Posts Tagged 'Intermarriage'

Multiple ID in Exile

With the close of VaYakel Pikkudei this week’s Torah portion we read about the completion and consecration of the Tabernacle and conclude reading the book of Exodus. We read:

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. And Moshe was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud was present, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.(Exodus 40:33-38)

Why does the book end with this image? What is the meaning behind Moshe not being able to enter the sacred space when the cloud is present?

To understand these questions we need to look at the whole book of Exodus. The protagonist of most of the book of Exodus is a Levite who is raised in the house of the Egyptians. Moshe spent his formative years as a shepherd for a Midianite priest. While Moshe is homeless and caught between many cultures, his charge is to bring the Israelites back home to the land of Canaan. Here we see the paradigm of Jewish history oscillating between survival and sovereignty. We struggle in the galut, exile, yearning to be at home in the Land of Israel. But, it is in the exile itself that Moshe is at home as a leader.

In our portion, at the end of Exodus, God periodically settles in their midst giving the Israelites a sense of what it will be like when they have a homeland and permanent residence for God in the Temple. Moshe’s exile from the tent of meeting when it is stationary foreshadows his not joining his people in the Promised Land. Ironically, Moshe, the leader, will not be able to join them when he has accomplished his/their mission. The text challenges our understanding of leadership. Is a good leader in center stage or does s/he know when s/he has to back off and let others take center stage.

The text also challenges the notions previous generations of Jews have had regarding their Jewish identity. For example a previous generation assumed that intermarriage meant leaving Jewish life behind. Today when everyone has multiple identities who you marry add complexity, but it does not necessarily mean the end of Jewish expression. We can all relate to Moshe finding a special role in exile in as much as this state of being in between things leaves room for our multiple identities.

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Revolutionary Growth

It was a real pleasure attending the URJ Bienial last week. While I am not quite ready to make aliyah to Reform Judaism, I have to admit that I am taken by Rabbi Rick Jacob’s ideal of audacious hospitality.  The Reform community is strong and under Rabbi Jacob’s direction they are moving in a great direction. It was exciting seeing over five thousand people unapologetically  together taking on the Jewish future. Being there I got a sense that they all understand their collective mission to manifest the welcoming tent of Avraham and Sarah. One of the most impressive aspects of Rabbi Jacob’s leadership has been his marshaling of serious resources behind the Campaign for Jewish Youth. One of the main agenda items taken up by this campaign has been Rabbi Bradley Solmsen’s B’nai Mitzah Revolution. At the Biennial I got to learn more about the revolution. They shared some of the innovations they are taking nationally in terms of refitting this coming of age ceremony for the 21st Century family. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to check out this website.

I was thinking about this revolution when looking at Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. The Levite child is saved from the river by Batya, Pharoah’s Daughter. She gets his biological mother to nurse him. After this we read:

And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out to his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. ( Exodus 2:10-11)

On this, Rashi points out the redundancy of saying that he grew up twice. The simple meaning is that the first growth was Moses being weened and the second is his coming of age. Interesting enough that is not the answer that Rashi brings. Instead he quotes the midrash:

Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai said the first mention of growth is in terms of his physical stature and the second mention of growth is in terms of attainment of rank as Pharaoh appointed him over his household. ( Tanchuma Yashan Va’eira 17)

For Rashi, this growing up happens later in life. According to Rashi, Moses comes of age in growing physically and later comes of age with his responsibilities. It is clear to me that today, more than ever, our children are not grown up when they become a bar or bat mitzvah. While I truly appreciate the need to rethink what is B’nai Mitvah, might we just say that becoming 12 or 13 is not the right time? While we might claim that our children are physically grown in some ways, they are clearly not yet the age of being responsible or having achieved any rank. This ritual cannot carry the burden of a Jewish future. ( I encourage you to read another post on this topic.) Thinking about this imagination of Moses taking over Pharaoh’s household, might I suggest another revolution?

What would it look like for us to have a Wedding Revolution? A few months ago I responded to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, who was pushing the Conservative community to rethink their stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I wanted to share. Rabbi Cosgrove’s sentiment was echoed in Rabbi Jacob’s call for audacious hospitality. Why marginalize people who want join our community? Let’s get them in the door through the coming of age ceremony of getting married and then worry about converting or not converting.

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

So here is the revolutionary idea. Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts in order to get married? I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  But this new mandate would deal with the sexism and the experience that anyone is being excluded. It is just the part of the new wedding ceremony. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment? Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency and in turn its own revolution.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. The part I most enjoyed about Rabbi Jacob’s keynote address was his articulating that Reform is not less authentic then Chabad or any other form of Jewish life. I would assume that every branch of Jewish life will have their own assumptions about defining an authentic conversion, but why not recreate the new wedding/conversion to conform to these values regardless of gender or lineage. And do not claim that it is too hard. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and making a Jewish household is worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance. Blind to their gender or lineage they would go through this process. Surely getting married is a more logical time to claim that someone is ” grown up” and ready to attain the rank as co-head of a household.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative and Reform Judaism also presents Orthodox Jews a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy a  humra – religious stringency, that will benefit the the entire Jewish community. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs. Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Audacious hospitality deserves more audacious revolutions.

Coupling Issues

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, recently spoke out on a very important issue. I wanted to thank him for pushing the community to rethink our stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I want to share here. My response is less based on the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi and more based on my commitment to strive to treat people equally.This is both born out of my desire to treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated and because I see that every human being is created in the image of God. This klal gadol –great underlying principle in the entire Torah- of being egalitarian is not uniquely a value of liberal Judaism (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts? As I mentioned I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  This would deal with the sexism, but it might also present some other benefits. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment. Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative Judaism presents all of us with a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy humra – religious stringency. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs.   Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Echoing the sentiments of Rabbi Cosgove, this public policy humra seems like an interesting “muscular embrace” of future generations of Jews. 

Winning with Our Parents

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read

When Esau was forty years old, he took as a wife Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Besmat, daughter of Elon the Hitttie; and they were a source of spiritual rebellion to Isaac and to Rebecca(Genesis 26:34-35).

With the primacy of monogamy in our culture, we would read into the text that Esau’s parents were upset with his choice to marry two women. But, it seems that it was par for the course in their culture (see his grandfather Abraham and his brother Jacob). Were Isaac and Rebecca upset that he got married too late in life? What can we learn about Esau’s motivations to marry these women from the Torah’s reference to his being forty at his weddings?

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, we read that Isaac was also forty years old when he married Rebecca (Genesis 25: 20). To that cannot be the source of their spiritual angst.  In my mind, it seems that Esau desperately wanted to please his father. So much so, that Esau made sure to follow Isaac’s example and get married at the exact same age. I doubt that Isaac and Rebecca cared how old he was when Esau got married. The plain meaning of the text is that Isaac and Rebecca were sad that he did not marry “Jewish”.

As many of us will spend this weekend visiting our parents, I have no doubt that you can relate to the desire to make your parents proud of you. We can learn from this week’s portion how many assumptions we make about what will make our parents happy with us. I hope that we got a chance while we were with them to ask what their aspirations are for our lives. And if you did not, I encourage you to do so before you turn forty, but after forty is also fine. That is not to say that you will agree with your parents, but at least you won’t be misled by illusory goals. Who knows, once we actually end the game of broken telephone with our parents, we might be able to communicate with them. And while this might mean we have to grow up, once we know the rules of the game we might just win.

Bringing Sexy Back

A number of years ago my seminary had the fortune of hosting Dr. Ruth Wertheimer. There she stood in her four-foot-glory towering over us and our embarrassment in talking about sex. She seemed to have an answer to every question that we asked her, but one. I asked her if she has given any thought to the plight of intermarriage in the Jewish community. Her response was that this was our problem. The rabbis would have to deal with it. Was she right? Assuming it is a problem who should be thinking about the solution? Is it just an issue of public policy to be pondered by rabbis and Jewish educators?

Years later, I still think that there is something that a scholar of sex could have to say about what it takes to help a Jew find another Jew sexy. What do we look for in a mate? A common response is that we are looking for a partner who shares our interests and who we find sexy. I would venture to say that we want them to be the same as us, but that what we find them sexy for the very reason that they are different from us.

While it is not the whole answer, I would offer that we take a look at Chayei Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we read how Rebecca and Yitzhak became a couple. While it ends with a very romantic scene of them being in love, the beginning is not exactly a scintillating encounter. Their romance is arranged and contracted before they meet. Avraham demands of his servant,

Swear to me by God, Lord of heaven and earth that you will not take a wife for my son from among the people in whose midst I dwell. Rather go to my land, my birthplace, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak.(Genesis 24:2-3)

The language here is striking: Avraham explicitly uses the terms “Artzi” and “Moladati”, “my land” and “my birthplace,” which God used in the very opening line of Avraham’s story in parashat Lech Lecha: “And God said to Avram: ‘Get up and go out of your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house unto the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). It is a revealing remark; though Avraham has made Canaan his new homeland it is not home. Avraham still views the land that he came from as the appropriate place from where a daughter-in-law should come. Yitzhak has lived his entire life in Canaan but he still falls in love with someone from his father’s home town.

Avraham’s plan is to find his son a mate who has some of his son’s qualities, but whom he will find sexy because she has had a different upbringing. While I would not suggest that we ask our parents to set us up with our prospective mates, I would suggest that we all need to investigate our specific Jewish background. Learning about our family’s background will help clarify our values and the ones we want a partner to help share with the next generation.  I know that none of our backgrounds are as homogeneous as we think. I am not sure how, but I know that we need to figure out how to bring sexy back. Dr. Ruth admitted that she would have to think about it. I would love your thoughts.


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