What Kind of Jew are You?

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?

Measuring Intermarriage

Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.
Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

Jewish population data is periodically in the news, and discussions of it always seem to generate more heat than light. The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 and more recently, the Pew Research Center Portrait of Jewish Americans set off a great deal of hand-wringing about the future of Judaism in America, because to some analysts they seemed to suggest that the intermarriage rate is high and climbing, and that the sky is falling in general.

Rabbis care about this stuff because our job (we see it as more than a job, it is our sacred task) is to see to it that Judaism is passed, intact, to the next generation and the generations that will come after.Certainly we don’t all agree on what “intact” means, but we care very deeply about the future.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in a room with many of my favorite colleagues while Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles offered us some insights on Pew and NJPS. He is a demographer and sociologist, which means that he understands how the surveys were done, the limitations of the data and methodology, and the implications of the studies. Better yet, while he worked on NJPS and consulted on the Pew Study, he is neither fundraising nor selling anything. One reason I mistrust the “analyses” I read in much of the Jewish press is that often the analysts are also dependent on a certain level of anxiety to keep the grant money and donations flowing to their organizations.

If you are interested in reading some of what he had to say, I live-tweeted the presentation. Go to Twitter and search for hashtag #IntermarriageData to find it. [Any errors in the tweets are solely my responsibility.]

I learned some interesting things.

First of all, I learned that NJPS and Pew count “Jewish marriages” in the present at the time of the survey. That means that marriages that began in 1950 are lumped in with marriages that began in 2012. The studies do not account for marriages that have since ended in divorce or death. They do not distinguish between marriages between people of exclusively Jewish ancestry and marriages between people with non-Jewish ancestors.  The bottom line is that both NJPS and Pew actually minimize the increase in the rate of intermarriage. It’s more complicated than that, though: using Dr. Phillips’ data, it seems that among people in Jewish families with no history of intermarriage there is no increase in the intermarriage rate. Among people in Jewish families with a history of intermarriage, the rate of intermarriage is increasing quite quickly.

Dr. Phillips also pointed out that while one can see that as bad news, actually there has been an important change that skews things somewhat. In the past, Jews who married “out” often ceased identifying as Jews at all. Nowadays, intermarried Jews usually continue identifying as Jewish.

He identified four types of Jewish interfaith couples:

  • Jewish (21% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish but not strongly affiliated elsewhere. 44% of them raise children as Jews.
  • Dual (45% of IF couples)- One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish and strongly engaged with their faith tradition. 16% raise children as Jews.
  • Secular (15% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish secular, the other Christian (or other) secular, neither engaged with faith tradition. 2% raise children as Jews.
  • Christian (19% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish but unengaged, the other spouse is Christian and engaged with Christianity. 5% raise children as Jews.

He concluded by pointing out that neither NJPS nor Pew researchers spoke with the non-Jewish partners in these couples.

At that point, Dawn Kepler of Building Jewish Bridges continued the presentation. She and Dr. Phillips have been doing a study interviewing adult children of intermarriage, and are ready to present some preliminary information from their study. My notes from that part of the presentation are scrambled, so I’m not going to try to present that material here. It’s very exciting stuff, and if you are a professional interested in hearing about it, get in touch with Ms. Kepler or with Dr. Phillips: they rock.

What does all this mean to me? My professional interest has long been the Jew at the margin of the community. My personal experience has been that with a little support and education, they don’t have to stay at the margin and indeed, some choose to engage with Jewish community and/or synagogue life.

Dr. Phillips offers a framework for thinking about the various needs of IF families. It helps me, as a Jewish professional, to listen more effectively to individuals and couples I serve. He said today that it is a fact that the majority of Jewish kids growing up now and in the future will be of mixed ancestry. Right now a lot of the Jewish establishment still speaks of interfaith families as if they are on the periphery. If Judaism is to thrive, interfaith families won’t be on the periphery: they’ll be a big part of Judaism going forward.

For me, as a professional, one take-away is that I need to quit thinking of Outreach work as “on the margins” – it isn’t. What we have called “Outreach” is right at the heart of the future of Judaism.

 

 

Who are You Calling Shiksa?

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.

Jewish & Christian?

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - What happened here?
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – What happened here?

Lately I’ve been asked a lot about Judaism and Christianity – specifically, is it possible to be both Jewish and Christian?

And I know there are people who assert that they are, indeed, both, or who say they are raising children as both.

Here’s my difficulty with that: For a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth is God, and he’s alive. For a Jew, he is not God; he died almost 200 years ago and hasn’t been back.

It’s called “Christian” because in that way of understanding the world, Jesus is (present tense) the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the ultimate revelation of God, and he is, in fact, God.

In the Jewish way of understanding the world, Jesus was a rabbi who was executed by the Romans. There is only One God, and that God is completely, utterly Other: not human, never has been human. There are some Jews who do not believe in any kind of personal God; they identify as Humanistic Jews or secular Jews.

When you have people in a family with different beliefs, it can be complicated. I have relatives, whom I love, for whom Jesus is the Christ. I have relatives who think belief in God is basically fairytales. We love one another, and we deal with one another kindly and with respect. My son does not say to me, “Mom, you sell fairytales for a living” even though I am aware that from his point of view, that’s what I do. My Christian relatives do not say to me, “You are going to Hell,” even though I suspect some of them fear that’s where I’m headed. And I do not preach at them, either.   We coexist with love and occasional amusement.  I like to think that God finds us amusing, too.

If you are considering raising a child as both Jewish and Christian, I would like you to think about a question you may very well get from a child:  Is Jesus alive, or dead? God or not?

This isn’t about Christmas trees. It isn’t about bacon or bagels. There are many varieties of Christian, and many varieties of Jews, but when we say “there’s no real difference” that’s simply not true.

Image: Copyright All rights reserved by AAAPOE and 1China1 Photos at flickr

The Jews of Christmas

My neighbor’s yard is amazing.

Christmas is here, in a very odd year. Chanukah’s so last month – no confusing the two!

And many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that all of them are off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food (that’s what’s open, right?)

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because that’s the thing all of us can agree upon: there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world today.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

Amen.

 

On March 31, 2014, I and a lot of other rabbis are going to participate in Shave for the Brave, our way of fighting pain in the new year. If you would like to participate in raising funds for pediatric cancer research, CLICK THIS LINK and help us! Even the smallest donations will combine to make a big difference in the lives of young cancer patients and their families with better and more effective treatments.

More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?

A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!

If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname  ben/bat  JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)

I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.

Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew.  So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san.  Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.

The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.

It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.

What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.

Again, if that was gibberish, take a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. I invite your comments!

— HaRav Root bat Avraham v’Sarah

If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”