Thursday, June 9, 2016

Wedding Vows - Reflections on Shavuot 5776

Bea & Sam Gisser, August 1985
On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, our Bubbe and Zayde renewed their wedding vows under a stunning gold lame chuppah, and then, in their inimitable style, threw a party to end all parties. Every family member and friend they could think of was invited. People dressed to the nines (fahrpitzed in Yiddish), the five-star food rocked, Ruby Melnick's orchestra wailed, and the wine flowed. And people talked about that party for years.

Zayde always said: make the effort to attend the simchahs (celebrations), because on the sad occasions you have to go.

What ingredients go into a successful marriage, one that makes it to the 50 year milestone and beyond? 

First are the open and effusive expressions of love between the partners; second are the daily acts, little and large, that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and third is the inherent good character and trustworthiness of the partners themselves. 

With those three ingredients, any marriage will go the distance. Two out of three and the marriage will endure for a while; but with only one out of the three, the prospects for long-term success are not brilliant.

This weekend, Jews have a simchah to attend. Sunday (and Monday in the Diaspora) are Shavuot, the annual holiday when we renew our wedding vows with the A-lmighty. For Shavuot is the anniversary of receiving the Torah - our ketubah (marriage contract) - at Mount Sinai, a mere 3,328 years ago. (My! How the time flies.)

Like Bubbe's and Zayde's marriage, the marriage between the Jewish People and Gcd rests on the same three pillars: our expressions of faith in the One True Gcd; our performance of His mitzvot that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and finally, our inherent good character as embodied in our Jewish lineage, as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of old.

Pop quiz: which of those three components is the most important: Jewish pedigree, keeping the mitzvot, or belief in Gcd?

Most people would probably answer Jewish pedigree, because almost everyone knows Jews who are non-observant. Also, most people are familiar with the Halachah (Jewish law) that if a Jewish woman "marries out", i.e., to a non-Jew, her children will still be considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish Law.

And yet they would be very wrong. [Your surprised face here.]

That rule was a concession to the fact that in olden days, it was not uncommon for young Jewish women to be taken captive by foreigners, conquerors and rapists. (In fact, in Israel today it is estimated that over 3,000 Jewish women have been seduced or kidnapped and are held against their will by abusive Moslem husbands in Arab villages, which, thanks to the Oslo Accords, are out of the reach of Israeli authorities.) The Sages of Israel, understanding the holy nature of Jewish women, assumed that such women would inculcate Jewish values and a sense of Jewish identity in their children, even in situations of extreme abuse and duress. 

And those who understand this Halachah as giving license to marry out are probably not aware that after four successive generations of intermarriage, the children are no longer considered Jewish. (Sad to say, we bear witness in our times that it doesn't usually take that long.)

The correct answer, at least according to the Rambam and other prominent authorities, is belief in the One True Gcd. Why? Because from our clear understanding of the Ikarei HaDat, the Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith, everything else follows. People who understand the Unity and Indivisibility of Gcd; who understand that Gcd actively runs the Universe and and takes a personal interest in the minutest details of every human life; people who acknowledge the authority of Torah - Gcd's Law - in their life; such people will perform the mitzvot enthusiastically, and convey that enthusiasm to their children, continuing the 4,000 year chain of pedigree which we can trace back to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

And what of converts, you may ask? After all, they lack that chain of pedigree. If, as I argue, to be Jewish is to possess not just one or two, but fully all three of these ingredients, how can converts ever be truly Jewish?

This not a question, because sincere converts have a better pedigree than natural-born Jews. 

People who grew up working on the Sabbath, and who grew up eating cheeseburgers, who grew up with the norms of a secular or idolatrous society; such people, who abandon everything they recognize as normal and familiar, to attach themselves to the destiny of the Jewish People and follow the path of Judaism, most especially including the specifics of Jewish Law, are considered to be the direct, first generation descendants of the Patriarchs Abraham and Sarah themselves:
Take yourselves from everything that is familiar to you - your land, your culture, your father's house, to the unknown land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
And thus will the generations that follow the righteous convert merit to have all three components.
Where you go I will go, and where you live I will live. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16)
To be a Jew is to embody all three components, for a three stranded rope does not easily break (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Until the Enlightenment, such a statement would hardly have merited comment. However today, broad swaths of Jews no longer recognize the authority of Torah Law in their lives, and the liberal streams of Judaism give religious sanction to agnosticism in the name of intellectual integrity.

Because we are no longer a community bound together by a set of common axioms and postulates, all that remains to unite the Jewish world is our common ancestry. We are no longer a faith community, rather we are most tenuously connected one to another by our lowest common denominator. And that, in my humble opinion, is a tremendous poverty. Because when one's Jewish identity is based upon ethnicity alone, it speaks more to who your grandparents were than to who your grandchildren will be. 

And this sad state of affairs is the precipitating cause of the modern crises of who is defined as a Jew and whose conversions are to be considered valid.

Somehow, we must once again become a community united by a common faith and a shared belief system. 

So my challenge to you this Shavuot is to renew your wedding vows with the A-lmighty. Take a few minutes to reflect on the basics of your relationship with Gcd. 

Here's your homework:

1.) Curl up in a comfy chair.
2.) Pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of soothing jasmine tea.
3.) Read through and reflect upon each one of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith, which can be found in any reputable prayer book. 
4.) After the holiday, hit me up with your questions.

May Gcd bless the Jewish People with Unity rooted in Belief, Unity rooted in Torah, and lastly, with the bonds of Brotherhood and Family.

Chag Sameach.

(To read an earlier post on the holiday of Shavuot, please click HERE.)

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