Shabbat Evening • July 8, 2011 • Parashat Balak
There once was a Jewish man who had three sons, and he was anxious to marry them off to nice Jewish girls. The first son married a Catholic girl, so the father figured he had two more chances. The second son married a Hindu girl, and the father started to worry.
The third son came home one day and said, "Dad, I've met the one, and we're getting married. Her name is Goldberg..."
"Goldberg!" said the father, optimistically.
"Yes," his son said. "I'd like you to meet Whoopi..."
Intermarriage is our topic this evening. Like with all challenging topics in Judaism, there are jokes about it. It's certainly a hot topic today, and it's hard to talk about properly. It cuts straight to the core of that age-old question who is a Jew. And it divides Jews from each other and Jewish denominations from others.
Tonight I want to offer some thoughts on intermarriage, both from the Torah portion and from my experience and reflection.
The story we heard chanted (Numbers 25:6-8) offers one gruesome way to respond to intermarriage. The background here is that the Moabite king, Balak, worried that the approaching Israelites presented a military threat. So he enlisted the prophet-for-hire Bil'am to go and curse the Israelites. But rather than curse -- at God's command -- Bil'am blessed the Israelites several times over.
Following this series of events, we learn that many Israelites were lured into Ba'al worship (idolatry) by the Moabite and Midianite women with whom they were "fraternizing." God sends a plague as punishment and tens of thousands die.
At that moment, one Israelite named Zimri comes forward with a Midianite woman, in the eyes of Moses and the whole community of Israel. Pinchas, a priest (and a grandson of Aaron), takes matters into his own hands. He takes a spear, charges Zimri and his Midianite companion, and impales them both through the belly. The plague ends, and Pinchas is shown divine favor for his action.
Our tradition, like most of us, cannot stomach Pinchas' behavior. The rabbis conceive of at least four ways of tempering this episode (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a) that are worth considering. First, they suggest that if Pinchas had asked before acting if it were proper to execute Zimri and Kozbi (the Midianite), the answer would have been a firm no. Second, if Zimri had stepped away from the woman at any time, Pinchas would have had no right to kill him. Third, and most interesting to me, if Zimri had turned on Pinchas and killed him, it would have been justifiable as a defensive killing. Pinchas met the criteria for the legal category of rodef/pursuer, the preemptive killing of which is legal. Fourth, and tangentially, the rabbis also mention a rule based on the Torah's description of Pinchas "getting up from the congregation" to go and executive the couple. Therefore, they say, you may not enter the Beit Midrash (House of Study) with weapons. The subtext seems to be: learning leads to doing, so we must use caution when learning about laws with such dire consequences.
A rabbinic midrash (also Sanhedrin 82a) goes even farther in reinterpreting this episode. In that version, Zimri's men approach him as the leader of the tribe of Simeon with a grievance. Moses is meting out capital punishment to all those who associated with Moabite and Midianite women, and they want Zimri to stand up for them! As a representative of his men's outrage, Zimri takes Kozbi, a Midianite woman, before Moses and says: "Is this woman permitted to me? And if you say no, then who permitted you Jethro's daughter?!?" For Zimri remembers, as do the rabbis, that Moses himself is married to a Midianite woman, Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Jethro)! Moses is stumped at this display, and the people weep at his inability to answer (as the Torah mentions, the people gathered at the Tent of Meeting are weeping).
But what if the midrash got it wrong, or didn't go far enough?
What if the command about the foreign women is not racial -- but rather about associating with people who lead us astray?
What if the congregation was gathered at the Ohel Moed, weeping because of the destruction and division within the community over the question of intermarriage?
What if Zimri brought his Midianite partner to Moses because Moses of all people might sympathize with one who had fallen in love with a Midianite woman? What if Zimri was determined to bring her into the Israelite community, and what if she wanted to be a part of it?
What if, instead of letting the zealot have the last word -- a victory for exclusion -- Moses had stepped up and said, "No. She is welcome here. They are welcome here."
Even within just a year here, I have observed non-Jewish spouses devoted to their children's becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I have seen non-Jewish spouses bring their children every month to our Tot Shabbat (often without the Jewish spouse...but that's a conversation for another time). I am currently working with several couples toward their wedding in which one partner is not Jewish, and both partners are committed to a truly Jewish process of learning and preparation for a Jewish wedding ceremony. In many cases, it's the non-Jewish fiance/e who is guiding the Jewish partner back to Judaism!
Times are different today than when this story occurred. Identities are not fixed like they were for the ancient Israelites and their neighbors.
What is called for today is neither the silent passivity of Moses, nor the zealous exclusion of Pinchas. We need an open door, a non-judgmental stance, a genuine interest in each person's story, a source of care and support. Sure, we should have a willingness to talk about conversion if and when the time is right, but always without pressure or assumptions.
As one of my teachers put it -- five years ago, so it's even more true now -- there are more Jewish households today with non-Jewish members than at any time or place in Jewish history.
This is new. And we have just begun to realize what this means for Judaism in the next generation.
But all generations of Jews have faced a paradigm shift as dramatic as this one. And somehow we've managed to survive. Not by being silent, nor by being overzealous.
Our survival, then, is threatened not by intermarriage, but by whether we can rise to the task of our generation.
With your help, we can do that here. I hope you will join us, and I look forward to what we can build together.