Honesty and Sensitivity When Jews, Muslims and Christians Meet for a Shabbat Meal

What was I to say when my intermarried guest asked whether I would accept one of my children marrying a non-Jew?

One of the joys of having a Jewish home is the opportunity to provide hospitality. Our role models for this are our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. The importance of hospitality is illustrated in the Bible when Abraham breaks off a conversation with G-d to greet three strangers and welcome them into Sarah’s and his tent, which was open to all on four sides.

My wife, Debbie, and I get tremendous pleasure from welcoming guests into our home, especially on Shabbat. It’s a particularly special treat to host people who don’t keep or know about Shabbat and to introduce them to its beauty, but inherent in this is a responsibility. There needs to be a balance in presentation, knowing what and what not to say, how much and when. And everything needs to be done with extreme sensitivity.

One recent Shabbat a few weeks ago, as we were walking home from the Kotel on a Friday night, I started to get to know our guests for the evening. They were a group of family and friends from the United States who made the special effort to celebrate a bar mitzvah in Israel. There was the immediate family - father, mother, and son. Mom and Dad’s grandparents had been Orthodox, living in a largely Jewish neighborhood in the New York area. There was a Christian father and son, who is a close friend of the bar mitzvah boy. And there was a Jewish uncle, married to a Muslim woman. The group’s guide also joined us.

I try to encourage open discussion at the Shabbat table, making clear to our guests that all questions are good questions. This evening, the majority of the questions came from the Muslim woman. After we sat down at the Shabbat table and I started explaining what and why we were doing things, she wanted to know all the details, all the way down to what the Hebrew words on the challah cover mean.

Later in the meal, at my suggestion, each member of the group shared a personal highlight of their trip. The experiences related were clearly impactful. I then related a short account of our family’s spiritual and physical journeys.

When I finished, the Jewish uncle married to the Muslim woman asked me if I would find it acceptable for any of my children to marry a non-Jew. I gave an immediate one word answer, “No” (“You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son.” Deuteronomy 7:3). The guide was clearly uncomfortable with my answer and proceeded to explain the statistical success rate advantage of single religion marriages. A friend of ours, who was with us for the meal, also tried to save me, relating her family’s history of intermarriage and the importance of her children having Jewish children.

It was at this point that I elaborated upon my simple “no.” Sensitivity to the situation indicated that I shouldn’t justify my answer, but I did go on to
explain that a person born a Jew or converted according to Jewish law remains a Jew, independent of actions. A child is loved unconditionally, also independent of what he or she does. One should not act like Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who cuts off his favorite daughter from his life because she marries outside the faith. Non-acceptance of behavior doesn’t mean rejection of the individual. In fact, it should be the opposite. One should draw the other that much closer.

On the walk back to the group’s hotel, we continued our discussion. The Muslim woman drew me aside and asked more questions about Judaism, even about making aliya. She confided in me that her family’s observance of Islam had been sporadic when she was growing up. When times were difficult, they prayed; when times were easy, they lapsed and so did she. I answered her questions as candidly and informatively as I could.

Our journeys are not straight paths and there are no shortcuts. There are 70 faces to the Torah (Bamidmar Rabbah 13:15). May we have the patience to accept people where they are and the openness to welcome them into our homes. Honesty and sensitivity are what are required of each of us, as we help others and ourselves along the way.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions. Two of HaOhel’s programs, Sulam Yaakov and Shirat Devorah just began a new year of learning.