Among Those in the Room…

Dr. Gail Labovitz
April 10, 2013
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I am a Jew by birth and actually do feel that even in the modern era of fluid and optional identities, being Jewish is something more than a choice for me.  Moreover, my Jewish identity is more than religious; it is an identity that is ethnic and cultural.  It is true that I have made some important choices about the nature and level of my Jewish practices and my ideological identifications within the larger Jewish collective over the course of my late adolescent and adult lifetime – my standard of kashrut and Shabbat observance is more strict now than what I grew up practicing, for example – but there’s no denying that I was born already into a family and community in which Jewish tradition was expected to have a role in guiding life choices and one’s way of being in the world.  If Conservative Jews had a corresponding concept/term to what the Orthodox sometimes call “frum from birth,” I’d be it.

 

But the same is not true for many Jews who are part the overlapping communities in which I live out my Judaism.  Jews by choice are my friends, family members, and students; they are the people davenning in my minyan and have been among the rabbis of my community.

 

What I’ve been thinking about a lot recently in this regards is the way in which the presence of Jews by choice might affect or change some of our most fundamental conversations.  This came out for me most recently as our school – the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies – engaged in a community-wide conversation on the topic of intermarriage.  At much the same time, in one of my classes I was teaching responsa from the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards related to intermarriage and the parameters we set for the presence and participation of intermarried Jews and non-Jewish spouses/partners/parents in our synagogues and life-cycle ceremonies.  In both settings, I knew that among those in the room were people who had themselves at one time been the non-Jewish spouse in such a relationship.

 

I admit that opening myself up to these different perspectives can be unsettling, disruptive to narratives that are familiar and ingrained.  I haven’t yet been fully able to articulate all the dimensions of this experience, but I can tell you that I felt the conversation changed in important and necessary ways with their presence.  That these persons not only formally joined the Jewish people through conversion, but are now aspiring to (or have achieved) rabbinic leadership may make them somewhat exceptional, but they still have a perspective that I have never known firsthand, and probably never will.  Thank you to Sh’ma for taking up this topic as well, and for pressing me not to retreat back to my comfort zone, to continue in this dialogue.

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Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, where she teaches primarily for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is also an ordained Conservative rabbi. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles, and the book Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature. She has also worked as a Senior Research Analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group for the Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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