Judaism must learn to welcome outsiders to its traditions - opinion

Non-Jewish people should be able to explore Jewish traditions and elements without having to commit to converting.

Ambassadors and senior diplomats join Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon at a mock Passover seder (photo credit: ISRAEL MISSION TO THE UN)
Ambassadors and senior diplomats join Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon at a mock Passover seder
(photo credit: ISRAEL MISSION TO THE UN)

If something once thought to be as immutable as gender and sexuality can be increasingly seen as an ever-changing continuum, so too can religion. Even the notion that one is exclusively part of the Jewish people as an ethnic group no longer works for everyone, especially in the American Diaspora.

As a matter of both justice and effectiveness, American Jewish institutions should do even more to reach and care for those who do not have two Jewish parents, are not Ashkenazi, are not straight, and are not partnered. We should even look beyond people who identify themselves as Jews for life.

Much as we should continue honoring membership in a people, we should also acknowledge the ways that people can be Jewish, do Jewish, and experience Jewish in more ephemeral ways. Those who love Katzinger’s Deli in Columbus, Ohio might want to feel a sense of Ashkenazi homecoming only for a single meal.

Those who meditate with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality online might only seek hassidic notions of connection to God for the span of a meditation sit. Korean – and Chinese-Americans, who grew up with volumes of the Talmud in translation might want to read rabbinic wisdom for an afternoon, without committing to a lifetime of yeshiva learning. Black Pentacostal Christians might wish to use the Passover Seder as a ritual of liberation, without seeking to join the people that came into its own through the Exodus.

Much as Americans of all backgrounds partake in yoga – which is rooted in Hindu tradition – or find inspiration from Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh, so too should we open ourselves to the possibility that Jewish ideas, practices, histories and ways of being might be shared as a wisdom tradition that is open to all. Opposite the tradition held fast by ancestors forced into shtetls and ghettos resides a wisdom tradition that can be embraced by all and help people navigate our time of unparalleled complexity in human life. When some leaders of Hillel speak of “doing Jewish,” they typically do not only speak of Jews. When CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership speaks of “Jewish as a public good,” it does not mean solely for those whose belonging is affirmed by Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Jews of color were among those representing the Indianapolis Jewish community at the annual Festival of Faiths to celebrate the diverse religious landscape in central Indiana. (credit: INDIANAPOLIS JCRC)Jews of color were among those representing the Indianapolis Jewish community at the annual Festival of Faiths to celebrate the diverse religious landscape in central Indiana. (credit: INDIANAPOLIS JCRC)

The desperate hunger for age-old wisdom, inspiration and rootedness in a time of unparalleled flux means that we need to be open to the possibility that in addition to Jews By Choice, Jews of Color, and Jews of every background and combination possible in the realm of human life, there may be a growing number of people who are Jewishly inspired, but do not consider themselves rooted in genetic Judaism, a desire to convert, or other typical formulations of our tradition. They might in time come to be Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, humanists – and people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds – who seek to experience that which we call Jewish.

Like the houseguest who is not part of the household; like the resident who does not become a citizen; like the community visitor who does not become a community member, we need to celebrate a growing hinterland of Jewish experiences and ways of being. These are more varied and expansive than earlier manifestations of Jewish life and will require a new vocabulary that acknowledges multiple paths to doing Jewish and forms of identification within each one. Rather than providing a path out of Judaism as an ethnicity, they will provide a path into relationship with Jewish wisdom, beliefs, spiritual practices, culture and community.

As Rabbi Irwin Kula and Professor Vanessa Ochs reflect, “Our sturdy Jewish tradition allows us freedom to experiment, innovate, and be expressive in Jewish language. Jews have always developed liturgical and ritual responses to their lives… ” Insofar as Jewish is a language of spiritual expression in addition to all else, it can be one accessible to all.

We suspect that the new Jewish awakening will not only be shaped by those on the edge of Jewish life, but also by the growing ranks of people beyond the edge of our unnecessarily narrow communal self-definitions. This can be a path towards self-actualization. Our wisdom can indeed be a “light unto the world” (Isaiah 42:6) if only we allow it to shine beyond the walls of the institutions and community buildings that seek to contain it at the expense of those who do not venture in.

An ethos of pluralism will enable these new boundaries of Jewish experience to combine with existing ones. More than a simple affirmation of the validity of a Jewish denomination other than one’s own, it will entail affirmation that a person can be Jewishly inspired in any number of dimensions, in an authentic, knowledgeable way – in distinction from or in addition to becoming Jewish as a marker of identity.

Not only could a person be Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox (and any number of subgenres therein), but someone could be a gender-fluid, black, atheist, developing a tikkun middot practice to improve one’s humane qualities – who lives as a Jew but has never formally converted.

One could be a passionate religious Zionist, immigrant, Jew by Choice with a meditation practice and yearning for a personal relationship to God. One could be ultra-Orthodox in practice, a deist in theology, lacking in any Jewish ancestry and an expert in rabbinic commentaries from the purported 12th-century agnostic rabbi par excellence, Moses Maimonides. One could also be a Hindu who has adopted a traditional Shabbat practice to unplug from a stressful week. This is not about encouraging appropriation, but rather appreciation, with the confidence that our tradition has much to offer others.

As the approaches to Jewish experience broaden radically, our Diaspora will require an equally radical ethos of intra-religious pluralism – which affirms the inherent good of Jewish experiences in any number of areas of life, without expecting lifetime membership of the sort once assumed to be definitional. Rather than being a path away from Judaism, broadening the scope of accepted practice and actively bringing Jewish ideas and ways of being to more people will provide a springboard for welcoming many more people who seek to forever entwine their lives with the Jewish people, Jewish community, and ways of life inspired.

Benjamin Spratt is senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. Joshua Stanton is rabbi of East End Temple and Senior Fellow of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This article is adapted from their forthcoming book, Awakenings: Transformations in Jewish Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.