Is the interfaith marriage of the year a sign of “a much richer and better world”?
Rabbi Irwin Kula was my boss at CLAL in the late 1990s, and he and the other rabbis on staff were intensely interested in making Judaism “bigger” — that is, a religion that spoke beyond the practitioners themselves and became part of the spiritual conversation of the wider world. That was the message Irwin brought during his appearances on Oprah. As he once told an interviewer:
“In the past, we thought our goal in preparing rabbis was exclusively to make Jews more Jewish,” Kula said as we talked. While that remains an important calling within congregations around the world, “the new challenge is whether Jewish wisdom can be made accessible to anyone who is seeking meaning, purpose and social development.”
Although I was one of the few non-rabbis on staff, I always found myself arguing the “traditionalist” perspective. It’s all well and good to make Judaism more “accessible” to non-Jews, I’d argue, but if we don’t focus on making Judaism matter to Jews, it will become just another dead wisdom tradition in someone’s spiritual toolbox. Or the Kabbalah Centre.
Irwin’s latest essay, on the Chelsea Clinton wedding, offers a similar challenge to “traditionalists.” Their interfaith wedding, he writes, is increasingly typical of the way American religionis moving from the “cathedral” to the “bazaar” — that is, even as some faiths become more rigid and exclusivist, others ”are becoming more diverse, inclusive, and syncretistic”:
Religious leaders who do not see these changes as threatening the integrity of their faiths and groups will need to be concerned less with creating good upstanding members of their group (theologically or sociologically) and more with providing wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that is accessible, usable, and good enough to get the job done: helping “mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers” construct ever-changing lives that are more ethical, vital, and loving within their already-existing webs of relations.
Yes, there will be loss, about which traditionalists are appropriately feeling scared and angry and which liberals and secularists tend to deny. But just as the most important part of a bowl is the empty space that can be filled, so this loss can open space for a new reality, one that holds the potential for a much richer and better world as we transcend the exclusivity of our creeds, dogmas, and tribes, and — here is the contemporary challenge — as we include the best of our inherited traditions. Loving each other across boundaries and building families to which multiple traditions are brought is far better for the planet than what our religions have too often done: demonizing the other.
Irwin’s endorsement of such “syncretism” flies directly in the face of most Jewish conventional wisdom these days, which, with most institutions freaking out about intermarriage, tends to focus on making upstanding Jewish citizens, not helping the blenders “love each other across boundaries.”
Irwin’s vision is compelling for humanity — not so much for the Jews qua Jews. He forces me to confront the very raison d’être of religious belonging — is it merely to reproduce and make more practitioners of your particular faith, or spread the sum total of happiness, wisdom and justice in the world, no matter the flavor? That’s a tough choice, and I see how one often contradicts the other.
In the case of a people as small as the Jews, however, I worry that the end result of such syncretism will be, if not extinction, then survival of its most traditionalist, most fundamentalist practitioners, while the Jewish folks most interested in “building families to which multiple traditions are brought” will disappear in a generation or two.