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Hineini: Celebrating Jewish Choices

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

NOTE: This is the sermon that I delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5778 (2017). It gives the thinking behind my decision to begin officiating at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner.


In ancient times, long before they were synagogues or rabbis or prayerbooks, there was the shofar.

In those days, the shofar was sounded outdoors, in the Temple courtyard at the centre of Jerusalem. And it was meant to call the people to be present. When there was threat of war, the shofar was sounded and the people would come together to serve their nation. At festival times, it called them to gather at the Temple and celebrate. And at the New Year, it summoned them to be present because the holiest day of the year was approaching.

The High Holy Days are a time when we are called upon to be present – both physically and spiritually. The shofar calls us to mindful awareness. And the Torah portions for the High Holy Days reflect this idea as well. Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeida – the very challenging story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. Three times during that passage the patriarch’s name is called – once by God, once by Isaac, and once by an angel. And each time, Abraham answers “Hineini.”

The word Hineini literally means “Here I am.” But it signifies much more than a physical location. It is, according to Rabbi Gershom Barnard, a statement of “openness and responsiveness” to the other.[1] When Abraham says Hineini – to his son, to God, to anybody – he is saying “I am here with you and here for you.” He is opting into a relationship.

The Torah portion for this morning also speaks to that act of opting into relationship – this time on a communal level. In this parashah, our people are standing all together in the wilderness, and Moses says to them:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Today, ALL of you stand before Adonai your God.
Men, women and children. Chieftains, wood choppers and water drawers. Even the stranger who lives among us.

And in so doing, he says, by being present today you enter into covenant.

This is a description of our people saying Hineini – entering into a relationship with God and with each other. One of the most powerful things about this parashah is how careful it is to make clear that the covenant includes everybody who is present – regardless of gender, occupation, socioeconomic status. Even regardless of religious or ethnic background, since the ger, the non-Jew is included as well. This is a purposeful choice. It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – We stand together, everyone whose mother is Jewish.” Or “Atem nitzavim, everyone who keeps kosher and had a Bar Mitzvah.” It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – “Everyone who eats bagels and knows how to swear in Yiddish” (though I’d like to read that Torah). It says that we all stand together – all of us who have chosen to be here.

In order to fully grasp the power of this statement, we have to recognize the fundamental truth that Jewish life is a choice. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially true in the 21st century. Alan Dershowitz writes that “we are witnessing a significant diminution of the external factors that have traditionally” kept Jews insulated.[2] In past ages, anti-Semitic social exclusion and sometimes even legal requirement made sure that Jews essentially stayed within the Jewish community. But in 2017, there are no outside forces compelling us to affiliate or participate in Judaism. To be sure, we might feel guilt (most of us do have Jewish mothers after all). We might feel family pressure or social pressure. We might feel the weight of history. But at the end of the day, all of us are Jews by choice.

On the one hand, that’s a scary thought. Because it means that all of this is entirely voluntary – any one of us could simply stand up, walk out that door, and never return. And lots of people have. That’s why the Jewish community has been obsessing over this for 20 years – organizing conferences on “Jewish continuity,” and writing articles about the threat of assimilation.

But the other side of that same coin is the recognition that if Jewish life is entirely a choice, that means that millions of us are making that choice every single day.

That is something to celebrate.

Every person in this room represents someone who has chosen to participate in Jewish life. Every member of every synagogue and JCC, every donor to Federation or JNF, represents someone who has opted into Jewish community. And so, by the way, does every candle lit on a Friday night, and every dreidel that is spun, and every Seder plate that is lifted, and every child who is called to the Torah, AND…every couple that stands under a chuppah.

I believe that the role of the Jewish community in the 21st century is to celebrate and nurture Jewish choices – to recognize when individuals are saying Hineini, are saying “Here we are,” and to say Hineini right back to them. And along those lines, I’d like to talk to you about a change that I have decided to make in my rabbinic practice.

Over the course of my time in the rabbinate, I have been approached a number of times by couples who were seeking to be married in a Jewish ritual – who wanted to stand under a chuppah, to say prayers in Hebrew, and to be married by a rabbi – even though one of the partners was not Jewish. Up until now, I have always politely said no to officiating those ceremonies. Starting now, in many circumstances, I plan to say yes.

Saying yes to those weddings comes from a place of wanting to acknowledge – in fact, wanting to celebrate – the couple’s Jewish choice. It comes out of a firm conviction that interfaith families are Jewish families, especially when they are welcomed in and given the tools they need to live Jewish lives. And it comes out of my belief that opening our doors wider, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, is the best way both to nurture Jewish families and to build a Jewish future.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. This idea has been present in Judaism since the very first Jews.

The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah would keep their tent open on all sides so that they could greet guests and welcome them. They did so because Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the stranger – is a fundamental Jewish value. But it turns out that it was also a pretty good way to build their tribe. The Torah says that when Abraham and Sarah first arrived in the land of Israel, they already had with them a whole group of people who had been welcomed in, with whom they had shared food and learning and ritual, and who had committed themselves to Jewish life and to the Jewish future.

In other words, the sharing of ritual and learning became an opportunity to foster a longer-term relationship through which people came to say “Hineini,” through which people opted to become part of the community. Of course, in those days people mostly converted to Judaism in order to opt in. And that’s often still the case. But more and more, we are blessed to have individuals who join our synagogues, who marry Jews and raise Jewish children, and who are seeking to be participants in Jewish life, but for whatever reason do not want to become Jewish themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all the ways that those individuals are opting in. Abraham and Sarah’s approach teaches us that by saying yes, by engaging them, and learning with then, we can foster a relationship.

And interestingly enough, what the Patriarchs knew 3000 years ago has been corroborated much more recently by sociological data. Major surveys of the American Jewish population (since we don’t have any similar data yet in Canada), show that there has been an important shift in the habits of intermarried families over the last 25 years. I learned from Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University that in 1990, only 26% of all intermarried couples that included a Jew were raising their children Jewish[3], but by 2013, the number had risen to 63%[4] – nearly 2/3 of those couples considered themselves to be raising their children as Jews.

That is a startling shift in 23 years – from 26% to 63%. So what changed during the interim? Among other things, the Jewish community shifted significantly in its attitude toward interfaith families. Led largely by the leadership of the Reform movement, congregations started working to become more inclusive, and to shift the discourse from the threat of intermarriage to welcoming interfaith families. And in turn, interfaith families began to opt in – to congregational membership, to religious school, to other forms of participation in Jewish life. In other words, when the community opened its door to them, they said “Hineini.” They said, “Here we are.”

Our congregation has been doing that kind of work as well. For years now, we have been thoughtfully exploring what it means to us to be an inclusive and welcoming community – through study sessions, and sermons, and Scholar in Residence weekends. Our Interfaith Committee, which many of you are aware of, is another very important manifestation of this valuable work. They have been working for a year now to learn about the experience of our members – both interfaith and otherwise. And they will be leading us in a series of discussions about community, ritual, and governance matters starting October 14. (The outcomes of these discussions, by the way, are not in any way determined. That’s why we need to have the discussions.)

I’m proud that Kol Ami has put inclusiveness at the centre of its identity. My decision – to officiate at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner – is one piece of a much larger puzzle, as we work to figure out our congregational approach to these important questions.

So let me tell you some of the specifics of what I’m planning.

First, I’m not making a blanket statement that I’ll officiate every wedding. I’ll have to work with couples individually to determine if what they’re interested in is what I do. I plan to perform a Jewish ceremony, one that includes the basic rituals and symbols of the traditional Jewish wedding, though with some of the language changed a bit to make it appropriate to a mixed couple). And I don’t intend to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy or to perform weddings that include blended religious symbols or rituals. But even more important than all of that, I want to take a page out of Abraham and Sarah’s playbook – I want to have the ritual be an opportunity for a relationship. Each time I perform a wedding, I will have spent the year before that wedding meeting with the couple, engaging in study, having important conversations – about Judaism and about what it is to build a home together. And at the same time I’ll be asking them to be part of the congregation, encouraging them to attend services and immerse themselves in the community. My hope is that we can transform a 20 minute ceremony into a lifetime of Jewish living and learning.

I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to remove conversion from the table as an option. Becoming Jewish is a beautiful process and a deeply personal decision. I look forward to continuing to work with those who choose that journey into becoming part of Am Yisrael, part of the people of Israel. At the same time, though, I believe that there should be an option for those for are seeking to be part of Jewish life, but for whom conversion is not the right decision.

Now I know that this is a big change. I know there will be questions and concerns, or you may just want to talk to me about how I made this decision and what it means. So I want to invite you to please reach out to me. You can call or email or make an appointment. I look forward to talking to you about it.

I have to share with you how excited I am about this change. I think it reflects the values our congregation; and for me personally, it truly feels like an expression of my beliefs and my rabbinic conscience. I believe that we have the chance to welcome and engage families who might otherwise feel marginalized, and to give them the tools to lead rich Jewish lives as part of a welcoming synagogue. And at the same time, to enrich our congregational life in immeasurable ways by embracing those who choose to stand beside us on this journey. As it says in this morning’s Torah portion: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.We stand – all of us – as one community.

There is a widely circulated story about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently his practice was to give a sermon to the class each Monday, and then assign one of the students to give a sermon on the same parashah that Friday. And he was well known for his blistering criticism of every sermon.
So one Monday a particularly creative student copied down Rabbi Kaplan’s sermon word for word, and when Friday came, he simply delivered it back exactly as it had been given. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “Rabbi, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” And Dr. Kaplan responded, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

As Jews, we are always growing and evolving. Always reaching towards new understandings, and striving for new answers to ancient questions.

This year, may we recognize that our community also grows in strength, with each new voice that is welcomed into it.

May we, like our ancestors, hear the call of the shofar as an invitation to be present for one another, to reach out to those who are sharing in this Jewish journey with us.

And may we say Hineini – may we say “Here I am” – to each other and to the Jewish future.


NOTES:

[1] http://www.nhs-cba.org/RH2-HereIAm.htm.

[2] Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew. Page 29.

[3] National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

[4] Pew Survey of American Jewry, 2013.

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