Principles of Radically Inclusive Judaism

Draft November, 2018

Why Radical Inclusion?

Intermarriage is a huge and inexorable phenomenon in modern societies. Interfaith families need to engage in Jewish life and community if Judaism is to thrive into the future.

Interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions will engage in a Judaism of meaning if they understand and experience the value that engaging in Jewish traditions can add to their lives. They will not engage if they encounter negative attitudes about intermarriage and partners from different faith traditions, or policies flowing from those attitudes that exclude interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions from full participation.

The fundamental Jewish narrative about intermarriage is negative and needs to change to the positive. Treating intermarriage and partners from different faith traditions as sub-optimal alienates them from engaging Jewishly. Treating intermarriage as a threat to the distinctiveness of Jewish identity and Jewish traditions – as leading to fewer Jews and less Judaism – is self-fulfilling. So are boundaries that look down on and exclude partners from different faith traditions from full participation.

Paradoxically, to maintain distinctive Jewish traditions, Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations need to be radically inclusive of interfaith couples, partners from different faith traditions, and their children, treating them as equal to inmarried couples, Jews, and their children.

We need an opening of hearts and minds – in interfaith couples, towards embracing a beautiful meaningful tradition, and in Jews and Jewish leaders, towards embracing an inclusive approach – to achieve a Judaism revitalized by the engagement of interfaith families.

A Judaism of Meaning

Traditionally, Jews engaged in Jewish practices because they viewed those practices as commanded by God, part of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Today, liberal Jews see Jewish practices as aspirational, not commanded. A major motivation to engage in Jewish practices is the belief that the practices have intrinsic worth, helping them and adding value to their lives, what Rabbi David Ellenson has described as a Judaism of meaning.

Engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community requires persuading them of the value that Jewish traditions can add to their lives. We need to emphasize and promote Jewish traditions as adaptable sources of value that can address the needs not only of Jews but also of their partners and children, help parents raise grounded children, help Jews and their partners fulfill their spiritual needs in contemporary Jewish expressions that are universal as well as particular, and provide community with other Jewishly-engaged people. This requires a broad concept of Jewish life, beyond traditional observances and measures; that includes understanding that interfaith families can celebrate Christmas and still be Jewish.

Philosophy of Radical Inclusion

In the traditional exclusivist Jewish perspective, Judaism is a system of and for Jews, where there is a “fundamental distinctiveness of Jewish identity:” people who identify as Jews and as part of the Jewish people engage in Jewish traditions, thinking and/or acting in certain ways. What matters is who is “in” and who is “out,” who is a Jew and who is not.

“Others” – people from different faith traditions – don’t think or act in Jewish ways, or aren’t allowed to. If someone from a different faith tradition wants to “do” Jewish, they can convert in order to “be” Jewish and part of the Jewish people. In this view, it doesn’t make sense for someone who is not Jewish to live Jewishly.

The traditional perspective is tribalistic, a Judaism of borders and boundaries that engenders negative attitudes about the others, and policies that exclude them.

Identifying as Jewish can motivate people to engage in Jewish traditions – not as a boundary that serves to exclude others, but as a source of feeling attachment and even love for Jewish life and community. That is particularly true of children raised to identify in whole or in part as Jewish.

Identity and peoplehood – and feeling attached to Israel, which is integrally related to peoplehood – are particularly challenging for interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions. A partner from a different faith tradition by definition is not a Jew, not part of the Jewish people, not potentially attached to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, not a person who lives Jewishly.

The concepts of Jewish peoplehood and conversion to become part of the Jewish people are particularistic notions that are not appealing to most interfaith couples. Prioritizing “being” Jewish alienates partners from different faith traditions. Focusing on their difference discourages them from engaging in Jewish life and raising their children with Judaism.

In a radically inclusivist perspective, Judaism is a system where what matters is “doing,” not “being” – the engaging, not whether the person engaging is “in” because a Jew or “out” because from another tradition. Partners from different faith traditions can live Jewishly without being Jewish. Partners who are engaging are regarded and treated as equal to Jews; there is no insistence that partners from different faith traditions convert, to “be” Jewish, part of the Jewish “people” with a Jewish identity in order to be allowed to “do” Jewish. Radical inclusion requires that we shift our conception of the Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes not only Jews but also their partners who are engaging in Jewish traditions.

The philosophical foundations for radically inclusive Judaism lie in the Torah. The purest expression of a radically inclusive attitude is the command to love the stranger as yourself, Leviticus 19:34. The purest expression of radically inclusive policies is the command that “the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you,” Numbers 15:15-16. The theoretical foundation for the concept of a broader Jewish community lies in the Torah’s suggestion that the gerim toshavim – “strangers in your camp,” or, in Everett Fox’s translation, “the sojourner that sojourns with you” (Lev. 19:34) – were included among the people who entered into God’s covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God… every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the sojourners who sojourn among you . . . to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day, in order to establish you henceforth as [a] people….” (Deut. 29:9-12). Elsewhere the Torah refers to kol adat b’nai yisrael – “the entire community of the children of Israel.” (Lev. 19:2)

Identity and Peoplehood in a Radically Inclusive Judaism

Some view Judaism as a wisdom system that helps people live better lives and is available to anyone, with no identity or community required. But feelings of belonging motivate people to engage in Jewish traditions, and doing so in community with other Jewishly-engaged people can be rewarding and sustaining. For partners from different faith traditions, feeling that they belong also tends to minimize feelings of being different and excluded that inhibit their Jewish living and child raising.

It is critical for interfaith couples and in particular partners from different faith traditions to feel that they belong in Jewish communities, which is why radical inclusion is so important.

Some partners from different faith traditions who engage in Jewish life will identify their partner and their family but not themselves as Jewish – a “Jewish family in which one parent is not Jewish” – but still think of themselves as part of or a member of a Jewish family or community. Bound to Jewish communities through loving relationships with partners with a Jewish background, they can feel proud of the history and accomplishments of – and even love – the Jewish community, without identifying as Jewish themselves.

Some partners from different faith traditions may feel that Jewish history and traditions have a claim on them through their relationship with their partner, and are compelling and valuable to them, and come to identify in some fashion as Jewish themselves: “partly” Jewish, “kind of” Jewish, “Jew-ish.” Some may even eventually decide to make that identification formal and convert – a wonderful personal choice.

The more we enable partners from different faith traditions to “do” Jewish, the more they will feel that they belong in Jewish communities that are made up of Jews and their partners, and the more their children, the children of intermarriage, will identify in whole or in part as Jews. So long as they feel that they belong, how the partners from different faith traditions identify is incidental.

Radical inclusion is also key to the Jewish partners in interfaith relationships continuing to identify as Jewish and continuing to feel that they belong in Jewish communities. Feeling part of a broadly-conceived Jewish community is a more universal approach that appeals to Jews as well as their partners from different faith traditions who are uncomfortable with tribalism, chosenness and particularism.

Eliminate Boundaries

Interfaith families who want to engage in Jewish life will not feel that they belong to the extent they encounter boundaries that exclude them. The Jewish community’s approach, consistent with the traditional exclusivist perspective, has been to patrol and maintain boundaries; that needs to change. Viewing the covenant as being with the Jewish people only, and practices being commanded to Jews only, reinforces boundaries that exclude others from participating.

Boundaries that don’t allow recognition of patrilineal Jews, or partners from different faith traditions to engage in rituals, or rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, or rabbinic students to be intermarried, or children being raised in two religions to attend Jewish schools – all need to be eliminated.

An inclusivist perspective compels different positions on all of these boundary issues so that Judaism can be a system for all who want to engage in it. Patrilineal children would be recognized as Jewish in all situations except those in systems where halachic status matters. Partners from different faith backgrounds would be allowed to choose to participate fully in all rituals; they would be considered part of the “us” entitled to join in and lead all prayers. Rabbis would not turn away couples seeking wedding officiation. Feeling included would advance and reinforce their efforts to live Jewishly and raise children with Judaism.

The Intermarriage Debate

An exclusivist perspective makes sense in closed societies with segregated religious and ethnic groups. But in modern open societies, group boundaries are weakened. People don’t want to be socially exclusivist with negative attitudes about “others.”

The conservative response to modernity is to seek to preserve ethno-religious groupiness by insisting on social exclusivism. These measures – tribally elevating Jews and demeaning the “other,” focusing on who is “in” and who is “out,” discouraging intermarriage and preferring and promoting inmarriage, and promoting conversion – have never worked, can’t work, and only alienate those who intermarry by regarding them as sub-optimal. With widespread intermarriage, that leads to fewer people engaging in Jewish traditions. We need to eliminate the preference for in-marriage and the goal of having children in-marry.

Critics of intermarriage would restore a desired world that can no longer exist. They define in-marrying as a fundamental Jewish behavior; by definition, then, those who intermarry are engaging less in Jewish behavior. Other measures of tribal Jewish behaviors, like feeling attached to other Jews, similarly “stack the deck” against intermarrieds.

Clinging to Jewish groupiness is a fundamental mistake. Critics of intermarriage want to see more engagement in Jewish traditions, but prioritizing people identifying as Jews over people engaging in Jewish traditions leads to less engagement, not more.

We can engage interfaith families in distinctive, and even revitalized, Jewish traditions, but to do so we need to radically include partners from different faith traditions among those who are invited, encouraged, and supported to engage in them. Instead of focusing on who is a Jew and who isn’t, excluding those who aren’t, we need to let everyone who wants to, to “do” Jewish. Radical inclusion of partners from different faith traditions in a Judaism of meaning is key to interfaith couples and their children practicing distinctive Jewish traditions into the future.

A Serious Campaign to Engage Interfaith Families

Engaging interfaith families requires massive investment in programs that understand their couple and family dynamics and are aimed at attracting and addressing their needs, in particular to help couples communicate and make decisions about having religious traditions together, to build relationships with trusted rabbi advisors (including officiation referral) and to build community with other interfaith couples (including discussion groups for new couples).