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Taking some liberties with the romantic slogan of the '60s, "love means never having to say you're sorry," I propose that when it comes to the Jewish community's relationship with persons of another faith who might be considering "joining" the Jewish people, the slogan ought to be: love means never having to be proactive. I admit, my slogan doesn't have the same charm or euphony. But it is meant to alert us to a complex responsibility, a responsibility to individuals, to families, to the Jewish community and to the core tenets of Judaism.
The issue before us is how the Jewish community is to be more welcoming toward individuals who are not Jewish, but who may be already joined to a Jewish family by marriage or who might be attracted to the Jewish people through other intimate or emotional/spiritual associations. In such a discussion we must clearly distinguish those many circumstances in which an otherwise fully Jewish family adopts a child who is not of Jewish parentage. One always has to be "proactive" with infants and children, whether it be matters of health, safety, education or religious identity. The matter is quite different when one is dealing with adults.
In a recent book, Opening The Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize The Jewish Community (Jossey-Bass, 1999), Gary Tobin has breathed new energy into the outreach manifesto first put forth by Rabbi Alexander Schindler to the Board of Directors of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [now Union for Reform Judaism] in December 1978. In his capacity as president of the UAHC, Schindler proclaimed:
Let us establish information centers in many places, well-publicized courses in our synagogues and develop suitable publications to serve these facilities and purposes. In short, I propose that we respond openly and positively to those God-seekers whose search leads them to our door, who voluntarily ask for our knowledge.
First Schindler and now Tobin make the case that under the circumstances of contemporary American Jewry, with a high intermarriage rate and a high degree of respect for Jews and Judaism in the society at large, the organized Jewish community ought to take programmatic steps to encourage and facilitate the conversion of non-Jews. While Schindler merely called for a more positive and welcoming attitude toward "God-seekers whose search leads them to our door," Tobin calls for the active and programmatic encouragement of conversion by the organized Jewish community.
Rabbi Schindler's history-making call "to slake the spiritual thirst" of the "unchurched" had the positive consequence of launching a major institutional change within the Reform movement, creating what is today a Department of Outreach within UAHC. This Department (previously a Task Force then a Commission), which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1999, has quite literally transformed a major synagogue movement, turning virtually every Reform temple into an oasis of welcoming for those interfaith families who seek spiritual fulfillment through synagogue membership. Its example has been followed in varying measure by both the Reconstructionist and the Conservative movements.
Interestingly, disturbingly, even as the organizational impetus for welcoming and encouraging conversion to Judaism has transformed the ideological climate toward converts in the Jewish community, the percentage of mixed marriages resulting in the conversion of the non-Jewish partner has steadily declined from the late 1970s to the present.
That uncomfortable statistical fact, added to my nearly 20 years of working with interfaith couples, has persuaded me that Schindler's noble message was only partly correct and Tobin's message is seriously flawed. The common problem with both their messages is their fundamentally "religious" presumption: that those seeking to be part of the fabric of the Jewish community are "God-seekers." Study after study of the mixed married population has shown that these are mostly non-religious people. Although they seek community, family and the opportunity for shared celebration of life's joys and tragedies, they do not necessarily seek the benefits of clergy nor the comforts of faith.
Unlike Schindler, who proposed to "slake the spiritual thirst" of the "unchurched God-seeker," Tobin urges a "proactive" conversionary effort by the Jewish community "to revitalize the Jewish community." Such an approach to interfaith families is misguided and potentially counter-productive for at least two reasons. First, interfaith families who seek participation in the Jewish community are generally wary of any proselytizing effort. Both the Jewish partner and his/her non-Jewish spouse generally want to be assured that they can participate in the life of the Jewish community without feeling that there is an "ulterior motive" or "hidden agenda." They want to know that they are sincerely welcome. A "proactive" conversionary agenda inevitably sends the message to interfaith couples that they are welcome in the Jewish community only if they will be prospects for conversion. That is the surest way to insure that our efforts at welcoming will not be reciprocated. Like love, welcoming has to be unconditional in order to be felt from heart to heart.
The second problem with Tobin's "proactive" recommendation is that it willy-nilly transfers authority regarding communal membership to the rabbinate. Given the fractiousness surrounding rabbinic opinion about what constitutes valid conversion to Judaism, equating Jewish outreach with conversion to Judaism--as Tobin's proposal is bound to do--unnecessarily restricts the opportunities for Jewish inclusiveness. Such restriction is bound to be philosophically as well as practically unappealing to interfaith families. In the past few years there has been a proliferation of outreach programs outside of the synagogue, which suggests that a great many intermarried families are attracted to Jewish outreach efforts under non-denominational auspices.
As the American Jewish community seeks to come to grips with the demographic and religious/cultural consequences of intermarriage, it will do well to remember that at the root of every intermarriage, as indeed at the root of every marriage, there is a love relationship. For our outreach efforts to be effective, they must also be inspired by a fundamental love of the ones who have come to share our fate through marriage--before we attempt to entice them to share our faith through conversion.