Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2011 – 5772

Rabbi Yoni Jaffe, Congregation Emanu‐El


In my final months of high school, my parents became increasingly afraid that I would one day marry my best friend. Let’s call her Lisa. That’s not to say they didn’t like Lisa. She was incredibly kind, generous, a straight A student; all of the things a parent would wish for their child. But as you might have guessed, Lisa was not Jewish. The great grand‐daughter of Protestant missionaries, Lisa’s family had two Christmas trees.

While Lisa and I were only friends, I bristled at the idea that my parents would reject even the notion of such a relationship. After all, they had left the Jewish community of Chicago to pursue careers and raise a family in the non‐Jewish wilderness of Honolulu. And though they did everything they could to imbue my sister and I with a love of Judaism, the question still nagged at me: How could my parents make the process of assimilation rather easy and then react so sharply when they encountered even the slightest chance of my acting upon it?

Later, I realized that I was not alone in this question. As we well know, post war American Jews made it their mission to assimilate into American culture. The melting pot theory dictated that one leave their Yiddish and European ways at the door. Identifying Jewish marks such a kippah, tallis or even a beard were removed. Meanwhile, American Jews entered into previously unchartered cultural territory. They flooded universities once kept out of reach through the quota system. They entered non‐Jewish suburbs and preached the virtues of public schools as the great social equalizer. All barriers and distinctions between Jews and Christian America were removed.

As anti‐Semitism dissipated, a funny thing happened. The children of these Jewish assimilationists began to marry their newfound neighbors. Only 60 years ago, less than 10% of American Jews were intermarried. By 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey reported that over half of American Jews were married to non‐Jews. In highly assimilated communities such as Marin, that number now reaches 75%. To this, the elder statesmen of the Jewish community wring their hands and frown upon their subsequent generations. To which we may respond – what exactly did you think would happen? If you raise us to look, act and feel like other Americans, then of course we will eventually fall in love and create families with them. It is as if you sent us to swim school, equipped us with goggles, snorkels and flippers and are then shocked and dismayed to see us jump into the water.

The issue of intermarriage is nothing new. Yet the Torah offers at best a mixed perspective on the matter. Our patriarch Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to avoid selecting a wife for his son Isaac from the surrounding Canaanites. A generation later, Isaac’s wife Rebecca insists that her son Jacob not marry from the “daughters of the land”. And yet when Abraham’s grandson Joseph happily marries an Egyptian wife, her foreignness is not an issue. Moses, the greatest prophet of all, marries the daughter of a foreign priest. When his sister, Miriam, publicly criticizes Moses for his choice, God forcefully rebukes and punishes her.

This evening, I would like to consider how we may transform the reality of intermarriage into a blessing for the 21st century Jewish community. No, I am not encouraging intermarriage; but this issue need not be cast as the threat it is often made out to be. And since intermarriage is a fact and is here to stay, we ought to figure out how to incorporate or even benefit from this newfound reality.

Let us begin by observing that the high rate of intermarriage is a sign of the amazing success of our past generations’ mission to assimilate and to therefore ensure equality and opportunity for the Jews of today. The fact is, the average American considers a Jew to be an “up” marriage ‐ they like the idea of marrying and spending their life with a Jew. We are considered to be hard working, intelligent, educated and decent parents. As this is directly related to the assimilatory efforts of our earlier generations, the only way to dramatically reduce the rate of intermarriage would be to weaken this positive view. So unless you are hoping for an anti‐Semitic resurgence, you should probably get used to high rates of intermarriage. Take it as a compliment.

Nevertheless, intermarriage clearly poses a threat to Jewish continuity. Those refusing to officiate at intermarriage ceremonies often cite research showing that up to 90% of the children of intermarriage will intermarry themselves. The children of intermarried couples overall demonstrate lower rates of affiliation and expressions of Jewish identity. For a small and shrinking population of Jewish Americans, this should give us great pause when we consider such a sensitive issue. Rabbi Eddie Feinstein astutely summarizes this view when we writes, “If you love Shabbat candles and Passover seders, building a sukkah and lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah; if you love hamantaschen, latkes, fried matzah, apples and honey, if you think about the Holocaust, about Israel, about Torah, wouldn’t you be happier spending your life with someone who shared all this with you?”

But at the same time, I believe that we do ourselves great damage when we hasten to write off the hundreds of thousands of descendents of intermarriage who think of themselves as Jewish or at least have the potential to do so. Furthermore, I believe that the low affiliation rate of intermarried couples is at least somewhat due to the frigid response often delivered by the Jewish community. What would the numbers look like if we developed a welcoming and encouraging posture towards interfaith couples?

Let us consider two narratives. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that he simply cannot marry a Jew to a non‐Jew. Yes, he will happily marry two atheist Jews so long as their mothers are both Jewish. But a marriage between a Jew and a supportive non‐Jew is prohibited by Jewish law and therefore cannot be blessed as anything holy. Cristina is hurt and Adam ashamed that the rabbi does not deem them to be worthy of his blessing. Years later, this anger and resentment remains and Adam drifts away from the Jewish establishment which rejected him and his bride. Adam and Cristina raise their children as secular citizens or within Cristina’s religious community, sheltering them from the Jewish establishment that rejected their parents. I would surmise to say that many of us have family members who can identify with this story.

Now consider an alternate path. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that a Jewish wedding is a celebration of the creation of a Jewish home. While Cristina is not ready to convert, she agrees that children thrive in a home united by a single religion and so agrees to build and sustain a Jewish household. The rabbi invites Adam and Cristina to take the year long introduction to Judaism class together, so that they may explore and discuss primary issues of Jewish religion and culture. They are guided through discussions regarding raising their children, Jewish education and how ritual and the Jewish calendar will exist in their home. On the day of their wedding, both Adam and Cristina understand and honor the symbols of the chuppah and the breaking of the glass. They embark on a life together with a deep appreciation for Jewish custom and a shared understanding of what part it will play in their lives. A month after the wedding, the rabbi invites the couple to discuss how they can be best served by the synagogue and incorporated into the Jewish community.

I believe such an approach presents a game changer and carries the possibility of significantly lifting the affiliation rates cited earlier. Through this example, I am urging us to reframe the discussion from how to limit intermarriage to how to best welcome and incorporate a spouse who is not Jewish into Jewish life and therefore sustain the Jewish home.

Already, the supportive non‐Jewish spouse plays a pivotal role in the Jewish community. Karen Kushner, chief education officer of (and wife of our own scholar in residence Rabbi Larry Kushner) uses the term “common law Jews” for those non‐Jewish spouses who support and sustain Jewish households. Here at Congregation Emanu‐El, I come into contact with many common law Jews. We are blessed by their presence here today. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who regularly brings your kids to religious school. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who encourages your Jewish partner to light Shabbat candles. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who finds comfort and support mourning for family members through Jewish ritual. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who carefully prepares food for your Passover Seder and perhaps even brings your ambivalent Jewish partner to Erev Rosh Hashanah services.

This evening, thousands of Jews throughout San Francisco are at home, still at work, maybe at the gym or the movies. Either way, they are not here. And yet tonight, hundreds of you non‐Jewish partners and spouses join us. You are here to support and be supported by the Jewish community. You are here for your partners and your families and for yourselves. Let me say something which you ought to hear from the Jewish community more often: Thank you. We really appreciate all that you do. You bless us with your presence and make us all into better Jews.

In researching the effect of supportive non‐Jewish spouses, UC Davis Professor Ari Kelman comes to a surprising conclusion: A weakly connected Jew is actually more likely to participate in the Jewish community by marrying a supportive non‐Jew rather than a fellow ambivalent Jew. Let me say that again – A person who is only ambivalently Jewish is actually more likely to raise their kids as Jews by marrying a supportive non‐Jewish partner than someone like themselves.

If you think about it, this makes sense. The curious spouse brings all sorts of questions to their partner. What is Passover? Why are some foods kosher? Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? The Jewish partner is forced to revisit issues long ago forgotten and to encounter Judaism on an adult level for the first time.

They are often embarrassed by their own ignorance and inspired to learn more about their heritage. This is not a curse but rather the blessing of intermarriage. The fact is, marrying Jews to other Jews alone doesn’t produce Jews. Jewish experience is the key, not Jewish lineage. And there is nothing to say that a non‐Jew cannot play a crucial role in this process.

Just last week, I asked my 8th grade class the following question – “who here believes it is important to marry someone Jewish?” Out of 40 students, not a single one agreed. I then asked, “Who here intends to raise their children as Jews?” Every single one agreed. Now you may simply call these students naïve. But remember that a majority of them are being raised themselves in interfaith households. And yet they are choosing to continue their Jewish education post‐bar and bat mitzvah. Their mere presence illustrates the fact that Jewish experience is not necessarily bound to Jewish lineage.

On the other hand, from time to time, I encounter interfaith families who choose to raise their children under dual religions, with the hope that one day the child will decide which one to follow. In this case, what sounds like a good idea can often turn into the projection of an unresolved argument onto the child. Ultimately, choosing a single religion may become akin to choosing the parent who subscribes to it. And if the child ultimately refuses to decide, they lose both religions, because to admire all religions is to lack a claim or identity with any religion. We must tread carefully in such situations.

It is for this reason that our clergy here at Emanu‐El adhere to a basic policy regarding intermarriage. We are honored to officiate over interfaith weddings, given that the bride and groom do three things. They must commit to creating a uniquely Jewish household. They must both take our nine month introduction to Judaism course. They must raise and educate their children uniquely as Jews. Thus we hope to welcome and embrace our interfaith families while at the same time protecting the continuity of the Jewish people. No, this system is not perfect, but I have yet to encounter another which so effectively answers these dual goals.

I have a second message beyond mere praise for the non‐Jewish members of this community. Please understand that Jewish custom surrounding proselytizing and conversion are based upon 2,000 years of anti‐Semitism and political powerlessness. The notion that we could be considered an “up” marriage was unthinkable until only very recently. Conversion to Judaism meant giving up one’s political and civil rights. And so we have built a societal habit of downplaying and even dissuading conversion. But as we no longer live in this world, tonight I say to you the opposite – as we enter into a new year, full of promise and opportunity, perhaps it is time that you think about formally becoming a Jew. Many of you have been trying on Judaism for so long – and it clearly fits you so well. Maybe it’s time to make public and certain what has clearly evolved over years of personal practice.

If this prospect intrigues you, I invite you to speak with me or any of my colleagues and to sign up for our introduction to Judaism course, which begins after Yom Kippur. Join Rabbi Bauer’s conversion discussion group, also beginning in a few weeks.

Despite all I have said, many of you might be surprised to hear that many non‐Jews attend RH services here at Emanu‐El. We as a Jewish community often make the mistake of assuming our own communal homogeneity. But this is clearly not the case. Professor Marc Dollinger, head of the Jewish Studies Department of San Francisco State University was recently posed the question: What percentage of American Jewish families qualify as traditional, which he defined as two heterosexual parents, both in their first marriage, both born Jewish, with children, who are not adopted. This family serves as the mythical target audience for Jewish policy and institutions even to this day. The answer: five percent. We cling to a mythical ideal of Jewish identity for which 19 out of 20 of us fail to qualify. The sooner we dismiss this idea, the better we will properly understand our constituency and effectively embrace the many non‐Jews who support and nourish us every day.

Tonight, I put myself in my parents’ shoes. How would I respond if one of my children were to consider marrying a non Jew? As a parent I would largely worry about continuity. It’s not that I think that people from other religions make for worse spouses. It’s that I worry that my grandchildren won’t inherit the precious gift with which we were bestowed; a gift which survived the fires of Auschwitz and expulsion from Spain – that I would become the broken link in this valuable chain of tradition.

As an active Jew, I see the world through Jewish eyes. My sense of time beats to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. I relate to the world in terms of mitzvot and the ideal of tikkun olam. I fear that my grandchild or even my child might not feel the same connection to Judaism and that we may become distant because of it. That I one day will invite my granddaughter to Passover Seder and she will ask me what it is. I am terrified by this prospect.

At the same time, I realize that my child’s future partner does not have to be Jewish in order to share and contribute to this tradition. That an interested, participative non‐Jew can play a significant role in the creation of a Jewish home. That there is no one set model for the Jewish family.

Most of all, I believe in Judaism and refuse to subscribe to our image as the eternally dying people. I believe in the traditions, rituals and structures that have evolved over thousands of years. I believe in Judaism’s malleability, in its ability to change shape to conform to the needs of every environment. I believe that we endure and prosper by the maintenance of a highly porous membrane, which brings in the best of external influences. Surely Judaism will adapt to this moment as well, so long as we focus less on what happens during the half hour spent under the chuppah and more on the lifetime that ensues once the couple walks down the aisle.

Two years ago, my parents’ prophecy came to fruition. I married my high school friend, Lisa. In fact, I married her to a really nice, Jewish guy. My high school friend and non‐Jew par excellence is now the proud step mom to two Jewish boys and mother to an adorable baby girl with another on the way. She is helping her oldest step son to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. This past December, I received my first ever Hanukkah card from my old friend. And I smiled and cried a bit when I saw it. Such things give me faith that this moment may not consume us, but rather, may bless us with the opportunity to make us better.