There’s No Such Thing…Or Is There??
My smicha certificate does not mention the name of any particular synagogue. I was ordained to be a teacher, leader, rabbi of the People Israel. Not as the rabbi of Temple Beth Fill-in-the-Blank. And I really have taken that seriously throughout my years in the rabbinate, understanding Keiruv as the process of bringing people closer to Torah and God and the land/people of Israel. It shouldn’t be about bringing folks to one particular shul.
When I receive a phone call from an unaffiliated Jew seeking a rabbi to officiate at a baby naming, part of the discussion includes the value of synagogue membership. I explain that the bestowing of a name is much more than a public welcoming ceremony. And it ought not to be an event held to appease well-meaning relatives who insist the “you have to have a naming because that’s just what we do.”
A naming ceremony is a public declaration, on the part of the parents , of a promise. A promise to those who came before. A guarantee that the Jewish religion and culture they held dear will be transmitted to another generation. A pledge to this new life that he or she will be gifted with the rich heritage that is his or her inheritance as well as be reared in the midst of community. And a brit – an ongoing Eternal covenant – with those yet-to-come. That a vibrant Judaism will not be denied to them.
Synagogue affiliation is essential to the fulfillment of these promises. It provides a community in which a child can flourish. It provided a support system for the parents. A place to celebrate. To mourn. To learn. And to grow.
— This is all the preamble to the following situation—
Some years back, I did a naming for an unaffiliated family. And then another one. And… And after naming their fourth child, they joined our shul. A year later, for reasons never given other than it had nothing to do with us, they resigned.
Recently, I received an email from the mother that concluded with the following:
…I am hoping to name this child in the Jewish religion as well. We have been bad Jews.
Here is what I wrote in return:
We have really missed you guys. I hope that things are settling down for you all and that you have found a spiritual home that is the right fit for your family.
Hi. No we haven’t joined or even been to temple since we left….I am hoping you will name this new one even though we have been bad Jews.
“Bad Jews.” I used to recoil whenever someone used this phrase. I would rush to reassure them with a statement such as this:
No. There are people who do not make the best choices when it comes to their Judaism. But there is no such thing as a bad Jew.
And I believed it. Every word.
Now, though, I wonder if I have been wrong. What should we call a person who is ethical and moral but chooses not to observe Shabbat? A good person, to be sure. But no, not a good Jew. A person who withholds a Jewish education from his or her children is not a good Jew. One who chooses not to sustain the Jewish community is not a good Jew.
So now I am faced with a dilemma:
Do I name this child in the naïve hope that this family might reconsider at some point in the future and reaffiliate with a shul? Do I heed my deeply-rooted sense of obligation and name this child because, after all, would I want to be the one responsible for denying this innocent a name?
Do I respond that my time is filled meeting the needs of our congregants and (because I just can’t say no) provide the names of some of my colleagues who use the parnasa?
I am most interested in hearing your thoughts.