Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
This piece is written to serve as a prologue to the document that I composed on the inclusion of intermarried families in Jewish rituals that documents my stance and its application. There is an introduction to that document. This is an additional composition to support and amplify that presentation.
The word most associated with us is "Jew," but that is really a misnomer. It is a geopolitical term, not a religious one. The word "Jew" comes from the word Judah to indicate that the members of the group descended from the tribe of Judah, the last remaining tribe after the disappearance of the northern ten tribes in 722 B.C.E. and the absorption of the tribe of Simeon into Judah. The Jews lived in Judea. They were Judeans and thus we are Jews. In our context the issue is not our geopolitical identification. We are Americans, even, Virginians. The issue which is the heart of the matter is our religious identification. The appropriate word in this context is Israel. This is our real name for it speaks to the essence and the question of our identity. From Jacob on, the nomenclature that creates us and binds us, the name of our identity is "The Children of Israel," which will be shortened to just Israel. It is with the people bearing that name that God makes and renews the covenant. That is the term used by all the prophets when speaking about us and God in faithfulness and its lack. It is under that name that the Maccabbees will fight for the faith.
If I was to set up parallel columns between the three dominant faiths in the Western World, one would be labeled Christianity and another would be labeled Islam. It is clear that the former is used to identify its adherents as believers that the Messiah has come. The latter term indicates that its believers must submit completely to the deity. Our keyword is Israel for it indicates that we are "straight," righteous," "upright," – "Yashar"- with God – "El." Only with Israel did God make a covenant. Only this name reflects standing in a "Jewish" covenantal position.
For Christianity its devotee is called a Christian and for Islam its devotee is called a Muslim. Both terms clearly derivative from its core name. To be in parallel context, our name has to be Israel.
In continuing the parallel, the nexus of Christianity for the Christian is Jesus on the Cross; for the Muslim it is Mecca and the Ka'aba; for Israel it is Sinai (wherever it is located, and not the Kotel). These are the core 'locations' of the faith and thus of the identity. For the Christian in their Christianity the expression of faith is the New Testament because it proclaims a new covenant (to replace ours!). For the Muslim in their Islam it is the Koran, to be read as the correct reading of all which Christianity and Israel have distorted, which is their covenantal book. For Israel in our "Israel" it is the Torah, which is the document of our covenant.
I am always mystified why everyone but Jews understand this very clearly. Perhaps it is due to the complications of our history which weaves many strands. (But living in America most of those strands are no longer operative.) Surely there are many people who stand outside of any religious covenant regardless of their families' religious origin. For some this has been for several generations. But for those who operate inside any religious orientation, these distinctions are clear and unquestionable. For the sake of its religious integrity, the church does not invite nor desire neither Israel nor the Muslim to participate in its rituals. Similarly, the mosque does not invite neither Christian nor Israel to participate in its rituals.
We have our religious integrity as well.
My name, Israel is my being.
My being is to stand in my particular covenant.
Without my name and without my covenant, I do not exist.
All this might seem obscure and pedantic, but I assure you otherwise. The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore was conducting sessions here in Richmond to which I was invited to participate. The theme of their study was The Scandal – meaning trap - of Particularity, namely, can we find all the parts that are in common between us in order to make a better and deeper relationship, or "fudge" the differences between us. An admirable task. Then at one session a Christian participant asked this question: Would the "Jews" mind if the Christians used the term Israel to identify themselves? I had the unenviable position to be the first "Jew" to respond. I said that it would be completely and unequivocally objectionable and unacceptable. I said: that was my name and they couldn't have it for I wouldn't relinquish it. You could feel the air go out of the room. Though I was just an invited guest I threw the biggest monkey wrench into their deliberations. I left it to my co-religionists to figure out their subsequent responses. One by one, they could not deny my answer. In this very deep and probing study of the relationship of Christians and "Jews," of Christianity and "Judaism," there finally was a bottom line that defined us and could not be used to define them, for its was the gateway to the entirety of our entity, of the purpose of our existence on earth. Later, my candidness, honesty and forthrightness were appreciated for it refocused the conversations in a productive and truthful direction.
I don't know who thinks about any of this when they enter into the synagogue. I do. As I study the evolution of our group in America, as I live and work in the synagogue world, particularly that of Conservative Judaism, I have grappled with the seeming invisibility of the Covenant of Israel which others eagerly claim, and we are equally eager to give up. It is simply played out in the orchestration of who can or not, should or not, do what in synagogue ritual. If the concept of covenant is irrelevant, inapplicable, then anyone can do anything any time. If it is relevant, if we have self-definition and believe in it, then there are some things that are clearly "out of bounds" for others, for they are expressions of our covenant. Every other faith does this. Why can't, why shouldn't we?
My document is my attempt to find the illusive and imaginary golden mean of recognizing and preserving ourselves as Israel, a people covenanted in faith, while at the same time respecting and including Christians who are connected in bonds of marriage or friendship. I have refined the details to the extent that my personal philosophy and theology allow. Some are amazed at things that I do. Others are appalled. I am quieted, for I believe that I have done the best to honor both sides of an equation, that I am not sure are quite equal. I rest peacefully in myself and leave judgment to the God of Israel.