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.

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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.

“She is more righteous than I”

Judah Gives his Signet, Bracelets and Staff in...

Judah Gives his Signet, Bracelets and Staff in Pledge to Tamar (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kari H. Tuling

There is a Bible story that we do not often hear told because it is not for the ears of children. It is the story of Tamar, the first Tamar, and her relationship with her father-in-law Judah.

Tamar marries one of Judah’s sons, and the son dies; she marries a second son and the second son dies. By the logic of the biblical culture in which she lives, she should then marry the third son, who would impregnate her and provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She also needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage,’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.

But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so: perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.

Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir.

Stuck, Judah does nothing: he condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.

But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks Judah into impregnating her unknowingly by wearing a veil and pretending to be a prostitute. She takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.

Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy by another man during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.

But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father. At that point, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”

Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity with regard to the prostitution.

But in context, the real infidelity here is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern, and he has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. She understands this situation better than he does. She also realizes that Judah is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.

And here we see how much has changed since the time of the Bible: she had indeed operated within the bounds of the biblical law, despite her ruse and despite her prostitution.

The narration then bestows upon her the highest honor available to the biblical woman: she gives birth to twin sons. And that line, in turn, becomes the lineage of the house of David. Even beyond Judah’s declaration that she is more righteous than he is, she is also greatly rewarded for her efforts.

I mention this story for a couple of reasons. The first is to highlight how biblical assumptions are much different than our own; we would condemn her willingness to resort to trickery, her intention to seduce her father-in-law, and her decision to play the harlot. But her reward – and Judah’s response to her pregnancy – each demonstrate that our first impressions would be wrong. We should note here (and note well!) that the biblical concept of marriage is very different than our own institution in its current form. That’s a theme I intend to return to later.

But what prompted this retelling of the story is a different issue entirely.

Much of the narrative invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’

Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of her as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.

It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.

The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?

But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, freeing her.

The story of Tamar offers the genuine hope that the dominant authority (in this case, the patriarchy), might suddenly give way, having gained that flash of insight as to how his actions have contributed to her plight.

But what we should pray for – and what we should work toward – is the gift of insight, the gift that we might immediately ‘see’ those around us who are hiding. Who among us must remain veiled? Who among us are not able to be visible at ‘the opening of the eyes?’ Who among us have been oppressed by our assumptions?

Kari H. Tuling is the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh, New York and is in the process of completing a PhD in Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College. She lives with her family, two cats, and a piano.  This post was drawn from her experience teaching ‘Women in the Bible’ as adjunct instructor for the Judaic Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati, using texts from Aschkenasy and Frymer-Kensky.