RABBI STEVEN H. GARTEN
5771 RH MORNING SERMON SEPTEMBER 2010
Abraham has been the focus of our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading every year. Many of you know that Abraham was not born Jewish. He chooses to accept Adonai as his Divine source of strength after being offered a deal he could not refuse. The religious beginning of Sarah is never discussed in the Torah, but we can assume that if Abraham is the first Jew, Sarah was not born to a Jewish mother. Parenthetically we are never told of her acceptance of Adonai. So I think that it is safe to say that Abraham and Sarah are the first intermarried couple in Jewish history. I think it is also safe to postulate that Abrahams charge to his servant Eliezer to bring a wife for Yitzchak, his son, only from a specific family, is the first recorded incident of a Jewish parent demanding that their child marry within the TRIBE Abraham and Sarah are the first Jewish parents who could not agree on what was an acceptable background for their son’s spouse. They would not be the last.
About a year ago I received this letter:
“This letter ranks among the most significant letters I have ever written to the Temple community as the letter addresses one of the greatest personal and religious decisions I have made in my career as a Rabbi: I have decided to change my long held position of not officiating at interfaith ceremonies. I will now, under certain circumstances spelled out later in this letter, officiate at these weddings. As some of you know, I have wrestled with this question for a very long time—for many years.”
Thus began the letter a friend and colleague wrote to his congregation last August. His letter and my subsequent conversations with him and others has led me on a journey that I want to share with you this morning. He lives and serves a congregation in the United States and while his change of position was significant he would not be the first rabbi in his community to take such a stand. In Ottawa where no ordained Rabbi officiates at weddings between Jews and non –Jews; were I to write you such a letter without some face to face conversation it would be unconscionable and an irresponsible act. So this morning I want to share with you some of my thoughts on this topic. Last year at this very spot I invited non-Jewish spouses to consider the possibility of conversion to Judaism. I hoped to convey through my words a sense of appreciation to all of you who by being with us and supporting us have helped to build a stronger, more meaningful Temple Israel community. I have always strived to keep the doors of Temple open to all who seek what we offer. Yet as I explained last Rosh Hashanah I had the feeling that some of you might have reached the stage in your relationship with Temple that an invitation might be all that was necessary to take the next step. I hope that all who sit here this morning recognize that it was not an Air Canada time limited offer, as with everything we do in the journey toward meaning and the Divine, there are no time constraints. The invitation remains in effect this year and every year. .
Recently I wrote the following words in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin:
”Every generation of Jews confronts its distinctive challenges and in doing so leaves its particular contribution to Jewish history and Jewish life. Ancient generations faced the challenges described in the Torah and Talmud, Jewish survival. The immediate generation before ours struggled for Jewish rights and interests in the public arena.
In our times, the key challenge by which history will judge us revolves around how we will respond to the impact of intermarriage upon our individual and collective Jewish futures. All of us have experience with this significant issue. Our children may have married someone who was not born Jewish, our spouses maybe born to non-Jewish parents, we may have been asked to celebrate the intermarriage of friends’ children and some of us might serve on the Boards of Jewish institutions who wrestle with the myriad of issues that emerge out of the reality of intermarriage.”
Our congregations’ public concern about intermarriage has primarily focused on the issue of rabbinic officiating. In fact each of your Rabbis was hired with an expectation that regardless of their personal opinion on the issue, the congregation was not inclined to have its rabbi officiate at intermarriages.
Today I would argue that the issue of intermarriage is much larger than rabbinic officiating. In the past we argued that intermarriage led to the inevitable destruction of the Jewish people, and therefore the position against intermarriage was a positive statement in favour of Jewish continuity. While I still believe that the marriage of two Jewish individuals who proudly practice their Judaism in a committed and complete manner within the context of the synagogue is our best chance for a thriving Jewish future, I no longer hold that is the only situation which guarantees our future. What has tipped the balance? I can no longer ignore the statistics concerning Jewish identity of young Jews in North America. The statistics are not pretty. By every measure of engagement, young Jews between the ages of 22 and 39 are less engaged in Jewish life than similarly aged Jews in any previous period of North American Jewish history. This is a cause for enormous concern. In some recent publications young Jews told researchers that they see the synagogue as A- Alienating, B-Boring, C-Coercive, and D-Divisive. I consider these responses, especially A, C, and D, within the context of intermarriage. I have come to realize that in considering our Jewish future, we have to think of Jewish identity not only in terms of our children and our grandchildren, but also in terms of Jewish life flourishing in Canada, not just survival, but flourishing. If I am honest with myself it means that as a Rabbi and as a Jewish leader I should think about Jewish life not ten years from now, but fifty or 100 years from now. I have come to believe that this means thinking of a Jewry that is fully rooted in the Diaspora, not a Jewry living off the powerful resources and memories of Eastern European Jewish life, Yiddish culture, European images, Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish immigrant parents or grandparents. In speaking with friends and colleagues and even congregants I was reminded that our children and certainly the next generation of children will have very different grandparents than most of ours. I still remember the Yiddish flavored Judaism of my grandfather, the stories about the Grand concourse in the Bronx, Yiddish signs in the lower east side and on Fordham road. The same could be said for Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and thousands of smaller shteibels. This old world generation brought with it, for their children and some of their grandchildren, their world view that explained who they were, where they came from and why they held so tightly to the traditions of their past. But what will a Jewish grandparent look like in 2068? Will our children or even grandchildren have these kinds of memories, I seriously doubt it. Will our children have good Jewish lessons to teach, stories to tell, rituals to lead? The answers to these questions does not lie in ethnicity of the parents, but rather in the depth of Judaism lived and practiced at home.
Long ago, I ceased thinking about interfaith marriage as something that rabbis have to publicly rail against and discourage. I have admired and cared for too many beautifully supportive interfaith families, here and elsewhere to even think about the question in those terms. I believe, because I have witnessed it here and elsewhere that a vibrant, new, Diaspora Judaism over the next generations will be constructed just as effectively with a non-Jewish parent in the home. We have learned that a home in which only one parent, but where Judaism thrives to the exclusion of all other traditions is even more powerful on the life of the child than the non-practicing, non-participatory home of two parents born of Jewish parents.
As I look to the future, I still believe that Torah, Avodah and Gmilut Chasidim remain the primary pillars upon which our community must be built. We have long since learned that a future in Canada will not and cannot be built on love of Israel or memories of anti-Semitism. Statistics continually demonstrate that young people’s connection to Israel is weakening and filled with ambivalence. It is not getting stronger. The events of the Shoah are quickly being overtaken by genocides in Rwanda and Darfur in the psyches of our children and grandchildren. The traditional formula of Pirke Avot, “Al Shlosha Dvarim HaOlam Omed, Al Hatorah, Al Ha Avodah, V’Al Gmilut Chasadim, is still our best rallying cry. It is why we must find more opportunities for meaningful worship at Temple. This fall we will introduce a monthly Thursday morning minyan. It is why there will be three learner services on Shabbat morning this fall. It is why we will continue to offer introductory Hebrew classes for anyone of any age wishing to finally learn the language of our Siddur. I believe that the more you and I engage in the study of sacred text the greater the opportunity we have of understanding the eternal wisdom of our tradition and it is why there will be expanded opportunities for textual study this fall, winter and Spring. We all know that our values are most powerfully expressed by our commitment to social justice. This morning our children are continuing the project we began last year to support the needy in Africa. During Sukkot we will have a learning session about Homelessness in Ottawa led by the Multifaith Housing Initiative and our Youth group will once again ask you to bring small packages of Toiletries to Yom Kippur services so that they can be distributed to the homeless through centre 454. Our Jewish future must be laden with wisdom, values and meaning if our children, grandchildren and their Spouses if we are to flourish. This kind of Jewish future does not rely on genetics or birthright alone. It requires an open, nurturing, creative, and progressive environment. I have come to believe that a marriage which begins with a rabbinic rejection may have difficulty building the kind of environment which will build commitment and openness to Jewish continuity. I know there are no guarantees in life, but once the cards are dealt it is always how you play them that determine the future. Modernity has dealt us a hand that may not be what the traditionalists had hoped for, but we are not be able to simply fold and ask for a new deal.
In sharing these thoughts with you I am aware that many of you will be less than thrilled. You may say does he not believe that Judaism stands for nothing eternal. You may accuse me of taking the easy road and bending with the winds of time. History will be a better judge of which path may ultimately be judged most effective in saving our people from extinction, and history will judge the merit of my arguments. I am content to believe that as the biblical prophets, the Talmudic rabbis, the medieval mystics and the founders of Reform Judaism each radically reinterpreted Judaism in their time, so we must be bold in our time.
At this point you may expect me to proclaim the date on which I will begin officiating at interfaith marriages and what circumstances and conditions I would impose upon the couple. However as I said in the beginning, this is not simply a matter of rabbinic authority. I have shared these thoughts with you in order to set the stage for a communal conversation about intermarriage. the President and Board have agreed to a task force on the question of intermarriage, not with the goal of telling me what to do, as if, but to construct an atmosphere of open and honest conversation about this contentious and emotionally filled topic.
You will receive information about the process being developed and the wonderful individuals who have agreed to lead our communal conversation.
I am not so naïve as to believe that what I say this morning or what we say in our community will save Judaism for the 22nd century. But my favorite Talmudic rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, enjoins me to remember that “the day is short the task is great”; we are not required to complete the task, however we are not allowed to desist from beginning.
Our task is great, to preserve our sacred people and our sacred traditions, you and I may not complete the task but we are surely the instruments by which this job is begun.
One last thought to share. The march to build a new building is not about bricks and mortar. It is about housing a sacred community dedicated to a vision which commits itself to vibrant future for Liberal/progressive/ Reform Judaism. That vision requires us to move forward into the 21st century with arms open to all who wish to make the covenant of Abraham and Sarah the basis of their search for meaning. Like the wedding chuppah which is open all four sides, our new facility will need to be embracing of all who wish to stand under God’s canopy and journey together to the mountain of god.