A House of Prayer for All People – Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5775

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In the Jewish tradition, each new year provides an opportunity to pause, reflect, and refocus. We consider the events of the year that has passed, celebrate our triumphs, and confront our failures. Looking at this State of our Selves, we pledge to try to do better in the year to come. We are invited to this work not only as individuals, but also more broadly, as a community and as a people.

In that spirit, if we, as an American Jewish community looked this Rosh Hashanah at the State of our Selves, what would we see? What is the state of our union at the cusp of 5775?

Without a doubt, the biggest story in American Judaism this year was the Pew Forum’s “Report on Jewish Americans,” an authoritative and detailed snapshot of who we are and where we are headed. And, if you accept the established understanding and interpretation of the Pew Report, who we are is a shrinking community, and where we are headed is almost-certain extinction.

In that reading of the Pew Report, the leading cause of our creeping demise is our rising intermarriage rate. Over 70% of non-Orthodox American Jews who are married, are married to people of other backgrounds. [In discussing intermarriage, I will use the more inclusive term “people of other backgrounds” wherever possible instead of “non-Jews,” following the suggestion of my teacher, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute]. These intermarried families tend to have much lower rates of Jewish everything: engagement with Jewish practices, synagogue affiliation, and on and on. And 83% of children from intermarried households will themselves marry someone of another background. The dominant understanding of the report is that, if these trends hold, the Jewish community could intermarry itself into non-existence.

While that picture is grim, there’s another way of understanding the data. In this alternate reading, rising intermarriage and declining Jewish engagement among intermarried families are due less to intermarriage itself, and more to the work we in the Jewish community have yet to do in responding positively to the reality of intermarriage.

For the past few decades, the organized Jewish community has, by and large, taken a hard-line: We not only actively encouraged our children to marry other Jews, but we also took steps that excluded those who chose to intermarry and their partners from different backgrounds.

Of course, the Jewish legal tradition, halakhah, draws some important lines when it comes to including those from other backgrounds in Jewish life: Rabbinic law, for instance, defines Jewishness as the result of having been born to a Jewish mother or of formally converting to Judaism. The halakhic tradition does not allow a rabbi to officiate at a wedding between a Jew and someone of a different background. And there are certain Jewish rituals that, for quite understandable reasons, can only be performed by a Jew, like leading services and reciting the blessings over the Torah. I am committed to these distinctions, and I believe they are both wise and fair.

But many synagogues went beyond these rules. For instance, our legal tradition says nothing about whether those of different backgrounds can be members of a synagogue; yet many congregations will not allow spouses of different backgrounds to officially join. In some congregations, the names of spouses of different backgrounds aren’t even listed in the directory or on mailings, despite the fact that this is not a requirement of Jewish law. And, in many congregations, regulations that have no basis in halakhah, like preventing people of different backgrounds from ascending the bimah, opening the ark, or standing near a Torah scroll, have disabled many individuals from fully participating in their families’ life-cycle celebrations.

These policies were not based in Torah, but were rather parts of a strategy communal leaders devised to stop intermarriage. A generation of well-meaning leaders had hoped that if we put our feet down a little harder, Jews would stop intermarrying and/or their partners from different backgrounds would convert, and our people would be saved.

But this strategy was a failure.

It failed for several reasons: It failed because it banked on forcing people to choose their religion over the people they love. Instead, they rejected and resented the religion that expected them to make that choice.

Similarly, taking a posture of exclusion toward family members of different backgrounds in synagogue life did not give those individuals more of an incentive to become Jewish. If anything, however, it showed them that Judaism was a cold and rigid faith. Who would want to sign up for that kind of religion?!

When my Uncle Steve wanted to marry my Aunt Sonia, my Bubbe and Zeide all but disowned him.  And even though Sonia expressed an interest in converting and raising her kids as Jews, they couldn’t find a welcoming rabbi in South Florida.  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.

Furthermore, the strategy failed because it neglected the fact that so many Jews are brought back to a real relationship with Judaism through partners of different backgrounds.

While still in seminary, I served as the rabbinic intern of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, the nation’s largest conversion program. Quick commercial: This year, Temple Beth-El is partnering with the Miller Program for our “Essentials of Judaism” class series. This class is for everybody at Temple Beth-El, not just for people thinking about conversion. Come on, be honest: we all could use a little refresher course. I hope you will join us for this exciting series on Monday nights beginning this October.

Two of my students in the Miller program were Josh, a totally unobservant and unaffiliated young Jewish adult, and his fiancée, Bella, who was not Jewish. Over the course of 18 weeks, I watched Josh transform before my eyes from a disengaged Jew-In-Name-Only to someone who wrote, “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.” Josh’s non-Jewish fiancee made him a better Jew.

I would bet that many of us could attest to similar experiences. Maybe your spouse of a different background made sure that the kids went to Hebrew school or synagogue services week after week. Maybe your parent of a different background was the one who prepared Seder for your entire family, making sure that all the details were perfect. Maybe your child’s partner or spouse of a different background decided to start learning more about Judaism and, in the process, enhanced your child’s Jewish education. So many of us can say that our Jewish lives have been enriched by the presence and involvement of family members of different backgrounds.

Finally, our old strategy to combat intermarriage failed because many intermarried couples, even ones in which one partner does not convert, go on to have vibrant Jewish households and raise committed Jewish children when synagogues welcome them.

Take my friend Esther, for instance. Esther is the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. 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.  Their decision was possible because they felt welcomed, included, and supported by their local Conservative synagogue. 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.

I admit that Esther’s story may not be the norm. But if synagogues adopt a more welcoming, inclusive stance toward these families, it could become the rule, rather than the exception. Because the narrative-shattering truth is that digging in our heels about intermarriage turned away, turned off, and lost countless Jews, potential Jews, and friends of our community of different backgrounds.

Secure in this knowledge, we can change our community’s destiny. We can shift from excluding intermarried families and move toward welcoming and including them in our communities, enabling them to fully take part in the warmth, beauty, and depth of meaningful Jewish experiences and community.

We can maximize the ways, within the contours of Jewish law, for intermarried families, and the members of those families of different backgrounds, to feel fully a part of and fully at home in our communities. In fact, this is not only the pathway to ensuring Jewish continuity among an intermarrying population, it is also a moral imperative echoed in this morning’s Torah portion.

Our patriarch Abraham and his wife, our matriarch Sarah, were unable to have a child, so Abraham takes Sarah’s Egyptian, non-Jewish maidservant, Hagar, as his second wife. Together, they have a son, Ishmael, who Abraham raises as his own, as a Jew.

And then, miraculously, Sarah becomes able to conceive a child, and gives birth to Isaac. Some time after Isaac is old enough to be weaned, Sarah notices Ishmael playing and gets angry. We don’t really know what so upset Sarah about Ishmael, but nevertheless, she turns to Abraham and says, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!”

Sarah sees Hagar and Ishmael as others who are compromising the integrity of her Jewish household. And the modern reader cannot help but hear in her message echoes of our historically harsh, cold, and exclusionary treatment of those in our communities of other backgrounds.

Abraham, for his part, is extremely distressed about Sarah’s painful demand. Can you imagine his response? “What do you mean I should kick my wife and son out of the house?! Don’t you remember that Hagar made sure Ishmael was on time for Hebrew school each week?! Don’t you remember how Ishmael recited the Four Questions every year until Isaac was old enough?!”

But more than that, Sarah in this instance is asking Abraham to defy one of the deepest values that he must have thought they shared together: Abraham and Sarah’s defining quality was their passion for reaching out and drawing near. To this point, they had been animated by the desire to bring all people into their tent. Not three chapters earlier in Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah enthusiastically welcoming three strangers into their home. They hurry to meet their needs and make them comfortable. Only later do Abraham and Sarah realize that these three strangers are actually angels, when they tell them that they will finally have a son of their own. And, in fact, one way of understanding the story is that God grants Abraham and Sarah their child only because their hospitality made them worthy of such a blessing, as if to say, the defining feature of a Jewish home – and a Jewish tent, like this Temple – is hospitality toward the quote-unquote stranger, that we are most worthy of being children of Abraham and Sarah when we embody their welcoming qualities. “Why,” Abraham must have wondered, “does Sarah’s welcoming approach not apply equally for non-Jewish family members?”

While God tells Abraham to acquiesce to Sarah’s demand, one gets the sense from the text that God’s sympathies lie more with Abraham. God, for example, vows to never leave Hagar or Ishmael. God promises to remain present in Ishmael’s life and make him into the father of a great nation. If God truly agreed with Sarah, why would God care what happened to Hagar and Ishmael? Furthermore, the text wants us to see what Abraham – and the Jewish people – lost by sending Ishmael away: Ishmael grew to be a great leader and a skilled bowman. Who knows the ways he could have benefitted the Jewish people had Sarah not argued for his exclusion? And, we are told, Ishmael marries a non-Jew. If he had stayed in Abraham and Sarah’s house, who knows whether he would have married a nice Jewish girl and raised nice Jewish kids in a warm and nurturing Jewish home?

This morning’s Torah reading calls us to extend Jewish communal welcoming equally both to Jews and to family members of different backgrounds. To be a proper descendent of Abraham and Sarah is to welcome and embrace any and all people who approach our tent, to distress over the proper treatment of those in our extended families, whatever their ethnic or religious heritage may be. We are called to treat those of different backgrounds in our community with warmth, love, and inclusion. Like those in Abraham’s tent, people in our community of different backgrounds can contribute strength and vitality. And, more importantly, the ancient, transformative wisdom of our tradition is God’s loving gift for all who want it.

During the coming year, I hope you will join me on a mission to make our synagogue a more inclusive and welcoming place for intermarried families. Together, let us determine how we can maximize pathways for intermarried families, and the members of those families of different backgrounds, to feel fully a part of and fully at home in our community, including revisiting and revising our policies on membership and ritual involvement for non-Jews. This year, we can take concrete measures to ensure that Temple Beth-El is a home to all seekers; that everyone, regardless of their background, who wants to be part of our sacred community, feels fully included in the richness of Jewish life here. We can ensure that Temple Beth-El fulfills the scriptural promise echoed in this morning’s liturgy, והביאותים אל הר קדשי, ושמחתים בבית תפילתי, כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים, I will bring them to my Holy Mountain, and cause them to rejoice in my House of Prayer, for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).

Let us recall Esther, whose mixed faith parents blessed her with a rich and vibrant Jewish life.  Let us recall Josh, whose non-Jewish fiancée kindled in him a new flame for Jewish living.  Let their example remind us that when we turn someone away simply because of who they love, we are turning away an opportunity to pass on the richness and vitality of Jewish life.

The ubiquity of intermarriage does not have to be cause for defense or despair. Instead, it can offer profound opportunities: to honor those of different backgrounds in our lives who enrich our Jewish connections; to help families of all types build households infused with a vibrant, committed, and meaningful Jewish life; to bring more people into relationship with the transformative power of Torah and Jewish community; to ensure the continuity of our people and our Torah. We can take hold of those opportunities if we open our hearts, our arms, and our doors to our fellow Jews and members of their families of different backgrounds who seek inclusion and involvement in Jewish life and community.

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, we will bring countless souls – like the Joshes, the Bellas, and the Esthers – under the wings of the Divine Presence. And if we do that, then when we report the State of Our Selves in the years to come, we will be able to proudly say: strong, flourishing, and holy.

Shanah Tovah.

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3 Responses to A House of Prayer for All People – Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5775

  1. Yasher koach! This is lovely.

    I have some personal / familial experience with the pain of exclusion from Jewish community, and I am here to say: right on. You are so right. 🙂

    May you be inscribed & sealed for a sweet year to come.

  2. Joyce Zasler says:

    Dear Rabbi Knoph, I want to say how much I enjoyed your sermon – intermarriage is a fact of life in today’s world. Jewish learning is a life-long journey and your sermon provided interesting and stimulating information to enhance that journey. Ensuring comfort for the non-Jew is a key factor. Sometimes I think the saying, “youth is wasted on the young” is so true. I recently wrote a skit for the Jewish Woman’s Club that incorporated portions of your sermon about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and although my story line seems far-fetched, the message was as yours – envisioning peace and reconciliation. After all Ishmael and Isaac shared the same father. Our ancestors captured my imagination and although we will never be able to re-write history, my point was, to rise above our differences, celebrating common origins, and achieving peace. Gmar Chatima Tova!

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