Parsha Yitro

Shabbat shalom.

I’m going to tell you a story today. An adventure in interfaith marriage. But first, some background.

As many of you know, I am not Jewish. I was confirmed as an Episcopalian around the age of 12 or 13. I won’t drone on about Christianity today, but here are a couple of tidbits. My family didn’t attend church frequently (this was an uneasy compromise between my mother, who
would’ve liked to go more often than not, and my father, who would’ve preferred to avoid it completely), but I do remember that confirmation, with the taking of communion, and a Bishop painting an oil cross on my forehead (I know, weird, right?). CAPSLEG. That’s a handy anagram for the seven deadly sins. But I digress.

By the time I got to the age of being able to make my own decisions about this kind of thing, it seemed as though my father’s wishes had won out. Christianity didn’t take with me, and I never attended church. Being an Episcopalian has never felt central to my identity.

So when I reached the age of 30 and fell in love with Shifra, it was easy to agree with what she asked: that we keep a Jewish home together. No Christmas decorations. No Easter baskets. I do think we might be guilty of some ancient Egyptian cat worship. But at any rate, over the years I’ve come to know a lot more about Judaism then I’ll ever remember about the church. And I’ve absorbed so much of Jewish observance that it’s come to feel like an important part of my life.

That’s not to say, however, that I feel Jewish. At the very outset of our relationship, Shifra introduced me to the concept of a Ger Toshav, a “stranger within your gates,” the gentile living within the Jewish community, bound to follow the seven laws of Noah. I don’t have a good anagram for those laws, but they are as follows:

1. Not to worship idols
2. Not to curse God
3. To establish courts of justice
4. Not to commit murder
5. Not to commit adultery or sexual immorality.
6. Not to steal
7. Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal

These laws have some overlap with the Ten Commandments as this parsha gives them. I have never broken any of those laws. Since arriving at the bima a few minutes ago.

According to Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, Ger Toshav is translated as “temporary resident”, “landed immigrant”, “resident alien”; in other words someone who has a “green card” and is accepted into the society except for a few key privileges. There are ritual acts like eating the Passover lamb that a Ger Toshav is not allowed to do. Rabbi Raphael cites a book called the Path of the Righteous Gentile, by Chaim Clorfene and Yaakov Rogalsky which explains, “During the 410 years that the first Temple stood and the 420 years that the Second Temple stood, Gentiles who wanted to dwell in the land of Israel had to agree to fulfil the Noachide laws and had the right to enter the Holy Temple and offer sacrifices to G-d.”

So how do I make sense of being a Ger Toshav who has some rights and privileges but not others in this community? There are a few things I’ve worked out over the years. For instance, when the Torah is taken from the Ark and carried through the sanctuary, I don’t reach out to touch it. For one thing, I’m not wearing a tallis. But more importantly, the Torah doesn’t feel like something that’s mine. I respect it greatly, but I don’t have a sense of what it would mean for me to reach out and touch it. Instead, I stand behind Shifra and put my hand on her shoulder while she touches it. She’s my connection to it. That makes sense to me.

Also, you may have noticed that when Shifra was called for an aliya earlier, I stood, but didn’t join her at the bima.

There’s another thing she and I do when I’m here for services. When the mishaberach prayer is about to start, Shifra takes out her list of people for whom she’s praying. And she’ll turn to me to ask if I have anyone she should add to the list. And this is where the tale begins in earnest, the adventure in interfaith marriage.

She always turns to me at that moment and asks “Do you have anybody?” and if I have any friends who are sick, I let her know, and she includes them in her prayers. We’ve done this many, many times through the years. But today I want to tell you about one particular time when something odd happened. Apparently I was a little lost in thought that day. Shifra turned to me and asked “Do you have anybody?”, but I misheard her. I thought she said “Do you have any money?”

Now at this point, we’d been members here for years, we’d been keeping a Jewish home for even longer, I was completely familiar with the laws and rituals around Shabbat. I knew full well that you don’t transact business, that the Orthodox don’t even carry cash. I knew about the structure of Shabbos services and what part was coming next. And yet. And yet! For some reason, on that day, I thought she said “Do you have any money?”

And so of course, the next thing I thought to myself was, “Oh, right — the collection plate is coming around.” And I reached into my pocket and got out my wallet, and started getting out some bills. And Shifra just sat there looking at me like “What in the world are you doing?!?”

Years later, she and I still laugh together about this. I like to think that we can make light of it because we’ve worked so hard in our marriage to get to a place where we accept each other as we are, and are honest and direct in our communication.

Now I don’t mean to barge in here like Yitro and start giving a bunch of unsolicited advice, but let me tell you some detail about some of the work we’ve done. During the year we were engaged, we started reading the Intermarriage Handbook together. And I would recommend this book to anybody in an interfaith marriage. It’s wonderfully thorough and thoughtful, and has a number of exercises that we did together. It illuminated a lot of things for us that are challenging for couples like us, especially the way so many conflicts can arise over things that aren’t even religious, but rather cultural. And it also helped me to see very clearly why Shifra’s initial stipulation that we keep a Jewish home together was extremely reasonable and sensible.

But we’ve also spent time talking about religious things, too. Including a subject that is central to the parshah this week: chosenness. Our first discussion of it was extremely difficult. But we took it head on and came out stronger for it. I’m embarrassed to confess this, but I came into the relationship assuming that chosenness was a claim to superiority. Shifra found a brilliant lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for me to read, and I learned so much from it. What’s stayed with me most strongly about it is his discussion of something that differentiates Judaism from the other major monotheistic religions, which is that the story goes from the universal to the particular, as opposed to Christianity and Islam, where the story goes in the opposite direction. So I came to understand chosenness as meaning something very specific about the particular covenant between G-d and the Israelites, and that other peoples have their own relationships with G-d.

So Shifra and I really reached a great level of understanding together, as we planned our wedding, but there were more challenges ahead. Planning our ceremony proved difficult, trying to include as much Jewish ritual as we could, even though I’m not Jewish. I was asked by
friends a couple of times along the way, why not just convert?

And the answer is the same now as it was thirteen years ago. As I’ve mentioned already today, I don’t feel Jewish. Listen, we’ve already started cleaning for Pesach, okay? And we do this every year, we start cleaning in January so we can feel secure getting out the Pesadik dishes in a few months, knowing we’re not in danger of treyfing them. If I don’t feel Jewish after this many years of doing that, let’s just give up. It’s not gonna happen.

What would it mean for me to feel Jewish? To me, it’d mean I’d have some sense of a relationship with G-d and a feeling of direct connection to the Torah, or failing that, it’d mean something cultural, something passed on to me through generations of my family. And none of that is there for me. I’m only ever confused by the concept of G-d. And my family of origin is about as WASPy as they come. Now let us never speak of this again.

Yitro, Moses’s not Jewish father in law, also supports Moses, giving some micromanagement about how not to micromanage, but Yitro leaves to return to Midian before the Ten Commandments are given. The revelation at Sinai is not a revelation being given to him, even though his presence was helpful to Moses. The parsha is called after Yitro, however, instead of being called Revelation At Sinai, and perhaps that underscores the importance of the kind of role that a loving, supportive non-Jew can have.

If you don’t mind my bringing up a wise old Jewish sage with whom I do strongly identify, let me quote Bob Dylan: “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

I believe them too. And in the meantime, the Torah is something I revere and respect, but it’s a step removed from me. Given that I feel this way, deep in my bones, to convert would feel to me like a dishonor. A dishonor to Judaism, and a dishonor to myself. This is my last piece of Yitro-like advice for the day: as you seek to find your place in the world, do so as your full self. Don’t deny anything about who you are. Bring all of that with you. The world has imprinted a lot of things upon you as you’ve made your way along, and they’ll crop up in ways that surprise you. Suddenly you’re at synagogue for Shabbat services, craning your neck as you look around the room to see where the collection plate is.

Please don’t think this means that I disagree with the choice to convert. My admiration for the converts in this community is great. I count many of you as close friends, and I see the way you’ve made that choice with your eyes open. I would just say that I advise caution if the decision to convert is being made in order to please somebody else.

I feel so grateful every day to share a Jewish home with Shifra, a home where I feel so loved and so fully seen and respected. And I feel so grateful to be a part of this community, where I’ve been welcomed exactly as I am, from the very beginning. So let me say thanks. Thank you in particular to everybody who’s helped us with sponsoring kiddush today. And to this entire congregation, thank you for having me with you, holding Shifra’s hand, at the foot of the mountain.

Shabbat Shalom.