Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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Once upon a time, there was a man named Father. He married a woman named Princess. Father spoke with G-d, who promised him that he'd have as many children as stars in the sky, and gave him a new name: Father of Multitudes. But Princess was barren, and so he slept with their servant, The Stranger, who gave birth to G-d Will Hear. The Princess had a hard time conceiving, but, when she was 91, and Father of Multitudes was 100, she gave birth to a son. She was so happy, she called him Laughter.
One day, the Princess saw G-d Will Hear and Laughter together. G-d Will Hear was "playing" with Laughter. Now, people say different things about this "playing." Some say that G-d Will Hear was taunting Laughter; some say that G-d Will Hear was being sexually inappropriate with Laughter. The Princess told Father of Multitudes to get rid of The Stranger and her son, and G-d backed her up. And when the Stranger and G-d Will Hear were in the desert and ran out of water before they got back to Egypt, G-d heard them and helped The Stranger see that water was available. Further, G-d promised The Stranger that G-d would make of her boy a great nation. And he grew up an archer, and settled with his mother and a wife in the desert of Beauty.
The story I just told is the story we read in the Tanach today, but with the names Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael translated into their English equivalents.
This is a story about many things. It is a story of the beginning of the Jewish people. It is a story of hope in the face of adversity. It is both the story of the first Jewish, and of another unnamed nation's, birth. It is also a story about interfaith relationships and the first biblical female who speaks with G-d.
What can this story teach us about interfaith relationships? What can this story teach us about the role of the non-Jew in Judaism?
First of all, this story is a clear recognition that, since Judaism's very beginnings, interfaith relationships happen. They are not invisible. Hagar, a non-Jew, is prominent in our story while Avraham is still working out what being G-d's people means. Moses continues the tradition by marrying Tziporah, a Midianite priestess, who perhaps also helps Moses with an outsider's vision. In the United States today, interfaith relationships happen. In fact, about 50 percent of Jews who get married today marry non-Jews.
Second, this story recognizes that non-Jews can have a connection with the Jewish G-d. In this story, G-d hears Ishmael, and then G-d's angel speaks with Hagar. Finally, G-d opens Hagar's eyes! The non-Jewish Hagar is the first woman in the Bible to have this kind of connection with G-d. This theme continues on Yom Kippur in the book of Jonah, where the non-Jewish sailors respect G-d, and the non-Jewish Ninevites repent immediately when told to by G-d, through Jonah (which is contrasted with the Jewish Jonah's running away from G-d).
Inherent in our tradition is a deep respect for these non-Jews. Zalman Shacter, the Rebbe of the Renewal movement, talks about how all religions are paths up a mountain. In Judaism, there's the modesty to know that some people of other religions get to the top of the mountain, where divinity is, faster.
All of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, struggle with who G-d is, and what our connection is to G-d. My definition of "G-d" here is broad; it is not a king on a throne, but rather the source from which we get our sense of purpose, and our morality, in this world. We know that as Jews we have a specific path for our struggle. But it has been informed and expanded by many faith traditions and philosophies, including feminism, Christianity and Islam.
One-third of the children of intermarriages are raised as Jews. The biggest factor in whether children will be raised Jewish is not whether they have two Jewish parents. It's whether their parent, or parents, find Judaism important and meaningful. Does it help in the journey to answer life's big questions? Can we find our ideals of meaning and morality in the Jewish conception of G-d?
Thirdly, this story echoes our own knowledge that non-Jews should not just be tolerated in our Jewish community--they are an essential part of it. The story of Abraham and his son Isaac would not be as powerful, and would not have resulted in the same Jewish people, without Hagar and Ishmael.
Reconstructionism sees Judaism as evolving. In our evolution, we've been shaped by forces around us. It was only when we were in Babylonian exile that we were propelled to write the Talmud and open up school systems of yeshivot. In ancient Greece we learned about symposiums and developed our Passover seder. Only in response to Christianity in Europe in the 19th century did different movements, and different ways of celebrating Judaism, arise. And it was in response to the melting pot of America that Reconstructionism was founded.
Today, almost a quarter of the people in Jewish households are not Jewish. We know that in our congregation, as in many congregations, we have non-Jewish partners and parents who attend services, teach in our religious school, and participate in our communal Jewish life. I want to say a huge thank you. These spouses, these parents, are giving Judaism a huge gift. If you are not Jewish and you have ever driven your child to Hebrew school, thank you. If you are not Jewish and you have ever attended services with your child or your spouse, thank you. If you have ever volunteered at our Channukah bazaar, or helped in a Hebrew school class, thank you. On behalf of the Jewish people, thank you. Judaism is richer because of you.
My favorite moment in today's Torah reading is after G-d's angel speaks with Hagar, and says to stop worrying about the lack of water, and that Ishmael will become a great nation. It says, "And G-d opened up Hagar's eyes; she saw a well of water." The water had always been there; it was Hagar's eyes that were now able to see it. The contributions of non-Jews to Judaism have always been there. We need to always open our eyes, and, like Hagar, see what's there.