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By the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank
It looks as if Conservative Judaism is in the news these days as the movement seeks to define its approach to non-Jewish people within its congregations and organizations. And this coincides with our parashah this week, in which Pinhas son of Elazar son of Aaron the High Priest is rewarded for slaying a Jew and his non-Jewish paramour. One could use this as an example of Judaism’s passionate opposition to intermarriage, though that would probably be an erroneous read. Remember Moshe himself has married someone who did not grow up Jewish so something else must be going on here.
The something else is idolatry, which presumably was what the non-Jewish women lead B’nei Yisrael to and what generated Pinhas’ violent reaction. So this passage in the Torah is not about intermarriage, but rather idolatry, and even here, the Torah, in spite of his ultimate reward, indicates its ambivalence with Pinhas. In chapter 25, verse 11, the letter “yod” in Pinhas’ name is traditionally written tiny. The “yod” is often a symbol of God and the lettering of the Torah is perhaps suggesting that violence diminishes the sacred within us. Secondly, the letter “vav” in the word, shalom, peace, of the same chapter, verse 12, has a notch in its stem, perhaps suggesting that the so-called peace borne of violence is in some way incomplete or damaged. In short, Pinhas’s passion is problematic. He was rewarded in the short term, but the Jewish people have questioned his actions ever since and, I suspect, will continue to do so for generations to come.
All this is not to suggest that the Torah approves of intermarriage, which leads us back to Conservative Judaism and its evolving relationship with non-Jews. It has been suggested that Conservative Judaism really needs an old-fashioned psychotherapist, who could lay it down on a couch and ask it to describe its unresolved, conflicted feelings about interfaith relationships. On the one hand, it welcomes non-Jews to its communities; on the other hand, it refuses to sanctify such marriages. Well, what is it—one or the other? Or is the movement eternally doomed to double dosages of Prozac?
Dr Freud—hold the Prozac. The movement is not conflicted but rather recognizes the complexities of our lives. We can’t always live by the tradition, but that does not mean that we abandon the tradition. And so, while unable to sanctify an interfaith marriage, the movement nevertheless welcomes interfaith couples to join synagogues, to get involved and to grow within a loving and caring community. In ancient Israel, non-Jews who connected themselves with Israel were known as yirei Adonai, people who revered the Lord. There is a history of non-Jews connected to the Jewish community.
Will we force these non-Jews to convert? If anyone could come up with an example of the Conservative Movement forcing anyone to do any ritual at all, please write to me. I’d love to hear about it. But we’re not very authoritarian. We never have been and I suspect, we never will be. But conversion to Judaism is a beautiful thing. For non-Jews searching for a connection with God, a grounding in tradition, an intellectual heritage that reveres reason, a set of moral values that make for universal tolerance and peace, and a love for God and humanity both, Judaism is an answer and a really, really good one. Everyone is welcomed and anyone can join—just ask your Conservative rabbi.