Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What the Challah Cover Teaches Us

A friend, who converted to Judaism before she married her Jewish husband, recently shared with me her Passover experience. Her mother-in-law asked her to buy Manischewitz wine for the Seder. My friend couldn't find Manischewitz when she shopped. So, rather than arrive empty-handed, she bought Baron Herzog, another Kosher for Passover brand. 

While she knew the brand she purchased was different than the one requested, she thought her mother-in-law would appreciate the effort she made to find a good alternative. She was wrong. 

When she gave the wine to her mother-in-law instead of getting a "thank you," her mother-in-law told her, in front of the host and other guests, that she bought the wrong wine. She said the wine wasn't useable. It didn't matter that what my friend brought was Kosher for Passover, what mattered was that the wine was Manischewitz.

Other guests en route to the Seder were called and asked to pick up bottles of the correct wine on the way. The host was told to delay the start of the meal until the "right" wine arrived.

My friend was hurt, angry, and embarrassed by the public shaming. She felt that her mother-in-law was reminding her, again, that she wasn't Jewish enough, that she was a second-class Jew because she wasn't born Jewish. She said the message was clear, "A ‘real' Jew wouldn't have made this mistake." 

Unfortunately, I've heard similar stories from intermarried Jews, non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children and Jews-by-Choice many times before. Rarely do the perpetrators of these negative remarks see how their comments fail to create positive Jewish experiences or familial relationships. They don't consider how their words and action contradict Jewish teachings on loving-kindness, converts, and respect for those who live a Jewish life but are not Jewish. 

In the eyes of Judaism, converts are equal to born Jews. Some scholars even considered them more precious. Midrash Tanhuma B, Lekh Lekha 6 states, "The convert is dearer than the Jews who stood before Mount Sinai" because the one that chooses Judaism accepts "upon himself the kingdom of heaven." Judaism also regards non-Jews who observe certain religious and cultural traditions as "righteous strangers" and believes these geirim toshvim will have a place in the world-to-come. 

Measuring or quantifying Jewishness based on birth, marriage, denominational affiliation, or observance isn't the way to encourage more people to embrace Judaism either as converts or as part of interfaith, multicultural and same-sex couples. If we want to expand the number of people engaging in Jewish life in some way, then we need to be mindful of the lesson of the challah cover. 

On Shabbat, we're told to cover the challah. We do this so that the bread doesn't feel slighted or embarrassed by the attention paid to the wine during the recitation of the Kiddush, which precedes the Motzi (blessing over the bread). We're asked to care about the feelings of a loaf of bread. Why? Because Jewish sages believed that if we learned to treat an inanimate object with great care and consideration we would remember to show even greater concern for other human beings. We would work hard to not use words or actions to embarrass or hurt another individual.  

My friend's experience reminds me that many in the Jewish community forget what the challah cover teaches us about human interaction and our responsibility to be welcoming and inclusive. If we're to expand our Jewish tents and families, maybe it's time we reiterate the lesson.