Category Archives: Borderlands

Relating to my experience as a fronterizo/borderlander

On Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies

The story is told of a rabbinical student who, looking to score points with his professor, regurgitated for the teacher an interpretation of Torah that the professor himself had offered some time earlier. When the professor scolded him for offering such an off-base interpretation, the student told him from where he had learned it. “Yes,” said the professor, “but I’ve grown since then!”

Nine years into my rabbinate, I am grateful to still be growing. In so many ways, my understanding of Torah and Jewish tradition has grown and evolved in dialogue with our sacred texts and with the people whom I am privileged to lead and serve. One particular change is the subject of this article: my approach to weddings between Jews and people who are not Jewish.

The view I have held until recently – and for which I still have a great deal of respect – can be summarized as follows: “I am a rabbi, whose authority to officiate at weddings is rooted in the Jewish tradition. Since Jewish tradition has long recognized that only a wedding between two Jews may properly be called a ‘Jewish marriage,’ it is inappropriate for me to stand beneath the hupah to serve as a rabbi for any other sort of ceremony.” All rabbis held this view until the last hundred years or so, and most continue to hold it today. I respect this approach, and do not hold in judgment those rabbis who continue to follow it.

My view now – held by many rabbis before me whom I respected even when I disagreed with them – can be summarized as follows: “I am a rabbi whose task at a wedding, as everywhere else, is to ‘open doors to Judaism.’ In twenty-first century America, it is often the case that Jews will fall in love with and choose to marry people who are not Jewish. In some cases, those Jews and their partners are seeking to walk through an open Jewish door on the day of their wedding. I belong at those weddings.”

What led to this change? The recognition that marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners are often imbued with an appreciation of Judaism (even a love of Judaism) and with the desire to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. Where that is the case, I find myself at odds with the tradition, and with the vast majority of my colleagues across the ages (and a solid majority today). I find myself comfortable – eager, even – to join those couples under the hupah and to invite God’s blessing upon their marriage.

Does it follow from this change of heart that I now intend to officiate at all interfaith weddings? No. Since my understanding of the wedding ceremony is that it is a potential “way into” Judaism, it follows that I will officiate at those weddings where both partners are committed to walking through the door. Specifically, I contemplate officiating under the following circumstances:

  • I will officiate when both partners want a ceremony that is unambiguously Jewish.
  • I will officiate when both partners are committed to creating an unambiguously Jewish home, raising their children as Jews, and taking part in the life of the Jewish community.
  • I will officiate when both partners commit to a course of study with me prior to the wedding, exploring what it means to be a Jewish family.
  • I will officiate when neither partner has other religious commitments that would keep them from taking part in the wedding ceremony and in subsequent Jewish life cycle ceremonies involving their children with a full heart.

Absent any of these conditions, my response to the couple will remain what it has been up to this point for all marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners: A hearty mazel tov, a willingness to work with them to find a ceremony that is a good fit, and a sincere hope that the door to Jewish life will remain open.

I am happy to answer your questions about my new approach to this important issue. One forum for discussion will be at the congregational meeting on April 18.

No Jews should be Egyptians

The title on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Why Jews Should Not Be Liberals.” Larry F. Sternberg, a politically active Jew in Orange County, California, is the author of this book, which makes the case that liberalism is fundamentally inconsistent with Jewish values. Liberalism, Sternberg maintains, erodes individual integrity and responsibility. It is non-Jewish to the core, and the fact that so many Jews vote for liberal candidates and support liberal causes constitutes a betrayal of their faith and an outright shame.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that, flipping through the pages of Sternberg’s book at Barnes & Noble, I briefly considered writing the rebuttal, “Why Jews Should Not Be Conservatives.” Then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t actually have to write the book, as someone had already done most of the work for me. It was a simple matter of good marketing. I would just have to take a work in the public domain and give it the new, catchier title. “Deuteronomy” is a pretty opaque title anyway, don’t you think? Continue reading

Hefker/Nepantla

A reaction paper for my work with the Border Institute…

In his essay, “The imago Dei as Embodied in Nepantla, a Latino Perspective,” Javier Alanís evokes the image of “Jesus the homeless Jew” who was “born in Nepantla, a middle zone where cultures and peoples met and intermingled.” How does the Border Institute’s resident Jew hear those words?

I hear them in “Hebrew translation,” which is to say I recognize ideas present in my faith though fleshed out very differently. “Torah” functions for the Jew (in many ways, though not all) as Christ does for the Christian. It is the Way, the Truth, the Light, and living it in this world is the key to life eternal. Interesting, then, to consider Alanís’s essay in light of this midrash, a Rabbinic teaching from roughly the time of Jesus, which offers an answer the question, “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?”:

Torah was given dimus parrhesia — freely and openly — in the hefker — the ownerless place. For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations, “you have no share in it.” Thus was it given freely and openly, in the ownerless place: “Let all who wish receive it, come and receive it!” (Midrash Mekhilta, Parashat Bachodesh 1:4 (ca. 300 CE))

I was not previously familiar with the term nepantla, but it strikes me that the Nahuatl term is analogous to the Hebrew hefker, and that the midrash uses it rhetorically in much the same way as Alanís does. Hefker/Nepantla is a dangerous place (as anyone who has spent time under the desert sun — Sinai or Sonora — can attest), but it is also rich with possibility. There is an openness in “wilderness places” that is absent in more settled places. A multicultural, polyglot society (and isn’t it rich that the midrashic teaching on this topic makes its point by using Greek loan words?) has a creative potential all its own.

Before moving to El Paso nine years ago, I hadn’t really lived in the hefker/nepantla. Upstate New York, the midwest, and North Carolina offered little in the way of “psychical space where one experiences displacement as a way of being.” At most, my Jewishness bestowed upon me a certain outsider status — though I cannot say that I often felt it very acutely. Here, I am a minority within a minority, “Anglo” by race and Jewish by religion. Linguistic displacement is a common occurrence, and because I am, by profession, in the “religion business,” theological displacement is common as well. I have learned to be grateful for the opportunity to feel that displacement. As one whose self-understanding is bound up with my status as a descendant of Avraham ha’Ivri — “Abraham the Transient” — I believe that living in El Paso offers unique opportunities for Jewish expression.

What role can my faith community play in the formation of a border region? Drawing on the vision of a “Torah in the hefker,” we can study and witness Torah in these three ways (yes, it’s going to be a sermon…):

A Torah of Diversity – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where so many of us are from somewhere else, we can study and witness to the value of diversity.

A Torah of Economic Justice – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where natural resources are scarce and poverty is endemic, we can study and witness to economic justice.

A Torah of Immigration – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where border-crossing is a way of life, we must never forget that WE WERE ALIENS in the land of Egypt.

All of these paths to a “Torah in the hefker/nepantla” are best navigated with our neighbors of different faiths, races, and backgrounds. To really embrace them requires one to let go of the comforts that come from staying within one’s own community. Again, the Midrash is instructive:

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1). This teaches us that only one who can make himself into a wilderness — hefker — can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).

* * *

I thought this poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai would somehow be integrated into my reflection, but it didn’t work out that way. Rather than worrying about how to artfully include it, I’ll just offer it as a musing on another sort of nepantla. Between 1948 and 1967, the area in which “An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion” is set was a no-man’s land in the truest sense of the word.

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

From Stranger to Neighbor

Rabbi Joy Levitt has called Yom Kippur “the day we come together to be alone.” We sit amongst a sea of people, and we go deep within ourselves. Cheshbon Hanefesh – honest soul-searching – requires a focus and a clarity, a tuning out of the people around us. Yom Kippur is the most personal and individual of Jewish holidays.

And for all that, I want to speak tonight about building community. Continue reading

Abraham the Ivri

In 1964, Look magazine ran an article on the “Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in the United States. Y2K came and went with somewhere between 5.2 and 6.7 million Jews in the US population. Look magazine didn’t fare so well, vanishing in 1971. With delicious irony, Alan Dershowitz titled his 1996 book on Jewish identity The Vanishing American Jew. Continue reading

Facing the Giants

I have the privilege of speaking to a fledgling congregation across the Rio Grande in Juarez this weekend. I think the message for a tiny group of Jews just getting started is not all that different from the one that a historic congregation in a comfortable building needs to hear…

I apologize for not being able to speak to you in Spanish, and I’m grateful to Ralph for offering a translation. The number of Spanish phrases I can speak with confidence can be counted on one hand. How serendipitous, then, that one of those phrases comes right out of this week’s Torah portion, in both letter and in spirit: Si, se puede!

As the portion begins, Israel is preparing to enter the Land of Israel. In order to plan for their entry into the land, Moses sends forth a scouting expedition made up of twelve men, one from each of the tribes. Here’s how the Torah tells it:

Numbers 13:17-30 17 When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, 18 and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? 19 Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? 20 Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” — Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes. 21 They went up and scouted the land…They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was named the wadi Eshcol because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down there.

25 At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. 26 They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. 27 This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. 29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” 30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah – yes we, can – si, se puede!”

Perhaps you know the rest of the story. The people failed to listen to Caleb. The other spies disputed Caleb’s assessment, dwelling on the fact that the people living in the Promised Land were so large that they, the Israelites, felt like grasshoppers in their presence. The people shouted down Caleb and Joshua too, and even threatened to pelt them with stones! Our tradition looks upon their act as a tremendous failure of nerve.

For that failure of nerve, Israel was sentenced to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The pessimism of former slaves had to give way to the optimism of men and women born in freedom. A whole generation needed to be able to say yachol nuchal, si se puede, in one voice.

That two said “si, se puede” and ten said “no” is not surprising. It’s hard to say si, se puede when the obstacles are staring you in the face. They can seem insurmountable. You can feel so small, like grasshoppers looking up at giants. It takes incredible courage to say si, se puede.

And here you are, little Beit Jehudah. You are small in number. Compared to the other religions that have taken root in this city, you are small in stature, and you probably feel even smaller! A Jew in Juarez? Better you should be a grasshopper! It’s tempting to say, “Forget it. Starting a synagogue in Juarez is crazy! The obstacles are just too great! Let’s turn back, let’s play it safe. Let’s go to Temple Mount Sinai once a month and leave it at that.” The voices of Joshua and Caleb urge you on to become a congregation. And other voices shout them down, saying, “but what about the giants?”

Have no illusions, you will face giants along the way if you decide to march. You will argue about ritual. You will disagree about whether to be Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. You will argue about silly things and the arguments will take on a life of their own. You will get frustrated because you aren’t growing fast enough. Then, when you do grow, the founders will resent the new-comers and long for the days when everything was so much better. An important founding member will move on to other things and you’ll be tempted to close your doors. You will squabble over how to collect the funds it takes to pay your bills. Again and again, you will wonder if it’s worth the trouble. Yes, there are giants out there, and it will feel like they are standing between you and the promised land.

But here’s the secret, folks. The arguments, the disagreements, the fights, the squabbles, the frustrations, the doubts…they are the promised land. All of that strife is the price you pay to be yisrael. The price of admission allows you, from time to time, to experience the heights of prayer, the joys of study, the deep satisfaction that comes from creating a sacred community that lifts up you up when you are down, comforts you when you are afflicted. That is what it means to be a community in which each person has a claim on every other, in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t always easy, and it’s seldom very pretty. But this landscape, with all of its hills and valleys, is very, very good.

I am here this morning to tell you that you have friends as you march. After the service we’ll talk more about how Temple Mount Sinai and the Union for Reform Judaism can help you get organized as a Reform congregation should you so choose. But the bulk of the work is yours to do. Let Caleb and Joshua be the voices ringing out loud and clear. Si, tu puedes!

Amen.

 

Nostra Aetate, forty years on

Bishop Ochoa, Fr. Matty, Fr. Stowe, Friends:It is my pleasure to bring greetings from El Paso’s Jewish community, and particularly from my synagogue, Temple Mount Sinai. We are so glad to have been able to share a weekend of study and celebration reflecting on the forty years that have passed since Nostra Aetate. So much has changed since the Second Vatican Council proposed a new relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths. Just a few decades ago, who could have imagined that a spiritual descendant of the Scribes and Pharisees of today’s Gospel Reading would take a seat of honor in a Roman Catholic Cathedral, be introduced as “Rabbi,” and stand in the tradition of Moses, interpreting God’s Word for God’s People? And yet here we are, in circumstances that seem less unlikely each time we travel this road. Dialogue partners become friends, friends become good friends, and we grow together.

Permit me to offer a prayer from my tradition on this occasion: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiy’manu, v’higianu lazman hazeh. “Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Guiding Spirit of the Universe: You have given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this very moment.” Continue reading