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Welcoming Interfaith Families, Maintaining Tradition – Eqev 5781

I recently completed my fourteenth year as a rabbi, since I was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 2007. As many of you know, I have been affiliated with the Conservative movement for my entire life. 

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

But you may not know that in 1994, when I was finishing my Master’s degree in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, I applied to the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, at the urging of the Reform rabbi at the Texas A&M Hillel. When HUC rejected me, Rabbi Tarlow was incensed, and he called the chair of the admissions committee to find out why. He was told that the committee felt that I had difficulty seeing multiple sides to an issue.

Now, it may be that what they saw about me during the interview was engineering clarity: trying to get to an answer as efficiently as possible. In any case, I must say that in retrospect I find it difficult to believe that I ever had such a difficulty, because nowadays I cannot help but see at least a couple of sides to any issue, perhaps to the detriment of that problem-solving clarity that I used to have.

As I grow older, and particularly in observing the deeply polarized society we have become, I must say that I wish that more of us had the humility to see multiple sides to every issue. I feel like the black-and-white oversimplification that is a feature of social media has brought us to this point, where acknowledging and engaging with multiple perspectives around complex issues is not merely frowned upon, but even derided.

Parashat Eqev, which we read from this morning, reminds us not only of the binary theology of Devarim / Deuteronomy – if you, the Israelites follow the mitzvot, you get the land of Israel, and if you do not, you will lose it – but also the need to be humble, because actually it’s not so simple. In particular (Devarim / Deut. 9:4):

אַל־תֹּאמַ֣ר בִּלְבָבְךָ֗ בַּהֲדֹ֣ף ה֩’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֨יךָ אֹתָ֥ם ׀ מִלְּפָנֶ֘יךָ֮ לֵאמֹר֒ בְּצִדְקָתִי֙ הֱבִיאַ֣נִי ה’ לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וּבְרִשְׁעַת֙ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה ה’ מוֹרִישָׁ֥ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

And when the LORD your God has thrust [your enemies] from your path, say not to yourselves, “The LORD has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. 

The 15th-century Portuguese commentator, Don Yitzḥaq Abravanel, adds that people tend to attribute their successes to themselves. But the text here says, “Don’t think that you’re getting this land because you’re so perfect.” Rather, says God, I’m only giving this to you because you’re a wee bit better than the surrounding peoples. Don’t think you’re all that special. Be humble.

Humility is an essential Jewish value; it is one reason that our tradition reminds us regularly that we came from slavery, and that we should remember not to oppress the others around us. We have to remember our roots.

It is with this humility, and with an appreciation for multiple perspectives, that we should read the results of the recently-released demographic survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center. The report came out in May, just before a barrage of Hamas rockets from Gaza provoked an Israeli response that quickly dominated the news cycle, and so those of us who pay attention to the state of Jewish America were distracted by the news from Israel. You might have missed it.

There is a lot to process in this report, but I wanted to zoom in on one particular issue, and that is the state of the Jewish family. One of the findings is that the intermarriage rate among Jews has remained at a consistent rate; about 56% of respondents who are married report that their spouse is not Jewish. Of course that figure varies tremendously with age and affiliation; among Conservative-affiliated Jews, for example, 25% report a non-Jewish spouse, and among the category of people whom Pew describes as “Jews of no religion,” that is, people who were born Jewish but do not practice Judaism, the figure is 79%.

A few decades ago, these numbers would have seemed shocking. The Conservative movement’s reaction to interfaith marriage in the 1980s was to pretend it did not exist: no recognition, no aufruf, and of course no rabbi could preside over such a marriage. At the time, we were so proud as to think that this would lead to greater in-marriage. The approach backfired: many of those Jews who married others, whose rabbis turned them away, left the Conservative movement and did not look back.

We have, thankfully, reached a different place. While I still cannot solemnize a marriage of a Jewish person to one who is not, this is for purely halakhic reasons; we have not yet been able to come up with a halakhic basis on which to perform such a marriage. But of course we welcome these couples into our congregations; we have a number of members of Beth Shalom where one partner is not Jewish, and some of those Jewish-adjacent members of Beth Shalom are among our biggest fans, eager partners in helping to create a Jewish home and provide a Jewish education for their children. 

One of the items that the Pew study presents is that 28% of interfaith parents are raising their children as Jews (compared with 93% of families with two Jewish parents). Now that is not a particularly high number, but I’ll tell you this: if we reach out to those families, if we welcome them into our midst, then we have a much better chance that more of their children and grandchildren will be raised Jewish. 

In some cases, by the way, our embracing the supportive non-Jewish partner has led to that person becoming Jewish through conversion, a testament not only to the appeal and the richness of our tradition, but also to our being open and inviting them in.

Now the challenge here is that, on the one hand, we want those interfaith families to be part of our community. We do not want them to be turned away, such that they will never return. When I was preparing for the Honeymoon Israel trip I took with the Pittsburgh cohort a year and a half ago, I learned that one of the frequent narratives among disaffected Jews in interfaith relationships was about how some of them had been spurned by their communities, and the pain this caused. We do not want to be creating more hurt, and giving people more reasons not to come back to the synagogue.

Of course, the perspective with which I grew up, like most of us here, is that in-marriage is the most desirable outcome. In addition to the halakhic challenges to intermarriage, when two people share similar customs and values, it is a solid foundation on which to build a successful marriage. Also, of course, Jewish home life is centered around family participation, and of course it is ideal for both parents to be steeped in these practices and texts to pass them on to our children and grandchildren.

After so many decades of Jewish hand-wringing over intermarriage, not to mention the centuries of uncomfortable history, our expectation that in-marriage is ideal is so ingrained as to be unavoidable. There are those who say that this expectation implicitly places an interfaith couple in a secondary position, and that is something that we clearly do not want to do. However, I think it is also reasonable to promote in-marriage while welcoming our Jewish-adjacent partners, who have thrown in their lot with our people, who are supportive participants in our Jewish journey.

And, on the third hand, we love it when people who are not Jewish join the ranks of our people. So while I have occasionally crowed that I have created 50 or so new Jews since I’ve been in Pittsburgh, doing so also may seem judgmental to some of the non-Jewish partners in our midst. We must ensure that our message is that anybody who wants to join the Jewish people is welcome, and the doors are always open. But even for those who choose not to, we are still grateful that you are here with us.

So you can see that even discussing this is complicated. On one hand, as ambassadors for Judaism and Jewish life, we need to support our home team and our historical traditions; on the other, as diplomatic contemporary Jews who seek to keep as many of our folks connected, we also must maintain a big, non-judgmental tent. And, as Eqev teaches us, we have to be humble about it: we cannot possibly think that we know all the answers or will succeed in hitting the right notes based on our merits. We need to lean into that humility because we compete not only in the marketplace of ideas, but also in the ocean of disaffection and indifference. 

A curiously hopeful note gleaned from the Pew study, by the way, is that even among the folks who are described as “Jews of no religion,” a healthy fraction of those Jews are practicing some aspects of Jewish life: for example, 30% of them held or attended a Pesaḥ seder last year, 28% observed some kind of life-cycle ritual, and 1 in 5 fasted to some extent on Yom Kippur. I’m not sure why these behaviors place these folks in the “no religion” category, but such is the messy nature of statistics and categories. Nonetheless, it is another reminder that those open doors face multiple directions.

Fortunately for all of us in the Conservative movement, halakhah / Jewish law is not judgmental; we can still welcome all folks into our community, even as we stand by our halakhic principles in Jewish ritual. Just as there is a range of Jewish practices among our people, so too there is a diversity among Jewish families. And we embrace them all, even as we humbly maintain tradition.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/31/2021.)

2 replies on “Welcoming Interfaith Families, Maintaining Tradition – Eqev 5781”

Well said, Rabbi. Upon reading your essay, the first image that came to mind was Abraham’s tent which was said to have four openings for each direction to welcome all. If we persist on hoarding our secrets, rituals and knowledge to keep ourselves special, then the outside world’s initial curiosity inevitably becomes resentment that in turn becomes anti-semitism. I am happy that you have done a great deal to welcome all to Beth Shalom. The warm ambience among the congregation is the best testament. Thank you.

Thank you for this. I find the focus on intermarriage distasteful, and I am born Jewish married to a Jewish spouse. (Imagine how much more distasteful this is to interfaith couples!) I’d much rather see more of a focus on engagement. If people aren’t engaged, you’ll lose them regardless of who they marry.

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