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.


  1. There are synagogues in America that do understand that families of diversity are sincerely seeking entry into the Jewish world. They celebrate Shabbat and holidays, and they see themselves as authentic Jewish households. The message of synagogues with barriers is that they are inadequate as Jews. There are untold numbers of non Jews living in Jewish homes who identify with the Jewish community. They may not be citizens by virtue of a legal halachic conversion, but they perceive themselves as green card carriers within the Jewish community. We need to make them feel accepted and welcome.

    Comment by Sam Gordon — February 1, 2006 @ 11:32 pm

  2. If there truly is to be an ever growing and strong reform jewish movement, then indeed we should do everything we can, within reason, to welcome interfaith families and encourage their engagement in our synagogues. The last time I looked we still considered ourselves reform, not orthodox. Halakhic concerns should never restrct us in our attempt to be welcoming to interfaith families. Though from a logical point of view, it appears to me to be patently absurd for a non-Jew even to wish to wear a tallit, to participate in a public torah service should be encouraged to any wishing to do so. Though the Torah is “ours,” its message belongs to all.

    Comment by Alvin M. Sugarman — February 2, 2006 @ 9:26 pm

  3. I am no halakhik authority, so this is my personal view. The MEANING of the tallit is the acceptance of the 613 mitzvot. While these are an obligation for Jews, there is (to my knowledge) nothing in the Torah and halakhah that prohibits non-Jews to accept them on a voluntary basis. (There may be a few mitsvot that are specifically reserved to Jews, in particular relating to Temple worship.) If this holds true, then it is not unthinkable for the non-Jew to don the tallit to symbolize his submission to the mitzvot. As far as I can understand, the historical prohibition for non-jews to wear a tallit stems from the need to distinguish Jews from Gentiles for security reasons. Can anyone comment on this?

    Comment by Joel — March 13, 2007 @ 6:35 am

  4. If only all those Jews who wore the tallit really took on the obligation of mitzvot. Part of the issue is consistency. We encourage those who are not Jewish who are raising Jewish families to participate in Jewish family ritual, yet we are hestitant when those rituals are public. As for the tallit, historically it was worn outside and by definition identified the wearer but that was not its purpose per se. Once the tallit went inside clothing, the yarmulke replaced it in terms of identification. Yet the full-time public wearing of the yarmulke wasnt popular until post 1967!

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 13, 2007 @ 6:46 am

  5. I confess that I am perplexed about the stiffness of halakhah. Rabbi Kerry says that “wew are hesitant when those rituals are public”. OK for those who enter a Shul only out of curiosity, but why a prohibition that encompasses also those who voluntarily accept the yoke of the mitzvot (and possibly cannot formally do giyur for whatever reason)? After all, when Moses left Egypt, his followers were not only the descendant of Ja’akov, but also with their local spouses and family, with other slaves, and during the 40 years in the Sinai other people joined them. It is simply a fable that all jews are racially uniform. If dwellers of the Sinai could join the children of Ja’akov to form ‘Am Yisrael, and the only requirement was the acceptance of the Torah, why say that a man or a woman not born of the seed of Abraham cannot do the same as “easily”? The “Us v Them” mentality is helpful and justified only insofar as it prevents a relapse into idolatry of the neighbouring people, or it incites to ignoring Torah. But G-D did not chose the Jews to be an elitist club. Jews are the “chosen people” because they are set aside with the special responsibility to bear witness to Him. What is the point of bearing witness, if not to lead the way and call the Nations to recognize Him as the only Supreme Being? If so, why push a gentile away when he or she IS responding to G-D’s calling?

    Comment by Joel — March 16, 2007 @ 6:28 am

  6. Thanks for sharing. It is not halakhah that is stiff, as far as I am concerned, it is those who interpret it who are.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 16, 2007 @ 6:37 am

  7. Touché…! Of course you are right. And having made the apology of a very liberal view on the subject, I must now express my sympathy for (though not my approval of) more traditional stances. If all boild down to interpretation of the halakhah, and considering that the traditional one has been basically frozen in the talmud, I wonder how those who attach importance to “legal precision and certainty” can dixtricate themselves from among all the old rules and the requirements of modern life and still maintain a semblance of consistency. A strict interpretation entails less risk of mistake and thus higher certainty. But the price is a smaller dose of compassion and humanity. But is it necessarily so that flexibility leads to inconsistency or uncertainty? Can’t there being a pattern in flexibility? I’d be curious to hear some comments on this.

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2007 @ 8:17 am

  8. I stumbled across this blog and discussion when considering the question of whether i should wear a tallit when attending my local synagogue. I am a christian who is studying a Masters Degree in Jewish-Christian relations, and I regually attend my local synagogue where I have recived a warm welcome. I have been very up front about the fact that I am a christian, and do not have any desire to convert. I do however wish to deepen my understanding of Judaism and ways in which Christians and Jews can get along. My particuallar area of study is in fact the 613 mitvahs.

    On occasion when someone who does not regually attend the synagogue comes along, they come and ask me where i am from. LAst week i had just such a discussion. The person said they knew i was not Jewish because i was not wearing a tallit. I think this is a valuable reason for not doing so. While I wish to be accepted, i dont want people to mistakenly belive i am a Jew, as i belive this would be misleading.

    Comment by Luke Griffiss-Williams — January 18, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  9. I understand your position, for sure, and respect it. But you are not one who has cast your lot with the Jewish people, who may be raising Jewish children as a parent, or who is exploring conversion. And that was the context in which the issue arose. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — January 18, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  10. May I make one further suggestion? What if those who have not coverted and so not taken on the 613 mitvahs wear a tallit “light” either having just 7 tassles representing the 7 nohide laws, or without tassles? This will allow people to feel include but distingish between the two?

    Comment by Luke Griffiss-Williams — January 18, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  11. As one who doesnt like to manipulate ritual garments, i would leave your very interesting suggestion up to discussion.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — January 18, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  12. Many thanks, one final thought (Sorry this has got me thinking now:

    As only the 7 nohide laws relate to gentiles, it is possible to argue that there is no prohibition that can be applied to a gentile not to fulfil a mitvah in part or full. It is considered rabbinicially forbidden for a gentile to for example study the Talmud, or indeed to fully observe the sabbath as this is given for the Jews, but these prohibitions are in effect not binding on non-Jews as they have not “signed up” to the covenent. I realise that it may still be seen as preferable for a non-Jew not to wear Tallit, however my question is, if it is prohebited, then by what authority does this prohibiion stand? (I would argue good manners towards a community one wishes to participate in) but i think the broader issue is of intrest. RIght thats me done, I will shut up now!

    Comment by Luke Griffiss-Williams — January 18, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

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