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Vayishlach

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken


"Jacob's sons answered Sh'chem and Chamor, his father, cleverly, and they spoke because he had defiled Dina their sister. And they said to them, "we cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who remains uncircumcised, for it is a disgrace for us. Only on this [condition] can we agree with you, if you will be like us, to circumcise every male." [34:13-15]

After Sh'chem's assault upon and kidnapping of Dina, the brothers set out to rescue her. A straightforward interpretation of these verses is that the brothers, recognizing that they were not strong enough to rescue her through military might, tricked Chamor and his son into weakening themselves. They never intended to permit the attackers to marry their sister, but the deception was justified in order to save her (and as we see, Shimon and Levi felt that the people of Sh'chem were subject to the death penalty for participating in the kidnapping).

The Ba'al Akeidah, however, takes a different approach. He says that the offer was genuine, but Sh'chem and Chamor didn't fully understand what they were being asked to do. The brothers said that they would consent, "if you will be like us," meaning truly like they were. Not only on the outside, but on the inside. The people of Sh'chem would need to become like the children of Yaakov, joining the Jewish people. The brothers were not just asking them to perform the physical act of circumcision, but that they join the Covenant of circumcision, the Covenant G-d made with Abraham. If they did so, then to have Sh'chem marry their sister would be no disgrace at all.

That was the fundamental point, the key issue. But Sh'chem and Chamor didn't get it. They thought that if the outer trappings were OK, that's all that was needed.

Today, many people -- both Jews and non-Jews -- don't get it. A religious difference isn't really so important, they say. What matters is love. To not marry a person of a different religion -- that's just racism!

But if you ask the same people whether it is fair to want to transmit your own values to your children, they will agree that it is. They will probably say that they themselves would like to do so! Aye, as Shakespeare said, there's the rub. What happens if, deep down, parents have different values?

A few weeks ago, we received the following inquiry via our Ask the Rabbi AnswerLine, with a few details blurred:

"I am a Jewish woman, planning to marry a Christian man. Last night he told me that he would like our child baptized. I called a minister who told me that the child will be considered part of their denomination once baptized. What does the Jewish faith say, if the child is baptized but the mother does not plan to raise the child as a Christian?"

She asked a technical question, while ignoring philosophical issues which no prospective parent can afford to overlook. One parent wants to baptize the child; the other wants to raise the child as a Jew. What they are going to have is a very confused, torn child! Either they agree -- at a very fundamental level, without fooling themselves -- and transmit a set of shared values, or they compete for their child's attention.

"We'll teach our child both faiths, and let him or her decide." Have you heard this? What this usually means is: "G-d doesn't care, especially because all religions boil down to the same beliefs about justice, love and mercy. As long as you believe in Him in a nice way. Besides, stop bothering me, the whole issue gives me a headache and I don't want to lose my mate!" The problem is, of course, that religions do disagree profoundly about the nature of G-d, and at some point that is going to become important to the parents. No disrespect of other religions is implied -- on the contrary, let us respect and honor our differences, rather than brushing them off. The incompatibilities mean that we respect each other, but we cannot be one person. Nor can we build one child with two incompatible philosophies.

Intermarriages occur very often today, but the cards are severely stacked against their success -- especially once children arrive. The miracle of life frequently causes new parents to become much more serious about religion. All of a sudden, two compatible atheists are replaced by opposed theists. And even if they hold the marriage together, few parents are truly happy that their children chose another religion.

I will tell you a story that is as painful as it is true. A man called me up about his daughter. She had married a "lapsed Christian," one who had agreed to allow her to raise the children as Jews, even sending them to Hebrew school several times per week.

After several years, however, he underwent a religious transformation -- within a matter of months, her atheist husband had become a devout Christian. And despite his previous commitments, his newfound beliefs included the understanding that there is only one way to Heaven, and Hebrew school doesn't lead that way. In other words, if he didn't act urgently to save his wife and children, they would be condemned in the next world.

All of a sudden, he was inviting her to church, leaving tracts for the children and putting them to bed with hymns. The grandfather had no idea what to do for his daughter, who was clearly in extreme anguish as a result.

Of course, there was nothing I could do. Parents often become more religious, and the husband had simply gone back to his roots. There was no easy road out of that situation, given that she was only becoming more serious about her own Jewish roots at the same time.

We don't need trappings, nor a forced and superficial compatibility. We need shared commitment to a common set of values -- not only in order to ensure another Jewish generation, but in order to find true fulfillment as married partners, and as parents!


 






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