There are times in my life when being a rabbi and being a musician come together to create an opportunity to experience holiness in unexpected and profound ways. Such an opportunity came to me last Sunday, when I had the remarkable experience of performing in an interfaith concert with five other musicians and singers at the LA County Men’s Central Jail. Read more →
What an extraordinary week it was for all of us. Ten different religious institutions joining together to celebrate the values that we cherish and hold in common. A week-long gathering of men, women and children willing to share their most cherished hopes and prayers, wrestle together over what each of us means by respect and integrity, how each of us can better live our lives consistent with the values of loving our neighbors, doing good works, showing kindness to each other, demonstrating the courage of our convictions, and allowing the beautiful harmony of our sacred music to lift our souls to the heavens. Read more →
I had the privilege this evening of speaking at the Hillcrest Country Club to members of the club who had gathered for their annual United Jewish Fund dinner. They gather each year at a formal dinner and make their financial commitments to support the much-needed work of the organized Jewish community of Los Angeles. Read more →
Tears and hope, fears and resolve, profound sadness and fierce determination – that is the mood in Israel this week. How ironic that this week’s double Torah portion is called “Akharay mot/Kedoshim”, which translates as “After death-Holiness.” Read more →
It was one of those difficult weeks where nearly every day I received a phone call about either a sudden death in the community or someone who had just discovered one form of cancer or another and was struggling with the “Why me?” question and the fear of death staring them in the face. It was also a week where I was reminded nearly every day of why Judaism places so much emphasis on the power of community as the foundation of our religious identity. Read more →
I have thought often about where Didi and I were exactly a year ago, the last time we read this week’s Torah portion – on Safari in Kenya. How incredibly far from this world of ours with it’s hustle and bustle, cars and pollution and gadgets. Read more →
This week is one of the least popular bar or bat mitzvah portions in all the Torah. It is filled with laws for how to recognize and treat leprosy when it is found on one’s body, one’s clothes or in one’s home. Most kids are a bit squeamish about skin diseases so they search for anything else in the portion that they might talk about. Read more →
“What is your favorite thing to eat on Passover?” I asked a group of religious school kids last week. “Matzah!” they cried almost in unison. And then the voices of clarification began to appear: “Actually, it’s Matzah with peanut butter and jelly that I take to school for lunch,” one child said. “Matzah brei for breakfast” another child countered. “French toast is out, Matzah brei is in” he proclaimed. “I love chocolate covered Matzah the best,” another responded (and of course I had to agree with that brilliant child). Read more →
We are living in scary times. Bombs are being dropped and guided missiles sent to the heart of Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, young men and women from across the United States and Great Britain are stepping into deadly combat even as you read these words. They are bravely staring the uncertainty of death in the face, putting their lives and the future of their families on the line to defend the ideal of freedom, justice and security for all. Read more →
A conversation between Rabbi Reuben and “Mary”
(Names in correspondence have been changed to protect privacy)
Sent: Thursday, August 20, 2009
To:* Rabbi Reuben
Subject:* Advice: Dealing with Feelings of Failure in Marrying Out
My name is Mary. I’m from Kentucky and went to Catholic school-although neither my family nor I are religious. My boyfriend, Ben, is Jewish. Both of his parents are Jewish, his father is Israeli and his mother is American. They have a very secular household, but they identify themselves as Jews- Jewish culture is everything to them.
We have approximately the same moral values and view of god. Our relationship has been termed “interfaith”, but our problems are not a matter of faith-I think they’re a matter of race/culture.
Our relationship has gotten really serious and we are very much in love. I’m doing all I can to embrace his culture- I’ve spent 7 months with him in Israel- celebrating holidays with him and reading books about Judaism and learning Hebrew. I’m really enjoying getting an insight into another culture and religion. I love Israel and I like the values in Judaism- with the exception of the ‘exclusiveness’ aspect.
However, he’s having a hard time embracing my family and my heritage. He can’t seem to face it. Now that we’re thinking aboutthe future and I’m pressing for him to make time for my family, his prejudice is showing through. He’s terrified that he won’t fit in with my family and he has all these preconceived notions of them- like the way they would act or what they would think.
We went through some of the questions last night from your book, A Non-judgemental Guide to Interfaith Marriage. He opened up and told me that he feels he’s settling or will fail by marrying a non-Jew- like he didn’t try hard enough to find a Jewish girl. Also, he feels his Jewish identity is threatened by marrying out. Is this what is taught?
Is there anything we can do? Have you dealt with this in the past? We’d both really appreciate any help/insight you can give us.
Thank you so much for you time,
I am happy to help you any way that I can. The kind of ambivalent feelings that Noah has been feeling are not unusual for Jews who are involved with “interfaith” relationships, especially Israelis. Part of the challenge is that although religious identity both for Christians and Jews is composed of the three B’s – Believing, Belonging and Behaving – for Christians the foundation is “belief” and the “behaviors” such as going to church or celebrating holidays and the like are expressions of that belief, for Jews our identity grows not primarily out of “belief” but rather “Belonging” to the Jewish people.
It is what most people call “culture” and reflects the fact that Judaism is in truth not a religion in the narrow sense of a system of belief, but rather the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people with language, literature, art, music, food and all the full range of any civilization. We are like a family and we experience our identity as part of that large Jewish family that stretches back to Abraham and Sarah in the Bible and continues down to this day. That is especially true for Jews raised in Israel since the sense of belonging to the Jewish people and being responsible for its continuing survival is deeply impressed in the Israeli psyche as a remnant of the Holocaust. When you marry someone Jewish or become part of the Jewish people by choice (conversion) as an adult, you are also becoming part of this historical sense of belonging to a community and people that has experienced the anti-Semitism and discrimination of the past several thousand years (especially from the Christian world, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Holocaust).
It is a painful reality that Jews even today on some level all live in the shadow of the ugliness and pain of the past, but true nonetheless. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a loving, nurturing, spiritual life partnership with Ben because the world is filled with lots of interfaith marriages and relationships that are successful. My congregation is probably at least a third interfaith relationships and they have all found ways of creating their own unique religious lifestyles that work for them. I have a number of video blogs that you can see on http://www.interfaithfamily.com/ or even on my own not completed website http://www.interfaithrabbi.com that might be helpful as you work through all these personal issues.
I’m happy to offer whatever advice I can and do want you to know that liberal Judaism does not teach exclusivity or that Jews are better than anyone else and in fact my version of Judaism specifically rejects the idea of exclusive chosenness of the Jewish people and teaches that all people choose their own unique answers to the same fundamental questions of life and one isn’t better than another.
Anyway, let me know if there are specific issues I can help you with.
Thank you so much for your advice. Now that Noah and I are discussing this more, the issue is becoming even more hurtful and seemingly hopeless.
We’re caught in this cycle and I don’t know how to break it. He admits that he has issues with me and my family not being Jewish- that he always pictured himself marrying a Jewish girl. I get upset and feel like he wants something different than me. He consoles me by telling and showing me that he loves me and only me. I try to forget the Jewish thing because I know and believe he loves me. Then I’m reminded that we don’t share this huge thing that’s important to him and I’m back to being upset.
I don’t know how or if this cycle is breakable. I feel like this is something he can’t change about himself, but I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t want to hang on and get even more hurt, but I don’t want to let go. So I have some questions that I’m not sure you can answer…
How do I know if he can change? Knowing that he doesn’t think I’m worthy enough to marry, breaks my heart and the fact that it’s because of my cultural background makes it so much worse. How can you carry on a relationship like this? How do you take away the resentment he feels for my people because of the threat they pose to his people and the separation that comes with that? How is it that love doesn’t erase this by itself? How do I not take this all personally? How do you break up with someone when you know that they love you and you love them?
I really don’t know who else to turn to on this.
Rabbi Reuben wrote:
Mary my dearest,
My heart breaks for you reading your pain and suffering as you contemplate the implications of Noah’s attitude about Judaism and its role in your life. However, I think it is a mistake for you to equate Noah growing up always picturing himself marrying a Jewish girl and having a Jewish home and family with Noah not seeing you as “worthy enough to marry.’ I don’t think those are the same at all and I certainly have had lots of experience with interfaith couples where one person’s childhood images and fantasies come in conflict with his or her adult reality of actually finding the person they love. Sometimes you can over intellectualize and over analyze the implications of your partner’s childhood assumptions. There are one’s dreams and expectations growing up and there is the reality of life that we encounter, embrace and love and they are very often not the same at all.
Having said that, what is important to a successful relationship, whether same faith or interfaith is that you are a partnership and that you feel you are on the same team and same side with one another. If you love each other and want to be together and create a life together, you can. If you are both willing to put you relationship as number one in priority in your life and see it and each other as the most important things in your life then the differences between you can be accommodated and incorporated into your life together. Either way you will be creating your own unique religious lifestyle together and the degree to which you incorporate religious ritual and custom and tradition into your lives is up to you. I encourage couples to see their own religious backgrounds as the spiritual, cultural resources of their lives from which they can draw upon to help give a greater sense of purpose, meaning and belonging. Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people with language, literature, art, music, food, a shared cultural history and sense of values and ethics. It is not belief but rather “belonging” to the Jewish people that is the primary force that gives Jews their sense of identity. In general Christianity is based more on specific beliefs and the behaviors of Christianity like going to church or celebrating a holiday are expressions of one’s beliefs. In Judaism, the behaviors we embrace, whether holidays, life-cycle rituals, Jewish foods, visiting Israel, going to a synagogue service are all ways of reinforcing our sense of belonging to the Jewish people and family. Those are the elements of our identity that matter most to most of us – the shared history is important because as a minority living in a majority culture we have experienced so many centuries of persecution and prejudice so we have developed a certain paranoia about the rest of the world. We come by it honestly, even though it is a bit difficult for non-Jews to understand always on the same gut level as someone who has grown up Jewish or Israeli.
It is also important not to personalize that which isn’t actually personal. Resentment against non-Jews who have created antisemitism, or supported the holocaust or attacked Israel is understandable, and is not the same as looking at all non-Jews as bad or evil or whatever. Life is complex and messy and so are relationships. I would trust my heart to tell me if I can trust my partner. You need to sit down with him and share your fears and concerns and see how you feel as you talk about these issues.
Let me know if I can answer any specific other questions for you and please know that I am happy to talk with both of you in person or any other way that might be helpful. I have to run now but am happy to talk with you about this more.
One of my favorite stories about parents and children is the one where a mother stands on her front porch watching as her young son struggles to lift a large stone that is obviously too heavy for him to manage. She watches in silence as he grunts and groans and strains to lift this heavy stone from the spot in her garden where it rests. Finally she turns to her young son and asks, “Are you using all your strength?” Of course her son starts to get angry at the very thought that she would question how hard he was trying to accomplish his goal and through gritted teeth he answers, “Of course I’m using all my strength.” To which his mother quietly replies, “No you’re not, because you haven’t asked me for help yet.”
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