As followers of this blog know, I got married recently to a Catholic Gentile. In the wake of that event, I received quite unpleasant comments from a few observantly Jewish friends. Marrying outside the Jewish community is the ultimate stepping over the threshold. Under the logic employed by my rabbi friend, I am beholden to Jewish law by the fact of my birth, just as American citizens are beholden to the law of the US. Marrying a Gentile, then, is lawlessness that will bring more lawlessness in its train (my husband probably won’t help me take up kosher cooking, etc.) – which, I imagine, is why these friends hurried to express their stern disapproval of what mere mortals might consider a joyous occasion.
The accusation here, then, is of abandoning and disrespecting the community by blithely rejecting its laws. There is, however, an “equal and opposite” accusation that may be thrust upon the secular Jew who converts.
Some time after a Jewish friend of mine became a Catholic, a sibling became an Orthodox Jew. Their secular Jewish mother, who was initially terrified at the Catholicism, quickly realized that the Orthodox Judaism was a far greater challenge for the family – one that quickly spread into such vital areas of life as eating together, attendance at weddings and funerals, and treatment of non-Jewish relatives.
When I became a Christian, my secular parents were terrified that something similar would happen in our family: that I would stop sharing table fellowship with them, would lecture them about changing their lifestyle, would avoid socializing with non-Christians (including them), and I don’t know what else. Their concept of how religious people behaved was based on what they had seen of Orthodox Judaism, and more specifically of families in which some members were Orthodox Jewish while others weren’t – and which consequently found themselves unable to share a meal or maintain mutual respect.
Thus the second accusation is the opposite of the first one. Instead of lawlessness, the convert Jew is suspected of excessive commitment to law. While the believing Jews see him as rejecting the tiny remnant of God’s people in favor of a lawless and pagan majority, his own family is terrified that he will trade in his kin to become the servant of an angry God. For the former, he has become open-minded to the point of indecency; for the latter, his mind is about to close shut.
I have found myself, and I am sure others have as well, in a position of trying to answer both objections simultaneously. In fact, the process of doing so has increasingly defined my understanding of my own identity and journey of faith. For the sake of my secular family, I must remember that Christianity is about love and inclusion, not fanaticism and self-segregation. For the sake of my people, represented by the observant among them, I must become educated in the ways in which Christianity is founded neither on rejection nor on ignorance of Jewish law, but on the spiritual fruit of the marriage between God and the Jewish people.
These two goals, it must be noted, are, if not mutually exclusive, certainly not mutually inclusive; progress in one area does little to advance the other. At the same time, it strikes me that their non-overlapping challenges the Jewish convert to pursue the very heart of the Christian faith, steering him away from the temptations of fanatical conservatism on the one hand and all-inclusive liberal theology on the other.