We raised our children in a home that observed all the major Jewish holidays. I made our children aware of their culture and heritage. Our son was bar mitzvahed and attended Hebrew school for five years. His friends were all Jewish as he grew up, and he attended March of the Living.
He is the last Jewish male in our family, since my one and only cousin is a female and I am an only child. If he has no Jewish sons, then our family line will die. Now he has a non-Jewish girlfriend and they are getting serious. He has the support of all her friends who are not Jewish.
I have made my feelings of opposition known. My wife says that if we are not careful we will lose him as a son, and that I should go easy on my remarks and actions.
I am heartbroken. What should I do?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The best solution is to raise serious doubts that this will work long-term. Some ideas:
1) Get them to discuss the topic of Jesus. It is the most deeply-engrained cultural difference between Jews and non-Jews. There's a video put out by the Reform Movement of America, a real-life documentary depicting a series of group therapy sessions for intermarried couples, designed to help them deal with the unique issues of intermarriage.
In this video, a Jewish woman says: "Our marriage was going smoothly until the birth of our baby boy. I was thrilled and wanted to arrange for a Mohel to do the circumcision. My husband thought I was crazy! He said, 'I won't allow that bloody, barbaric cult ritual!' We're supposed to be celebrating the birth of our child – and instead we we're having a terrible fight! He finally agreed to the Bris, but said, 'I'm sure you'll understand when I take the baby to be baptized.' I was shocked. Now I'm not sure our marriage is going to survive."
The video shows these couples – none of them religious – describing how the major obstacle in their marriage is the issue of Jesus. We don't always realize it, but belief in God is an essential part of our identity. Ask your son: Do you find the idea of praying to Jesus repulsive? Do you know that in the mind of your future spouse, Jesus is the ultimate image of yearning for spiritual transcendence? It's engrained from day one – the same way that your Jewish imagery is engrained.
A film like "The Passion" provides an opportunity to raise these issues. They will probably have highly diverse reactions to the film, and the anti-Semitism elements will be very difficult for them to reconcile. On the flip side, having them visit a Holocaust museum will also likely engender very different emotional reactions.
2) The problem of future children. Many intermarried couples say: "We're going to let our children choose their own religion. When they grow up they can choose what want. That way they'll get the best of both worlds."
But the reality is that children of intermarried couples suffer an identity crisis. One set of grandparents has a Christmas Tree, the other a Chanukah menorah. It's very confusing for a young person trying to forge an identity in an already-complex world. Children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous identity which gives them a place in the world. They need a spiritual tradition through which to experience lifecycle events, and to have a community where they feel at home.
And if the spouse has agreed to "raise your children Jewish," think again. Brandeis University researcher Sylvia Barack Fishman discovered that fully half of the intermarried couples that are “raising their children as Jews” hold Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes!
Psychologists report that many "dual-religion" children express a great deal of anger at their parents for putting them in the middle of an issue that the parents themselves could not resolve. When a person has to choose one religion over the other, there is always the unconscious sense of choosing one parent over another. (The fact is that 92 percent of children of intermarriage marry non-Jews, effectively detaching themselves forever from the Jewish people. That's simply the default choice in our predominantly non-Jewish society.)
But imagine if the child becomes a committed Jew or Christian. What will this child think of the Jewish parent? If he becomes a believing Christian, he'll think the Jewish parent is going to hell for denying the faith! And if he turns to Judaism, he'll regard him as a traitor for having intermarried!
And what of his own spiritual awakening? People who do not profess a belief in any particular religion often turn back to religion later in life. A Gallup Poll showed that religious commitment is lowest from age 18-39 – precisely the time when people are making decision about who to marry. I have a folder of emails from intermarried people whose lives turned to horror when they (or their spouses) turned back to religion. The issues become insurmountable.
Finally, you will need to provide a positive reason in the addition to all these negatives. Ask: When there is a terrorist attack in Israel, all Jews care. Are you willing to fight for the Jewish people? Then go find a Jewish spouse you can share this with! Your children will be Jewish and your married life will be free of liabilities. You deserve it all and you can have it all!
Once you've raised sufficient doubt, you can advise to try a separation and ask: Do you need to be married to this person to find happiness in life, or would you be better off looking for someone else to marry? Until that trial separation, he does not have clarity about the right thing to do.
My wife and I were married by a rabbi who also performed our son's Bris. Our son is now six years old – and I believe he meets all the criteria for Pidyon Ha’Ben.
When I contacted our rabbi regarding a Pidyon Ha’Ben, he informed me that his movement of Judaism does not do this anymore. The rabbi said it's ludicrous to redeem your son simply because his last name is not Levi. He explained that most rabbis are not from the tribe of Levi, and that a child with the last name Smith is no less important in God's eyes.
After speaking with the rabbi, I got the sense that performing a Pidyon Ha’Ben would be acknowledging that my son is an inferior class of Jew. Is this correct? I want to do right by God and my son.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It is very impressive that you are pursuing clarity on this issue, particularly with all the dissuasion you've had until now.
Let's start from square one: Pidyon Ha’Ben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15-16).
The reason behind this mitzvah is to remind us how during the Exodus from Egypt, God killed the first-born Egyptians, yet miraculously spared the first-born Jews. And since one's first child brings so much happiness, it's a fitting time to acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)
But what does the tribe of Levi have to do with all this? The background is a bit complex, so here goes:
Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a Kohen – i.e. would serve as that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:2, Exodus 24:5)
Then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice – either God or the idol." Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. (Exodus 32:26)
At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born had forfeited their "Kohen" status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (More specifically, the descendants of Aaron became the Kohanim, with the rest of the tribe of Levi taking on other responsibilities in the Temple.)
This created a situation where all Jewish first-borns are "potential" Kohanim, while the descendents of Aaron are the "actual" Kohanim.
Therefore, God gave us the commandment to redeem the first-born from a Kohen, who essentially is serving in place of the first-born.
Now for your question: Isn't all this discriminatory? Just by virtue of birth is a Kohen inherently "better" than a non-Kohen?
The answer is yes and no.
We all accept the idea that "status" can be passed down genealogically. Imagine someone born into the family of Rockefeller. He would automatically have vast financial resources and social status. Is this fair? After all, his only claim to fame is that some distant ancestor excelled!
So, too, a Kohen is a Kohen today by virtue of an exceedingly great act that his ancestor did in refusing to worship the Golden Calf.
Whether fair or not, it's a genealogical reality that applies to many aspects of life. Some people are born smarter, some prettier, and some more athletic. However this does not make one human being better than another. It just means that we all have different limitations, and a different potential to be fulfilled. (In fact, the tribe of Levi "lost out" in one regard, in that they were not assigned a tribal portion in the Land of Israel.)
Actually, the greater a person's potential, the greater degree of responsibility. One of the reasons why Esav (Esau) sold the birthright to Jacob is because Esav thought he would suffer grave consequences as a result of performing the Temple service improperly. Indeed, if a Rockefeller would squander his wealth and abuse his social status, he would be held culpable – much more than if a non-Rockefeller did so!
But in truth, we've missed a basic point. In Judaism there is a much higher value than one's status as a Kohen – the "Crown of Torah."
Torah learning is regarded as the most important of all mitzvot, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvot. As the Talmud says (Shabbat 127a): "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvot."
The Talmud asks who deserves more honor: A non-learned Kohen Gadol (High Priest), or a Torah scholar with badly-tainted lineage (for example the product of an incestuous relationship)? The answer is that Torah scholarship supersedes simple Kohanic lineage.
So when we speak about fulfilling one's Jewish potential, there are no restrictions, no special classes of Jews. Torah is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is open and available to all. And we are required at all times to involve ourselves personally in its study and practice.
Furthermore, while everyone may not be cut out to be a scholar, everyone can share in that merit by supporting Torah scholarship. The classic example of this is a partnership made between the two Jewish tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. The people of Yissachar were professional scholars, while the people of Zevulun excelled in business and trade. The two group made a 50-50 partnership: Zevulun supplied Yissachar with funds, and in return Yissachar agreed to split the merit of their Torah learning. Indeed, this provision is used even today as the model for many similar, private arrangements.
Yet when all is said and done, aren't Kohanim still regarded as "special?"
The definition of peace is not that everyone is equal or that everyone has exactly the same needs as everyone else, but rather that everyone knows their place, knows what they're capable of, knows what their contribution is, and is accepting of themselves and that others' contributions as equally important and valuable. Everyone has a vital role to play, regardless of occupation or skill, and we are only expected to excel with the tools we have.
The story is told of the great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th century Jerusalem), who asked his congregation to delay beginning the evening prayers until the street sweeper arrived. Said Rabbi Auerbach: "This man is devoted and committed to his work, and takes pride in the contribution he makes to Jewish life. I wish that I would have such pure intentions in my own work!"
It is interesting that the Priestly Blessing set forth in the Torah (Numbers 6:22-27) is essentially a blessing for peace. The Kohanim are the prime example in Jewish life where we could be setting ourselves up for jealousy – "my position versus your position." Yet the Torah assigns them the specific role as messengers of peace!
And who was the quintessential master of peace? Moses' brother – Aaron the High Priest – who occupied the second-highest position in Jewish communal life. Yet Aaron was known as the master of peace. Despite his "special" status, Aaron brought harmony by teaching that no one's "package" is inherently better than another’s. And that's the key to true peace – never treating others as less important.
One last point mentioned in your question: A person's last name does not determine whether or not they come from the tribe of Levi. While it is true that many families named Levi are Levites, this is far from an absolute rule. Imagine an Eskimo who converts to Judaism and legally changes his last name to Levi. That doesn't make him a Levite!
Nor are all Kohen's named Kohen. Many Kohanim are named Katz, which is an acronym for Kohen-Tzedek – "righteous Kohen." And the family today with the most verified lineage of Kohanic ancestry is named "Rappaport!"
The only valid method of being a Levite (or Kohen) is to have an unbroken tradition, passed from generation to generation, stretching back to the time of Moses. In many Jewish communities, meticulous records were kept throughout the generations to ensure that ancestral lines remain clear.
Finally, while a Pidyon Ha’Ben is usually done one month after birth, even if the opportunity was missed, the obligation still remains. My best advice is to contact a local rabbi with solid knowledge of the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law. There are many technical details regarding Pidyon Ha’Ben, and not all first-borns are obligated in the mitzvah.
I wish you the best success in raising your son in the Jewish tradition. With your honest approach in your relationship to God, he's got an excellent role model already.
Read more about Pidyon Ha’Ben at www.aish.com/jl/l/b/48964996.html
My boyfriend just got a new job and will be moving to my city. He says that it’s time we start living together. The idea seems to have advantages – shared expenses, and we can spend more time together. But I’m wondering if there is a downside to this as well?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Living together is a bad idea. It is a convenient way for a man to have all the “benefits” with none of the responsibilities. Then when he gets tired of you, he will move on. I've seen it dozens of times, with women who come crying to me because they have been hurt in this way. (For this and many other reasons, Judaism frowns on this arrangement.)
Even in the event you do get married, studies show that couples who lived together before marriage were more likely to get divorced early in their marriage than couples who did not live together. There is a simple reason for this. When a man and woman live together, they approach their relationship very differently than they would as a married couple. Finances, household chores, social lives, major decisions, minor decisions, resolving conflicts, give and take, and expectations about the future are all executed by two individuals who lack a basic long-term commitment.
When they get married, what usually happens is that their expectations change. The rules are now different, only the couple is now set in a previous mode of relating, and cannot handle the transition. It’s a prescription for disaster.
I recommend the book, "The Case for Marriage," which has a chapter discussing this phenomenon.