October 13, 2014
The following is a Rosh Hashanah 2014 sermon given by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff at Brandeis Hillel
This High Holiday season we pray for peace. Peace in the world and peace in our families. We are divided as a people about the best way to end the stalemate in Israel but united in our sadness. I don’t know what will save the Jewish people and I don’t know what will save Jewish families even though I write about them. But I do know: Judaism is worth preserving, Jews need friends, and family members need and want connections.
I will leave the topic of Israel to others, except to comment that we MUST discuss it in our families, even though controversy will arise. To paraphrase Rabbi Yael Ridberg, “…one’s connection to Israel” and I would add to the Jewish people… “like one’s connection to family is a relationship…that may ebb and flow. At times, and sometimes simultaneously, it is unbearable and alternatively magnificent.” Her description of families is spot-on. We may not be able to make peace in the world, but we must try to make peace in our smaller communities.
Families must talk about other issues that make their blood boil, like money and inheritance. However, I will I will deal with another controversial issue facing the Jewish people: Intermarriage.
Intermarriage is not new. It has been part of the Jewish story since Abraham. Genesis is filled with intermarriage. Moses married the daughter of a Middionite priest. Not only did she support him, his father-in-law, Jethro, was his mentor. For some, this doesn’t count as intermarriage, because it was before the covenant at Sinai, before we were a real people. Besides, in biblical times, unlike today, women just adopted their husbands’ traditions. However, we can go back to these stories to learn how to be welcoming, how to incorporate newcomers into our people and how, like Jacob, to bless the children from intermarriage.
We can also look to rabbinic Judaism just as the Reform and Conservative movements did when they included women as rabbis and became even more inclusive by allowing rabbis to perform gay marriages. Judaism has always been evolving and redefining.
Let us remember the disaffection of American Jews with Jewish customs began long before our intermarriage rate was nearly 50 percent. Let us not blame intermarriage for these changes.
Instead, let us reflect on why, when many of us have given up kashrut and the Sabbath, we are in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Maybe the answer to this question will help us pass on to our children and our children’s children what is meaningful about Judaism.
Whatever our answer, I want us to respect and recognize the role the Orthodox movement plays in preserving our traditions. Jews who gave up the Sabbath gave up a lot. When my children were in college my son observed the Sabbath. He would come home and spend Friday night and Saturday with us. It was lovely and meaningful. My friends who had children who did not observe the Sabbath, would complain, “My kids come home and say “Hi mom, Hi Dad, got to go.” And off they go to see their friends. Orthodoxy also preserves the traditions. It forces us to ask what we need to do to honor our past and yet be a part of the present.
Some see intermarriage as killing us softly, or finishing the work of the Holocaust.
Others, and perhaps some of you here, believe that intermarriage can be good for the Jewish people. It freshens the stock. It brings in new genes, new ideas as well as continues our history. One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one, from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence.
Each of us believes strongly in our views and can cite facts and figures to prove the validity of our opinions. The truth is, each of us has more than a grain of wisdom in our perspectives. Maybe we need to thank the Orthodox, learn more ourselves and embrace all newcomers to preserve our families and to make friends in the world.
In this season of reflection and teshuva (repentance) and mechila (asking for forgiveness), I invite each of us to examine ourselves.
We must ask forgiveness for each time we attributed a child’s intermarriage to rebellion or disloyalty rather than to our own desire and the permission we gave them to be part of a bigger world.
We must ask forgiveness for all of us who have rejected a child’s mate without understanding what that feels like to the other family. No one wants to hear that their child is unworthy.
We must ask forgiveness for each time we did not thank those from other faiths who have schlepped their kids to religious school or poured resources into celebrating Jewish holidays or joining synagogues. They have a personal commitment to Judaism.
We must ask forgiveness for all the opportunities missed to educate ourselves and to teach others about Judaism.
I want to focus my efforts on welcoming anyone who wants to learn, who wants to celebrate our holidays, who wants to dip his or her toe into our heritage.
I want to rejoice in learning about ourselves, about new cultures and new perspectives on the existential questions of life.
I want to acknowledge that intermarriage can be a force for the growth of the Jewish people, a way we gain supporters from those who have intermarried and give their extended families and friends a chance to check their prejudices.
I want to emulate Cuba, who rebuilt its Jewish community by reaching out to the intermarried.
I want our Rabbis and the community to explore whether discouraging interfaith couples from life cycle events encourages them to avoid grappling with their religious identity.
I want us to consider that it might be better to have people who celebrate our holidays, know our customs and our history than to exclude them completely.
Intermarriage is all around us. Let us both embrace those who hold the traditions dear and those who are trying to adapt.
In brief, let us support those amongst us who are acting responsibly by respecting their own traditions and ours. Let us encourage all who want to learn. Let us keep the barriers to entry low and encourage families to stay together. Let us continue to question the costs and benefits of all attitudes toward intermarriage. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and the world is to find new roads to peace in our families and our communities through openness, respect and acceptance.