Rabbi Eli Freedman came into my life just as I was beginning to explore the possibility of converting to Judaism. I first met him at a Shabbat dinner when he handed me a beer and said, “The synagogue’s men’s club brewed this.” That’s when I thought, “I’m going to study with this guy.”
Rabbi Freedman, to me, is an embodiment of the notion that Judaism is a lived religion. In addition to his pastoral role at Rodeph Shalom, Rabbi Freedman is involved in various social justice initiatives, particularly P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild). Rabbi Freedman lives by the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16.) I’m pleased to share a few words with you from Rabbi Freedman about intermarriage.
Rabbi Freedman at Matt and Shannon's wedding. (Photo by Kirk Hoffman.)
I was touched by the words of Matt Rice, my student, my teacher and my friend. I could not agree more with Matt’s view of intermarriage. I truly believe that the problem is not intermarriage—it is apathy.
I like to call this the “Brandeis Syndrome.” I went to Brandeis University for my undergraduate studies. You may have heard of it—there are a couple Jews there! But I have never before seen so many apathetic young Jews in my life. When I asked my friends why they weren’t involved in Jewish life on campus, their response was usually something along the lines of, “I go to Brandeis; isn’t that Jewish enough?!”
Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote, “A minority is always compelled to think. That is the blessing of being in the minority.” Just like those Jews at Brandeis who took their Judaism for granted, I find that Jewish/Jewish couples take their Judaism for granted as well. They figure that because they are both Jewish, they need not do anything else and that their family will automatically be a thriving Jewish family. Whereas, interfaith couples are forced to think. Because of this, they often make much more conscious decisions of how Judaism will be practiced in their home and they are much more mindful of their children’s religious upbringing. That is the blessing of being an interfaith couple.
The key to this, however, is that congregations and clergy reach out and help those who want to make educated decisions. As Matt writes, “Embrace loving couples and they will respond.” We must strive to welcome interfaith families into our congregations and give them the tools make Judaism a part of their lives.
Rabbi Eli Freedman
(Matt’s note: Rabbi Freedman serves at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadlephia.)
This morning I put a cross into a drawer. It was a cradle cross that Leacock Presbyterian Church gave my parents when I was born. My mother returned it to me on the day of Shannon’s bridal shower. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want it or not,” she said. I wasn’t sure either. It’s the symbol of a tradition I left behind. If it ever hung over my crib, which was its intent, I don’t remember it. My earliest memory is of being held by my mother and draping a handkerchief over head like it was a tablecloth. There’s a picture of that moment: I was proud of myself, smiling ear-to-ear. That I remember the moment at all might be a result of its having been caught on film. Memory is like that: fluid, permeable, changing over time. Our memories shift to better inform our narratives of who we are and who we want to be.
The foundation of Jewish peoplehood is our historical memory. From the hasidim who believe literally in the revelation at Sinai, to secular Yiddishists who recall the travails of Ashkenaz, or, like most Jews, somewhere in between, we are united by our shared memories. The Hebrew calendar is structured around our stories: we are liberated during Passover, wander the wilderness during Sukkot and receive Torah on Shavuot. The irony of Jewish time is that, although we were among the first peoples to insist upon a linear, rather than a cyclical, view of history, we relive the same events from year to year. Perhaps that’s why, despite our disagreements, we persevere, why we remain one people. It reminds me of Romi Somek’s “A Poem of Bliss”: “We are placed upon a wedding cake/like two dolls, bride and groom./When the knife strikes,/We’ll try to stay on the same piece.”
The sense of foreboding evident in the last lines of Somek’s poem looms large in Jewish memory. The Shoah casts a long shadow over us all, as it rightly should. So too do other tragedies, from the expulsion of our people from Spain in 1492, to the Munich Olympics, to the countless injustices done to men and women long gone to dust. The price of Never Forgetting is Eternal Vigilance, necessary but wearying to the psyche. Watchfulness has engendered in some quarters of the Jewish community a sense of permanent crisis, that the “knife” of Somek’s poem is always poised to strike. We see bogeymen at every turn: the president’s policy towards Israel, Muslim immigration to the West, Iran, assimilation, intermarriage. For some Jews, intermarriage is the most insidious crisis of all, “perpetrated” by its own “victims.”
That attitude toward intermarriage is further exacerbated by nostalgia. Some Jews shield themselves against the anxieties of the present by retreating into sentimentality. Informed by wisps of history, family memory, and pop culture (think Fiddler on the Roof), we have constructed a dreamworld alternative to the present, an eternal shtetl cast always in the golden sunlight of American afternoons. We smile at the women baking challah. We nod at the old men praying in shul. We’re comforted by the singsong strains of Yiddish bubbling forth from homes. But to remember it thus is to do our ancestors a disservice. The shtetlach were nothing like our dreamworld; rather, they were characterized by poverty, wretchedness, superstition and filth. Walk the cramped and muddy streets. Here women served men, for they had no choice. Here bellies growled for want of food. Here the rebbes studied while their people suffered. If you ever hear anyone hearken back to how it was in the Old Country, ask them if they’d really like to visit. They may: There are haredi communities here and in Israel in which one may readily access “the world we have lost.”
The cradle cross given to my parents when I was born, and the Star of David I wear every day.
American Jews have no need to retreat into fear or sentimentality. We’re thriving. We’re more accepted than we have ever been, anywhere, at any other time in history. That you can no longer identify a Jew by peyot, by curly hair, or by surname, is not a cause for alarm, but for excitement. We’re not disappearing; we’re diversifying. Our contributions to American society speak to our success. We were at the forefront of white support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now we’re leading the charge into ethical and sustainable foodways through organizations such as Hazon and, in Philadelphia, Cafe Olam.
I’ve written this blog to demonstrate one thing: that we who intermarry are in no way enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. We are individuals who have fallen in love with other individuals who are not themselves Jewish. Our partners love us, in part, because we’re Jewish; after all, it’s part of who we are. Writing in The Forward, Yoel Finkelman notes that the argument against intermarriage is a difficult one “because it’s hard to muster much moral indignation against a loving, caring couple whose differing religious convictions are an accident of birth.” Finkelman goes on to advocate synagogues’ acceptance of homosexual Jewish couples as an antidote to intermarriage, but his argument is weakened by his previous statement. Finkelman, and all those who rant against intermarriage, should come to a hard stop: it is not ancestry or religion (or sexuality) that matters in a relationship, but love. Embrace loving couples and they will respond.
A Jewish friend of Shannon and I volunteered to teach our families the hora at our wedding party. Consider the image of dozens of non-Jews celebrating by learning a Jewish dance. Our union is but a tiny thread in the grand tapestry of our people’s history. How lovely, and how appropriate, that it is a wedding that will bring Jews and non-Jews together, if only for a moment. We’ll be wed the evening of Saturday, October 26. You’re welcome to dance with us.
P.S. Please check back later for some final words from my friend and teacher Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
Shannon practiced saying “Shanah tovah” during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
“How do you say that thing?” she said.
“What thing?” I replied, all innocence.
“You know, that thing you say that means ‘happy new year.’”
“Oh, that thing.” I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last week’s Torah portion, Noach, too. Everyone knows about Noah and the Flood, but tucked at the end of the parsha is the story of the tower of Babel. All humankind, possessing the “same language and the same words,” began building “a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name” for themselves. God saw what humankind was up to and concluded, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” God then “confounds” peoples’ speech so that they don’t understand one another. (Breishit / Genesis 11:1-9.)
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankind’s hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as God’s capriciousness. “Why,” they asked, “would God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?”
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than I’m qualified to parse, but I don’t think that by “confounding” our speech God was simply “punishing” us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. “Nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,” God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are God’s partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the world’s many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend one’s fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
Shannon holds our ketubah, designed by Etsy seller Once Upon a Paper.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but he’ll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. He’ll explain to our mothers and siblings what we’re doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why we’ll circle one another and why I’ll break the glass.
What better way to “translate” Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannon’s brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannon’s mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And we’ll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. We’ll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, “a time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,” and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, “a time to weep, a time to mourn,” especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, “Why did God do this to us?” Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate. “Come, let us build a city.”
A Muslim man greeted me with “As-salamu alaykum” on Rosh Hashanah morning. Having seen the kufi-style yarmulke I wore, he acknowledged me as he passed the bench on which Shannon and I sat. “He said ‘hello’ to you,” Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. “He did?” I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the man’s eye, but reacted too slowly to respond to him.
I thought about that brief interaction during the train ride back to our apartment. I felt badly that I hadn’t replied to the man’s greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores another’s “hello.” I’m not Muslim, of course, but the man who spoke to me thought otherwise. I wondered what the appropriate response might have been. Should I have ignored his mistake and replied, “Wa alaykumu salam”? Should I have smiled and said, “Aleichem shalom?” My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, “Hey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?”
Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, describes a piece of art in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba: the crude image of a man who appears to be shrieking in terror. It is only upon consideration that the viewer realizes that the man is not screaming, but praying. Fletcher sees in this image’s ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.
Echoing Fletcher’s characterization of Western history, my first college professor lectured about the seventeenth century false messiah Sabbetai Zvi. When not engaged in mystical study, Zvi performed bizarre public acts, marrying himself to a Torah scroll and otherwise promoting his messianic aspirations. “Is this the nature of Western history?” my professor mused. “Is Western civilization schizophrenic?”
Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the “Eternal Other.” Our people’s mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the West’s foundational beliefs: namely, that mankind was redeemed by the son of God. Our stubborn refusal to accept Christianity caused doubt among Christians themselves, who then projected their anxieties back onto us in violent ways. According to this argument, anti-Semitism is the result of a process similar to the formation of a pearl, only the product is not a thing of beauty, but a perfect sort of hatred.
Jews are accepted in America as we have been in few other times and places. I believe that will remain true. But some thinkers are less sanguine about the future of world Jewry. Mosaic Magazine recently questioned the future of European Jews, and Tablet ran a review of two new scholarly books on anti-Semitism under the headline “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.” I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. I’m not convinced that there is a “reasonable” explanation for such irrational hatred.
I am not genetically Jewish. (A DNA test that Shannon and I took a few weeks ago revealed in our genes the absence of Ashkenazi ancestry. For more on the genetics of Jewish identity, see Harry Ostrer’s book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that “Jewishness” is a slippery thing, comprised of, but not singularly defined as, peoplehood, ancestry, ethnicity, culture and religion. I doubt that bigots are so discerning. To anti-Semites, a Jew is a Jew. Perversely, I welcome the equality of status in the Jewish community granted me by bigots but denied me by our own hardliners.
Engaged to Shannon, though, I no longer speak for myself alone. I must consider my partner’s well being in all things. The local news station ran on the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah a story about a fire at a home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The family was Jewish; the fire was an act of arson that appeared to be “racially” motivated. Coming as this news did amid stories about rising anti-Semitism and the looming crisis in Syria, it made for a bleak beginning to the new year.
The response the Muslim stranger’s greeting provoked in me was less worry over hurt feelings than an existential dread. Lest anyone suspect me of Islamophobia, let me be clear: it is not Muslims I fear, but the potential for confusion and violence inherent in all faiths. I have bound myself to a people who has, for millennia, been the target of the worst travesties of faith. Shannon may not be Jewish, but by marrying me, she, too, will be casting her lot with us. Am I asking too much of her? Is it wrong of me to request of Shannon that she join me on a path I freely chose?
"For a good and sweet year." My minor contribution to our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon prepared the meal.
On Rosh Hashanah we recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of misfortunes that might befall us during the coming year. I wonder if, by naming our fears, we’re trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.
For those readers who don’t know, “as-salamu alaykum,” and its Hebrew equivalent, “shalom aleichem,” means “peace be upon you.” The appropriate reply inverts the words: “wa alaykumu salam” (in Hebrew, “aleichem shalom”) or, “upon you be peace.” I think there’s something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as “goodbye.”) “Shalom aleichem” is a favorite expression of mine, but it’s the sentiment behind it that matters. May we wish peace to friends and strangers alike in the coming year.
I confess that I was disappointed by the mikveh.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.