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November 20, 2003

Defining Family

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/defining_family_20031121

A few months ago, in these pages, I described a brief visit to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of my daughter, Dafna, 42, and

her fiancé, Scott, 36 ("Father of the Bride," July 11). It was a first marriage for both and celebrated without benefit of clergy -- Scott being Christian and Dafna, Jewish.

This drew some criticism from readers who felt that I was amiss in not discouraging my daughter from marrying a non-Jew. One, in fact, reminded me that some Jews sit shiva when such a marriage takes place and regard the offending child as dead. It seemed to me that is a bit strong. There was also a time when adulterers were stoned, but we seem to have progressed beyond that. (More to the point perhaps, how does one tell a 42-year-old daughter whom she should marry?)

Anyway, the stage has been set for even more protests since Dafna has now produced a son and you can add to the list of my sins of omission the fact that the young man did not have a brit milah, although he was circumcised by a doctor in the hospital. This was the subject of much discussion prior to his birth but the argument ended when Dafna pointed out that if we pressed the issue, Scott's family might suggest a christening. Further installments in this true-life family drama may be expected at his bar mitzvah and marriage ages.

(One reader was especially incensed at my mentioning my second daughter, 23, who intends to marry a young man who is having a Conservative conversion to Judaism. This, she wrote, means that both of my daughters will have intermarried, the implication being that the Conservative movement is treif. I thought to myself that, even in Orthodoxy, the word treif has an elastic meaning; one rabbi's heksher is another rabbi's abomination -- and don't even ask about conflicting attitudes toward Zionism.)

This issue of how one deals with or even defines intermarriage is a major item on the Jewish agenda, so let me complicate matters even further. I have two sons. One is married to a certifiably Jewish woman (two Jewish parents, no conversions) who reads Torah in their Conservative synagogue. Their child attends a Jewish day school.

My second son is married to a woman whose father is Jewish and whose mother is non-Jewish. My son and daughter-in-law regard themselves and their two children as Jews and are raising the children accordingly.

In all this, who is in and who is out? I would suggest, over the objections of my "fan club" that the matter is one of self-definition, that in the end what is important is how one regards one's affiliations and not what others claim are the laws as they define them. I know that this opens the communal doors to Jews for Jesus and their kind, but the rest of us are free to ignore their versions of Judaism and proceed on our way. Far too much Jewish energy and resources are wasted in dealing with these marginal elements and too few are invested in holding on to those who would remain with us given a bit of encouragement.

Numbers count. Our share of the national population has dropped from 2.5 percent to 2 percent in the past 30 years. These figures vary slightly depending on who is defined as being Jewish, but the trend is clear. So, too, are the increases being registered by other religious and ethnic minorities that give them added political and economic power, some of which is removed from us by virtue of our declining numbers.

But my critics have a point. Not only numbers, but quality, counts. We differ, to be sure, on the question of what constitutes quality Judaism. I am less concerned than they with ritual, but I accept their argument that without some sort of structure, some framework that includes generally accepted behaviors and beliefs, we are flirting with anarchy. I don't know what the minimal standards should be but I cannot agree that ancestry should be the deciding factor. If it is, then we are best defined as a race and that, as any student of modern history will testify, means tragedy, not only for Jews but for anyone defined racially. Ask your friendly black American neighbor for verification.

You will note that I have refrained from mentioning the newcomer's name. When my oldest son was born, in Jerusalem, I published notices in the newspapers with his name and the date of the brit milah. In a society virtually devoid of private telephones, that's how friends and family learned about the event. Well, I caught hell from everyone for having made his name public before the eighth day. Apparently it had something to do with the dangers posed by the evil eye. Today he is a nuclear physicist engaged in cancer research, so it doesn't seem to have harmed him. But if you think I am taking that chance again with a 7-day-old grandson, forget it. Far be it from me to defy the traditions hallowed by our elders.



Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.

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