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Religious Leaders Can Help Model Interfaith Engagement
Our behavior toward “the stranger” is one of the most important and well-known precepts of the Torah. It is mentioned several times throughout the Torah and in the Talmud. Our tradition goes beyond simply advocating for fairness toward the “stranger”; rather, we are further instructed to “love” the stranger.
The Hebrew word used in the Torah for this is ger. It denotes a permanent resident in the midst of the Israelite community who is foreign born, and therefore does not have family to rely upon. When we love the stranger, we treat them as one of our own.
Thus, the “stranger” is not an unknown entity; he or she is a member of society and subject to the social mores of that community. Interestingly, in post-biblical Hebrew, ger became synonymous with proselyte, and much of the commentary on the word reflects this newer meaning.
This discussion bears great relevance for the current debate over whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary, should admit candidates with non-Jewish partners or spouses.
It is easy to see why one would be against this. After all, we want our rabbis and cantors to be fully committed to Jewish life and these are the role models for our community. To be married to a non-Jew seems counterintuitive.
While I believe that a spouse who is actively involved in another faith tradition poses serious conflicts for a congregational rabbi or cantor, I see little obstacle for clergy and a spouse who is present and supportive. In my experience, there are countless congregants who have true partners in their gentile spouses who help create and maintain Jewish homes and educate Jewish children.
Moreover, there are a similar number of fully Jewish couples (both born Jewish) and families who do not belong to a congregation, attend services or are in any way connected to the Jewish community.
By having our religious leaders model how interfaith families can actively participate in Jewish life, we can only increase involvement in new and positive ways.
In the Talmud, we find in the same passage (Bava Matzia 59b) both the cautionary message on how to treat the stranger and an equally important discussion on the authority of Torah. The debate here between Rabbi Yirmiya and Rabbi Eliyahu teaches us that the Torah is not in Heaven; instead, we follow the decisions rendered by the rabbinic authorities. It was asked, “What was God doing at the time of that [rabbis’] dispute?” Rabbi Eliyahu announced, “The Holy One laughed and said ‘My children defeated Me.’ ”
We have the great benefit of our ancestors, our text and traditions to guide us as we encounter new situations. Therefore, let us heed their message and embrace the ger who often offers the love and support necessary for us to engage in the meaningful work we do. l
Rabbi Geri Newburge is associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J.