Our Non-Jewish Spousesby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
For many years I have wanted to give this sermon. Each time I moved toward doing so, I retreated from the task. My fear was that it would backfire. Rather than open doors, people would see me as closing them. So I put off this talk, again and again. There is no time left to hesitate. Perhaps, I have waited too long already. I simply could not conclude my tenure as senior rabbi here without formally addressing our relationship with the non-Jewish spouses among us.
We have a great many interfaith couples in the Temple Shalom family. In some classes of our religious school, 75 percent or more of the students have one parent who is not Jewish. This represents a sea change from the demographic realities that prevailed when my rabbinate began in 1974. It is true that whether we have one non-Jewish parent among us, or whether we have two hundred of these souls or more, it is very important to do what is right by each.
I tried to imagine what I would want of this congregation were I a non-Jewish parent of a child in our school. In truth my ability to imagine this circumstance is very limited. Therefore, one proposal I wish to bring forth tonight is to call a meeting to chat with every non-Jewish adult in our Shalom family. My purpose is to establish a useful, productive dialogue.
I want to be sure I know what it is like to be in your position in this synagogue community. What are the difficulties? What are the pleasures? Where, from your perspective, are we doing what is right? Where are we falling down? What needs are met? Which ones are not?
I am certain that this dialogue will bring forth a wide range of responses. But perhaps enough of a consensus will arise for the leadership of Shalom, especially the rabbis, to gain in wisdom about you.
I know from those conversations I already had with many non-Jewish spouses that you are all hardly in the same place religiously. Among you are found those who are deeply committed to another faith, usually some denomination of Christianity. On the other hand, it is clear to me that some non-Jews here are looking for a faith but have a serious aversion to being proselytized in any way, shape or form. There is a trust gap. Some have been living as Jews for years. Others think of themselves as Jews already, but have never undergone any rites of conversion. And among our non-Jewish spouses will be found a few folks who bear rather strong opposition to the whole idea of organized religion, Judaism included.
Isaiah 56:7 states, "Your house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." Let me repeat that. "Your house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." I believe that. But, given the diverse views about Judaism and about the efficacy and merit of organized religion advocated within the various segments of the non-Jewish members of our Shalom family, just what exactly shall I and others do by way of carrying out this call from the book of Isaiah?
I often wonder how strange must seem the prayers and songs and rituals of this place to someone who previously had little or no exposure to Jewish life and practice. How off-putting must seem bowing before the Ark, trying to touch the sefer Torah as the scroll passes by, and then kissing whatever object one used to make contact with it. How hard must Hebrew seem, how difficult to pronounce those chuffs and chets and tsadis. How off the beaten track must it seem for ones religious institution to have nothing to do with Christmas or Easter? How unfriendly it must seem to hear me speak against placing Christmas trees in homes where Jews live.
I often worry that our non-Jewish spouses may feel insulted by our sanctuary rules restricting their participation in some parts of the service. Although, let me state again that my rules governing the role of the non-Jew at services are meant to make folks feel included. That is why we invite non-Jewish spouses to sit on the bima, lead us in prayer, go to the Ark, open and close the doors, make speeches from our podia, join in our choir, participate in the hakafot, the Torah processions. These are not acts of exclusion. They are acts of inclusion.
Yet, it is true that restrictions apply when it comes to many of the rites involved in the Torah service: holding the Scroll, undressing and dressing it, leading the congregation in reciting the blessings, and, of course, when it comes to reading from Torah.
How shall we make our house "a house of prayer for all peoples" and still practicing Judaism? It is clear from the context of the Isaiah quote that the author had nothing other than the practice of Judaism in mind for that house. So what is meant by this verse?
I guess, at the very least, we Jews at Shalom must begin to respond to the Isaiah passage by never taking for granted you who are not Jews. In many instances, you already made a huge concession by being here in the first place. I have seen how often it is that a non-Jewish spouse takes the lead role in seeing to it that ones children attend services, and religious school and every sort of Temple activity. In many families it is the spouse who is not Jewish who assumes primary responsibility for organizing and encouraging Jewish life at home.
Among those couples in which one member is a committed Christian, I marvel at your willingness to have your children raised as Jews. What a lot is asked of you to accept Brit Milah or Brit Simca Bat, the covenant of circumcision for your son, the entry into the covenant of your daughters? I wonder about how hard it is for you to help raise your children in a different faith from the one that gives so much meaning and definition to your existence.
Since arriving here, it remained my desire to join in creating a most welcoming environment for spouses not of the Jewish faith. But we must find the way to do that while also raising your children to be knowledgeable and committed Jews. There is nothing halfhearted about our desire to do so. We unabashedly seek that every youngster in our school should not only know about Judaism but also live ones life fully as a Jew. Were it otherwise we should shut our doors and disappear from the scene. Yet, Isaiah said, "Your house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." What does it mean to do so?
In addition to making certain that every person feels welcome in this holy room and welcomed with open arms into our congregational family; we must address well the needs of each spouse not of the Jewish faith. We must be welcoming, without engaging in proselytizing practices. If Jews resent approaches taken by Christian missionaries to get Jews to give up their faith and become Christians, it cant be correct for Jews to advance a proselytizing agenda. On the other hand how do we hold to this anti-proselytizing stance while also making sure that all non-Jews among us know that we would welcome them into our faith and peoplehood?
Perhaps rather than offering one answer to this tactically challenging question, many choices should be put forward.
1. If you are against organized religion and you made the biggest concession of your life when you accepted your Jewish spouses membership here, know that the leadership of this congregation appreciates your sacrifice. Know that we shall respect your position. But, should you want to gain a better understanding of the religion of your spouse and of your children, we urge you to communicate that desire to us that it might be addressed. We will not attempt to convert you. We will try to the best of our ability to answer your questions and to do so sensitively and only as fully as you desire.
2. If you have no such need and just dont want anyone bothering you about Jewish learning and experience, I pray that we do not take one step in the wrong direction in regard to our approach to you. Yet, I also pray that should a need arise for comfort and support of any sort, that we offer it, and where desired, provide it.
3. If you are not Jewish and not actively affiliated with another faith group, and If you are inclined to go on an exploration of Judaism, but you possess no desire whatever to convert, just tell that to me or Rabbi Serotta or Rabbi Feshbach or Cantor Tasat or our director of religious education, JoHanna Potts. We shall see to it and help you to fulfill this goal.
4. If you are unaffiliated with any other faith group and you want to explore Judaism with an idea of possibly converting, know, of course, that the rabbis of this congregation welcome that exploration and shall be delighted to guide you all the way through the conversion process, should you make that choice. At the moment, I am working with twelve individuals who are exploring conversion.
5. There are two more groups of non-Jewish spouses I want to address: those who consider themselves to be already Jewish and those who are committed to another faith, such as a denomination within Christianity.
A. Those of you who live as Jews and have done so for a great many years, I encourage to revel in who you have become and use the procedures and ceremony of conversion to celebrate your choice. Let us welcome you formally into the covenant, take a Hebrew religious name and rejoice!
B. Those among the members of our congregational family who happily adhere to the beliefs, values and practices of another faith group, it is especially necessary that a dialogue take place between us. Let Cantor Tasat, Rabbi Serotta, Rabbi Feshbach and I address the issues that just wont go away with you and your spouses:
How does one resolve constructively the issue of ones child not sharing the strong faith of one of the parents, of what is so essential for you to believe and to do? I strongly encourage this dialogue even though answers may vary in accord with the personalities and backgrounds and denominations of the folks involved. Indeed, a liberal Presbyterian will not come from the same Christian place as a Southern Baptist, who wont come from the same Christian place as a Roman Catholic, who wont come from the same Christian place as a Mormon, who wont come from the same Christian place as a Missouri Synod Lutheran.
Let me emphasize that when we chat, individually or in groups, I will make no assumptions about you, other than that you matter enormously.
Are non-Jewish spouses in our Temple family welcome to learn more about Judaism? You bet! Will we try to help you figure out just what it means to be a synagogue affiliated interfaith family? Without a doubt! Will we welcome any and all explorations of Judaism whether or not one has thoughts of conversion? Yes indeed! Will we welcome into the Jewish faith and people those among our non-Jewish spouses who decide to go that route? We will welcome you completely! Will we proselytize anyone? Not a chance! Will we do all we know to do to respect and honor those in our midst who are spouses committed to a faith other than Judaism? Yes! I believe it would be a violation of Jewish ethics and the lessons of Jewish history to do otherwise. We shall honor and respect you and your faith!
Will we schedule these dialogues and then try continually to find the ways to enable non-Jewish members of our family to be properly loved and made comfortable within these walls? As God is our witness, so may it be! And in so doing may we give life and meaning to Isaiahs call to us throughout the generations: "For My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples."