When my great-grandfather learned that his daughter had married a non-Jew, he sat a type of shiva, a mourning period, and did not remain in contact with her. Family lore is that he would read the letters his daughter wrote home, though they never spoke again. That was a different era. My great-grandfather fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and I imagine his interaction with non-Jews must have been limited. At the very least the radical inclusion of Jews, and other religious groups in American society many would come to experience as the new normal, was still a faraway dream.
As an Orthodox rabbi working with a millennial population and many young couples, I’m struck by our community’s obsession with non-Jews. As a people who make up less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population, we have chutzpah in terms of how we view ourselves and whom we marry. Surely, our persecuted history warrants a certain type of apprehension towards “the other,” but forgetting our own otherness is also an unforgivable neglect.Today it is common knowledge that President Trump’s daughter converted through an Orthodox religious court, and that from Jon Stewart to Adam Sandler, Hollywood personalities flaunt their Jewish star with pride. There is a Jewish army and airline. World leaders offer Chanukah greetings and President Obama even instituted a White House Passover seder. Yes, anti-Semitism may be on the rise in certain parts of the world, but this is generally understood by the general population to be unethical and dangerous. It’s hard to believe that it was only 70 years ago that being anti-Semitic in Germany was a welcomed political affiliation.
While the Reform movement has the most welcoming posture towards families with non-Jewish partners, the Conservative and Modern Orthodox worlds would be well served if they adopted a similar approach. Gone are the days when dogma and devotion rule; today every Jew is a Jew by choice. If our traditional communities do not learn how to adapt to modernity and cater religiously to different people’s needs, Judaism risks nearing its extinction date.
If our traditional communities do not learn how to adapt to modernity and cater religiously to different people’s needs, Judaism risks nearing its extinction date.
The cautious among us will tout “tradition” and ask where “this slippery slope of inclusion” might end? What were the religious credentials for conversion for the Biblical Ruth? A commitment to living among the Jewish people – plain and simple. How about that elder sage of the Talmud, Hillel, who welcomed the convert unequivocally while still signing him up for his Judaism 101 class – no questions asked?
When I hear the word “interfaith” these days it makes me think of some type of religious science fiction premise, as if two people who fall in love are illegal. The reality is simpler and more complex. To state the obvious: I care passionately about Judaism, the Jewish people and our continuity. But whether or not I might officiate in a capacity that conforms with my understanding of Jewish law is not a couple’s number one concern nor is it mine when we first meet. A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.
I recently returned from staffing another trip for Honeymoon Israel, an organization which brings recently married interfaith couples to Israel for a subsidized ten-day trip exploring Judaism and the holy land. As The New York Times recently wrote, “Given that a 2013 Pew study reported that since 2000, 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews have married outside their faith, it is not surprising that many of the resources are sponsored by Jewish organizations.”
A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.
But Honeymoon Israel is more than a “resource” and certainly more than just another Jewish organization. For many couples it is a lifeline to a community that has otherwise abandoned them; it is a possibility of hope for those who have felt ostracized by their own families.
The story of one couple from my most recent trip stands out. Rachel (not her real name) grew up in a traditionally observant home. When she shared with her parents that she planned to marry an Arab man, her parents ceased all contact. They did not attend their daughter’s wedding nor have they spoken to her since learning of her engagement.
As I sat with Rachel in a hotel lobby in Jerusalem, she cried as she shared, “My guilt is tremendous and I understand my parents’ disappointment. Still, is there any way there might still be a space for me within Judaism? I feel as if God has brought my partner and me together.” Rachel explained how her partner wanted to have some type of Jewish ritual at the wedding but Rachel wouldn’t have it. She was too hurt. Their joining Honeymoon Israel was an attempt to see if this encounter with the ancient community might still resonate.
The medieval French commentator Rashi noted that a city that was truly strong did not have walls. In order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome “the other” into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.