Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Price of Belonging: Parashat Emor

One of the emotional hallmarks of the modern Jewish experience is feeling homeless.  So much of our history is shaped by occupying in-between spaces, living somewhere between citizenship and  isolation.  This history of existing betwixt and between has caused indescribable vulnerability, pain, anxiety,  confusion, and exhaustion for our people.  Even now when we possess a national homeland, we fight among ourselves about who deserves citizenship, full Jewish status, and the rights and benefits of membership.  We all endeavor for a tent large enough to house all of our souls, yet circumscribed enough to still be meaningful.  This is the conflict that shapes the contemporary landscape of Jewish life.  Sometimes these disputes serve as a source of fruitful creativity, and other times they have disastrous and counterproductive consequences.

In this week's portion, Parashat Emor, we encounter a Biblical claim of membership that, according to midrash, is ultimately rejected.  Leviticus 24:10-14, we encounter a story of a man who is not named, but whose genealogy is included in the text.  His mother was an Israelite and his father was an Egyptian.  His mother is named, "Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan," but his father remains anonymous.  Why do we know the name of his mother and not of his father?  There is no explicit reason stated: maybe he is not there, or maybe it is because as a non-Israelite, he is literally not recognized within the camp. Whatever the reason for his name's erasure, our ancestors drew a link between his son's mixed lineage and the crime his son commits: blaspheming God's name.

According to the Sifre, a halachic midrash, there is a context to this man's crime:


There came out … one whose mother was Israelite – whence did he come out?  From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan.   He said to them, I am [the son] of a daughter of the tribe of Dan.  They said to him:  Scripture says: [The Israelites shall camp] each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral [lit. fathers’] house (Num. 2:2).  So he went to Moses’ court, and he came out having been found against, and he stood their and blasphemed among the Israelites – which teaches us that he had become a proselyte. (Sifra (Torat Kohanim), Emor, ch. 14, Weiss edition, Vienna 1862, 104c, cited by Rashi on Lev. 24:10.) -- Thanks to Rabbi Sharon Shalom for these texts.

Why did this nameless man blaspheme God's name?  According to the midrash, he did so in a moment of anguish.  Neither completely Jewish or non-Jewish, he was left with no yerusha, no inheritance, among the tents of Israel.  He had no place to pitch his tent, no place to rest, to sleep, to feel safe among a community of kin.  In this moment of extreme, existential loneliness, he curses a God whose Law has rendered him an eternal outcast.

This story is one with enduring resonance for the Jewish community.  Interfaith families struggle with fitting in, being recognized, and being named.  In the Conservative movement, we still hold to the standard of matrilineal descent -- one is only given full benefits and responsibilities if their mother is Jewish or if they convert.  I believe that this standard is what our tradition demands, and that it provides a coherence to Jewish identity.  Matrilineal descent maintains a 2,000 year old rabbinic standard and connects us to the rest of the global Jewish community.  For these reasons and others, I remain committed to this standard. (For further reading, I highly suggest Shaye Cohen's The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties and UncertaintiesAlso, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement has provided these resources to understanding matrilineal descent.)

However, I am not blind to the cost that that our communities pay for this policy, and I know that the price is steep.  As a synagogue in Maine, we provide a home to many interfaith families.  For reasons that are principled and practical, we cannot afford to be anything less than enthusiastically welcoming to all who want to be involved.  As such, we must make sure that everyone has a place to pitch their tent inside the walls of our synagogue.  Everyone must have a name that is respected and acknowledged, regardless of where they are in their Jewish journey.  Also, everyone must be provided with a path to conversion, if it interests them.  One of the greatest tragedies of the midrash above is that this man was a proselyte -- he converted -- but because he did not have the right yichus (lineage) he was still left adrift.  Conversion always needs to be available, accessible, and celebrated.  And it is up to every one of us to exert ourselves always to find creative and authentic ways of welcoming and integrating non-Jewish participants into our communities.  The Keruv commission of the Conservative movement has released this guide to cultivating welcoming communities; it is a wonderful resource for us on our path to inclusion. 

The world we live in is often cold and chaotic.  We search for shelter in the structure of a mission-driven community and under the wings of an accepting God.  In our (often legitimate) desire to remain faithful custodians of our tradition, we too often exclude those on the fringes who need us the most.  I believe that there are ways to balance our commitments to halacha and inclusion. I sincerely feel that the ingenuity and thoughtfulness that this challenge requires can enrich our communities.  However, this tension is only productive if it is engaged with honesty, a desire to learn, and sensitivity.  Most importantly, for the sake of God and our spiritual survival, we must always acknowledge the full names of all who we encounter, and always leave enough space for them sit beside us on their journeys.