Abraham and Sarah’s Tent: Rethinking Intermarriage

By Edgar M. Bronfman

November 25, 2008


From Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). Reprinted by permission.

The task of building a significant Jewish future requires a newly hopeful attitude. Fear of assimilation and intermarriage should not replace fear of anti-Semitism. Some describe the declining numbers of Jews in North America as a “silent Holocaust” and call for more restrictive walls around Jewish identity and community. This is the wrong way to address the unintended consequence of our forebears’ great success in this society.

Does North American Jewry want to go back to the ghetto or forward into the twenty-first century with open arms and open hearts? We must open ourselves up to new ideas and new faces and be welcoming to all who choose to participate. Openness may not be the easiest way, but it is our only way.

It is also a strong force within our tradition. Long before the Torah commanded us to love the stranger, our forebears Abraham and Sarah practiced that dictum. In Genesis, chapter 18, we are told that after Abraham’s self-inflicted circumcision “the Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.” Strikingly, Abraham then seems to leave God’s presence to greet three strangers:

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on–seeing that you have come your servant’s way.”

How do we understand these lines? Jewish tradition teaches us to read closely and to explore all possible interpretations. This allows us to discover the ethical wisdom, both overt and subtle, in the foundational stories of the Jewish people. So, one could understand the passage in two ways: It could be saying that God has appeared through the three men or that the appearance of the three strangers is separate from the appearance of God.

If we interpret the lines in the second way, they make a dramatic statement: Welcoming guests is so important to Abraham that he even interrupts God to greet them. The strangers, Abraham soon learns, are angels who foretell Sarah’s pregnancy, as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he does not know this when he invites them in to bathe their feet and take refreshment. It would seem that greeting any weary travelers and giving them relief from the heat of the desert sun is enough to draw him away even from the presence of God.

The rabbis of the Talmud, the compilation of oral traditions that interpret the Bible, expand upon this latter interpretation. I am fascinated with the close relationship our sages found between welcoming the stranger and honoring God. Rabbi Yehuda, in the name of the Rav, learns from the Genesis text that” [w]elcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence.” A later text by a medieval commentator, the Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, draws on the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God to conclude that “[w]hen you welcome a guest it is tantamount to honoring God.”

Indeed, the Talmud describes Abraham and Sarah as exemplars of hospitality. One midrash (rabbinic interpretation) teaches that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides so that he could welcome travelers approaching from all directions. Another tells us: “All the years that Sarah was alive … the doors of the tent were wide open…. There was blessing in the dough of the bread…. There was a light burning from one Shabbat eve to the next Shabbat eve.”‘

The meaning is clear. You can bathe yourself in the spirit of God, but more important is to honor your fellow human beings. One of the reasons I love being a Jew is that we value moral action over religious belief. How we treat the stranger is one of the greatest measures of that value. Our behavior toward newcomers to Judaism should reflect the spirit of welcome in the Jewish tradition.

As we foster a renaissance in Jewish life today, we must ask what kind of Jewish community we want to create. I cannot say exactly what all Jews should learn or how they should practice their Judaism–the pathway to Jewish knowledge and pride is not the same for everyone, and different people will experience it in their different ways. But I do know that if we are to create a vital Judaism for our time, we must do more than preserve and protect what we have. Like Judaism at its biblical beginnings, the Judaism of the future should be open and hospitable, not closed and fearful. We need to cultivate the hopeful attitude that if we embrace it, our religion is strong enough to sustain the new ideas and new faces of the twenty-first century.

Let us remember Abraham and Sarah’s tent as we confront the high rates of intermarriage in North America. It is terribly important that Abraham doesn’t even ask the three strangers who they are or where they are going. He simply accepts them. We should take the same approach to intermarried Jews and their families, whether or not the non-Jewish members should choose to convert. In an open society, people from diverse backgrounds will fall in love. The key question is whether or not intermarried couples will raise their children as Jews. If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the’ destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning, and pride.

About Edgar M. Bronfman

Edgar M. Bronfman is a leading philanthropist and chairman of the Board of Governors of Hillel: The Foundation For Jewish Campus Life. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd. and the former president of the World Jewish Congress. In 1999, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.