Welcoming questions is normative within the Jewish tradition. We thrive in an environment that supports inquiry and interpretation. However, welcoming people of all shapes, sizes, orientations, may meet with some reservations. While Judaism wrestles with who is a Jew, Jews and non-Jews are finding love and forming partnerships across boundaries.
No longer is the interfaith family a concept of the future. Rather, it represents a substantial number of families that clergy and congregational communities need to acknowledge. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, over the past 10 years, more than 50% of nontraditional families identify as “interfaith” and approximately two-thirds of interfaith couples are raising the children as Jews. In contrast, before 1970, only 17% of Jews married outside of the religion.
During a critical moment in Torah (Gen.18), Abraham Aveinu pursues rodef (three strangers). This action creates the foundation for Hachnasat Orechim (the welcoming of guests). The Talmud states that this mitzvah of extending hospitality to other people is even more important than welcoming the Shekecheyanu.
Abraham did not wait for the three to approach his tent. Instead, he went after them to offer shelter and the finest food and beverages he had. Furthermore, we recall his tent was open on all sides. This enabled guests to approach from any direction.
One of the things the chuppah represents is building a life and a home that welcomes others, including strangers. Therefore, the mitzvah to welcome isn’t aspirational, it is essential to who we are as the Jewish people.
Relationships are complex in any situation, but Jews and non-Jews who create an interfaith family may find themselves navigating particular challenges:
Conflicts and misunderstandings that arise from disapproving in-laws.
Loss of prior relationships because of lack of agreement.
Questions about identity and culture.
Differences in history.
How to raise the children without harming the family of origin or religious group.
These challenges can be intensified during the High Holidays, where membership within B’nai Yisrael is historically required and there isn’t a secular component that is easily shared. It can be helpful to anticipate these challenges through conversations and advanced planning, before the High Holidays arise.
“Create in me a clean heart, O’ God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your Presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:12-13).
Themes of introspection, the fragility of life, redemption, renewal, meaning, purpose and God’s compassion infuse this sacred season with possibilities for new understandings. High Holiday communication bridges can be constructed with themes that speak to the hearts and minds of Jews and non-Jews alike. They can foster powerful spiritual and educational moments for children.
But other themes, such as belonging and inclusion, can present obstacles to accessing the beauty of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This happens when people express disinterest and disapproval. In COVID-19 times, the trope has been, “We’re in this together.” Sometimes, the message to the interfaith family can be very different. This is why it can be beneficial to begin the High Holidays with the spirit of genuine welcoming, something that each branch of Judaism espouses.
The Jewish community will continue to navigate new terrain with the interfaith family for a long time. Along the way, the wisdom of our Jewish tradition will provide blueprints that define pathways for authentic hospitality and inclusion.
Embracing contemporary ideas of what makes a family and what makes a Jew, through doing and being, we can seize a tremendous opportunity to encourage compassionate curiosity. With meaningful inquiry and ongoing collaborations, we can build a spacious and open tent that stands upon the pillars of Judaism; a resilient and optimistic tent that would make Abraham and Sarah very proud. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder serves as the rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities.