Nearly three years ago the world witnessed a seminal moment in American Jewish history. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of an American President and a Secretary of State, married Jewish American Marc Mezvinsky, who was clad in atallis (Jewish prayer shawl) and yamakah (traditional headcovering). A rabbi officiated along with a minister. The wedding unabashedly embraced Jewish marriage symbols, and even some of the most traditional rabbis who strongly oppose interfaith marriage acknowledged the power of Marc’s open display of Jewish ritual.
Few people outside of a small group of rabbis criticized the interfaith marriage ceremony. The American public and most of the Jewish community have overwhelmingly decided that intermarriage is not a shanda (Yiddish for a scandal or embarassment). Intermarriage is part of the fabric of American Jewish life.
Still, many rabbis resist officiating at interfaith weddings. Some see officiation as giving intermarriage a rabbinic stamp of approval. Others see it as not within their purview of responsibility. Others think it contributes to assimilation and the decline of Jewish life in America.
I see it differently. Part of my job as a rabbi is to embrace interfaith couples and help make Judaism a compelling and important part of their lives. That means being their rabbi at the most sacred moment of life. Here’s why:
Intermarriage Is Not a Rejection of Judaism
For most of Jewish history, interfaith marriage was not only rare but effectively served as an exit visa from Jewish life. Prior to 1960, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews was less than 3 percent. This rate began to climb in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This new trend reflected the evolution of American society. Through the 1960s and 1970s, many of the barriers that had impeded Jewish advancement collapsed. University quotas ended and professional positions that had once been effectively closed to Jews became open. Indeed, by the 1990s many of the Ivy League universities that once had Jewish quotas now employed Jewish presidents.
As Jews became integrated into mainstream American culture, they began to meet and marry those from other faiths and backgrounds. This new generation of Jews did not see intermarriage as a rejection of Jewish life. Rather, they exemplified Rabbi Alexander Schindler’s understanding of intermarriage as the inevitable result of American Jewish acculturation.
Should We Circle the Wagons?
Unfortunately, some responded to this new reality with a “circle the wagons” approach. Growing intermarriage, they reason, demands that synagogues and communities build stronger walls and promote greater resistance to the “dilution” of Judaism that intermarriage represents. To do anything otherwise would be to give tacit approval to a dangerous phenomenon.
On the other hand, many leaders have argued for a policy of outreach. Rather than reject the intermarried, they say, let us welcome and engage them.Significant differences exist, however, even among advocates of this more inclusive approach. These differences usually center on rabbinic officiation.
Many say that rabbis can welcome interfaith couples to Jewish life without officiating at their weddings. Such officiation, they contend, violates one’s role as a rabbi and constitutes an endorsement of something that the Reform movement officially discourages. Furthermore, performing such a marriage limits the incentive for conversion. From this point of view, conversion is the strongest indicator of Jewish commitment and increases the likelihood of raising Jewish children.
Rabbinic Officiation Makes All the Difference
I understand this point of view and appreciate the way many have come to it.My faith and my reading of the evidence, however, suggest that a different approach is more effective.
A wedding is often a peak moment of life, and it is an opportunity to imprint a wonderful Jewish memory and help a couple begin life together with Jewish guidance and support. Rabbinic participation and counseling can help a couple appreciate the beauty and significance of Jewish rituals and values. It can also help them avoid the damaging feelings of abandonment and guilt frequently experienced by those who feel isolated from their religious community. Many devoted young Jews who fall in love with and seek to marry a non-Jew experience despair when unable to stand under the huppah at their synagogue with their rabbi.
This an enormous lost opportunity. Rabbinic officiation can serve as an invitation to Jewish life. It can convey the message that we want a couple and their future family to become part of the community, create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family. It can demonstrate the potential for Judaism to be a source of joy and meaning in an interfaith family.
‘Go and See What the People Are Doing’
Reform Judaism is the only liberal religious movement to have grown numerically over the last quarter century. Its growth has benefitted enormously from interfaith couples and their extended families. Young adults who grew up in Conservative congregations and who are now intermarrying find the most welcoming home in Reform synagogues, and they are frequently joined later by their parents. This reality has led one of the country’s most prominent Conservative rabbis (and a personal friend) to call for a rethinking of the movement’s policy.
Judaism has survived for more than 4,000 years because we evolved and adapted to our time and place. The great first century sage, Rabbi Hillel, urged leaders of his generation to Puk Hazai Mai Amma Davar – “Go and see what the people are doing.”
We should do no less. A great number of American Reform Jews are part of interfaith relationships, and few of them chose their partner in an effort to distance themselves from the Jewish community. Rather, many today are seeking a warm and welcoming rabbi and community. They are searching for a spiritual home and a place to educate their children. We can build those homes. We can exemplify the commandment of welcoming the stranger. And in so doing, we can create vibrant communities for American Jews and their families in the 21st century.
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A remarkable new survey was released just before President Obama’s visit to Israel. According to the poll,Americans heavily favor the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent. This is the highest percentage of support for Israel since the Gulf War in 1991. Israel retains support across age demographics and political affilation, though Republicans had a slighter higher positive view than Democrats.
What accounts for this enormous popularity? Cynics and anti-Semites will say the power of the Israel lobby. They will contend that politicans and the media are bought by what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once called the “Jewish lobby.”
The real answer lies in the philosophy and ideals of the Jewish State. Israel is an outpost for democracy in a dangerous world. It is a place whose citizens fight for the freedom we cherish as Americans. As changes continue to transform the MIddle East, leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria and perhaps, someday, Iran, need to visit Israel. The lessons would be about much more than voting and elected government. That’s the easy part of democracy. The hard part is two-fold.
How Israel Embodies the Hard Parts of Democracy: Part I
First, assuring the protection of minorities. The philosopher and political scientist Lord Acton said, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Israel has its own problems in meeting this text. Orthodox Jewry retain almost complete control over official religious life in Israel, making Reform and Conservative Jews a disenfranchised minority. Less money is spent on school and facilities in Arab neighborhoods, increasing their vulnerability as minorities.
Yet, metrics in each of these areas are improving. And in principle, if not yet in fact, Israel guarantees freedom of religion and equal rights for minorities. As its Declaration of Independence proclaims, “Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
“Rabbi,” you might be saying, “this sounds nice and all, but its not happening.” Yet, we need to remember that Israel is only 64 years old. It took the United States almost 100 years and a bloody Civil War to begin to realize the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, and much work remains to be done.
How Israel Embodies the Hard Part of Democracy Part II
The second part of building democracy in the Middle East is harder still. Embracing meaningful cultural and intellectual dialogue with the West. We live in an interdependent world, and it is growing more so all the time. The emerging countries of the Arab world can learn so much from Israel. As Daniel Gordis put it, countries in the Arab world “will have to acknowledge that the very country that they had once hoped to destroy is the country whose qualities that they should be emulating.” These qualities include, for example, Israel’s openness to the global marketplace of ideas. Israelis travel, learn and have complete access to books and Internet websites from around the world. They express different points of view with relish. In fact, the arguments within our American Jewish community pale in comparison to the disagreements played out every day in Israeli newspapers.
Yes, there are pockets of insularity in the ultra-Orthodox world. But Israel continues — every day — to evolve into an open, diverse and egalitarian culture. One of the members of my synagogue has been involved in supporting anetwork of schools that educate secular and religious students together. Other congregants members are involved with organizations that fund initiatives helping to bring together Arab and Israeli youth.
Democracy has not and will not be easy — not for Israel, for the United States, not for the Arab world. But it never has been. David Ben Gurion once said that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. The founders of our country were realists who believed in the miraculous power of democracy. Israel struggles every day to carry on that dream.
A diverse group of pastors and parishioners now stand in front of the Supreme Court. They claim to know the same God. They also hold radically different views on the kind of relationships that God approves.
This situation resembles the one President Abraham Lincoln described in his celebrated second inaugural address. Discussing the different views of slavery among religious adherents in the North and South, Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.”
He could have said the same thing today.
What Does God Think?
Like Lincoln, I have a view on which is right. But that is not my concern here. What concerns me now is the audacity to believe we human beings can know precisely what God thinks. All we know, as Lincoln pointed out in the same address, is that “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
This is not to say that we cannot or should not take political stands driven by our faith. Many of the transformative movements in American history have emerged out of religious commitment. As Lincoln later says, we need to act with “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”
The danger is when we lose humility. When we became so firm in grip of our knowledge of the right that our hands become frozen. When that happens, we become so polarized that conversation ends and anger dominates.
The Humility Our Country Needs
One of President Obama’s great qualities as a leader–what catapulted him into the public spotlight in his 2004 Democratic National Convention address–is his ability to see and articulate multiple points of view. It is the quality of humility that allows him to say with conviction that those with whom he disagrees have legitimate, even compelling, points of view.
Sadly, the political world today seems unable to handle any degree of humility. The God of politics eschews nuance and demands strident statements to appeal to the base and raise money.
Can we religious leaders do any better? We must. We would not be true to our faith if we did not. Indeed, the great Catholic teacher Thomas Merton put it well when we pointed out that faith is impossible without humility:
It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life. For the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy. Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable. In perfect humility all selfishness disappears and your soul no longer lives for itself or in itself for God: and it is lost and submerged in Him and transformed into Him.
How Humility Can Save Our Country
In today’s world, what would that humility look like?
1. Do not pretend to know what God believes: A great medieval rabbi said that “If I knew God, I would be God.” We are human beings. We can study and attempt to arrive at our best understanding of God’s will. And we can and should live and act on what we discover. But we cannot pretend that we are privileged to know exactly what God believes.
2. Argue with civility: We do not gain points by pushing another down. Rather, we gain respect when listening, understanding and responding thoughtfully to an opponent’s point of view.
The ancient Jewish sages had a phrase for this type of discussion. They called it “argument for the sake of heaven.” To put it in non-religious language, we can and should question one another in pursuit of the common good. We can not and should not dismiss another person’s point of view simply because it does not accord with our faith.
3. Focus on the ideals we share: Lincoln ended his inaugural address with a stirring appeal to the North and the South. “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” he said, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Whatever the Supreme Court decides this summer will anger a large portion of our population. The task of the faithful will not then be to demonize the other or revel in their victory or sense of righteousness. It will be to honor the humanity of every human being, and to work for peace in our polarized country.
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Tomorrow evening the Jewish community begins the holiday of Passover. We tell the story of the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The hero of that journey is Moses.
In Jewish tradition Moses is the greatest prophet the Jewish people ever had. He is the law-giver, teacher and scribe of God. He challenges Pharaoh, leads the people through the desert, and guides them to the edge of the Promised Land.
His life ends on a poignant note, as God permits him to see the promised land from afar, but does not permit him to enter it. Moses’ final resting place is unknown because, according to the Jewish sages, God did not want the people to turn Moses into a divine figure. He was simply the Jewish people’s greatest prophet.
How Moses’ Life Begins
Moses’s birth seems to suggest he was destined for great things. Unlike the other Israelites, he never experiences slavery. He is placed on a basket immediately after birth and sent floating down the Nile River. His sister Miriam watches his basket from reeds beside the river, and sees the daughter of Pharaoh take the basket and find the Hebrew child.
In the Bible, Pharaoh’s daughter has no name, but later Jewish commentators call her Batya, which means “daughter of God.” Her compassion and humanity lead her to adopt Moses as her own son. He is raised in Pharaoh’s palace, a “Prince of Egypt,” presumably afforded all the luxuries and opportunities of Egyptian royalty.
Everything changes the day he first leaves the royal palace. His age at the time is unknown, but later interpreters suggest he was 15. He sees Egyptian task-masters whipping Israelite slaves.
Although the text does not tell us how and when he learned he was an Israelite, Moses knows the slaves are his people, and he acts to defend them. He kills one of the Egyptian taskmasters.
The next thing he does is stop a fight between two of the Israelite slaves. After he does so, one of them taunts him and says, “Are you going to kill me in the same way you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses realizes that word of his crime will spread, and he will be wanted man in Egypt. He flees for Midian, which is a desert land of shepherds and nomads.
His first stop in Midian is at a well. He encounters a group of hostile shepherds attacking a group of seven sisters. Moses defends them and drives the shepherds away. He returns with the daughters to their home and meets their father Jethro, a local priest. Moses soon marries one of the sisters he saved named Zipporah.
A Passion for Justice
What unites Moses’ first three actions is his passion for justice.
- He could not bear seeing a helpless slave beaten by an Egyptian task-master.
- He could not stay silent as two Israelites fought one another.
- And he could not stand by as Midianite shepherds attacked a group of defenseless sisters.
Moses does not stand idly by as others suffer and bleed. That quality made him the Jewish people’s greatest leader.
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