Interfaith: A Misnomer

Micah & Wyatt

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Christianity and Islam have their roots in Judaism, but they are not variants of Judaism. Despite its name and claims to the contrary, Jews for Jesus is a Christian organization. Their population is composed of those who used to be Jewish before making a break with Judaism by accepting Jesus as their messiah. Their goals and techniques for proselytizing are the same ones that Christian missionaries have used for centuries. I met their official representatives in mid-April at the Christian Missionaries Training Association (which I happened upon by chance while I was attending another convention at the same venue), not at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention nor at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations.

When I decided to become a rabbi 33 years ago, I never imagined that it would be necessary for me to clarify that Jews don’t believe that Jesus is our messiah or the son of God. Neither are we bound in obedience to Allah through the teachings of Muhammed. It is dishonest and disrespectful to Muslims, Christians, and Jews to claim that the three Western religions are the same. This isn’t just my opinion; it is the consistent position of all three religious traditions.

I’ve spent the majority of my rabbinate working with interfaith couples and families to introduce them to the resources of the Jewish community. If someone is not already an involved communal member, it is difficult to find those resources. The term ‘interfaith’ is confusing because it means different things to different people. For the American generation of the 1950’s and 60’s, interfaith meant Protestants, Catholics, and Jews finding ways to co-exist alongside each other and cooperate where there were shared goals. Today, for Jews for Jesus and other organizations which don’t advocate for Judaism exclusively, it often means practicing two or more religions in a home. When I (and the Union for Reform Judaism as well as my fellow rabbis, cantors, educators, and other Jewish professionals) meet couples and families who identify themselves as ‘interfaith,’ we choose this term to mean that one of the adults is Jewish and the other isn’t. I don’t mean the syncretism of ‘being both,’ a combining together of various theologies, rituals, and holidays that don’t fit into any recognized system or practice. I am liberal and open-minded to a variety of points of view, but not so much so that my brain falls out. Being Jewish in America, where the majority of the population isn’t Jewish, is more of an effort than being Christian. It is a worthwhile effort for Jews in living a good life.

Most often, the adult who isn’t Jewish in a couple or family is open to living a Jewish life with his/her partner and isn’t committed to another religious practice. I provide Jewish experiences so folks get a taste of Judaism and can begin planning their life vision together. In my work reaching couples and families who aren’t official members of the Jewish community, I present some of the beauty and wisdom of Judaism to demonstrate how it can provide a foundation for a meaningful life. I guide them in finding a synagogue that will be their home community, where they can be supported in times of challenge and sorrow and celebrated in times of joy.

There have been a few couples over the years who have initially said they wanted to ‘be both.’ I recognize that people value their relationships and are willing to make compromises to protect those relationships. Choosing both or none seems less painful than making a choice for a lead religion in the family. They usually haven’t really discussed what they mean by ‘being both.’ Most are minimally educated in the religious tradition of their respective families. It is my responsibility to them, both as a rabbi and as a Jew committed to Judaism, to advocate for why it is good to live a Jewish life. I am able to help the Jewish person articulate why Judaism is important for their life together. Sometimes, after listening to a couple talk about themselves, I encourage them to visit with a minister, priest, or imam, as is appropriate, to help them find the path that will work best for them. It is also my responsibility to help couples and families wrestle with the hard questions, preferably before their children come along.

The reluctance to advocate for one family religion seems to come from a place of fear — fear that an honest discussion about values and beliefs might reveal irreconcilable differences. This is a possibility. But not having this discussion is like waiting for a time bomb to go off in the relationship, which can cause irreparable damage. Marriages need honesty and trust as well as shared values and rituals to sustain them over the long term. It is better to have discussions about religion and everything else that is important early on to minimize conflict, discord, and unhappiness. Judaism offers a particular worldview that is complete in and of itself, providing meaning and purpose in living a good life. It doesn’t need to be enhanced by rituals or holidays from other religious traditions.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Target: Interfaith Couples and Families

Jews_For_Jesus_logo

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I had the opportunity a few days ago to be in conversation with Jews for Jesus without them knowing that I am a rabbi. I chanced upon a Christian ministries training workshop where Jews For Jesus had a vendor booth. They gave me literature which outlines the most effective ways to share the message of Jesus with Jews. The salient point they make is that Jews don’t need to give up their identity as Jews in order to embrace Jesus as Messiah.

To my way of thinking, as well as to every minister, priest, and Christian lay person I know, embracing Jesus as Messiah is the identifier that makes a person Christian. This seems straight forward and easy to understand. To take the position that a person can believe in Jesus as Messiah and not be Christian is disingenuous at best. I imagine that faithful Christians are proud to be so and might take the position that it is disrespectful to them and their faith to say that they aren’t Christian.

Many Jews say that they are not religious, but view their Jewish identity as cultural. They say, too, that they are spiritual but not religious. This doesn’t mean that their Jewishness is unimportant to them. Most Jews are proud of their identity as Jews. Jews For Jesus knows all of this very well. They also know that most Jews have a very limited knowledge of scripture and theology. Their strategy to bring Jews to faith in Jesus is to present Jewish scripture and theology through a Christian lens.

Christians have used Jewish scripture to prove Jesus’ messiah-ship throughout their history. This is the Christian worldview and is relevant to Christian practice, prayer, and belief. It is not, however, a Jewish world view. It is difficult for Jews who are uneducated in Judaism to refute a scriptural argument by a Christian missionary group like Jews For Jesus. I don’t recommend that most Jews try to do this, anyway.

My biggest concern regarding Jews For Jesus isn’t their general missionary activity. It is, rather, their increased efforts to reach out to interfaith couples and families. As the Union for Reform Judaism (I am a Reform rabbi) has severely curtailed its directed outreach efforts to interfaith couples and families, other organizations like Jews For Jesus have stepped into the breach to offer a warm and welcoming community. Individual rabbis and congregations have maintained their outreach but without further official resources, they are at a disadvantage. There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.

It is not enough to encourage interfaith couples and families to make some Jewish choices. This has a desperate tone to it, as if doing some Jewish activities alongside Christian activities is a good way to live a Jewish life. Christianity isn’t an authentic Jewish path. It is a religious path distinct from and different than Judaism. As a rabbi, I need to present the beauty, wisdom, and spirituality of Judaism as the authentic way of life and faith that it is. Jews don’t need Christianity to ‘complete’ us. We do need to be familiar with our core stories and the values and actions that those core stories come to teach us. Our scriptures are the first place to find those core stories, as well as the place to explore our relationship with the Divine. For most of us, our life circumstances are radically different than those of the characters in our core Jewish stories. The relationships expressed in those stories, as well as the search for God’s presence in our lives, continue to be relevant today.

I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life. It won’t. In my work with them, I will continue to be an advocate for authentic Judaism.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

My Hero, Rabbi Denise Eger

Denise Eger

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Many years ago, when I was the rabbi educator at Temple Emet of Woodland Hills, California, I often asked my students to name their Jewish heroes and explain why they made their choices. Sometimes they chose characters from the stories they heard or read, but they mostly chose people that they knew who had affected them in some profound way. This is true for me, as well. I have had many mentors, but one of my heroes is my colleague and friend Rabbi Denise Eger.
Two weeks ago, Rabbi Eger was elected as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the union of Reform rabbis. She is only the third woman in the history of this organization to hold this position and the first openly LGBT person. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration and panel presentation in her honor at her synagogue Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.

Rabbi Eger was not elected as president because she is a lesbian, but rather because of her wisdom, advocacy, and leadership in the Jewish community. In all of these areas, she inspires me. She has been my go-to person when I was crafting wedding ceremonies to celebrate my gay and lesbian clients, as well as for the heterosexual couples. She confirmed to me that love and family is what we make it to be, and that this personal commitment is very much a political statement. Every couple deserves to be celebrated and recognized in the spirituality and desire to be a family together along with the legal rights accorded to heterosexual couples. This is a civil rights issue. Rabbi Eger has been in the forefront in the fight for marriage equality, even at its most ugly and contentious. We prayed together often that marriage equality would be a reality in our lifetimes, and through her advocacy and leadership in this area our prayers are being answered.

Rabbi Eger has been a model for me on feminist issues. She was among the first rabbis I knew to struggle with God language that caused spiritual dissonance for women living Jewish lives. Her insight into prayer and theology helped me in my own spirituality as well as what I could offer to my clients and students. As a feminist, she has and continues to advocate on the issues of equal pay for equal work and family leave benefits. In my own career, she encouraged me to ask to be paid what I’m worth based on my education and experience and not to be intimidated when clients thought they should get a discount because I’m not a man. She inspires me in how she connects with other female colleagues; she taught me that we need to support each other in advocating for ourselves collectively – the “old girls’ club” is important for women in creating opportunities and mentoring of each other.

I am so grateful for Rabbi Eger’s friendship. When I’ve needed guidance in my rabbinate and about my family, she offered me her counsel and kindness. She demonstrates strength and courage in so many areas. Just as she has created a warm and welcoming community at her congregation, so has she nurtured me with warmth. Though we are not far apart in age, her wisdom is far beyond her years. She continues to be one of my blessings.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Architecture and Furniture

by Rabbi Wendy Spearsliving room

We, the Jewish people, are all about our stories. I like to imagine my ancestors sitting around their fires in the wilderness, or around their fireplaces in their homes in all the places Jews have lived around the world, sharing the narratives that inform us about who we are. I see them comparing themselves to the characters in the stories, thinking about the motivations and actions of those people way back when. Those stories can be so exciting.

And then we have portions like T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) that are a shopping list and a blueprint. When I was looking at the commentaries for this portion, Bible scholars seem to agree that this description of the Tabernacle architecture and its furnishings are a remembrance of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem rather than actual instructions for building the Mishkan in the wilderness during the wanderings there.

The salient point for the instructions is near the beginning of the portion, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9) Like the other peoples surrounding them, the Israelites also wanted a special place to worship their god that signified the grandeur and awe of that experience. This shopping list includes all the most beautiful materials they could imagine – fragrant wood, gold, silver, and blue, purple, and crimson fabrics.

Until I became a homeowner, I didn’t really appreciate architecture and interior design. When my husband and I began looking at homes where we would actually live, a lot of things came into focus that just weren’t on my radar. Not only the size of the rooms, but how the light came in through the windows at each time of day affected the colors in those rooms. There were rooms that helped me feel peaceful, and rooms that helped me feel energetic. How the kitchen was laid out affected how efficient we could be in preparing and cleaning up meals so that we had good time together as a family, talking about what’s important to us as well as sharing news of the day.

The various passages in Exodus that I used to find so boring I now see quite differently. Spirituality, now a personal, interior practice of the soul, is expressed in places as well as times. The space provides the environment where the soul can relax, feel connected to others, and be filled with a sense of awe. I have a new appreciation for the power of design of buildings and the furnishings that are inside them.

I think this shopping list and instructions are about bringing our best selves to foster our spirituality. As people rooted to the material world, it’s a challenge to create a place for spirituality every day. We talk a lot now about mindfulness practices, about getting into the place inside ourselves that brings us a sense of connection and appreciation for our outer places and inner spaces. Having a beautiful place to be and sit helps in this process. This is what the shopping list and instructions for the Mishkan represent for me today. I think about the feelings and thoughts I want to cultivate in my home.

My mindfulness practice each day begins at home, rather than at synagogue. My home is a reflection of my family’s values and personality, what’s important to us, how we make a comfortable space to relax, enjoy, and entertain. I made a shopping list when I furnished my home, as I do each time I want to change or add something. The most recent was about curtains – I needed brackets, rods, tiebacks, and the curtains themselves. I imagine the ancient Israelites doing the same when they wanted to create a holy place – the Mishkan. My home is my personal sanctuary; I want it to be beautiful and tranquil so that my mindfulness practice is easier. I strive to make space for where I want to be spiritually as well as for my family’s and my physical comfort. I imagine, then, meeting God in a holy place. And this text brings that into my consciousness.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com and on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

I Am A Jew

Magen David Lacesby Rabbi Wendy Spears

I’ve been listening to the BBC radio news in regard to the terrorist murders in France. I am sickened by what has happened, both in the violence itself and the aftermath. In particular, I heard an interview with a Jewish woman in Paris who attended the rally at which the world leaders were present (sadly, no officials from the Obama administration other than the U.S. Ambassador to France). As this woman was standing in the street, the people around her were talking about why they had come to the rally. When it came to be her turn, she also said she was there because of the Jews who were murdered at the kosher market. As soon as the words came out of her mouth that she was Jewish herself, the people around her backed away from her as if she had the plague and didn’t say another word to her.

At the Golden Globes Awards ceremony on television this past Sunday evening, several of the winners talked about the murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo with a voice of support: Je Suis Charlie. None of them added Je Suis Juif – I am a Jew. Anti-Semitism is alive and dangerous in Europe. No one seems to be as concerned about that as they are about the murdered journalists. The four Jews who were murdered at the kosher market were buried in Israel. And French Jews are immigrating to Israel at double the rate that they did last year. The situation is indeed dangerous for Jews in France.

I also heard yesterday on the radio an interview with a German woman who was reflecting on the murders. When the interviewer asked her about German education on the Holocaust and current efforts to rein in anti-Semitism, she dismissed the question as unimportant to the issues happening today. The interviewer pressed her and she replied that World War II ended 70 years ago and had no bearing on her life or the situation in France. Anti-Semitism seems again to be part of the normal social landscape in Europe, and a minor topic in the minds of Europeans.

As a Jew, I am (of course) sensitive to anti-Semitism more than most of the Europeans being interviewed seem to be. I consider myself blessed, by the accident of my great-grandparents immigration to the U.S.A. instead of Western Europe, to be safe from anti-Semitism today. While the situation in the U.S. isn’t nearly as dangerous as it is in Europe, anti-Semitism is alive here. There were several incidents on college campuses in the fall, including the arrest of students in Ohio protesting at a student senate meeting about a resolution to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Under the guise of anti-Zionism, Jews are at risk. There are still moderate to high levels of security at American Jewish institutions all over the country. Vandalism of Jewish institutions and businesses has little to do with Israel and much to do with hatred of Jews. French Jews have been advised to avoid Jewish institutions and businesses altogether for their own safety. I’m thankful that isn’t the situation for me, and I pray that it won’t be.

In Jewish morning worship each weekday, there is a specific prayer that thanks God for making me a Jew. I continue to pray this with sincerity, especially in a fearful situation. I strongly believe that Judaism brings light and blessing to the world. I will continue to speak up against hatred of all kinds. What happens to me and my people easily spills over onto other minority groups. None of us are safe and secure on our own. We need the support and love of our entire citzenry for our society to be safe.

Rabbi WendyRabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Let The Trees Teach You Torah

pomegranate-treeby Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is now a major motion picture. I’ve seen Into The Woods twice on stage and I’m looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep play the Witch, an iconic role played so brilliantly by the fabulous Bernadette Peters. One of the themes of the play is to be careful of what you wish, because it might come true.

The forest of European folktales is a dark and scary place, full of carnivorous animals that consider humans an easy meal as well as numerous other dangers that can catch the average walker unaware and unprepared. Certainly, Cheryl Strayed finds this to be the case when she walks the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as portrayed in her book and the film Wild. She faces down a bear and suffers through blistering heat and bone chilling cold. These experiences change her irrevocably, as are those who venture into the woods in European folktales. The characters are called to draw on their inner resources of intelligence and ingenuity, as well as their physical strength and perseverance. The folktale woods are places of magic and revelation, both about the world at large and the human psyche.

The trees in Jewish tradition aren’t clustered together as a dark and forbidding forest. They are the dry shrubs and scrubby trees of an arid landscape, providing shade and food. This wilderness, like the European forests, is also a place of magic and revelation; a bush burns unconsumed, a sea parts, and there is fire on the mountain. Jews recognize the wilderness as a place to participate in a revelation that God will continue to care for us and protect us. We experience awe as both wonder and a feeling that causes us to shake in our boots.

Historically, the trees that survive in the arid wilderness are the fig, the olive, the date palm, and the pomegranate. The pomegranate, with it’s abundance of juicy seeds, is by itself considered a symbol of abundance. It’s likely that Adam and Eve ate figs rather than apples, since figs are native to the environment of the Middle East. The honey in the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the sweetness of dates rather than honey from bees.

The Jewish festival of trees, Tu BiShvat (the 15th day of the month Shvat), begins the evening of February 3 this year. The medieval Jewish mystics expanded the holiday from simple tree planting and pruning to include a Passover-like seder that celebrates the turn of the seasons with 4 cups of wine (from white , to pink, to deep red), and a tasting of the various types of tree fruit (those with outer rinds or shells that are inedible, those that have inedible inner pits, and those that are completely edible inside and out) to increase our awareness and appreciation of trees and nature in general. It is also a time to share stories about trees.

Since we are dependent on trees, shrubs, and grasses for the balance of oxygen on our planet, let’s renew our celebration of Tu BiShvat with more tree planting in our own yards as well as in our community, and invite family and friends to share stories around a table with many kinds of fruit and wine. This is a great way to remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner, and to give thanks to God for all of our abundance and blessings.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Oh, Hanukkah Songs! Where Are You?

hanukkahsongsby Rabbi Wendy Spears

As December rolled around each year while I was growing up, I remember my mom decorating for Hanukkah. We had a large and beautiful Star of David decoration, crusted with blue and silver garland and covered with blue light bulbs. While my family slept, I frequently crept out of my bedroom to switch on the electricity for the star and sit in the darkened living room with it. I thought about all the Christians who were celebrating the Christmas season with joyful energetic songs.

But the Hanukkah songs I heard growing up were the same five tired songs, over and over: Rock of Ages, I Had a Little Dreidel, Who Can Retell?, Hanukkah O Hanukkah, Hanukkah A Beautiful Holiday. Yuck! Their energy pales in comparison to the songs my family and I celebrate with now, such as Tom Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica. It didn’t make it better to hear those old songs in Hebrew as well as English, or to be told that Hanukkah was a minor holiday in Judaism over which we shouldn’t really make a fuss. I always yearned for great Hanukkah songs in English that I could sing in December. I dreamed that they would add more musical joy to my family’s Hanukkah parties.

Music is so important to my spirituality. I remember things better when they are set to music. When I attend worship services at synagogue, it is the music that takes me to a feeling of connection to God and community. The words of the prayers don’t feel nearly as beautiful or spiritual without an accompanying melody. I remember the prayers with the music; when I’m trying to recall a particular phrase, I sing to myself in my head (don’t you sing the alphabet song when trying to remember the order of the letters?).

I was uplifted in 1983 when Peter Yarrow (of the folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) wrote the Hanukkah song Light One Candle. It was the beginning of what has become a treasury of new Hanukkah songs in English for an American audience. My current playlist includes 38 songs. I am so excited to share them at my family’s Hanukkah party. The Indigo Girls version of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah gets my toes tapping. Kenny Ellis’ Hanu-Calypso on the album Hanukkah Swings makes me want to get up and dance. I can easily sing along with Joe Black (Eight Nights of Joy) which brings a smile to my face. Check out Be A Light from Neal Katz for exactly the right spirit to make a happy family celebration of Hanukkah.

These new Hanukkah songs are accessible and add obvious joy to the holiday. They add an extra sizzle to my Hanukkah party as the potato latkes (pancakes) sizzle in the frying pan. I listen to them in the car during December as I go to meetings or on my errands. I am enthusiastic about sharing them with my friends and family members. They are available on iTunes. Like my Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears and find more Hanukkah songs there.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.