Recently, I hosted a potluck Shabbat, inviting three other interfaith families from our community. Gathered around the glow of the candles, I discovered once again the essential energy, warmth, illumination I gain from being with “my people”–the interfaith tribe. Collectively, that night, our ancestors included a rabbi from New Orleans, an Episcopal bishop, an Irish Jewish violinist from Dublin, Italian New York Catholics, and a Cuban Santeria priestess.
For our children, it was a chance to experience together the blessings over the wine, the challah and the candles without fear of looking foolish if they got something “wrong.” Our interfaith Sunday School teaches Hebrew literacy and essential Jewish prayers. But I also believe the intent of the Sabbath–the desire to break from the everyday and create a contemplative moment and sense of community–has much greater importance than the ritual details.
Earlier this year, an interfaith child I know felt humiliated when, after struggling with a book of flimsy matches, she lit one Shabbat candle with the flame from the other, and a rabbi who was present grimaced and stated that it isn’t done this way. I know, I know, a ritual isn’t a ritual unless it is performed the same way each time. But rituals evolve, and every Jew of every denomination must pick and choose the rituals to follow from the list of 613 commandments, many of which are so anachronistic as to appear surreal. In fact, lighting the Shabbat candles does not even rate a mention in the 613 commandments: it turns out to be a relatively recent ritual by Jewish standards (less than a thousand years), created by marvelous Jewish women. Furthermore, lighting one Shabbat candle with the other is permitted according to some rabbis. We could probably stage a debate with a panel of rabbis to discuss the question.
I love the lively Talmudic tradition of questioning everything, but there is a time and place for this sort of semantic and intellectual wrestling, and a time and a place to be in the spiritual moment, focusing on the fire and not the matches. As an interfaith person who has often been excluded by Jewish clergy and institutions, I am highly attuned to the fact that such small incidents of being corrected or rebuffed can play a magnified role in the identity and affiliation choices made by interfaith people.
Some Jewish institutions have made impressive strides in welcoming and including interfaith families. Years ago, I wrote an essay explaining why I believe that, in spite of such progress, there is still a need for interfaith family communities, independent of Jewish institutions. More than ever, I stand by that position. I do not believe the complex identity of interfaith children will be “solved” when Jewish institutions evolve, or when Jewish outreach workers notice the needs of interfaith people. My own goal is to expand access to the unique benefits of celebrating Shabbat with a group composed entirely of interfaith families. In those moments, as we lift up the challah, no one is judging us. Everyone has the right to be there: no one is questioning whether our Judaism is matrilineal or patrilineal, whether our rituals adequately prove our Judaism, or whether we are sufficiently suppressing the Christianity in our families. Every interfaith family is welcome at this Shabbat table: the result feels unique, powerful, and necessary.