In 2004 Rabbi Janet Marder at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos sent shockwaves through the Jewish world by blessing the non-Jewish spouses who were members of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The message was clear: Cherish your non-Jewish partner.
Rabbi Marder said, “What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.” You can read the entire blessing here.
The blessing took place a few years before my family joined that congregation, and people were still talking about it. At the time, my wife was not Jewish and we picked Beth Am because the website was covered with welcoming messages, and our makeup is diverse – interfaith, same sex, intercultural marriages abound. We felt comfortable and welcomed. But it didn’t mean that there weren’t issues, issues that I was insensitive to.
I now understand how much I took my wife’s decision to embrace raising a Jewish family for granted. When I went back and read the blessing today, the following passage really struck me. “You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language.”
As I have written before, I am uncomfortable when people use Hebrew phrases that I don’t know. How much more difficult it must be for people who did not grow up Jewish. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really put it together, I did not put myself in her shoes.
Rabbi Marder’s blessing from 13 years ago also reminds me how Mussar can help strengthen relationships, by helping us recognize and cherish the differences in the other. To be clear, I think it is particularly important to cherish the differences, because despite those differences, our partner chooses to be with us.
Mussar, particularly American Mussar, offers an opportunity offers intermarried couples an opportunity to share Jewish values in everyday life without needing to know Hebrew or traditional ritual practice. Being a good person is the essence of being Jewish, and Mussar offers a roadmap to bring our everyday actions into alignment with our aspirational values. Here are three soul traits that can help us cherish our non-Jewish partner.
Honor Rabbi Marder was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor, in that she was going out of her way to Honor the Divine spark in others, when they are different from us. We can practice Honor by asking our partner how they are doing, and if they are uncomfortable or struggling with any part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Work to make them feel more comfortable.
Gratitude – I did not sufficiently appreciate my wife for agreeing to raise a Jewish family. Take my advice, say thank you, and go out of your way to show your Gratitude by being sensitive and inclusive. The person you are with wants to be included, and understandably may be struggling. As Rabbi Marder said, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
Order – Don’t just assume that your non-Jewish partner has to do all the child care or food preparation. When the kids were little, I often left it to my wife to take them out so I didn’t have to miss any of the service. Offer them an opportunity to participate in services and take your turn bringing the kids outside if they start to act up. And do some planning, to find an activity that the whole family can do together. For example, after services, plan to get together with a large group of friends.
Moses said, “I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This is a choice we all have every day. The reality is that you have someone in your life who care about you, but is really different. It might be an intermarriage, but there are other ways to be different. You might both be Jewish, but one of you is apathetic or unenthusiastic. Or you may share the same religion, but one of you is a vegan, or god forbid, a Trump supporter.
You can choose to ignore the differences, and allow them to be a source of conflict or pain. Or, you can choose to make them a blessing, and go out of your way to connect despite your differences.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are given an opportunity to really look at those relationships, to make amends for our mistakes, and decide to do better in the future.
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Image Credit: Rosh Hashanah by Lilach Daniel via Flickr CC