Rabbi Brian Field depicts the work of Judaism Your Way: bridging gaps, reducing gatekeeping in the Jewish community, and offering inclusive services and experiences for all interested in Jewish involvement.
When I enrolled at RRC, I was personally opposed to officiating at interfaith weddings. But when I became the student rabbi of a small-town congregation in New England, I was challenged by my experiences. I met real interfaith couples and families who had enrolled their children in the congregation’s Hebrew school, who were participating in the life of the congregation and who were celebrating Jewish holidays. I saw that it was often the partner of the Jew who was the driver for Jewish engagement. I glimpsed the potential in relationships between Judaism and the partners of Jews that I hadn’t previously considered. My attitude softened.
At one point during my years at RRC, I participated in a community-wide conversation about officiation at interfaith weddings. For the first time, I listened to faculty members describing their own personal stance—sharing their struggles about not only whether to officiate, but under what circumstances and how their own thinking had evolved.
Years later, as the rabbi of Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wis., I discovered that I came most alive as a rabbi when working with people who had ambivalent or challenged relationships with normative Judaism, and who wanted something more fulfilling and without giving up anything of who they were and with whom they were in covenantal relationship.
In 2002, I received CPE training as a hospital chaplain. The following year, I became the first non-Christian chaplain for a Milwaukee-based Catholic hospital and health-care network. It was moving to me to provide spiritual care to people of all religious backgrounds and none. I also began to deepen my work with interfaith couples, counseling and officiating at weddings throughout the State of Wisconsin.
In the spring of 2004, I learned that a family foundation in Denver, Colo., had created a Jewish outreach nonprofit and sought to hire a rabbi. A study of the metropolitan Denver Jewish population had recently revealed that a large and growing portion of the community was unaffiliated, and that a significant segment of the unaffiliated were interfaith couples and families. At the time, no rabbi in Colorado was officiating at interfaith weddings, so it seemed clear to the foundation that an effective outreach strategy would be to a hire a rabbi who would officiate. A few months later, I moved to Denver to build the very work that made me feel most alive as a rabbi.
Fourteen years on, Judaism Your Way is a Jewish outreach nonprofit with a staff of seven (four full-time), including three rabbis. We have no membership and have no building of our own. We offer three b’nai mitzvah classes in two cities, and last year hosted several thousand people at our High Holiday services at the Denver Botanical Gardens. We were the first Jewish organization to have a presence at Denver Pride Fest. We offer adult education, holiday celebrations, spiritual counseling and coaching, including conversions. We’ve helped hundreds of people connect to synagogues, and we’ve received referrals from almost every rabbi in the metro Denver area. We officiate at about 100 life events each year.
The foundation of our work is that outreach is not simply a matter of bringing unaffiliated people back to Judaism. Outreach is equally a matter of expanding Judaism to include unaffiliated people—people the Jewish community has never considered seriously before. It’s a matter of the evolution and expansion of the substance of Judaism itself. We coined a name for the theory and practice of this work: “The Torah of Inclusion.”
Foundations of the Torah of Inclusion
1. A De-Centered Approach to Judaism
The image implied in the term “outreach” suggests that there is a fixed center that is reaching out to Jews who are on the margins, and that Jews can be brought back towards the center. “Outreach” also suggests that such centers actually exist, and that there is consensus about what and where they are.
In fact, the image of bringing unaffiliated, non-engaged Jews from the margins to the center is contradicted by one of the most ancient and powerful sacred Jewish items: the tallit. What distinguishes a tallit from most four-corned cloths is, of course, the presence of tzitzit on the four corners of the cloth. In other words, what gives the tallit Jewish covenantal power is not what’s in the center, but literally what’s on the margins of the garment. The insight of the tallit is a paradox. The center is not the center. The margins are the center.
This very tension or paradox is reflected in the organization’s name: Judaism Your Way. “Your Way” sends the message that our first responsibility is to prioritize the question or need of the individual, couple or family over that of some perceived communal norm. “Judaism” reminds us that we are not trying to be everything to everybody, but rather that we work within the sacred framework of the 3,500-year evolving global civilizations of the Jewish people.
Growing numbers of Jews find themselves with one foot in and one foot out of the Jewish community. This isn’t just a matter of ambivalence. It’s also a manifestation of the increasingly complex and fluid identities of all people. An image: a person stands at the seashore. When the tide is out, the person is clearly standing on dry land. When the tide is in, the person is immersed in the water. The person has not moved. If the dry land represents the organized Jewish community and the sea represents everything else, how do we describe the place where this person is standing?
For the increasing numbers of Jews who are intermarried or intermarrying, JYW offers not only the opportunity for rabbinic officiation at the ceremony, but counseling and coaching/support services to help intermarried Jews and loved ones navigate the complexities that interfaith and intercultural marriage, in addition to family life, can bring.
For those Jews and loved ones who see themselves as spiritual but not religious—or even those who check “None” when asked about their religion—JYW offers an expansive and inclusive sacred Jewish vocabulary, including multiple ways of naming the sacred, and recognizing the many identities that individuals, couples and families bring to Jewish community.
2. The Torah: More Inclusive Than You Might Think
Authentic change in Jewish spirituality has always been expressed in relationship to Torah. For example, the ancient rabbis grounded their authority in the revelation of Oral Torah and a direct chain of transmission from Moses to them. The Zohar, which revolutionized Kabbalah, is written in the form of a commentary on the Torah. Similarly, the work of JYW needs to be grounded in the Torah: The Torah of Inclusion.
Here are some Torah passages that can form the foundation of a Torah of Inclusion:
1. Jacob blesses the sons of Joseph as follows: “Through you may Israel be blessed, saying ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ (Genesis 48:20).” In other words, Jacob predicts that the Jewish people will receive blessing through the Egyptian-born sons of his intermarried son. This Torah passage has evolved into the blessing that Jewish boys receive from their parents every Shabbat.
Rather than see interfaith marriage as a threat to the Jewish people, the Torah of Inclusion invites us to look through Jacob’s eyes and see the children of interfaith marriage as a/the path of blessing for the whole Jewish people.
2. It is through an intermarried Jew (Moses) that the Israelites are led into freedom and receive the Torah. In fact, rabbinic Judaism refers to this intermarried Jew as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our rabbi.
3. The Torah gives Jewish covenantal agency to Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzipporah, by recording that she circumcised their son. Since the time of Abraham, circumcision in Judaism had been the primary ritual of covenantal continuity from father to son. Covenantal continuity is the reason given for God’s intervention in ending the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1:24). In other words, Moses—tasked with being the agent of God’s act of covenantal continuity for the Jewish people—had neglected to perform the parental ritual of covenantal continuity with his own son! So Tzipporah, Moses’s Midianite wife, performed the circumcision herself (Exodus 4:24-26).
Given the normative Jewish community’s antipathy to intermarriage, the stories in the Torah of Moses and Tzipporah are astounding. Not only does the Torah offer us an intermarried Jew as the person through whom the Torah is given to the Jewish people, but also tells us a story in which a Midianite performs the mitzvah of brit milah, thereby enabling the Exodus to proceed. The Torah provides here not only a second example of an intermarriage being a source of blessing to the Jewish people, but, in this case, an example of the ally in the intermarriage being the source—not just of the blessing of the Jewish people, but of the very redemption of the Jewish people.
4. Judaism has never been just for Jews. The Exodus, the foundational Jewish narrative, is not described as an exclusive Jewish experience, but reports that a “mixed multitude” of people were included in the Exodus as well (Exodus 12:38).
3. The Expanding Holiness Franchise of the Jewish People
These passages in Torah point to the inclusion and agency of intermarried Israelites, Egyptians and Midianites in the foundational Jewish sacred narrative. In addition, we can notice a trend in the evolution of Jewish spiritual authority that is bringing Judaism back to that original experience of maximal inclusion. This trend was described by Rabbi Jacob Petuchowski as “the expanding holiness franchise of the Jewish people” (Moment magazine, May 1985).
Here’s the thesis: Most religions express their initial revelation through one person. The fact that Judaism expressed its initial revelation to the entire people is distinctive. But almost immediately, we retreated from that maximally inclusive invitation and positioned Moses as our intermediary. And even though Moses expressed the wish that all the Jewish people would have direct prophetic access to the Divine (Numbers 11:29), only the Levites held access to and authority over the sancta of Judaism. But that initial, maximally inclusive, revelatory impulse inexorably exerted its pull. Over the history of the Jewish people, the range of those who have access to and agency in Jewish spiritual leadership and authority continues to expand:
a. After the hurban (the destruction of the Second Temple), the early rabbis decreed that the table in every home would now serve as a mikdash me’at (a small sanctuary), and that the (male) head of each household would serve as that table’s “priest.” Now every Jewish adult male was considered to have sacred authority in his home and could potentially become a rabbi.
b. About 1,900 years later, the Jewish holiness franchise was extended as women were recognized as rabbis.
c. Reform and Reconstructionist denominations expanded the Jewish holiness franchise to children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers (termed patrilineal or ambilineal descent).
d. Access to the sancta of Judaism has expanded to people who aren’t Jewish in two ways: the aliyah to the Torah for the non-Jewish parent of a b’nai mitzvah, and the group aliyah, in which people who are not Jewish come up to the Torah as part of a Jewish group.
4. Gatekeepers No More: The Courage to Say Yes
Because rabbis serve as authorities in the Jewish community who are responsible for Judaism’s integrity, we often find ourselves functioning as gatekeepers. And perhaps more often than we want, we find ourselves saying no rather than yes. Where does the no come from?
One source of the “no” is how Jews hold fear. When speaking before Jewish groups, one of the questions I often ask is what are we Jews afraid of? People often respond with concerns about anti-Semitism and assimilation. Depending on the age of the group, they will bring up Israel, citing both external and internal challenges that Israel is facing. I then ask them how their fears determine their Jewish choices; do their fears prompt them to do more Jewish-related activity or less? Do their fears make them feel closer to Israel and the Jewish people or further away? Do their fears broaden their experience of Judaism and the Jewish people or narrow them?
Of course, our fears are justifiable. I am convinced that we are a people still in the grip of some version of post-traumatic stress disorder, and can easily be triggered by events at home and threats to Israel. With the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, alongside the ongoing hostility expressed towards the State of Israel from both the left and the right, it makes some adaptive sense for Jews to be aware, vigilant and even afraid.
However, Judaism, at its most critical moments, has never led with fear. Moses stood face to face with Pharaoh. The Jews who rebelled against Rome, the rabbis who reconstructed Judaism out of the ashes of the rebellions, the people who built the State of Israel and the powerful Jewish institutions of the United States were not ruled by fear, but by the courage to face the future.
Back in the groups, I ask another question: What would our Jewishness look like if we weren’t afraid, if we really felt that Israel was secure, and if we weren’t afraid of the Jewish people disappearing?
It’s fascinating to see what happens next. People are quiet. Sometimes, faces relax a little bit, smiles emerging. When I ask about what people are smiling about, some respond that my question is unrealistic and naïve. Others report that they feel a burden being lifted, even a bit of joy.
While fear can temporarily concentrate the mind, it ultimately limits the mind. It limits our sense of what is possible.
Judaism Your Way begins with this question: What would Judaism look like if we weren’t going to allow our fears to rule? How would we act as rabbis if we weren’t afraid of intermarriage, if we weren’t terrified about the disappearance of the Jewish people? If we saw intermarriage as more of an opportunity than a threat?
b. Accountability: ‘Da lifnei mi atah omed’
When I wrote in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle about my decision to officiate at interfaith weddings, several readers criticized my choice. One compared me to a parent who could never say no to his child.
While I reject the analogy—do people really think the relationship between a rabbi and other Jews is like the relationship between a parent and a child? —the critique got me thinking about authority and accountability. I realized rabbis are at the center of a Venn diagram of multiple intersecting accountabilities and need to develop clarity about how to weigh the pulls of each of them:
Where does my responsibility to the people sitting in front of me in my office begin and end? What about my responsibility to my employer/community? My rabbinical association? The rabbinic profession as a whole? On my graduation diploma, I am given the title of teacher in Israel. What is my accountability to the Jewish people—past, present and future? What is my accountability to the Torah? To God?
c. Turning the gatekeeping ‘no’ into a door-opening ‘yes’
1. Clients are given as much choice and responsibility as possible for the contents of the ceremony. Instead of saying, “No, what you are asking doesn’t make sense in the ceremony,” I’ll say, “Given what you’ve said about your relationship to Judaism, do you think it makes sense to do this?”
2. Clients get to practice making Jewish choices. They emerge with a successful life event and the experience of having successfully negotiated their relationship with Judaism. When the next opportunity arrives, they will have this precedent upon which to build.
3. When I’m tempted to say “no” to a client, I am holding quite firmly onto a specific view of Judaism: Judaism My Way. If I’m able to loosen my grip on that view, it becomes more possible to become curious about the view of the client. What is behind their desire to which I’m noticing the arising of an instinctive “no”? What is the value/experience/ feeling that their request is trying to meet? Is there a Jewish way to say “yes” to that? In other words, is it possible to find a “yes” within the “no,” to align the client’s request with a Jewish value or principle?
An Historical Perspective
When we view the history of Judaism from a contemporary vantage point, the evolution of biblical Judaism into rabbinic Judaism can seem inevitable. However, in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, it was not all that clear what form of Judaism would emerge or whether Judaism would survive at all.
I find this perspective useful when thinking about the mission of JYW and our place in the evolution of Judaism today. The models of rabbinic Judaism that have served the Jewish people in exile for nearly 2,000 years are in decline. Increasing numbers of Jews find themselves excluded from the organized Jewish community and even more have ceased to find Jewish spirituality to be a compelling context for their lives. Looking into the future, it’s not clear what forms of Judaism will best serve the Jewish people and all people whose lives are deeply intertwined with Jewish people.
In these fluid times, what are the devarim (“words”) that will support Jews and loved ones to hear Torah as really speaking to them? What are the Jewish vocabularies, forms, rituals and perspectives that open people up to the wonder, joy, gratitude and insight that so moved our ancestors to center Torah in their lives? What is the language that will speak to those among us who are participants in the experiences of the Jewish people, but who do not claim a formal Jewish identity?
In Parashat Nitzavim, Moses speaks to the assembled Israelites on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Because the text of his speech is so well-known, we have perhaps lost sight of how astounding his words actually are: “You are all standing here,” he says, and then goes on to offer a maximally inclusive vision of the Jewish people, concluding with all those who are not there: “I make this covenant not with you alone … but with those who are not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
Perhaps Moses was issuing a challenge to the Jewish people: “The Torah to which you have committed your lives,” he is saying, “is a Torah of maximal inclusion. Who is not yet here and wants to be, needs to be? Who is not yet recognized, who is still excluded, due to the limitations caused by our own fears and habits? Can we find a way to reach out to them? Until we can, our vision and our practice of Judaism are not large enough.”
Finding ways to that larger and larger vision is the work of the Torah of Inclusion and the mission of Judaism Your Way.