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Let Us Respect People for Who They Are: A Response to Ed Case

Ed Case argued that  "We Need A Religious Movement That Is Totally Inclusive Of Intermarried Jewish Families." Here Rabbi Carl M. Perkins responds.

It is difficult to object to Ed Case's call for a religious movement that is "totally inclusive of intermarried Jewish families." It seems just, reasonable and appealing, and it is clearly well meaning.

And yet, there are pieces of Ed's argument that just don't hold together. So although I agree with Ed's overall objective of helping the Jewish community be open and welcoming, I would like to raise a few objections to his proposal.

Ed's thesis, as I understand it, has two parts. The first is that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be appreciated and treated with great respect by the Jewish community. I agree. After all, they are playing a vital--and difficult --role in helping to maintain Jewish life. In some cases, this comes at great personal sacrifice, for they may be suppressing aspects of their own faith or their own religious identity. I applaud Ed's efforts to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the need to reach out and to extend a welcome. All of us must join in helping fellow travelers among us feel at home.

And yet Ed goes further than this. Ed argues that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be considered full members of the Jewish people. This is the part that puzzles me. It isn't as if the individuals who are the focus of Ed's attention are unaware of the possibility of becoming Jewish. On the contrary, we are asked to assume that they have considered, and rejected, conversion to Judaism. The reasons, Ed suggests, could be personal: "Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group." For whatever reason, these are folks who, according to Ed, are not ready to convert. They may ultimately be [ready to convert], but as of now, they are, by their own admission, not ready to become full members of the Jewish people--and they don't consider themselves to be.

Ed, it seems to me, is asking us to ignore that fact. These are folks who for significant reasons have refrained from pursuing the obvious path to becoming full members of the Jewish people. And yet Ed is asking us to pretend that they haven't made that choice.

I fail to see how that is respectful of these individuals and their integrity, maturity and sense of self. What permits us to disregard and devalue their inhibitions, their reservations, their self-definition as "not yet" Jewish? Should we ignore their hesitation? Should we act as if they have become Jewish when they themselves have made it clear that they don't wish (at least not at this time) to take that momentous step? To do so strikes me as condescending and disrespectful.

Ed appears to find the Jewish community's welcome too warm. He is embarrassed at the hospitality toward conversion shown within the liberal Jewish denominations: "It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects." This is fascinating. I can understand how hostility to conversion could be construed as disrespectful to gentiles, but how can openness to conversion be considered offensive? I don't know a single rabbi who would deem those who do not convert to be less valued, less worthy or deficient. But I also don't know any who fail to recognize that someone who has converted has taken a profound, deliberate step worthy of respect.

One would need to deny the fundamental distinctiveness of a Jewish identity in order to suggest that conversion makes no difference in a person's religious, spiritual or cultural life. Certainly those who've refrained from converting understand this difference quite well.

Ed argues that "intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are." But pretending that non-Jews are Jews isn't treating them, much less accepting them, as who they are.

I certainly agree with Ed that it is wrong to be unwelcoming to non-Jews (whether they are married to Jews or not). But I fail to see how respecting and accepting someone's choice not to be Jewish is unwelcoming. On the contrary, it has been my experience that those who value their own personal reasons for refraining from pursuing conversion find it a relief not to be treated as if they are Jewish.

Ed's goals are worthy. He wants intermarried non-Jews to be comfortable in the synagogue. He wants to encourage them to live Jewishly. He wants them to raise Jewish children. His notion seems to be that communal boundaries risk alienating intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews, and if only these barriers could be eliminated, intermarried and unconverted non-Jews would be "encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews."

I don't agree. Given the extraordinary openness to conversion within the liberal Jewish denominations, the true obstacle to the "complete participation in Jewish life" is not necessarily the Jewish community at all. No matter how energetically a community strives to promote a policy of "total inclusion," it can never eliminate whatever feelings of being different may be generated from within an individual who has chosen not to be Jewish.

The Jewish community should treat all human beings with respect, including, of course, those who have married Jews and who are raising Jewish children. But let us demonstrate our feelings in ways that are truly respectful. Let us give people the right to choose to be who they wish to be. Let us accept people as they are, rather than pretend that they are who some of us might wish them to be.

  Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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.
Rabbi Carl Perkins

Rabbi Carl Perkins is the rabbi of Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Needham, Mass.

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