The Sprawling Jewish Family Tree

On Sunday evening, I had a chance to study Midrash and Talmud with the Intro to Judaism class that's being run this year by the Washington Coalition of Rabbis. The 88(!) students who are enrolled in the class hail from across Washington state, and a handful live further afield. Some are life-long Jews seeking to fill gaps in their knowledge of Judaism; some were not raised Jewish but have discovered Jewish ancestry and are exploring; others are not Jewish but are on a path towards conversion, or alternately want to learn in order to better support their Jewish loved ones. A handful are part of the Kavana community! I walked away from Sunday evening's session marveling at how vast and non-linear our extended Jewish family feels at this moment in history. How amazing is it that all of these disparate individuals now find themselves part of the Jewish story writ large, enough that they're interested in spending 21 Sunday nights studying various topics in Judaism?!

On Sunday evening, I had a chance to study Midrash and Talmud with the Intro to Judaism class that's being run this year by the Washington Coalition of Rabbis. The 88(!) students who are enrolled in the class hail from across Washington state, and a handful live further afield. Some are life-long Jews seeking to fill gaps in their knowledge of Judaism; some were not raised Jewish but have discovered Jewish ancestry and are exploring; others are not Jewish but are on a path towards conversion, or alternately want to learn in order to better support their Jewish loved ones. A handful are part of the Kavana community! I walked away from Sunday evening's session marveling at how vast and non-linear our extended Jewish family feels at this moment in history. How amazing is it that all of these disparate individuals now find themselves part of the Jewish story writ large, enough that they're interested in spending 21 Sunday nights studying various topics in Judaism?!

The themes of Jewish continuity and fear of discontinuity, and the messiness of our family tree all help link up this Intro to Judaism class with this week's Torah portion.

In Parashat Vayera, we return to the same Torah readings we encountered not so long ago on Rosh Hashanah: the story of the banishment and near-death of Hagar and Ishmael, and that of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac. The Hebrew word "zera" -- meaning "seed" or "offspring" -- is repeated as a trope. First, as Abraham worries about the fates of Ishmael and Hagar, God offers that he need not be distressed about the situation and should listen to Sarah, "ki v'yitzchak yikarei l'cha zara," "for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued (lit. “called”) for you" (Genesis 21:12). Given this verse's insistence that Isaac is Abraham's true seed/offspring, it feels surprising that the very next verse reads: "v'gam et-ben-ha'amah l'goi asimenu, ki zaracha hu," "As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed" (Genesis 21:13).

(As a side-bar, I'll mention here that the language of "zera"/"seed" also features prominently in another disturbing story in this week's parasha: the tale of Lot and his two daughters. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the three of them hide out in a cave, where the daughters seek to intoxicate and seduce Lot, "that we may maintain life through our father." If you're curious to read this R-rated Torah passage that also establishes the Moabites and Ammonites as our cousins, here's a link to the biblical text of Genesis 19:30-38; I also appreciated the commentaries and analysis Abby Eisenberg weaves together in this article: "Lessons by Lot's Daughters.")

Returning to Genesis chapter 21, we can feel Abraham's anxiety about the continuity of his line threading throughout almost the entirety of Parashat Vayera. When it comes to his sons, God reassures Abraham that his line will run through both Ishmael and Isaac. We too, I believe, are meant to be reassured when we read Genesis 21:13, that it is okay for family trees to fork and sprawl; there is room in the picture for an expansive definition of family!

Over the past many decades, the American Jewish community has been similarly anxious about -- and sometimes obsessed with -- the notion of "Jewish continuity." This has fueled debates about in-marriage vs. intermarriage, assimilation vs. Jewish segregation; it has also driven philanthropic funding of Jewish education and programs like Birthright. I'm not at all convinced that this anxiety and hand-wringing has been helpful; in fact, in many cases, I know that it has been counter-productive, resulting in Jewish communal institutions turning (or driving) away precisely those individuals and families who they should instead be welcoming warmly and embedding in the fabric of Jewish community.

In May of this year, the Pew Research Center released its decennial study entitled "Jewish Americans in 2020."  Beyond the headlines about political polarization in the American Jewish community (which I've written about previously), there is some interesting data embedded deep down in the report that relates to these themes of Jewish continuity and the sprawling Jewish family tree. If you're interested in reading the data for yourself, click here and scroll down, particularly to the sections entitled "Racial and ethnic diversity among US Jews," "Intermarriage and child rearing," and "Retention." This week, 18Doors -- an organization devoted to encouraging people in interfaith households to make Jewish choices, and also to encouraging Jewish communities to welcome them -- released its take on the Pew data. Through their web-page containing videos, a discussion guide, and quizzes, they invite us to look at the data in new ways and reconsider what stories the data might tell us.

At the end of the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) story -- in Genesis 22:17-18 -- God re-affirms the promise previously made to Abraham, saying, "I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants (zaracha) as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants (zaracha) shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants..." ("v'hitbarchu v'zaracha kol goyei ha-aretz...")

Do we have the imagination and the courage it takes to understand the word "zera" -- repeated three times in these brief verses -- as applying not only to Isaac and his descendants, but also to Ishmael and his offspring?

Can we imagine today that all of these descendants -- and indeed, all members of the sprawling Jewish family tree (including those who have been here for a while and those who are newly clinging to it) -- are worthy of blessing? Can we see that all of these are simultaneously a source of blessing?

I am grateful for the 88 students in this year's Intro to Judaism class, as well as the thousands of individuals who make up the broader Kavana community. Here at Kavana, we will aspire to interpret "zera" as expansively as we can, thus allowing our ancient tradition to continue to evolve, and our family tree to expand to make space for everyone who comes seeking their place on it. Abraham fretted about the continuity of his line, whereas we are coming to understand that there are multiple lines of continuity, traveling in a variety of directions. What a great blessing it is to have such a vast, non-linear family tree!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum