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Dialogue and Debate: Welcoming "Jewish Green Card Holders"

This essay was delivered as a Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2002 at Chicago Sinai Congregation in Illinois.

Let me begin in a somewhat off-beat way. Children's literature, particularly fables, often express great insight about human nature. Of all the fables that I read as a child, the one that continues to resonate with me the most is the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes." I'm sure you remember it. A clever tailor supposedly creates a set of beautiful new clothes for the emperor, convincing the ruler that although the clothes seem invisible; they are invisible only to him. And so the vain and foolish emperor parades about the town in his new but invisible clothes. Everyone is afraid to say what they all plainly can see until one child blurts it out: "The king is stark naked!" The fable, of course, points out the all-too-human proclivity for denying what is in plain sight.

This fable is the perfect metaphor for the changing nature of Jewish-Christian relations which has been brought about primarily by the widespread phenomenon of interfaith marriage. Within the space of less than two generations, our Jewish community has become transformed in ways that the formal institutions have yet even to acknowledge. A virtual sea change has occurred in our Jewish community, and most are pretending not to see it. I seriously doubt that you have ever heard a rabbi say some of the things that I will express today, and there may be some who would have preferred not to hear these observations. But my own personal resolution for the New Year is to speak to you with candor, and that is what I intend to do.

Every year, many more Jews marry non-Jews than marry other Jews. The preponderance of interfaith marriages constitutes nothing less than a silent revolution, and Jewish life will never be the same. Most of the attention has centered on the belief that interfaith marriage is a threat to Jewish survival. I am in complete disagreement with this prognosis.

To cut to the chase, if you will, my contention is that Judaism will not only survive; it will flourish if we learn how to deal with the phenomenon of interfaith marriage more creatively. However, we must not expect the nature of Jewish life to remain the same because it will not. A new Jewish/Christian amalgam has come into existence. It is being created by those born Jewish and those Christians who are married to Jews and who are bringing their own sensitivities and mind-set with them.

We would be well advised to learn to accept it and deal with it in a much more positive spirit than has been shown to date. The overwhelming number of rabbis still are addressing what they often refer to as "the threat of intermarriage" (a term to which I strenuously object), they push hard for conversion and, of course, most refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings. Most synagogues, for their part, normally will admit interfaith couples to membership but usually with several provisos, e.g. that the non-Jewish spouse may not take a role in such events as a child's Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or that only the Jewish spouse shall be enrolled as the actual member.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the parent body of Reform Judaism, is opposed to permitting a child of an interfaith couple even to be enrolled in religious school if he/she also attends a church Sunday school. All of these measures are intended to pressure interfaith couples to choose an exclusively Jewish path for their family.

I would regard almost all of these efforts, albeit well-intentioned, as ill-conceived and mostly counter productive. At Sinai, I am very happy to say, we do things very differently. We accept couples as they are and ask only that they make a conscientious effort to explore Judaism and the spiritual alternatives available to them. Some do convert; most do not. But many do become what I like to call "Jewish Green Card Holders," meaning that they make their spiritual home primarily within Judaism, but also retain the identity that they have held since childhood, and most seem to raise their children primarily as Jews, but with "Christian highlights." I believe that at Sinai we are making a difference in the lives of many interfaith couples and families, but we are, after all, only one congregation.

The conventional wisdom has it that one cannot be both Jewish and Christian. But, I must tell you that the conventional wisdom is at least partially in error. As much as the formal institutions of Jewish life push for a single resolution concerning religious identity, more and more interfaith couples are creating their own path. Dissatisfied with the answers they are receiving from the institutions of religion, many couples are making a serious attempt to blend their heritages, some with remarkable success.

Yes, of course, there is a lot of trivialization. Go to any card or gift shop in November and December and you will find a wide array of holiday cards, decorations and brick-a-brack that celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas together. Some of this might strike us as at least mildly offensive; some is actually pretty clever. My personal favorite is the card that begins with "Deck the halls with Matzah Balls." I readily admit that this hodge-podge approach to religious observances tends to depreciate both religions. Those who take the sacred traditions of the holidays and festivals seriously have reason to be offended by both the silliness and the obvious commercialization. But that is not the point. The point is that there are now many thousands of interfaith families who are trying to chart a middle course, and they are creating their own successes. We would be well advised to stop pretending that these families are marginal. They are not. In fact, they are commonplace.

There is an organization called the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources (www.dovetailinstitute.org). Dovetail is a non-profit educational institute, not affiliated with any religious denomination, providing educational materials and networking ventures for Jewish/Christian couples. Respecting the right and need of Jewish and Christian partners to explore--without pressure or judgment--the spiritual religious dimensions of an interfaith household. Dovetail provides these couples, their families and friends with educational and networking venues and opportunities. To date, every single institution of Jewish life fails even to acknowledge the existence of Dovetail.

Or let me provide another example very close to home. Only a few miles from here is the Old St. Patrick's Catholic Church, one of the most remarkable religious communities in Chicago. At Old St. Pat's, there is an organization called "Catholic/Jewish Dialogue." It is composed entirely of couples and families who are dedicated to finding that middle ground. There are hundreds of families who take part in this organization. Although Catholic/Jewish Dialogue meets under the auspices of a Catholic church, they refuse to steer the participants in the sole direction of Catholicism. This group exists strictly for the purpose of supporting the spiritual aspirations of interfaith couples who are serious about creating a spiritual environment for their family, and connecting with others of a like mind.

They have their own religious school, where both children and parents attend. They also endorse combined baptism/baby naming ceremonies, interfaith seders, and shared Hanukkah/Christmas observances.

I am sure that many of you are rolling your eyeballs and saying to yourselves: "What kind of nonsense is this!?" But it is not nonsense at all. Both Dovetail and the Old St. Pat's program offer proof positive that so many interfaith families are rejecting the conventional wisdom and creating a shared experience. And the most interesting thing is they are discovering a lot of more commonality than conflict.

Could we say that this is a new religion in the making? I am not sure. What I do know is that there is a new religious community in the making, one that is increasingly diverse, wherein the old boundaries no longer exist. As in the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes, almost all of Judaism wants to go on pretending that these kinds of phenomena do not exist; that reconciling Christianity and Judaism is not possible. If we care to look, we will discover that this is not the case. They absolutely do exist, and we had better open our eyes.

Some amazing things are happening. Informally, Jews and Christians are moving closer and closer together, perhaps not at the extreme ends of Orthodox Judaism and Christian Fundamentalism, but in the vast center. As a direct consequence of interfaith marriage, many, many Christians now have Jewish relatives, and vice versa. There are many more shared religious experiences, celebrations and rituals. What once were virtual brick walls separating faith communities have become at most dotted lines. In many ways, this is a very positive development because it is adding to understanding and breaking down barriers of mistrust and prejudice. What we are experiencing is a lessening of the distance between the Jewish and Christian faith communities, step by step, family by family.

Oddly enough, I would say that there is greater commonality today between liberal minded Jews and Christians than there is between Orthodox and Reform Jews. I would even surmise that most of our congregants would be more comfortable with their son or daughter marrying a moderate Christian than if that he or she were to marry an Orthodox Jew. There is simply less distance between the two.

In his book Common Prayers, the renowned Christian theologian Harvey Cox, (a professor at the Harvard Divinity School) writes about his life as a non-Jew married to a Jewish woman. Together, they are raising a Jewish child. Prof. Cox, of course, remains faithful to Christianity, and yet he observes all of the festivals of the Jewish calendar and participates with his wife and son in the life of the synagogue. Here is a long quote from his book.

In keeping with the vision of the prophets, the builders of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem designed it to be a house of prayer for all people. There was an inner area where only Jews were admitted. Here stood the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest was permitted to enter, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. There was also a section explicitly named "the court of the Gentiles." Throughout the ancient world, many gentiles worshiped with Jews without ever converting to Judaism. The Jews welcomed them... and their presence... reflected the age-old Jewish hope that one day all nations and peoples, including "strangers and sojourners," would join in praise of the One [God] who created them all...

I sometimes think of myself as one of those "sojourners" mentioned by the Jewish prophets. For a decade and a half, in addition to following my own spiritual tradition as a Protestant Christian, I have also lived and prayed with Jews.... As the husband of a Jewish woman I have learned a lot, maybe even more than I originally bargained for, about her tradition. I have now imbibed fifteen years of Jewish holidays, Sabbaths, rituals, Torah studies, klezmer music, prayers, family gatherings, jokes, gossip, and gefilte fish. After several embarrassing faux pas, I now know the difference between mishugonah and mishpochah, and between kvetching and kvelling. More seriously, I have fasted on Yom Kippur, shivered at the blast of the shofar, sat shivah when relatives have died, drunk the Sabbath wine on Friday evenings, and prayed at the Wall in Jerusalem.

I remain, of course, a sojourner in the Court of the Gentiles. My perspective is not that of a full-fledged landsman. It never will be. But neither is it that of a coldly objective analyst. The prayers I pray when I am among Jews are Jewish prayers, but I have learned how to make them my own as well. I have come to share some of the same delights, hopes, and frustrations about Judaism that many Jews do, though I feel them -- as it were -- in a different key."

This book is full of beautiful surprises. Most of all, it demonstrates a very high degree of Jewish/Christian compatibility, which should not surprise us all that much. After all, even though Judaism and Christianity parted company 2000 years ago, and even though there has been so much bitterness in our history, we still have common roots. We are both biblically based religions. Our essential values of what constitutes a life of decency and integrity are almost synonymous. We are two branches of the same spiritual tree whose roots are in the Bible. The simple truth is this: that which we have in common far transcends the differences.

It has been my experience that many Christians, often led by their own clergy, are discovering the Jewish roots of their faith. A wonderful example of this is the Passover seder. Like many synagogues, we hold an interfaith seder for members of neighborhood churches and it is always deeply appreciated. What you may not know is that many churches hold their own Passover seders as part of their Holy Week observances. They often call me for resource material and even for recipes. When a Christian congregation holds a Passover seder and recognizes it as compatible with their faith, that speaks volumes.

Admittedly, it is difficult to find a common ground on the subject of Jesus. For Christians who believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, their Lord and Savior, Judaism will always seem incomplete. And many Jews continue to have a visceral reaction even to the words "Jesus Christ" and or the image or the Cross. These negative feelings stem from the long history of anti-Semitism in Christianity. Although almost all Christian and Catholic denominations have vigorously condemned the anti-Jewish attitudes and abuses of the past, that past is not without its lasting impact, particularly with the Holocaust still a very bitter memory.

But I would also like to say that the way many Christians regard Jesus is not necessarily that incompatible with Judaism. There are many Christians who think of Jesus more as a great teacher or prophetic personality than as the human incarnation of God. Actually, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the 1960s, advocated that Jesus be regarded by Jews as a champion of social justice for the oppressed and downtrodden and that such a depiction could "serve as a bond between Christians and Jews."

I should add that his suggestion of including Jesus in our list of great Jewish sages went over like the proverbial "lead balloon," and was quickly dropped. The suggestion that Jesus could be regarded within the context of the Judaism of his day had merit; to elevate his status beyond that degree was excessive.

So, where am I heading with this discourse? No, I do not suggest that we start bringing fir trees into the temple in December! And no, I am not suggesting that we plan some kind of mega-merger, that Judaism and Christianity are about to become one. What I am saying is that there is a lot more common ground than most have been willing to admit. Completely without official encouragement, a Jewish/Christian interfaith community has come into being. It is very real.

Please do not confuse what I am describing with the so-called "Jews for Jesus," which is no more than a slick camouflage for Evangelical Christianity, which aspires to convert the Jews.

There is a thoughtful and deliberate population of Jewish/Christian households, growing larger every single year, that aspires somehow to remain within both faith communities, and they are destined to have significant impact on mainstream Judaism. Is this phenomenon of our choosing? Of course not. The Jewish community at large would much prefer to keep things as they have been. But we cannot do that, and wishing will not make it so. And there is no turning back of the clock.

We are a broad enough and liberal enough religious community that we can easily afford this added element of diversity. There is no need to reject and certainly no need to demand exclusive allegiance. If a couple wishes to raise their children primarily as Jews, or even partially as Jews, we need to respect that decision. Like it or not, a new entity has come into existence. It is neither fully Jewish, nor fully Christian. It is a little bit of both. Most certainly our bubbies and zaydas, grandmothers and grandfathers, would shake their heads in bewilderment.

If a person or family determines that it can draw inspiration from both religions and is able to chart a course that is respectful of both heritages, then it is our responsibility to respect their decision and to make room for them in our community. And Judaism will benefit in the long run.

Rosh Hashanah is a day which celebrates new beginnings: a New Year, a new opportunity for change and growth. Our Jewish people has experienced many new beginnings. That is why we are still here, after all these centuries. Change is inevitable. Long ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that one cannot step into the same river twice. And, of course, he was right. Like it or not, change is the only constant. Our world has changed immeasurably in our own lifetimes. Judaism is not immune to the pressures and challenges of change. One of the great strengths of the Jewish religion, over the many centuries, has been its ability to respond creatively to change, to adjust to new realities. This is our new reality, and I for one am confident that we can embrace it in a positive spirit.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield

Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield is the senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and previously served congregations in San Diego and in Durban, South Africa.

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