Home June 2014 Of Cheesecake and Choice

Of Cheesecake and Choice

At sundown on June 3 we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. Besides being a holiday where we enjoy blintzes and cheesecake, symbolic of milk that nurtures babies as the Torah nurtures all of us, Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people and marks the grain harvest in the Torah. It is directly connected with Passover, occurring 50 days later and bridging the exodus with the presentation of the Law.
Moreover, Shavuot is about choice. We read the Book of Ruth, because it highlights one woman’s choice to join the Jewish people and accept the Torah. The holiday is often associated with confirmation, when young people affirm their commitment to Torah, as well as conversion, when people make a conscious choice to embrace Judaism.
However, not everybody makes that choice. Interfaith relationships used to happen only in Hollywood, it seems, and, in any case, to someone else. Since the 1970s though, intermarriage has been growing among Jews. Different strains of Judaism look at the situation differently. While Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not perform mixed marriages, some Reform rabbis do so, but only after educating the couple about the benefits of having a Jewish household.
What happens after the wedding is another matter. In some cases the couple chooses to abandon Judaism or to abandon religion altogether. In others there is an attempt to incorporate the customs of both religions into the household. Still others want to have their primary identification with Judaism.
While some congregations try to be welcoming, many are not getting the job done, according to a number of the couples. Several local rabbis, along with others around the country, are trying to educate couples about the benefits and beauty of Jewish tradition while trying to learn how they can serve intermarried couples and their children.
“Beyond the hostile (and essentially fearful) attitude American Jews tend to espouse, [there] lies in mixed marriages a special lesson in coexistence,” wrote Jewish World blogger Benjy Cannon. For others, it may be a lesson in tolerance or integrating someone new into the family, kicking and screaming or not.
“Clearly,” said sociologist Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “not all intermarried families are alike. Levels of Jewish connection differ, [such] as between families with an unambiguous commitment to Judaism and families exposing their children to aspects of two distinct religions; between those residing close to vital centers of Jewish life and those living at a geographic remove; between those where the Jewish partner has benefited from a strong Jewish background and those where the Jewish partner has not.”
See how two young rabbis – and others – approach intermarriage in this issue of JLife. Clearly, the choice about intermarriage is not just about the couples, but about how the community approaches them.

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