2016-06-30
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. He had mailed it a few days after the November 1975 ceremony that theoretically transformed me into a Jewish adult. "How pleased I was to be able to attend your Bar Mitzvah, and to join with your other family and friends in the various weekend festivities," he wrote. Nothing awkward there. But nestled among the pleasantries, something gave me a jolt: "I was really interested in your address to the congregation," Richard wrote. "We shall have to discusss your theories of ethnic pollution in more detail when next we see each other." Ouch. Though a quarter century has passed since I had my Bar Mitzvah, I was still embarrassed on behalf of my adolescent self. Some background: Like all Bar Mitzvah boys and Bat Mitzvah girls at the Reform synagogue I attended in Washington, DC, I had to make a speech about that week's Torah portion -- the section of the Five Books of Moses that we were scheduled to read. The selection read for the congregation that week -- line by line, first in Hebrew, then translated into English -- came from the story in which the Hebrew patriarch Abraham sends his faithful servant off to find a suitable bride for his son Isaac. In the story, the servant mentions how Abraham made him swear that he'd search for Isaac's prospective wife back in land of Abraham's birth, not
among the Canaanites among whom Abraham was then living. To me, the Bible story seemed relevant to the ongoing phenomenon of Jews marrying non-Jews. So this is what I talked about in my brief speech. I equated intermarriage with the possibility of forsaking the Jewish faith. I mentioned the responsibility we all had to keep Judaism from dying. I didn't mention Adolf Hitler or the Holocaust, but the real threat Hitler had posed to Jews in the 1930s and 1940s loomed throughout my Hebrew school education and lurked under my Bar Mitzvah speech. What Hitler, in his own quest for racial purity, had failed to do -- exterminate the Jewish community -- Americans were doing by less violent means. Each intermarriage posed the danger of grinding the Jewish religion into nothingness. That made perfect sense to me back then. But reading Richard's letter 25 years later, I noticed all too well the connection my cousin had found between Hitler's concerns about ethnic pollution and my own. Now, I don't think that I came anywhere near Hitler, either in the strength of my opinions about intermarriage or the measures I was willing to take to act 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 old letter, back then he was extremely touchy about criticisms of intermarriage. After all, he was dating Ginny, a woman who was (and still is) Catholic. I don't remember if I was aware of her religion. A year or
two after my Bar Mitzvah, they got married, and they have remained married since then. I myself married a woman who is Jewish. But despite my own actions, I've changed my mind about how I feel about the relationship of marriage and Judaism. Intermarriage doesn't bother me. As I've grown older, I've come to believe that people are misguided when they think religion is preserved by marrying inside the faith, or destroyed by marrying outside it. I think the Jewish religion, and other religions, are stronger than that. They run deeper 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. A religion based on breeding isn't much of a religion at all. No, marrying a Jew isn't necessary or sufficient to make you Jewish, any more 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, and they can inspire your soul. But I think religion lives and dies in everyday life, not on special occasions. The ceremonies don't mean anything when they're taken out of context. It's all the days before the one when Richard married Ginny, and all the days that followed, that define Richard's Judaism. 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 the fervent beliefs one has as a teenager.
I think about that because in recent months when I've read stories and comments that teens have made on Beliefnet, I've been struck by how easily they've been able to divide other people's behavior into good and bad, right and wrong. Prayer in schools? Premarital sex? Drinking? Each writer has a pretty good idea of who's right and who's wrong around a particular issue. Some of my ideas about right and wrong -- I bring up intermarriage today -- seemed pretty clear to me when I was a teenager. They don't seem so clear now. I'm not saying that teens shouldn't have strong beliefs. Nor am I saying that 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 a lot more complex than they might seem when one is young. As the years progress, you meet more people who turn out to be from a variety of backgrounds. Out in the world, beyond the protective sphere of your parents, you find yourself having to make greater numbers of moral choices on your own behalf. Pretty soon, you get the sense that the answers you have for solving the world's problems are just one set of good ideas. The answers that are right for you aren't necessarily right for someone else. So here I am, rewriting my Bar Mitzvah speech after a quarter-century delay. As a matter of fact, re-reading my Torah portion, I'm intrigued by a section I didn't read for the congregation: a passage in which Abraham buys a cave in which to bury his late wife, Sarah. The back-and-forth between Abraham and a bunch of Canaanites, ending with Abraham buying some land for 400 shekels of silver, fascinates me: What's going on here? Are the Canaanites really trying to give Abraham the land for free, or is this just a ritualized procedure in ancient real estate transactions? Why is this story in the Bible at all? In 1975, this story seemed pretty stupid to me. But times change, and so have I. Go figure.
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