How do we — who were not born Jewish but have chosen to share our lives with Jews — think about the tribal concept of Jews as a chosen people? Some of us are Jews-by-choice still linked to their non-Jewish families of birth. Others participate in Jewish communal life but have not converted. Some of us retain deep connections to other traditions. If the Jews are the chosen people, what about the rest of us? Does “chosenness” erect fences that cut through our family relationships?
When I married my husband more than 20 years ago, I did not become a Jew, but I became part of the Jewish community. Over the years, I have had warm, enriching and sometimes transcendent experiences with Jewish life, most recently when we celebrated our twins’ b’nei mitzvah. But I recognize that interfaith families feel barriers to engagement in Jewish life. We have a hard time finding rabbis to officiate at our weddings; we may, initially, feel like an outsider in the synagogue and ill-equipped to raise our children as Jews — even when we want to. We bump up against negative and ambivalent attitudes, and we hear people say that families like ours are a problem for the Jewish people.
Sometimes those attitudes are fueled by a tribal sensibility. I think it is time to set aside such insular thinking about who is in the tribe, and focus instead on the blessings and opportunities that the “new-to-Jewish” bring to the community: our struggles, our questions, our energies, and our hopes for our children.
Everyone who participates in Jewish community is one of the “choosing people,” either a Jew or an ally. Forced to make explicit choices about our religious and communal life, interfaith families face both everyday and existential dilemmas: Do I participate in my sister’s neon-colored plastic Easter egg hunt? Should I say kaddish for my Lutheran father? Should I laugh at a Jewish joke? What does God want from me? As “choosing people,” we question and ponder, debate and reconcile. We wrestle with love and religion, and our choices shape our lives.
Even a traditional view of chosenness should inspire a confident engagement with those who are new-to-Jewish. If there is a special responsibility to exemplify Jewish principles and ethical values, it cannot be for the benefit of insiders only. Everything I know about Judaism I have gleaned from the privilege of living within this community and learning by doing.
As I navigate the challenges of daily life, I suspect that it hardly matters whether I am one of the chosen people. After all, the Torah’s greatest challenge is the same for all of us who choose to accept it, whether Jews or fellow travelers: to live lives of meaning that exemplify its values.email print