Non-Jews and Jewish Ritual

There’s an interesting duality within the organized Jewish community today regarding perceptions about interfaith families. On the one hand, the Reform movement is generally perceived to be—and is in fact—comprised of a high percentage of interfaith families. On the other hand, we know that the majority of interfaith families (perhaps as high a percentage as 80%) remain outside of our synagogues and community institutions altogether. Taking these two facts into consideration, it is both understandable and lamentable that so much of the conversation about including interfaith family members focuses on the “insider” controversies about non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual, rather than on simply providing entry-level Jewish engagement. Nevertheless, the conversation provides us with insight as to the general attitudes regarding the inclusion of interfaith families in our synagogues and in the community.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement has recently issued a number of responsa (rabbinic questions and answers) that impact significantly on the attitudes and approaches to welcoming non-Jews into our community. These new responsa were sent to the 1500 members of the CCAR and impacts at least nearly 900 member congregations in the Reform movement. The first responsum has to do with whether or not a non-Jew (in this case the grandfather of a bar mitzvah) may wear a tallit [ritual prayer shawl]. It is an updated answer to a question posed on several occasions in the past.

Rabbi Solomon Freehof, who remained a guiding legal authority for many years in the Reform movement, posited that he was permitted to do so for a variety of reasons, including “for the sake of peace.” Freehof’s student and colleague Rabbi Walter Jacob disagreed. Jacob felt that the wearing of the tallit necessitated the reciting of a blessing beforehand which includes the specific formula phrasing “who has chosen us.” This phrasing, therefore, disallowed the non-Jew. The question was posed once more recently and the movement’s current halakhic authority, Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Professor of Talmud at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, supports Jacob’s position but suggests that it is for another reason, that is, the wearing of a tallit in public is a public statement about being a member of the covenant community of which he is not.

It is interesting to note that Freehof’s permissiveness has given way to a more contemporary position that seems less so, while at the same time, the movement is working to become even more welcoming to the growing number of non-Jews in its midst. While we recognize the importance of the current position, would the CCAR have issued the same directive were the question posed about the father who may have indeed cast his lot with the Jewish people and certainly has shared his son with the community?

The second relevant responsum asks, May non-Jews participate in the writing of a Torah scroll? While this may seem like an obscure question, it speaks to the essence of welcoming, especially since the obligation of writing a Torah scroll (even if given in proxy to a scribe) is the last of the 613 commandments prescribed for Jews. Since the Torah represents one of the three pillars of Judaism (Torah, God, Israel), it is indeed an important question. The answer is far less lenient than the answer concerning the wearing of a tallit as noted above. As a matter of Jewish law, the writer of the answer to the question notes that such participation actually disqualifies the Torah and makes it pasul (unfit for use). As part of the answer, the writer suggests that non-Jews should not participate in the public Torah service in any way since it is “the most visible and powerful symbol of Israel’s covenant with God.” Thankfully, many congregations do not take this advice and look for ways to include non-Jews, particularly those who are raising Jewish children, an argument that the writer of this responsum does not consider persuasive enough.

Since most interfaith families (and most Jews in general) are not engaging synagogues nor the Jewish community, the two cases may seem irrelevant. However, as a rough measurement of what those on the inside deem important, these two cases are indeed relevant and their issuance noteworthy. The real test will be in how they are translated on the ground by the “practitioners,” mainly the rabbis.

We understand that boundaries are continually being defined and re-drawn, but how well do we explain those boundaries? If a non-Jewish family member actually butts up against these boundaries, it means they have already traveled a long road into Jewish life and community. It would be a shame if inadvertent insensitivity pushes them away at a sensitive life-cycle event like a bar mitzvah, after they’ve already come so deeply into our community.

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