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Originally published May 2001. Republished May 18, 2011.
The Jewish Outreach Institute was originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of interfaith marriage. JOI's services have since grown to include training outreach professionals and sponsoring innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program. JOI's primary mission is to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community and to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried and unaffiliated. This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
"Your people will be my people; your God, my God. Where you lodge, I will lodge. And where you will be buried, I shall be buried, as well." With these words, the biblical Ruth was accepted into the Jewish fold, not through some elaborate process or communal confirmation, but simply through a solemn and very personal vow of love for--and dedication to--the Jewish people and her own Jewish family members.
It is therefore especially appropriate that Jews read the Book of Ruth during the Shavuot holiday observance, even though she lived 300 years after the main focus of the holiday, the giving of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Receiving the Torah was the single-most important moment in Jewish history, for it was when all the Israelites "converted" to Judaism. Both events, a mass acceptance of Jewish law and one individual's acceptance of Jewish peoplehood, highlight the notion that Judaism is about choice.
The idea of "choosing" provides a spiritual base for Shavuot that resonates strongly at the Jewish Outreach Institute. In our daily work, we see--now more than ever--that ALL Jews are "Jews by choice." It doesn't matter if a person is born Jewish or has converted, if their conversion was elaborate or a simple declaration like that of Ruth's, or even if a conversion never takes place. To participate in Jewish life today in America, with all the competing options available in our free and open society, requires a choice. And the choice is not necessarily between Judaism and other religions, but often between "doing Jewish" or doing nothing at all! Even those born into Judaism have to choose to connect, because American society lets people set their own levels of religious involvement, including a level of zero. With freedom comes the freedom to do nothing. The challenge is to totally embrace freedom without losing identity.
The Voluntary Covenant
According to Jewish theology, Shavuot celebrates the anniversary of the covenant--the "loving commitment," or special relationship--between God and the Jews. By accepting the Torah at Sinai, the Jews agreed to become God's lead partner in perfecting the world, tikkun olam, to bring the final redemption. Although God charged all humanity with this task, the Jews would hold themselves to a higher standard and therefore set an example (be a "light unto nations"). In return, God would protect the Jews, either through visible miracles (like the splitting of the Red Sea) or hidden miracles (like the story of Purim).
Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a radical modern-Orthodox thinker and a preeminent Holocaust scholar, suggests that we now live in an age of "voluntary covenant." He says that the traditional covenant was "broken" when God did not stop the horrors of the Holocaust, in which fully one-third of the Jewish people were wiped out in the cruelest of manners. Afterward, the surviving Jews could have walked away from the covenant. Instead, the Jewish people--even secular Jews--took it upon themselves to continue the special relationship, by rebuilding the State of Israel and remaining committed to tikkun olam.
In explaining how this new kind of covenant applies to today's large numbers of unaffiliated and disconnected Jews, Rabbi Greenberg explains in his book Living In The Image Of God (Jason Aronson Inc., 1998), "Often, if we approach estranged Jews and articulate what we feel and share with them, they would say, 'This is what I have believed all along.' Even though they are not conscious of the covenant, if given a chance, if they could articulate what they are doing and relate it to what the Jewish people stand for, they would embrace it." In other words, Jews who haven't stepped into a synagogue in thirty years are still working towards tikkun olam, perhaps without even realizing it, by volunteering in the community for example, or fighting for social justice, or just working to make their own little corner of the world a better place.
We believe the message of tikkun olam can be a very powerful one to intermarried families as well. Judaism is on a mission to repair the world, and it's something we can all work together on equally. "If you choose to accept this mission..." it doesn't have to be a Mission Impossible.
While we are celebrating the "choices" of Shavuot, let's also include the fact that there are four major religious movements within the American Jewish community. This suggests that most North American Jews accept the idea that there is no one single path to God and/or living a good Jewish life. What all the movements have in common is that they are serious about wrestling with Judaism, while searching for its spiritual inspiration and its eternal truths. Having this diversity of choices--with many paths to a shared goal--is what helps keep Judaism a powerful force in so many people's lives. Instead of focusing on what separates us, let's "choose" to celebrate the commonality of values that all Jews share: things like strengthening the family and placing emphasis on education.
Whether intermarried or unaffiliated, people can "choose" to add Judaism to their own paths, and by doing so, may find their lives substantially enriched. They can gain a community support structure; a deeper understanding of where they're from; a greater interest in the meaning of the world around them; and a perspective through which to better understand some of the more challenging aspects of daily life.
Of course, we don't try to "choose" anyone else's path for them. We can only open doors for people. Maximizing the points of entry will do more to strengthen Judaism than to fragment it, but only if we keep those doors open wide. This is the goal of outreach, and of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
In the past, the Jews have been called the Chosen People. Now, we'd like to think of ourselves as the Choosing People.