There is a great article on the website JewishinStLouis.org by Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis (whose writings can also be found at www.morethodoxy.org). As an Orthodox rabbi, he understands the need for maintaining tradition and that Orthodoxy “is by definition something that has walls and limits.” The walls, he says, are supposed to protect them from potential evil from without, but “what happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and one’s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?”
He uses the example of an intermarried family. What rituals can the spouse of another background partake in during services? Can the family even become members? When and intermarried family – or LGBT Jews, or Jews who don’t keep kosher – approaches and wants to become involved, what do you do?
Rabbi Shafner’s response is simple, and one we wholeheartedly agree with: “I believe we must err, in an extreme way, on the side of welcoming.” He writes that when there seems to be a conflict between the “realm of laws between us and others than between us and G-d,” we must be stricter in the laws between us and others. For example, he recounts the tale of Abraham greeting the strangers. Abraham left God’s presence to greet idol worshipers because being welcoming is paramount.
Abraham’s actions should serve as a blueprint for how we act towards anyone who approaches the Jewish community, regardless of background (and it’s this episode that inspired us to create the Big Tent Judaism Coalition). The barriers we have erected over the years may have kept out some evils, but at what cost? We know what happens when these walls keep out important Jewish values – we end up with shrinking affiliation rates and less Jewish participation.
In this upcoming New Year, let’s all strive to remove those barriers that keep unaffiliated individuals and families from finding a deeper connection to Judaism. The warmth with which we welcome all those who approach will lead to a more engaged and dynamic Jewish community.