I am sure you have heard the saying "Its hard to be a Jew", it is even harder to be a rabbi. Trying to balance our loyalty to tradition while at the same time maintaining a modern sense of what is right and wrong causes lots of internal conflicts. Internal ones are often the most challenging.
Not long ago, a young man I had been helping to overcome a difficult past and build a brighter future came to me asking me to officiate at his wedding to a woman who was not Jewish. Part of me wanted very much to share this special moment with him, though the other part of me did not want to betray my duty, which is to preservbe the Jewish past and create a promising Jewish future.
Whether or not to officiate at an intermarriage has become the hot button issue in the Conservative movement. Though it remains prohibited, under pain of expulsion from the movement, it is now a subject of debate and discussion. Emails are now being exchanged as to the pros and cons of changing the status quo.
There are several issues involved. The big question is "Is it good for the Jews?" Does officiating at intermarriages enhance our Jewish faith by making the Jewish people stronger? Does not officiating push away the Jewish partner as well as the non-Jewish one who may want to be involved?
Are we telling people by our presence that it makes no difference who you marry? Statistics are not helpful in solving this dilemma, the Pew study suggests that who officiates makes no difference in future affiliation, other studies say that it does make a difference.
Many see the rising rates of intermarriage as a a rising tide, with no foreseeable way to stem the tide. This attitude is sort of " just make our peace with it." I would like to point out that that is not necessarily the case.
There are still many Jews young and old that make great efforts and even great sacrifices to find a Jewish partner. Why should the Conservative movement betray these efforts? I am surprised that the rate of intermarriage among Conservative affiliated Jews is only 39%, this in a society that views the blending and mixing of groups and cultures as an ideal. Perhaps the fact that some rabbis will not officiate is sending a good message to be sending.
There is however one thing the statistics agree on i.e. the overwhelming majority of grandchildren of intermarried couples do not consider themselves Jewish.
Judaism however affirms that not only the individual is important the group is important as well. Our faith and our people represent something unique, i.e. a covenant with God that has been embodied by a particular people and has been passed on generation to generation since remote antiquity. Within this culture lie the deepest lessons that are the foundations of morality and humanity for Western civilization.
There are also those who consider endogamy akin to racism. For Jews as a tiny but important minority it is not about devaluing others. It is about continuing the unique culture, beliefs and heritage of Judaism and the Jewish people.
What are we to do? We all know many intermarried couples who have beautiful marriages and wonderful families. If one partner is not Jewish they should be warmly welcomed into our synagogues. If they want to join the Jewish journey by converting to Judaism that should be encouraged. If they choose not to we must make sure that the faith and identity of the none Jewish partner is fully acknowledged and respected.
As this is an issue within the Conservative movement I would respectfully ask my Conservative friends and colleagues to consider this step carefully. For the past several generations the Conservative movement has attempted to make Judaism easier , more pleasant and more in tune with societal values.
Ask yourself has this generated more loyalty, stronger faith, more observance of Mitzvot, more study of Torah? The movement now is close to an all time low in numbers and as a percentage of the American Jewish community and faces Today Conservative Judaism faces a troubled future. If the lessons and practices of Judaism are essentially the same set of values that characterize secular society, what does Jewish practice and identity add?
I have been teaching the siddur to members of my congregation and came up with the following question, how do you see God, that is what metaphor do you use to describe God other than King and Father or perhaps mother? Is God a doctor? lawyer? accountant? teacher? auto mechanic? or perhaps a techno-geek?
Well if you picked teacher you chose the right answer. Whether or not He is a member of the UFT is however not yet known. How do we know God is a teacher? The answer in simply and obviously stated in the Siddur in the second bracha (blessing) before the Shema of Shacharit we read "For their (our ancestors) sake graciously teach us...grant us discernment and understanding... then we will study Your Torah heed its' precepts and follow its' instruction and fulfill in love all of its' teachings. Open our eyes to your Torah, help our hearts cleave to its Mitzvot" In Ma'ariv the evening service there are similar sentiments. "With constancy You loved Your people Israel teaching us Torah and Mitzvot statues and laws."
God is a teacher and our relationship with Him is that of teacher and student. God needs to have the qualities of a teacher. The first one is patience which means never giving up on a student no matter how miserable a student he or she is. It is also to see the relationship with the student as a process and not an event. The good teacher loves the student even if it occasionally means being strict.
God as teacher is a great metaphor. It is hardly talked about or mentioned. It explains the emphases on intellectual learning that we Jews have, what we Jews are known for. It often fits a lot better than all that "father and king stuff". If we think of Him as teacher it all begins to make sense.
My thought for the day is that as we go through our daily experiences we try to discover what our Teacher is trying to teach us.
The following is a response I wrote to the Staten Island Advance article entitled " Is circumcision an expression of religious faith - or mutilation of children?"
I was quite taken aback to see the article condemning circumcision by anti-circumcision activist Ronald Goldman that appeared on Sept 9. The article was filled with half truths and distortions as well as outright falsehood.
Circumcision on the eighth day in Judaism is mandated by the Torah as an outward sign of the covenant between G-d and the descendents of Abraham. It is a religious ritual that has been practiced for close to four thousand years. In all of the many generations the negative effects of circumcision Dr. Goldman mentions have not been observed. If what Dr. Goldman claims was true, groups where circumcision is prevalent would have elevated rates of "disrupted bonding between parent and child, sexual anxieties , reduced emotional expression, low self esteem, avoidance of intimacy and depression" as well as the various other ills that Goldman cites, in comparison with groups that do not practice circumcision. This has not been observed.
I have been present at many circumcision ceremonies and have found them to be beautiful and deeply emotional experiences expressing the continuation of our ancient covenant with God to yet another generation. Having myself been what Dr. Goldman what deem a "victim" of circumcision I can testify that I live a reasonably contented and successful life despite all the supposed dire consequences he predicts. In addition I am both proud and honored to continue the traditions of our ancestor Abraham and our Jewish faith. The covenant with God symbolized by circumcision is one of the most sacred practices of Judaism and any attempts to defame or infringe upon it must be viewed with the utmost seriousness.
My interest is in circumcision as a religious ritual. I leave medical judgements to the medical profession. In that context it is worth noting that the American Academy of
Pediatrics has recommended circumcision of male infants on medical grounds.
Rabbi Gerald Sussman
Recently a delegation that included a large number of Muslim religious leaders visited Auschwitz and Birkenau under the auspices of the UN. It was reported that they were moved by the reality of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. This was an important visit because of widespread denial of the Holocaust by various figures in the Muslim world.
I am beginning to feel hopeful about the so called peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. For the first time the real issue is on the table. The whole conflict isn't about borders or settlements or anything like that. It is about the legitimacy of Israels sovereignty in any part of what was once called Palestine. The Arabs seem to agree on a certain narrative. They see the Jews as outsiders, as Europeans who because of their persecution in Europe came to Palestine and stole the Arabs' country. If one sees the Jewish presence as a kind of colonialism it would be an injustice to acquiesce to its existence. Thus groups like the Hamas are opposed to negotiations while more "moderate" groups look at negotiations as mere ways of obtaining advantage for future conflicts.
You therefore hear statements such as those made by Helen Thomas saying that the Jews ought to go back to Poland or wherever else they came from and leave the Palestinians alone, or those of a Gazan interviewed on TV who said that the Jews indeed have a right to their own country but that it should be in Europe.
When Netanyahu raises the issue of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state that is precisely the issue being addressed. If the Palestinians are willing to concede this point the road is perhaps open to solve the other issues. If they cannot admit that the Jewish presence in what they call Palestine is rightful the conflict cannot and should not end. Yesterday I read that Palestinian schools were introducing textbooks that put together by a Swedish group that presented both the Israeli and the Arab view of the conflict. That is the most encouraging thing I've heard regarding peace in a long time.
The unfavorable portrayal of Israel in the media is neither innocent nor accidental. It is part of the Arab effort to eliminate the Jewish state, anon-Arab presence on Arab soil. The message given is that Israel like apartheid South Africa or some European colony is based on the expulsion and oppression of its original inhabitants the Arabs and therefore does not have a right to exist as an independent nation among nations.
Five reasons for Israel’s legitimacy:
Jews are descendants of the ancient inhabitants of the land of Israel. Jews were not colonial settlers, but people returning to the land of their ancestors. There is a strong cultural continuity between the Jews of ancient time and the present. Present day genetic testing shows that Jews of Europe are genetically a Mediterranean people and are genetically dissimilar from the Europeans.