™s favorite.
Hereâ€™s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. Iâ€™m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeralâ€¦ and maybe the only time itâ€™s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that itâ€™s Christmastime again Iâ€™m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar â€śstatusâ€ť as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesnâ€™t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesnâ€™t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching â€śElfâ€ť and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people whatâ€™s â€śOKâ€ť for them to do Jewishly. I do feel itâ€™s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape familiesâ€™ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that heâ€™s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parentâ€™s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. Iâ€™ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. Iâ€™ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I donâ€™t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didnâ€™t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Â Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family memberâ€™s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families donâ€™t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Â Judaism from on high (Iâ€™m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. Itâ€™s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. Â People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Â Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sportâ€™s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. Â If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declaredâ€”thatâ€™s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed â€śsecular American.â€ť Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldnâ€™t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. Â This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription.Â I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizableÂ Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, letâ€™s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that â€śeveryoneâ€ť will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire â€śbadâ€ť or â€śwrongâ€ť or for â€śpeople who just want an easy way out,â€ť then the people will make their own decisions and they wonâ€™t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
Youâ€™re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you donâ€™t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new â€śminyanâ€ť in town and youâ€™re picturing this guy.
Someone else is talking about her â€śboobieâ€ť and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and youâ€™re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who arenâ€™t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).
Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish contextâ€”a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish homeâ€”is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound â€śin the knowâ€ť or to purposely alienate someone elseâ€”which is unfortunate.
Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who arenâ€™t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one canâ€™t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.
I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people donâ€™t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we donâ€™t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isnâ€™t Jewish felt this way, remarking that heâ€™ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because itâ€™s not welcoming to him.
To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?
Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone â€śdifferent,â€ť including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldnâ€™t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).
So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesnâ€™t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.
WHEN YOUâ€™RE FEELING â€śIN THE KNOWâ€ť:
Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether youâ€™re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima).Â What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, â€śWe already know.â€ť Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesnâ€™t.
Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so itâ€™s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.
Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Letâ€™s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practiceâ€”whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.
WHEN YOUâ€™RE NOT FEELING â€śIN THE KNOWâ€ť:
Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, donâ€™t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Donâ€™t just continue to nod as if you knowâ€”Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it allâ€”even the person whoâ€™s speaking.
Donâ€™t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others donâ€™t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!
Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Donâ€™t assume that something within it isnâ€™t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you donâ€™t yet understand.
As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go aheadâ€¦embrace what is yours and learn about what isnâ€™t. Itâ€™s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)
Sometimes Jews who donâ€™t live their lives by the rubrics of Jewish law feel inauthentic in their identity or less Jewish than more observant Jews. I often hear phrases like, â€śwe werenâ€™t that religiousâ€ť or â€śwe were very Reformâ€ť to describe an upbringing that did not include regular synagogue attendance or Shabbat rituals, for instance.Â Sometimes a person who marries a Jew not concerned with Jewish tradition as it applies to food, prayer or holiday observances can be confused when that person wants a rabbi at his or her wedding and wants to raise Jewish children because it doesnâ€™t seem the person cares that much about being Jewish.
There are many ways into Judaism and many ways to practice oneâ€™s Judaism.
Sometimes Jews are worried about â€śdoing it wrongâ€ť or not following the tradition (as if there is only one) at major life cycle moments. For instance, in preparing for a wedding, many people are concerned with who can sign their ketubah. I explain that â€śtraditionallyâ€ť it would be people who are Jewish and not related to the couple but that since this is a â€śnon-halachic, not legalâ€ť ketubah signed by a bride or groom who isnâ€™t Jewish that they should pick witnesses who they trust and wish to honor and worry less about whether that person is Jewish and related to them. Sometimes brides or grooms are worried about wearing a yarmulke at their wedding when they donâ€™t intend to wear one regularly again. They have to pause to ask themselves why they would want to wear one on their wedding day, what it symbolizes to them and then see if it feels meaningful.
Some of my colleagues have recently been discussing whether they should write that the couple is getting married on Shabbat in a ketubah (even if the wedding is before sundown on Saturday which is still Shabbat) since it is not traditionally thought permissible to hold a wedding on Shabbat. I feel very strongly that if the wedding is on Shabbat that the ketubah in an unapologetic way reflect that by stating the accurate day of the week in both English and Hebrew (rather than writing “Sunday”). This couple and this rabbi must not be accustomed to keeping Shababt in ways that prohibit driving, exchanging money, etc. and thus getting married on Saturday evening fits with their Jewish expression.
In fact, Rabbi Eugene Mihaly who died in 2002 at the age of 83, a professor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary wrote about whether marriage on the Sabbath is allowed according to the Jewish rabbinic sources.Â He concluded that:
â€śA religious marriage ceremony is a profound spiritual experience. The goals of Sabbath observance for the Reform Jew are also based on the traditional themes of the Sabbath as a day of delight (oneg), of refreshment of soul, of perfect freedom, a day devoted to hallowing of life, the enhancement of person, a weekly projection into the messianic. The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic (legal) tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance.â€ť
We have a tendency as Jews to put a hierarchy on Jewish practice and observance level. When one is able to learn about Judaism and then live it in a meaningful, thoughtful way, it becomes part of the life force of that person and not something to try on for an hour here or there. The ability to own oneâ€™s own Judaism is crucial. When one can talk about it with confidence and not in what one doesnâ€™t do but in what one does and believes and values, then it fills the person. How can we nurture the next generation to be able to do this? If we worry less about â€śtraditionâ€ť which is certainly not monolithic and more about knowing why we do what we do, then our identity can sustain us in real ways.
What memories do you have of growing up? How did your family celebrate holidays?
My favorite holiday has always been Passover. While I was growing up, my parents hosted the Passover Seder for the extended family. Weâ€™d add tables, outgrowing the dining room and â€śkidsâ€™ tableâ€ť until we had a series of three tables spanning the dining room, entry way and into the living room. My aunts, uncles and cousins would all come to our house for a few days and weâ€™d celebrate Passover.
Living in Northern California, we did not have an abundance of kosher-for-Passover options. Luckily, my aunts would buy out all the markets in Los Angeles and bring delicacies with them that would last throughout the week of Passover.
After the crowds left, my mom would make matzo meal pancakes. Light and fluffy, made mostly of egg whites and air, they were my favorite (probably because I ate them with tablespoons of white sugar on top).
It wasn’t until a month ago that I learned where the matzo meal pancake recipe came from. I should have known that my momâ€™s mom was not the source. My grandmother was raised Mormon and converted to Judaism before marrying my grandfather. They raised three wonderful Jewish children and always had a Jewish household (see nature vs. nurture).
During summer break, while my mother was in high school, she traveled to Indianapolis to visit my father for a weekend while he was working there for the summer. At that time, not yet married, it was not â€śappropriateâ€ť for them to stay under the same roof, so while he was living with his cousins, my mother stayed with my fatherâ€™s grandmother.
One morning, my great-grandmother made the pancakes for my mom. Mom immediately fell in love with them. My great-grandmotherâ€™s recipe has been a family treasure ever since.
InterfaithFamily is here to help families discover long-lost family recipes and traditions, to create your own traditions and to help you explore what aspects of Judaism you want to incorporate into your lives as you create new traditions for your family.
In the Bay Area, newlyweds and nearly-wedded couples can begin this process by joining us for our Love and Religion â€“ Online workshop which begins July 29.
One of the things I like about the Passover seder at my aunt’s house is how we incorporate multiple languages and cultures. Specifically, toward the end of the seder, it is a family tradition to sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) and God Bless America. When my cousin married a man from Togo (a country in West Africa), we also added the Togolese national anthem. So now we’re singing in Hebrew, English, and French!
I didn’t even realize that the tradition of singing God Bless America began with her great-grandmother who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. I never had the chance to meet her, but my cousin recently told me that she would insist on singing this American standard at the seder each year. She wanted to express how grateful she was to be here. (I wonder if she knew it was written by a Jew, who was inspired by similar sentiments?)
Now if that isn’t a statement about freedom, I don’t know what is!
In fact, the whole exercise seems like a symbol of freedom to me. We are free to speak in whatever language we want, free to practice the religion of our choosing, and free to marry who we love (at least here in Massachusetts). Not all of us attending the seder were raised Jewish (both my cousin and I intermarried), but we all come together on Passover to celebrate our freedom in song.
One question couples typically ask me as we go over their wedding ceremony is, “can we have a ketubah even if my partner isn’t Jewish?” A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I usually explain how they have changed over time as Judaism and society have changed.
The ketubah as part of the wedding ceremony for Jews who are not Orthodox has come back into vogue. For the recent generations past, the ketubah was sometimes seen in liberal Jewish settings as archaic, too legalistic, and unnecessary. However, in part because it is often a purchased piece chosen for its artwork as much as for the text, and in part because liberal Jews have begun to re-embrace and reinterpret Jewish traditions that had been discarded, it is popular again. (Where “again” is “for the last 4-5 decades.”) It is signed in the presence of witnesses who are close to the couple; it’s displayed in the home as a tangible memento of the wedding.
Traditionally, the two witnesses who signed the ketubah had to be Jewish, males over the age of 13, and not related to the couple. With a modern ketubah, the couple can pick whomever they want to sign it. Once we veer from a strict interpretation of Jewish law, I feel that any decisions regarding the ketubah can be adapted as well. Thus, as a woman rabbi signing the ketubah, I am open to having parents or siblings of the couple sign the ketubah, even if they aren’t Jewish. The point is to pick witnesses who are valued and trusted — the couple will be seeing their signatures for years to come, and they should elicite feelings of warmth, connection, pride, and love.
You may think that anything other than a halachic (and it’s always whose version of halachic) text to be absurd, a farce, or inauthentic. However, Judaism has always had room within it for descent, for adaption, for re-interpretation, and for adaptability. An interfaith couple that finds meaning in Judaism and seeks to imbue their wedding ceremony with Judaism, can have a ketubah — absolutely.
The question I ask myself is at what point does a tradition or custom get so altered that it becomes something else? Is it possible to appropriate such totally different meaning to a tradition that it no longer makes sense? I think that the original point of a ketubah was to write out the terms of the wedding legally and to protect each partner financially if anything happened to one or the other or the sanctity of the union. While a liberal Jewish ketubah or interfaith ketubah may not be a legal document within Jewish or secular courts, it is still a wedding contract. The texts speak about the parameters for the marriage in terms of hopes and dreams the couple share and in terms of the values each see in the other. So although an interfaith ketubah stretches this Jewish tradition far from the original texts, I do believe it is still within the spirit of traditional ketubahs and still meaningful and emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically binding. Signing the ketubah can be a beautiful way to begin a wedding.
What are your thoughts? Did you use a ketubah at your wedding? Do you hope to include a ketubah as part of your wedding?
My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.
Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.
My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.
What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.