In last week’s parsha, Abraham and Sarah are super welcoming to the strangers and in this week’s parsha, Lot welcomes the angels. Then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in part because they weren’t all that welcoming. Being welcoming is a really big deal in the Jewish tradition. You have to make sure your guests feel comfortable – that they have enough to eat, that the attention paid to them is positive, that they are safe. In fact, welcoming guests is one of the lines we read in that bit about ‘these are the deeds whose reward gives you benefit in both this world and the next, which you get from Torah study’. Welcoming guests is considered a big deal for everyone. There are countless stories about rabbis that are welcomed properly or improperly, or even the Messiah being welcomed properly or improperly. It’s a Jewish value. I know because it was listed as a Jewish value in the list of Jewish values that my son had to learn to get his next colour of kippah. (Your son is a red belt in Karate? My son is a red kippah in Jewish values! Sometimes my life is funny.) So, welcoming is a big deal – especially in my current Shul which compares itself to Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which welcomes gay and interfaith couples, which is open and accepting.
OK, complete change of topic. When I was a little girl, the school I daily attended was Orthodox. There, I daily said the Birkot HaShahar, the morning blessings – the ones where we say things like “Thank You God for opening the eyes of the blind” (about our ability to see,) “Thank You God for making firm the land over the waters” (about our ability to stand,) “Thank You God for crowning Israel with glory” (well, there’s a reason to wear a kippah!) Among them was the blessing (for boys) that said “Thank You God for making me a man” and (for girls,) “Thank You God for making me according to Your will/word.” I asked a Rabbi at the time what the reason for the discrepancy might be. “Oh,” said he, “men have a lot of religious obligations and they want to show God how ready they are to do the hard work, so they thank God for giving them all these obligations. Women, on the other hand have it easier, religiously, and it would be obnoxious to thank God for not giving them so much work. So, women just thank God for making them how God wills.” It was a sweet explanation – but it didn’t entirely work for me then, and less and less as time went on. Women had lots of hard work, religious or otherwise, from what I could see, and saying thank you for making someone a man had a feeling of privilege, not acceptance of work.
New topic again! (What is it with this crazy post? It seems to go everywhere!) Interfaith families are a thing at Shul. There are and have been for some time lots of people who have a non-Jewish spouse, parent, child, sibling (yes, that’s possible, think about it,) other relative, or friend sitting with them or at least in the same row. Some people feel that these non-Jews cannot be more than guests at the Shul. They certainly cannot be members – it’s a Jewish community and they’re not Jews. That’s so simple and fundamental, it shouldn’t need mentioning. And yet – it stopped being simple when these guests became our family. They are there. They often sing the prayers with us, frequently much better than I can. They are the ones who drive the kids, participate on committees, pay the membership fees. Yes, they are guests. They are involved guests, though.
One day, sitting in my seat as the Birkot HaShahar came up, I thought about what my family member, the non-Jewish guest sitting next to me, was saying when I said “Thank You God for making me a Jew.” Was that line making her as uncomfortable as “Thank You God for making me a man” had made me many years ago? Of course, it is a perfectly valid prayer, with years of tradition. I could point out that Jews are a minority, and often disadvantaged, not privileged. Also, many non-Jewish guests will just not sing because it’s in Hebrew or sing without understanding, because it’s in Hebrew. It doesn’t say being a non-Jew is *bad* per se, it just says it’s different. In the Aleynu too – it’s just different. It doesn’t mean we don’t like non-Jews when we thank God for making us different from the other nations, and not making out portions like theirs or our having our futures be like everyone else’s. During Havdala – when we separate Jews from non-Jews, light from darkness, holy from everyday – surely we are not even slightly implying that Jews are bright and holy and non-Jews are dark and everyday.
I know all the explanations. I’ve given them. Is it welcoming, though? Is it what Abraham and Sarah, with a tent open on all sides, would have wanted? Would they be OK with it? I am not sure. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my Rabbi’s explanation when I was a young girl. I don’t see why my non-Jewish friends would be. I can’t help but think how I would feel if I came to church every week for some reason (it’s been known to happen) and heard a prayer that included “Thank God we’re Christians” and “Praise God we’re not stuck being like those others” and “Thanks for separating us from them.” I might not feel welcome at all. So, for me, prayers need to change. We find ways to praise God for giving us a chosen destiny without denigrating others. I skip these bits in the Birkot HaShahar, the Aleynu, and the Havdala. I stand quiet during these parts and think to myself, “what can I do to be more welcoming?”
Sometimes, only slightly amused at my life, I will even say that prayer I disdained when I was a young girl. Maybe that’s the one we should all say, as it reminds us of the fact that we are all strangers – all guests in someone’s tent. We all need compassion and acceptance, men, women, Jews and non-Jews. “Thank You, God for making me according to Your will.”