This the text version of my sermon from 5/5/18, reflecting on the upcoming bylaws change for the congregation in terms of the membership status of people who are not Jewish.
Just a couple of days ago we posted a link to our FB page of a blog post that has now been clicked on and read more than 3000 times. The post explains a change to the synagogue by-laws that the congregation will vote into effect Wednesday evening May 16th at our annual meeting. The by-law change has to do with the status of non-Jews at Beth El and membership. Up to this point, someone who was not Jewish could not technically be a member of the congregation. For years and years there have been many non-Jews in our community, playing meaningful roles in the life of the synagogue, making sure that their children are at Hebrew school every week, sometimes even attending services regularly, involved with committees. But until now, technically they were not members.
But the recommended change in the by-laws will formally grant membership status to non-Jews for the very first time in Beth El’s 70 years history. There will still be some caveats in place, and for the time being people who are not Jewish would not be asked to chair committees or to serve on the board. But at next year’s annual meeting, folks who are not Jewish and who are members will have a vote and will be fully counted in the required quorum for the meeting.
On the one hand the change is symbolic more than anything else. For many years – going back at least two decades – Beth El has been one of the most progressive synagogues in the Conservative Movement in terms of opening our doors to non-Jews and interfaith families. People who are not Jewish have been welcomed to our bimah, to stand with their children at the ark during a bar or bat mitzvah and read a prayer, or to stand with their Jewish spouse at the Torah during a baby naming. Some ten years ago or so we expanded the roles a non-Jew could play during services, creating opportunities for someone who is not Jewish to stand before the congregation and lead us in prayer during responsive readings, both Friday nights and Shabbat mornings. We have an interfaith havurah here, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey. The Beth El clergy, from Rabbi Agus to Rabbi Loeb to the present day, have always made interfaith dialogue an important part of their communal work.
But this is something that is different. It is a formal embrace of those who are not Jewish, and by extension it is a formal embrace of the interfaith community. You probably know that the intermarriage rate in the non-Orthodox Jewish community these days is hovering around 60%. When I spoke about this issue a couple of months ago I said that it is time for the community to stop thinking about this issue as one that we need to solve. It is not solvable. The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher. Are there things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly? Yes! Home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another, day school can help too – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.
If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular. Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you. And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them. After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home. Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.
So the by-law change is one of the ways – just one – that we are trying to say to interfaith families you can find a comfortable, meaningful, and welcoming spiritual home at Beth El for your family.
By and large as news of this change has spread the reaction has been very positive. Last I looked there were close to 130 likes on the FB post, and a number of positive comments. But I also understand that there will always be those who are uncomfortable with change, and I would like to say a word or two about that.
Because the truth is Judaism has always embraced change. This morning’s Torah portion happens to be an excellent example of that. I don’t know if you had a chance – or the inclination – to read through the entire portion, but if you did you might have noticed some of the following things described in the text. Passover falls in the first month of the year. A fair number of the verses deal with physical imperfections that in ancient times disqualified a priest from serving the congregation. The system of religious worship that is described is based almost exclusively on animal sacrifice. The celebration of Passover is mentioned in the portion, but a seder is not part of that celebration. And at the end of the portion, there is an Israelite who publicly curses using God’s name, and that person is taken outside the camp, and everyone who heard what the person said helps to stone that person to death.
So if you wonder whether Judaism changes or not, all you have to do is read this morning’s portion to know that – yes! Judaism changes. And that in fact it sometimes changes radically, dramatically. Passover now falls in the 7th month of the year, not the first, and it is celebrated through the rituals of the seder. Our system of worship does not involve the sacrifice of animals any more. The idea that we might tell someone they can’t serve the congregation because they have a physical disability is abhorrent to us. And forget about the idea of taking someone who has cursed using God’s name and stoning them to death. Were that law still practiced in modern times Rabbi Loeb wouldn’t have made it past 10 o’clock in the morning most days.
And I would only add this. All of the changes that have been made in the tradition, that we can see by looking in this morning’s Torah portion, and the hundreds and hundreds of other changes made in the course of our 3500 year old history, have made Judaism stronger, wiser, more tolerant and more humane. And these changes have also enabled the Jewish people to survive, century after century after century.
May the change that we are embracing as a congregation on May 16th do the same, for Beth El, for our community, for our families, so that we can continue to move from strength to strength –