The Latest from BZBI

Opening Our Embrace

May 23, 2019

This morning’s parashah, Emor, ends with an enigmatic and disturbing story. The Torah tells how a fight broke out in the Israelite camp between one of the Israelites and a man whose mother was Israelite, from the tribe of Dan, but whose father was Egyptian. In the midst of the fight a calamity occurs: the son of the Egyptian curses God’s name. Unsure of what to do, Moses imprisons him until God provides a punishment. In the end, at God’s command, the half-Israelite man is stoned to death.[1]

Our story leaves one crucial question unanswered: what provoked this fight? How did all of this end up unfolding the way it did? Midrash offers answers to these questions – and also guidance about what its deeper meaning might be. As the midrash imagines it, this young man is in the wilderness with the Israelites because, in the face of his mixed heritage, he chose to follow his mother and go with her people, rather than staying in Egypt with his father.[2] Now, as the camp is being organized, he goes to claim a place among the tribe of Dan, his mother’s tribe. The tribal leaders, however, won’t have him; they deny him the right to camp with them because tribal lineage followed the father – and it was his mother who came from their tribe.[3]

Here’s the catch: his father being Egyptian, this guy has no tribe. If he can’t camp with Dan – where he at least has some family connection – he literally can’t camp anywhere. What is he to do? He takes his case to Moses, hoping that Moses will recognize the bind he is in and find a way for him to join the Israelite camp. But Moses, too, sends him away empty-handed. Thus a fight breaks out between this aggrieved half-Israelite and one of the tribesmen of Dan, and in the heat of his anger he curses God’s name.[4]

Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. What do we have here? It’s the story of a person who wants to be part of a community to which he partially belongs, but is not completely “inside.” He is rejected by various members of the social and political establishment; excluded from the group’s activities and social interactions; and in the face of this total repudiation, he responds with a curse. This story reminds me in several ways of how the Jewish community responded to interfaith relationships and marriage throughout much of the 20th century. The prevailing attitude in most Jewish institutions was the kind of all-or-nothing stance that the tribe of Dan takes in the parshah: the Jewish community was for families with two Jewish parents, and any family that included people of other faiths was dangerous, a threat to Judaism’s very survival.

Even when organizations spoke of welcoming, their words were undermined by their basic policies and actions. Despite public statements and pamphlets talking about inclusion and making space for interfaith families, the conversation kept leading back to conversion: we welcome you to be a part of our community… if you change deep fundamental things about yourself to be the way we want you to be. At the same time, the movement’s official policy was to limit membership to Jews; an interfaith couple could only have an individual membership, with mail addressed to only one half of the couple. When there was a family simcha, only the Jewish parent could participate – when the congregation was willing to acknowledge the simcha at all. The net result of all of this was not great: we saw, for decades, interfaith families drifting away from communal involvement. It makes total sense: how hard would I try to be a part of the Jewish community under those circumstances?

We see the same dynamic at play in the parshah. Moses – the ultimate figurehead of Jewish establishment – won’t expand the boundaries of community far enough to include someone who wants to take part but isn’t strictly “in.” The pain and rejection ultimately led him to curse God – the worst possible outcome – and the rabbis assign Moses some culpability for the end result. The story of interfaith families over the past fifty years or so also ends with a curse: a generation or more driven away when synagogues and other organizations turned their backs.

But let’s take seriously for a minute the concerns of earlier Jewish leaders. What must we do to safeguard the future of Jewish life and practice? Is it possible to expand the boundaries of community without compromising our integrity or standards? I believe the answer is yes. Over the course of this year, Tamar Fox, Joline Price, and I have participated in the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative run by InterfaithFamily, a national organization dedicated to “empower[ing] people in interfaith relationships… to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices.” The Leadership Initiative is designed to help all different kinds of organizations – synagogues of all denominations, community organizations, schools, and summer camps – better reach and serve interfaith families together with their established communities. Each month we met with our coach to discuss a new topic, articulate questions for further study, and set goals.

I really appreciate InterfaithFamily’s approach: they focus on raising questions and offering options and strategies. There is no prescribed formula or mandate, no “right answer;” the Leadership Initiative’s design anticipates that these questions are inherently local and must be tailored one-by-one to each organization. Our coach took the time to learn about BZBI’s culture, traditions, needs, and interests, and helped us define our path forward.

For BZBI, as with most Conservative synagogues, our ritual practices were a key area in which we needed to address interfaith inclusion. The Ritual Committee dedicated its January meeting to an InterfaithFamily presentation specifically about ritual issues. Over the following months, alongside its regular business, the Ritual Committee continued to explore and discuss the questions that emerged in the initial presentation. Our deliberations, which included a careful look at halakhah alongside social and organizational considerations, ultimately led us to revise BZBI’s ritual policies. Our goal throughout the process, and especially when it came to our ritual practices, has been to offer a wider embrace for people of other faiths – or no faith at all – who are already part of the BZBI community, as well as all who might come in the future. I am proud of the Ritual Committee’s work on this project, deeply grateful for their sensitivity, compassion, and dedication to our congregation, and I am pleased to be able to share our updated ritual policies with you now.

Our ritual policies are defined around the basic halakhic concept of חיוב, “obligation.” When we perform certain religious actions – such as leading prayer, taking aliyot and reading Torah, or blowing shofar – we are actually doing these things on behalf of the rest of the community. That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew term for a prayer leader, שליח ציבור – the community’s representative. Because we do these things on behalf of the community as a whole, only people who are fully Jewish, by birth or conversion, can participate in these rituals. On the other hand, there are parts of our service – such as English readings and ark openings – that involve no חיוב, no communal representation. We welcome all people to take part in these roles.

Along the way, we encountered two specific cases that didn’t fit neatly within the paradigm: the Torah procession, and the Prayer for Our Country. We wrestled with both – neither involves any חיוב, and yet for different reasons it felt important to have people who are Jewish in those roles. In the case of the Torah procession, the prayers begin with וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן and conclude וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר, both quotes from the Torah’s description of the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant through the wilderness.[5] These verses frame both processions, and indeed the entire Torah service, turning it into a sacred re-enactment of our spiritual history. As such, we felt it was important for the people acting out this holy drama to be people who are fully invested in continuing that heritage.

The Prayer for Our Country raised a different set of issues. There are no halakhic barriers that would stop someone of a different faith from reading that prayer, and yet unlike other English readings, such as the Prayer for Peace, the Prayer for Our Country in our siddurim speaks in explicitly Jewish terms. Many of us felt it was incongruous to ask someone from outside the Jewish community to recite a prayer that begins, “Our God and God of our ancestors,” and goes on to ask that our leaders be granted “insights from Your Torah.” At the same time, we also felt strongly that a prayer for the United States is a prayer in which all Americans have a stake, regardless of their religious identification. We ultimately decided that, on those occasions where someone of a different faith might be asked to read a prayer for the country, we could substitute the Prayer for Justice and Liberty[6] that you will see on the handouts in your Shabbat booklets. I composed this prayer to echo the themes in our siddur’s Prayer for Our Country and to draw on what I think of as part of American sacred scripture: George Washington’s famous letter to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and Emma Lazarus’ immortal poem “The New Colossus.”

Finally, when a Jewish person takes any honor, we welcome family members who identify with other religions, or no religion at all, to accompany them and stand beside them in witness to the sacred ritual moment. We offer this invitation believing, as my teacher Rabbi Aaron Alexander has written, that “Prayer… is most efficacious and profound precisely when it is imbued with the full complexity of our lives, which for so many of us include our essential and celebrated relationships with non-Jews.” We live in a world – and in families – that include a great diversity of people. Guests who have come to celebrate a simcha are part of the family, whether by blood or by choice, and our joy can only be complete with the family complete. The people who are here regularly, even if they are not Jewish themselves, have demonstrated their devotion to our community and a sincere desire to see Judaism flourish. We have a duty to honor that commitment and make appropriate space to include everyone who wants to be part of our community. In doing so, may we have the fortune to turn what could have been a curse into a source of blessing for generations to come.

[1] Lev. 24:10-23.

[2] Ramban, Lev. 24:10. Ramban and Rashi (see below) both draw on a set of midrashim found in Sifra, Vayikra Rabbah, and Shemot Rabbah.

[3] Rashi, Lev. 24:10.

[4] Rashi, Lev. 24:10.

[5] Num. 10:35-36.

[6] On this Day of Rest, we ask blessing for the United States of America, its citizens, residents, and all who seek refuge in this land of liberty. May our President, members of Congress, Justices, and all government officials be granted compassion, wisdom, and courage to ensure our country remains one which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.

Let the ideals of justice and equality on which our nation was founded continue to grow and flourish, and may the lamp beside the Golden Door ever burn bright. Amen.