24 July 2007

Shmuley Gets It!

Now I've also read the piece by Shmuely Boteach that was also linked to on the IFF blog.

Here it is, with my comments following:

Stop Ostracizing Those Who Marry Out

Posted July 22, 2007 | 09:04 PM (EST)

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This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week's in New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant, orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my forth year at the University as Rabbi in 1992. He and I quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject - Jewish or secular - upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week and I made Noah a kind of secondary Rabbi at our L'Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching. His resume easily made him one of the most accomplished young students in the entire Western world. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about eighteen months, which may or may not be a University record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a Yarmulke. A student that gifted was a natural leader to others and was looked up to by so many of the other students. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah's incredible ability to lein (read with its proper notes) any section of the Torah for our student Synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his class mates that he was now dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend came in turn to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner. My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, however, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours who was a Rabbi in Noah's life essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah's orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was only his family if he made choices with which we agreed.

I took a different view. Of course I wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance in his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before he got married I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we are friends and that my affection for him would never change. I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children were Jewish would never change his own personal status as a Jew and that, as a scholar of world standing, I knew he would do great things with his life and that he would should always put the needs of the Jewish people first.
Till today we remain good friends. I admire and respect Noah and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his thirties, to become one of the youngest ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the constitutional consultant for the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as the youngest academic superstar in the United States.
How tragic, therefore, that his article in the New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva on a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in Fiddler on the Roof. The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately fifty percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny they idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to Synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzos on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believed that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our Biblically-mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew who is married to a Jew would look favorably at the possibility of becoming halakhically Jewish if they witness orthodox Jews treating their husband or wife as pariahs?

I am proud today to call Noah my friend. I do my best to reiterate to him the message that, amid marrying out, we are proud of his achievements and need his participation in Jewish organizational life, especially given the immense clout he carries in academic circles. And it is my fervent hope that, given the love and respect that we show him, he will choose to show his wife and two children the glories of the tradition he knows so well with a view toward impressing upon them a desire to have them join in our eternal faith.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who served as Rabbi at Oxford for 11 years, is a national TV host and the author, most recently, of 'Shalom in the Home' (Meredith). www.shmuley.com

And my comments:

Yasher koach (well done!), Shmuley!

I knew you were a mensch when I met you at Oxford (my husband M. and I were Rhodes Scholars from '95-'98, and saw you again at Shmully Hecht's son bris in New Haven after our return to the U.S.--you'd know me as Becca B.), even if my Jewish involvement was primarily with the Oxford Jewish Community (including its then-nascent Masorti minyan, which has now been going strong for over 10 years) rather than with the L'Chaim Society (where I did sometimes show up for dinner and at least 2 of your debates, w/a Reform rabbi & a 'Messianic Jewish rabbi').

I was pleased to hear that you'd made sure that the Torah got 'round to the women's side during Simchat Torah festivities at the L'Chaim Society -- that when others tried to keep it away from or take it back from my fellow North American female Rhodes Scholar (she's now a rabbi in NYC, as is her wife--who is a Jew by Choice), you made sure she got to hold on to it.

I was impressed when I heard that you'd written a recommendation for another female friend in her (successful) application for rabbinical school at Leo Baeck -- the story (you can say if it's true or apocryphal) was that, when challenged by someone who couldn't see how you, an Orthodox rabbi, would support a woman's application to a liberal rabbinic seminary, you'd said "What, I should prefer that she be a cocktail waitress?!"

I found both your article here & Noah's essay via the Interfaith Family (IFF) blog. I have a vested interest, even though I'm not intermarried myself: I was raised as a Nice Jewish Girl by my Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, and dated and got engaged to a Nice Non-Jewish Boy who could handle being a supportive part of a Jewish family as my father had done.

Then he decided to become Jewish, surprising us both (we'd known each other for 10 years, we'd been a couple for 8; nice to still be able to have surprises!) and enriching our lives immensely.

In his year of studying for conversion we couldn't have been luckier in our companions: we learned from amazing friends who were exploring their own Judaism, intellectually, ritually and spiritually.

3 are now rabbis; one is a Jewish studies professor and co-founded the Hadar independent minyan in NYC; another is a professor of philosophy at a prominent university and has 2 adorable daughters with his non-Jewish wife, whose Jewish wedding (with chuppah and ketubah) we joyfully attended.

Virtually all of them have non-Jews in their Jewish family life -- as in-laws; as partners or spouses; as parents -- and only one grew up in a traditionally observant (Conservative, as it happens) Jewish home.

You're 100% correct that we're not going to enhance anyone's Jewish life or our Jewish community by ostracizing those who have non-Jews in their family (as partners, parents, what have you) or those who are non-Jews who have chosen to make their lives with someone Jewish.

Ruth said "Your people shall be my people" before she said "and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). Anyone who has committed his or her life to being with someone Jewish (a spouse, a child, a parent) is living Ruth's words: "Whither thou goest, I shall go; whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge." Our people ARE their people (but need not be their ONLY people!)--and we should acknowledge, indeed celebrate, that they have gone beyond their "mother's house" (Ruth 1:8) and the "land of your birth, and have come to a people you did not know before" (Ruth 2:11).

These wonderful people--whose Jewish family and partners treasure them, and who have cast their lot with those Jewish family members and partners--are living the commitment "your God, my God." They may mean it in its universalistic or metaphorical sense--"we share the same Divine Source and force, the same ideals"--but by the very lives they have chosen, whether they live as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, agnostics, humanists, you name it, they are sharing their highest values and ethical selfhood with the Jews in their families. Their God is my God.

If some of them choose to make that statement a particular Jewish one rather than a universalistic one--to worship not only the same deity but in the same words, with the same texts, at the same seasons that the Jewish people do and have done; to embrace Judaism for themselves after having embraced it as the faith or background of someone they love--that's up to them. But our love and respect and welcome should never be contingent upon this choice.

I love my father and am glad that he is who he is. I love my husband and am glad that he is who he is. This Shabbat, my mother and husband and I, as adult Jewish members of our community, will be called up to the Torah (which both M. and I will read from); my friend K. and her 13-year-old daughter will hopefully be called up as well. My father, K.'s husband, and my brother's fiancee will be there with us at Shabbat services: some of them will read prayers in English on behalf of this community of worshippers. They are not Jews -- but they are part of our Jewish families, offering their prayers in Jewish space [the synagogue] and Jewish time [Shabbat morning] on behalf of this Jewish community, of which they are an important part.

They are not second-bests who should have been pushed aside for a Jewish partner but can perhaps be tolerated, now that they're unavoidably and permanently here.

They are not threats to Jewish community or Jewish continuity--in fact, they all have raised or intend to raise children who are exclusively Jewish in faith.

My people is their people; my God, their God.

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