I recently found a piece of Bar Mitzvah memorabilia that made me cringe.But it also made me think about how beliefs can change with age.In my parents' attic was a note from my mother's first cousin Richard. Hehad mailed it a few days after the November 1975 ceremony thattheoretically transformed me into a Jewish adult."How pleased I was to be able to attend your Bar Mitzvah, and to join withyour other family and friends in the various weekend festivities," he wrote.Nothing awkward there. But nestled among the pleasantries, something gaveme a jolt: "I was really interested in your address to the congregation,"Richard wrote. "We shall have to discusss your theories of ethnic pollutionin more detail when next we see each other."Ouch. Though a quarter century has passed since I had my Bar Mitzvah, I wasstill embarrassed on behalf of my adolescent self.Some background: Like all Bar Mitzvah boys and Bat Mitzvah girls at theReform synagogue I attended in Washington, DC, I had to make a speech aboutthat week's Torah portion -- the section of the Five Books of Moses thatwe were scheduled to read. The selection read for the congregation thatweek -- line by line, first in Hebrew, then translated into English -- camefrom the story in which the Hebrew patriarch Abraham sends his faithfulservant off to find a suitable bride for his son Isaac. In the story, the servant mentions how Abraham made him swear that he'dsearch for Isaac's prospective wife back in land of Abraham's birth, notamong the Canaanites among whom Abraham was then living.
To me, the Bible story seemed relevant to the ongoing phenomenon of Jewsmarrying non-Jews. So this is what I talked about in my brief speech. Iequated intermarriage with the possibility of forsaking the Jewish faith. Imentioned the responsibility we all had to keep Judaism from dying. Ididn't mention Adolf Hitler or the Holocaust, but the real threat Hitlerhad posed to Jews in the 1930s and 1940s loomed throughout my Hebrew schooleducation and lurked under my Bar Mitzvah speech. What Hitler, in his ownquest for racial purity, had failed to do -- exterminate the Jewishcommunity -- Americans were doing by less violent means. Each intermarriageposed the danger of grinding the Jewish religion into nothingness.That made perfect sense to me back then. But reading Richard's letter 25years later, I noticed all too well the connection my cousin had foundbetween Hitler's concerns about ethnic pollution and my own.Now, I don't think that I came anywhere near Hitler, either in the strengthof my opinions about intermarriage or the measures I was willing to take toact on them. And I don't think Richard thought so, either.But, as he explained this year when I called him up to read him his oldletter, back then he was extremely touchy about criticisms ofintermarriage. After all, he was dating Ginny, a woman who was (and stillis) Catholic. I don't remember if I was aware of her religion. A year ortwo after my Bar Mitzvah, they got married, and they have remained marriedsince then.I myself married a woman who is Jewish.
But despite my own actions, I'vechanged my mind about how I feel about the relationship of marriage andJudaism. Intermarriage doesn't bother me. As I've grown older, I've come tobelieve that people are misguided when they think religion is preserved bymarrying inside the faith, or destroyed by marrying outside it. I think theJewish religion, and other religions, are stronger than that. They rundeeper than that. You don't keep religion alive by selecting a proper mate;that kind of tactic is properly relegated to the field of dog breeding. Areligion based on breeding isn't much of a religion at all.No, marrying a Jew isn't necessary or sufficient to make you Jewish, anymore than getting married at all automatically makes you a loving spouse --or any more than learning a Torah portion makes you a Jewish adult.Granted, ceremonial activities can make you reflect upon your beliefs, andthey can inspire your soul. But I think religion lives and dies in everydaylife, not on special occasions. The ceremonies don't mean anything whenthey're taken out of context. It's all the days before the one when Richardmarried Ginny, and all the days that followed, that define Richard'sJudaism. And it's all the days since my Bar Mitzvah that define mine.But my ultimate point isn't as much about intermarriage as it is about thefervent beliefs one has as a teenager.I think about that because in recent months when I've read stories andcomments that teens have made on Beliefnet, I've been struck by how easilythey've been able to divide other people's behavior into good and bad,right and wrong.
Prayer in schools? Premarital sex? Drinking? Each writerhas a pretty good idea of who's right and who's wrong around a particularissue. Some of my ideas about right and wrong -- I bring up intermarriagetoday -- seemed pretty clear to me when I was a teenager. They don't seemso clear now. I'm not saying that teens shouldn't have strong beliefs. Nor am I sayingthat older people have cornerned the market on knowledge and wisdom.What I am saying is that as one gets older, moral issues turn out to be alot more complex than they might seem when one is young. As the yearsprogress, you meet more people who turn out to be from a variety ofbackgrounds. Out in the world, beyond the protective sphere of yourparents, you find yourself having to make greater numbers of moral choiceson your own behalf. Pretty soon, you get the sense that the answers youhave for solving the world's problems are just one set of good ideas. Theanswers that are right for you aren't necessarily right for someone else.So here I am, rewriting my Bar Mitzvah speech after a quarter-centurydelay. As a matter of fact, re-reading my Torah portion, I'm intrigued by asection I didn't read for the congregation: a passage in which Abraham buysa cave in which to bury his late wife, Sarah. The back-and-forth betweenAbraham and a bunch of Canaanites, ending with Abraham buying some land for400 shekels of silver, fascinates me: What's going on here? Are theCanaanites really trying to give Abraham the land for free, or is this justa ritualized procedure in ancient real estate transactions? Why is thisstory in the Bible at all?In 1975, this story seemed pretty stupid to me.
But times change, and sohave I. Go figure.