Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse

At first, it seemed somehow inappropriate to write about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her interfaith family. We have all been in shock, hoping or praying for her survival and recovery, mourning for those lost in Tucson. As a Washingtonian, I have many friends who work on Capitol Hill, and some of them know Giffords and knew her aide Gabe Zimmerman. To write about Giffords’s parentage and interfaith connections seemed frivolous, off-topic.

And yet, the moment I saw her photo, heard the name of the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, my half-Jewdar went off. The confirmation came immediately. Gabby Giffords, like me, is a patrilineal interfaith child married to a Christian spouse. Her mother was a Christian Scientist. Giffords chose Judaism in adulthood after an epiphany in Israel, and has been accepted into a Reform Jewish congregation.

Within hours of the shooting, the religion blogosphere lit up with the eternal debate. She’s Jewish, how dare you say otherwise at a time like this? She’s not Jewish, her mother’s not Jewish, she didn’t convert, sorry for what happened but nonetheless she’s not Jewish.

As always, those of us who are interfaith children must relive the sting of rejection from those who adhere rigidly to a tribal law written thousands of years after the Biblical era, an era when the great intermarried patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism often seemed to enjoy a more inclusive and expansive and fluid definition of belonging.

And as always, we struggle with the hypocrisy of those who claim beautiful interfaith celebrities (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who is actually a cousin to Giffords), top athletes,  and political heroes as Jewish, and then turn around and refuse to marry interfaith couples, or refuse to accept their children into religious schools, or refuse to bury them together in cemeteries. Although an editorial this week in the Jerusalem Post advocates for accepting Giffords as Jewish inspite of her halachic status, an inevitable and promising shift from a major Israeli newspaper.

Giffords represents proof that interfaith couples, even when they allow their children to choose a religious path, even when their children face rejection from Jewish institutions, can give the world children who wind up as outspoken and committed Jewish leaders, rather than confused or alienated non-participants.

But I was not going to weigh in, partly because it has seemed fairly clear that mental illness is the main culprit in this tragedy, not anti-Semitism, so why view this tragedy through a religious lens at all? But then Sarah Palin pushed me over the edge with her bizarre reference to a “blood libel.” For a deep and nuanced analysis of the way the “blood libel” has been used against Jews, read history professor Susannah Heschel’s piece from yesterday. We can only hope that Palin actually did not understand the meaning of the term “blood libel” when she used those words to describe how she feels journalists have blamed her for violent rhetoric. As we head into Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday weekend, it seems particulary appropriate that Heschel, the daughter of Dr. King’s dear friend and colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is weighing in.

Tomorrow in Washington, at an annual interfaith Shabbat, Jews and Christians will join to celebrate the non-violent activism of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The timing could not be better to reaffirm our ardent communal dream for a time of peace.

For me, it remains clear that interfaith children can play a special role in bringing us closer to that dreamtime. In Giffords, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, a congresswoman known for reaching out at public events, reaching across boundaries of race, class, religion and politics, I see the hallmarks of someone raised outside the box. I acknowledge the Jewish label she chose for herself, I acknowledge the danger of applying labels to others. Nonetheless, I cannot help noting our shared experiences as interfaith children who insist on staying connected to Judaism.

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7 Replies to “Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse”

  1. I hope that you don’t think that someone needs to be raised “outside the box” in order to seek transcending his/her in-group. Heschel & King serve as two counter-examples — both were raised “inside the box” but saw beyond it.

  2. Alan,
    Of course you are right. I do not mean to sound like an interfaith zealot. There are many different ways of being raised “outside the box,” even in a monofaith family. And there are many ways for anyone with the will to do so to transcend the box. My point is simply that being born outside the box comes with both challenges and benefits, and perhaps being able to see more than one point of view is one of those benefits, though some may experience it as more a burden than a gift.

  3. I think this tragedy highlights how important it is not to be reductionist about identity or anything else. And yes, our biblical ancestors were much more fluid about identity. I love the description of the Giffords/Kelly wedding — a mariachi band led the way as the huppah was carried down the aisle. Talk about fluidity! Diaspora Jewry at its best.

    Judy

      1. There is no mention in the Tanakh (Torah) of a formal conversion process for Ruth or Zipporah. We do not know what rituals they underwent to join the Jewish community. A formal process for conversion (described in the Mishnah) did not evolve for centuries. Each Jewish movement has its own rules for conversion. Reform Jews accept Giffords as a Jew.

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