Being a Jewish Community Open to All Seekers – Parashat Va-Et’hanan 2011

From 2009 to 2011, I served as the rabbinic intern of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, the nation’s largest conversion program.

Most of my students were non-Jews who were in relationships with Jews – boyfriends, girlfriends, fiancés, and spouses.

Now, statistically speaking, inter-dating and intermarriage rates are inversely proportional to levels of Jewish education, religious observance, and presence of Judaism in the household.  So it was that the Jewish partners in these relationships usually had minimal Jewish backgrounds and connections.

Take my student Josh, a totally unobservant young Jewish adult who attended afternoon religious school and had a Bar Mitzvah but, like many Jewish kids today, had little Jewish education beyond age 13. Today, he barely even had a Jewish social circle.

Despite his lack of involvement and interest in Jewish life, Josh attended the classes and programming with his non-Jewish fiancée, Bella.  When Josh first came to class, his look was one of smug self-satisfaction about what a good deed he was doing for Bella, how wonderful and supportive a fiancée he was.

But week after week, I noticed that the look on Josh’s face slowly changed.  Ultimately, Josh became one of the most deeply engaged students in the classroom.  I began noticing Josh furiously taking notes – he must have transcribed every word of the class – and asking deep, pointed questions.  He would spark these magnificent conversations about the meaning of kashrut or the lessons of the Exodus.

Three times a year, we held a Shabbaton, a program on a Friday evening that introduced students to the joy and richness of a traditional Shabbat experience.  Together, we learned to light candles and make Kiddush, rejoiced in a vibrant Kabbalat Shabbat service, and experienced the serenity of Shabbat rest.

In the fall of 2010, I led one of these Shabbatonim with Adira.  We had energizing davvening that night, and a beautiful dinner with roast chicken, potatoes, and matzo ball soup.  We sang and schmoozed and laughed until late.  It was wonderful.

On Sunday morning, when I checked my email, I found a note waiting for me from Josh. Here’s what he wrote:

“Dear Rabbi Knopf, I wanted to let you know what a wonderful time I had last Friday.  As you know, though I grew up Jewish, I think it’s fair to say I took my Jewishness for granted.  It didn’t mean very much to me other than a label.  Last Friday was my first real exposure to Shabbat as an adult and I felt a fire in my belly that I never felt before toward Jewish stuff.  I’m not sure why, but my experience at the Shabbaton, combined with the classes, resonated with me and seriously engaged me in a way that I can’t really describe. I feel that I have been missing out by not having Judaism in my life.  Bella and I are really excited to build a Jewish home together, and we both plan to take our Jewish involvement seriously.  Just thought I would let you know.  Sincerely, Josh.”

Josh’s moving note awakened me to a deep but ironic reality.  Josh was brought back to Judaism because of his non-Jewish fiancée.  And, indeed, I could tell you about many Jews like Josh, who are brought back to a real relationship with Judaism through a non-Jewish partner.

I bear these observations firmly in mind as I read this week’s parashah, Va-Et’hanan, which contains the Torah’s clearest injunction against intermarriage.  Moses exhorts the Israelites that, when they encounter the non-Jewish peoples who inhabit the Promised Land:

 

Lo tit’haten bam – bit’kha lo titen liv’no u-vito lo tikah liv’nekha – ki yasir et binkha m’akharai v’avdu elohim aherim v’hara af Adonai bakhem v’hishmid’kha maher.

 

3 You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. 4 For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.

 

Now, the Torah’s concern seems to be about Jewish continuity.  If Jews persist in marrying outside the tribe, the Jewish people will ultimately be wiped out.  If Jews do not marry other Jews and produce Jewish children, there will be no more Jewish people.

This reflects, I think, our contemporary anxieties over intermarriage, that intermarriage threatens the existence of the Jewish people.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for parents to sit shivah for or even disown a child who intermarries.  And many congregations have major restrictions barring the involvement of intermarried Jews, excluding non-Jewish partners of intermarriages, and limiting the participation of children of the relationships.  We hope, in doing this, that we will be making a stand against intermarriage and the destruction of our people; that if we put our foot down a little harder, Jews will stop intermarrying and our people will be saved.  But as we have dug in our heels over intermarriage, the intermarriage rates have risen exponentially.  We are not stopping intermarriage by taking this stance, and we are losing countless Jews and potential Jews because of it.

For example, when my Uncle Steve wanted to marry my Aunt Sonia, my Bubbe and Zeide basically disowned him.  And, even though Sonia expressed an interest in converting to Judaism and raising her kids as Jews, they couldn’t find a synagogue in South Florida that would welcome them.  The posture of my grandparents and of the community did not stop Steve and Sonia from marrying; rather, it stopped them from pursuing involvement in Jewish life, it stopped them from raising Jewish children.

So I think it’s worth us noting that the Torah’s chief concern over intermarriage in our parashah is not the continuation of the Jewish people.  The Torah’s concern is that the non-Jew will lead the Jew away from God; that the non-Jew will lead the Jew to abandon the covenant, that the Jew will forsake Torah.  Yes, the Torah is concerned about continuity, but from the Torah’s perspective, the continuity of the Jewish people is inseparable from the continuity of Jewish living.  The Jewish people perish not only when there cease to be any living Jews, but more importantly, when there cease to be any Jews living Jewishly.

Thus, the danger our parashah articulates happens in marriages today between Jews as well, for in-marriage is no guarantee of the continuity of Jewish living.  Lots of Jewish couples live without any Judaism in their lives.  On the other hand, many intermarried couples go on to live in dynamic relationship with Torah, in perpetual commitment to the covenant between God and Israel.  And they pass on that commitment to their Jewish children.

And while, from the Jewish tradition’s perspective, it would certainly be ideal for the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism, I have seen this to be true even among couples where the non-Jewish partner does not ultimately convert.  Take my friend Esther, for example.  Esther’s father is Jewish and mother isn’t.  But her parents made a decision to formally convert their kids to Judaism as infants, to provide them with a serious Jewish education, to observe Jewish rituals and holidays in the household.  Today, Esther remains a passionately committed Jew.  She is observant of the Jewish tradition, a fervent Zionist, a lover of God, Torah, and the Jewish people.  Jewish continuity is possible in all kinds of households: households with two parents who were Jews by birth, households with one or two parents who are Jews by choice, and, indeed, even in households where one parent remains non-Jewish.

I want to offer that our personal and communal anxieties about intermarriage might be better directed as excitement and passion – excitement and passion for the continuity of Jewish values and living, which can be made possible in any and all types of Jewish households.

Let us call to mind Esther, whose mixed faith parents blessed her with a rich and vibrant Jewish life.  Let us call to mind Josh, whose non-Jewish fiancée kindled in him a new flame for Jewish living.  Let their example remind us that when we turn away a couple simply because one partner is Jewish and the other is not, we are turning away an opportunity to share the warmth, beauty, and richness of Jewish life; indeed, we are turning away the possibility of more continuity of Torah.

I am not at all saying that intermarriage is good. I am deeply committed to the traditional injuction against intermarriage.  I would never perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew.

But I am saying that when a Jew intermarries, he or she is not necessarily expressing intent to abandon Judaism.  And rising intermarriage rates do not necessarily represent the doom of the Jewish people.  If our child or grandchild dates or marries a non-Jew, they can still build a household infused with a vibrant, committed and meaningful Jewish life.  They can still encourage not only the continuity of our people, but also the continuity of our people’s Torah.  Indeed, this happens all the time.

So what I am offering is for us to open our hearts, our arms, and our doors to our kids, our grandkids, our friends, our neighbors, and our fellow Jews…even if they date and marry outside the faith.  As the midrashist teaches us in Vayikra Rabbah, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence.”  If we open ourselves to all who seek Jewish belonging, if we value not only Jewish continuity, but also the continuity of Jewish values, we will bring countless souls under the wings of the Divine Presence. For when we don’t, we risk losing the Joshes, the Bellas, and the Esthers.  And that, friends, would be the real threat to the continuity of our people.  Shabbat Shalom.

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