For the sake of Heaven
Back To Basics Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
The arrival of Christmas trees, store sales, and holiday music regularly launch a flurry of articles about the December Dilemma: How should Christmas intersect with the lives of American Jews?
Author Jan Larkin writes, “My Christmas stocking at my in-laws in Vermont…is white wool, knit with blue Jewish stars.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Menachem Creditor remembers being told not to enjoy Christmas lights, meaning he had to duck for cover every third house. He does wonder, however, if this is really a healthy or viable Jewish response.
His question is magnified by some fascinating statistics from the 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Ninety percent of American Jews do not identify as Orthodox or traditional. Nearly six in 10 of today’s marriages (since 2000) involve a non-Jewish spouse, the majority from Christian traditions.
The Jewish retention rate of children from intermarriages is rising, encouragingly, from 25 percent of those born midcentury to 59 percent today, half of whom identify specifically as Jewish by religion.
Adding to the complexity, today’s Jewish family networks also include non-Jewish adopted children, members of blended families, and extended families of converts.
The Jewish reality of yesteryear — in-marriage fostered by societal expectations, parental approval, matchmaker pairings, arranged marriages, and neighborhood weddings — is no longer the prevailing trend in America.
On the other hand, that portrait may be a romantic oversimplification. Not all Jewish relationships have conformed to expectations in any time or place, a reality artfully depicted by Tevye’s daughters in the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Furthermore, over the centuries, Jews have often branded even fully Jewish unions as intermarriages: Polish/German, Ashkenazi/Sephardi, Israeli/Ethiopian, American/Russian, formal convert/born Jew, traditional/non-practicing, Conservative/Reform, even politically conservative/liberal.
Not all rituals have conformed to traditional Jewish norms either, even within fully Jewish homes.
“Viennese and German Jews commonly decorated for Christmas,” notes history professor Steven Aschheim, including Zionism’s founding father Theodor Herzl, although his rabbi disapproved.
Even the renowned Kabalah scholar Gershom Scholem grew up with a Christmas tree and Silent Night at home.
While I’m not advocating for Christmas trees, lights, and carols in Jewish homes, I have come to the conclusion that the December Dilemma is really a synecdoche, a figure of speech encompassing a much bigger issue, both personal and communal.
How should we respond as our families become increasingly complex? How can today’s Jewish families respect diversity while fostering authentic, meaningful Jewish experiences and growth?
What can our communities do to support and welcome their diverse members who seriously seek to create Jewish lives and families that, while they may not look like ours, are Jewish nonetheless?
Perhaps most important, how can we as individuals and as holy communities act with integrity and honor — with menschlichkeit — year-round while addressing these challenges?
“Most of the time, we do not,” blogs Daniel Landis, even though our tradition offers role models in “the schools of the liberal Hillel and the strict constructionist Shammai… (renowned for) their sharp disputes, but also in their ability to respect and work with each other.”
Rabbi Michael Chernik concurs: “(W)e must learn to argue with each other respectfully, with compassion and empathy for one another…putting aside our own ego and the need to win at all costs…assimilating important truths of others, even when their truths shake us up a bit.”
In other words, as we read in Ethics of the Fathers, argue “for the sake of Heaven.” It’s a mitzvah. Take note.
Respect: Treat one another with the respect and dignity due every human, each of whom was created in the image of God. Be kind. Always.
Welcome: Follow Abraham’s example. He opened his tent on all sides to welcome those who wanted to tell their stories, to share in his journey. Be friendly. Invite.
Encourage: Celebrate others’ accomplishments in their own complicated Jewish life journeys. Their journeys are not yours. Offer support. Motivate.
Don’t assume: Just what does that pine tree in the living room mean? Before you assume, learn the facts. Before you judge, understand why. Be positive. Ask.
Seek clarity, not agreement: “Conflict is a curious gift because it sharpens us…” writes Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies for Focus on the Family. “Seek clarity, not agreement,” offers Dennis Prager. Until you understand the issue, you can’t imagine the possibilities or know how to proceed. Invite conversation. Actively listen. Hear.
Pursue authenticity: Seek genuine Jewish answers from multiple diverse sources. Appreciate alternatives. Consider.
Think consensus, not compromise: For the sake of Heaven, work together to develop agreements or decisions that, while maybe not perfect, are good enough, ones with which everyone can agree. No one should feel like a loser. We win. Together.
Our diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity to make our Jewish people stronger, more deeply rooted, and more prepared for the future through understanding, reflection, and innovation. Our diversity can also be a challenge and an opportunity to act as menschen (humanely): acknowledging each other’s Jewish journeys despite their complexities and contradictions and even conflicts, but always respecting each other as reflections of the Divine. Let us not just argue, but act for the sake of Heaven.
Literature to share
Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon. Alternating between full-page illustrations and comic-strip panels, Eight Blessings is part historical fiction, part Jewish tradition, and part universal virtues. A young boy escapes to America from Nazi Europe and encounters generosity, caring, helpfulness, and other kindnesses while trudging through New York City. While the basic story is simple enough for the elementary ages, the rich images and unexpected endnotes will fascinate adults as well. Highly recommended.
A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace by Noa Baum. Vividly captured in the language of a storyteller, Twice Promised is the intellectual and emotional memoir of an Israeli who explores and challenges the traditional Israeli and Palestinian narratives of Israel. Baum deftly guides the reader along her journey to a recognition that the truth is more about shades of gray than black and white. Thought provoking, and totally engaging. I couldn’t put it down.