Our Interfaith Family

Image: Aaron, Linda, Ruth, and Jim, at the Alameda County Courthouse for our civil wedding on July 19, 2013. Photo by random stranger.

My family is an interfaith family.

I became a Jew 20 years ago this summer. At the time I had two middle school age sons who already had a sense of who they were, and they were not interested in becoming Jewish. I put my rabbi’s business card up on the refrigerator and told the boys that they were welcome to contact Rabbi Chester if they had any complaints about me.

They were charmed. Middle schoolers love to have options, especially for complaining about their parents.

Both guys became knowledgeable about Judaism. They visited Israel with me. Jim picked up a little Hebrew. Aaron asked thoughtful questions about Israeli life.

When I decided to apply for rabbinical school, they were supportive. “Go for it, Mom!” Part of my attraction to the rabbinate was that I loved learning ways to make our home both authentically Jewish and authentically their home, too. The creativity of good rabbinic work appealed to me, still does.

I moved to Jerusalem in 2002, just as the younger son, Jim, started college. The second intifada was at its height. Someone asked Jim what he would do “if your mother gets blown up.” I was horrified by the question. He coolly said, “I’d call our rabbi, of course.”

OUR rabbi. I have to admit, I loved hearing him say that.

Periodically one or the other will call me and say, “Mom, I have a rabbi question.” Usually it’s a question that a Jewish friend has asked them. (Ironies abound.) Occasionally, they are curious about how something looks through a Jewish lens. They keep me on my toes.

They aren’t Jews. They aren’t interested in becoming Jews. That’s fine. They are part of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that left Egypt with the Jews, traveled with the Jews, has always been part of the Jewish community.

Neither one is particularly comfortable with ritual or formal religion. They don’t come over for Shabbat dinner, and they don’t celebrate Jewish holidays with us. As a family, we celebrate birthdays, and national holidays, and fun things like Pi Day.

When I was ordained they came to the service. When I stepped out from under the chuppah and Rabbi Levy announced me as Rabbi Ruth Adar, Aaron hollered from the back of the sanctuary, “WAY TO GO, MOM!”

When Linda and I were married under the chuppah at Temple Sinai, nine years ago this month, they were both there. They could not witness our ketubah (since they aren’t Jews) but they celebrated with us. When the State of California finally decided to let us get married in a civil ceremony, they were our witnesses.

Next month Jim is getting married to his sweet bride in a civil ceremony. There will be Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and assorted Christians and agnostics – and that’s just the family.

Our interfaith family.

To Christian Friends Coming to Seder

Image: A Seder at Mark and Dawn’s house. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Dear Friends,

I’m so glad that you will be joining us for seder this Passover. The seder is a core experience of Jewish life and hospitality. We’re glad to have you.

After a few experiences with guests at the seder table, I’ve learned that it helps if you get a little orientation ahead of time. So, some history:

The seder goes back to the time just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era (which you perhaps call “70 AD.”) Our people were distraught at the loss of our Temple, at the violence of the Roman armies, and we looked desperately for a way to make sure that the central story of our heritage, our deliverance from Egypt, would be handed down intact.

You see, up until that time it was our custom to travel to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It is one of three such “pilgrimage festivals” in Judaism. Families would travel long distances to camp in the valleys and hills around Jerusalem. On the last day before the festival, the head of each household would carry a lamb or goat down to the Temple, where the priests would slaughter it ritually and begin the process of roasting it before they handed the roast back to the householder. Then he (usually he) would return to the family and they would finish roasting the meat, munching on unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs as was commanded in the Torah. While all this went on, there was storytelling by the elders and children, telling the story of our deliverance from Egypt. That’s how Passover was celebrated while the Temple still stood.

After the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer have the animal sacrifices, because we can only make those sacrifices in the Temple. Our elders made the decision to use the most powerful teaching practice of the time to transmit our story. That practice was the symposium banquet, a Greek custom at which wealthy free men reclined around a table, enjoying food and wine and discussing important issues. So from that time to this, we recline around the table, using the Haggadah, a script, to discuss our story at a level that everyone at the table can enjoy, linking our story to music and the tastes and odors of delicious food.

That’s what the Passover Seder is: a sacred moment in which we pass on the heritage of our people, experiencing it anew every year. The seder has served us well, seeing us through centuries of persecution and exile. It differs from the symposium in that we make the declaration “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” the learning offered at the seder is for anyone who is hungry for it, not only the privileged. Men, women and children participate at the seder table.

You may have heard from someone about links to your own Christian story. It’s true: Passover (Pesach) is mentioned in your New Testament. The gospels say that the events leading up to Easter took place during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, it is not true that the “Last Supper” was a Passover seder. Think about it: the Temple was still standing in the year 33; it would be standing for 37 more years. Jesus never went to a Passover seder, although as an observant Jew, he certainly took part in the Passover observances of his time: the sacrifices, the storytelling, and the unleavened bread.

So here’s what I ask: when you come to sit at my seder table, be there for a Jewish experience. I’m inviting you into my world on one of the holiest nights of its year. Just as I would not come into your church for Christmas services and tell everyone about all the Jewish content in the service, don’t come to a seder table to teach about Jesus. We both know that there are connections, and if you feel powerfully about that, press your minister or priest for interfaith dialogue events. There are many days of the year when those would be appropriate. Christmas, Easter, Rosh HaShanah and Passover are not those days; they are days when each community has its own important work to do.

I’m glad you are coming to my seder table, and I hope that you have a wonderful evening with us. Pesach sameach! (PAY-sokh sah-MAY-ahkh) – Happy Passover!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

P.S. – For more advice about getting the most out of your first seder read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Guest.

The Story of the Four Chaplains

Image: The Four Chaplains were honored with a commemorative 3¢ stamp issued in 1948, showing their four faces above the sinking Dorchester, with the words “These Immortal Chaplains… Interfaith in Action.”  Image is in the public domain.

This week in 1943, U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester carried 902 troops, merchant marines and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. The icy waves were a prowling ground for German U-boats, and one of the Coast Guard cutters accompanying the Dorchester had picked up a shadow on its sonar. The men on the Dorchester were under orders to keep their life jackets on, but down in the bowels of the ship, many disregarded the order because of the heat of the ship and the difficulty of sleeping in a bulky life preserver.

On Feb 3, 1943, a German U-Boat silently surfaced at 12:55 a.m, hidden by the night. The officer in charge of U-223 took aim and fired three torpedoes at the troop ship. One torpedo hit the Dorchester below the water line amidships, opening the hull to the frigid Atlantic and knocking out the power and with it radio contact with the three Coast Guard escorts. A lookout aboard the CGC Comanche spotted the flash of the explosion, and radioed for help.

Aboard the Dorchester, men awakened by the explosion had to find their way topside in the dark. Many were killed in the initial explosion; many more were wounded. Many had undressed to sleep, and when they emerged on the tilting deck, they were without lifejackets. This was the Arctic; no one could survive long in those waters even with a lifejacket, but without one, he would be doomed.

According to survivors, there were four rays of light on that dark deck. Four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed moved quickly and quietly among the men, calming them and directing them to lifeboats. They prayed aloud for the dying and encouraged the living.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to go back to his cabin for gloves, but Rabbi Goode stopped him.  Goode answered. “Never mind, I have two pairs.” The rabbi pressed his own gloves into the young man’s hands. Later, in safety, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode didn’t have two pairs of gloves. The rabbi had already decided that he was unlikely to leave the Dorchester.

The chaplains opened a locker on deck and began distributing life jackets to those who had left theirs below. When all the jackets were given out, they removed their own and handed them out, too. The chaplains did not inquire whether the next man in line was a believer, much less was he someone of their own faith; rather, the chaplains simply gave the life-saving gear to the next person in need.

The Dorchester sank that night, with only 240 survivors out of the 902 souls aboard. Survivors report hearing the chaplains on the deck of the ship, singing together to the very end.

On Dec. 19, 1944, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded posthumously to each of the four chaplains. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on them, but could not do so because of the strict requirement that it be given for “courage under fire.” Instead, the Congress issued a special “Four Chaplains Medal” for them and them only.

The four chaplains served together and with a common purpose. Their story caught the imagination of the nation, since at that time the majority of Americans did not think of Jews and Catholics in the same way they thought about white Protestant ministers. Before this time, Jews in the United States were generally regarded as non-white foreigners, no matter their place of birth. This event was a crucial step on the road to change in U.S. interfaith relations.

As one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which!) pointed out to me, before the Four Chaplains one did not hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in American discourse. While I admit to mixed feelings about the ways to which that phrase is used (often ignoring real and important distinctions between Jewish and Christian belief) I can never forget that underneath it lies a conviction that we have essential ties.

I look forward to the day when the essential ties among all people of good will are appreciated and celebrated: when no religion is seen as lesser, when no one is “white” because everyone is truly equal. Then, and only then, will the legacy of the Four Chaplains bear its true fruit.

Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

Love My Neighbor

 

One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.

An Interfaith Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Heart of the Universe,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day.
Grant us the love and patience with which to respect,
indeed, to appreciate our differences,
and to seek common ground for this festive meal.

Grant us mindfulness about this food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the brilliant cooks in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we have received.

Amen.

 

I posted a slightly different version of this blessing last year; this one is modified to be useful for interfaith families.