Should we be proactive and try to explain our customs to non-Jews, or is it better not to, since many of our customs may seem strange and be viewed negatively by the larger world? For examples: circumcision, and waving the Lulav & Etrog (palm branch and citron - four species).
Your question demonstrates a desire to be open in sharing a precious Jewish tradition with others that are not of your background. Implicit is a belief that you value others in the wider society, yet you have a fear that they may not understand or may cast aspersions upon something that you love.
By the way, customs and traditions can be strange and even weird when viewed by outsiders. That is the nature of the beast. Do not worry about it.
There can be many approaches to your question, ranging from: “it is none of their business,” to being totally open and proclaiming openly your religious practice, and, “who cares about their reaction to it?”
My approach is probably somewhere in the middle. My model is the U.S. military chaplaincy, which was central to my life for so many years as a U.S. Navy Chaplain.
As most of us realize, Judaism for many centuries has been averse to openly proselytizing: this means that for the most part we do not openly seek converts to our faith. Why this is so, is definitely a topic for discussion and study. Be this as it may, sharing your knowledge and faith with others and explaining an aspect such as ritual circumcision (berit milah) is appropriate. Why not?
Along with this would have to be a respectful mutual readiness to listen to aspects of the faith of others. I know from experience that many believe that everyone is into seeking converts and feel that the very openness demonstrated is rooted in a desire to convince the other to be, for example, “Jewish.”
While you and I know that this is not your intent, others listening to you may mistakenly believe that you are trying to ‘sell’ them your product. In our American society there are many, many organizations completely devoted to ‘selling’ their religion to others. I do not necessarily disparage these organizations, but they have created the backdrop under which your words will be heard.
An important point must be made and that is the place of the non-Jew in Judaism: as this is an extensive subject, I will not attempt to elucidate the historical and legal aspects of the non-Jew in Jewish sources.
Suffice it to say, that in our American society, we are part of the American citizenry: we are all co-equals. This is vital. However, not all citizens understand this yet; this is true of a segment of non-Jews as they view Jews.
There is also, regrettably, to my way of thinking, a rather small segment of Jews that view non-Jews not as co-equals with Jews. Somehow, they think that non-Jews are created on a level lower than Jews. This, too, is a very big subject.
I discourage this thinking, and believe wholeheartedly that in our lifetime we must emphasize the first chapter of the Book of Genesis (Sefer Bereshit), where we read that all human beings are created in the same act of creation by the same Creator and in His image.
One concern in sharing your religious practice with others is that you must be well versed in Judaism so that you correctly explain these matters. Unfortunately, well-meaning Jews attempt, at times, to explain Jewish practice, while giving incorrect information: this, of course, is to be avoided.
In summary, I would advise you to be careful and respectful when sharing this information with others, while prefacing your words with something to the effect, “I want to share with you something important to me from my traditions, and however, I want you to realize that my tradition does not openly seek converts. I would also welcome your sharing with me any of your own traditions.”
If you cannot in all honesty listen to someone else’s religious traditions then I would advise you to let this subject alone.
It is very natural for human beings to be sensitive to the way in which others perceive them. We want to be recognized as “normal” by the larger culture when we find ourselves outside of it. Jews have been outsiders for the majority of Jewish history, and we have had varying degrees of success at integrating into the normative culture. If we desire integration while retaining our distinctiveness, my sense is that we should engender a sense of pride in the customs, traditions, and culture that distinguish us from other groups. Implicit in the question asked here is a sense of shame. A custom is only “strange” when it remains mysterious and unexplained. When we teach Gentiles the origins and value of our customs, we may reduce the feeling that these customs (and we?) are peculiar. In fact, the suggestion that we should withhold these explanations may increase the sense of weirdness that others may feel about our culture. The more we can expose our fellow human beings to the value of our religious traditions, the less foreign and strange they will seem. Many Jewish customs and traditions were shaped by the larger Gentile culture that existed around Jews as they developed our religious traditions. Perhaps Gentiles will see a bit of their own customs and traditions within ours, thus minimizing the sense that our ways are strange while increasing a sense that we are all travellers on a journey toward shlemut, or wholeness.
My experience as a rabbi, who officiates at interfaith weddings and other life cycle events, is that much of the world loves to know about Jewish ritual, and when explained in a welcoming and inclusive way, can bring people to it. Many a wedding has ended with guests coming up and asking if I would officiate for them, with all the same ritual, even though neither of them is Jewish. From the most secular to the most religious Catholics and Hindus, I have been asked this.
Jewish ritual is beautiful and has deep meaningful lessons to teach. The more we know about ways to explain these rituals to others, the more we will engage our own community. It’s not just the other who thinks circumcision in a ritual celebration is bizarre. Many of the young Jews I encounter are asking the same questions about the ritual and why we/they should still practice it.
In a world devoid of much meaningful ritual, Judaism has the potential to open people up and better their lives and the life of the planet. Shabbat teaches real rest and revitalization, while it teaches that we are not responsible for creating the world and owe respect to the beauty and fragility of the planet. Kashrut, in all forms of keeping kosher from the most orthodox to eco-kosher teaches about the relationship we have with our food sources and the treatment of animals, vegetation, humanity, our bodies, delivery systems, sustainability, our energy footprint, and thankfulness that goes beyond our own lives. Circumcision too can awaken our questions about belonging and communal responsibility, and about biblical stories and rabbinic teachings.
Judaism is a vibrant and beautifully woven fabric of questions and lessons. To be afraid to speak them, limits their value in our lives and in being a light to the nations. This is not about proselytizing. This is about knowing enough of what Judaism offers us, to see the value in sharing what guides us with others. While it may bring them in closer contact with Jewish learning and practice, it also may strengthen their own desire to learn more about their own religious roots and that can also make the world a better place. What better gift can we give ourselves and others than a sense that religious ritual, with all the questions and stories it brings up, can make a difference in our lives. THe more we learn, in order to teach, the more we are able to engage as well.
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