When planning for a Jewish lifecycle event with family members of other faiths, the question often arises about whether non-Jewish family members should be allowed to participate in the ceremony, or more specifically, recite Hebrew blessings, especially when the ceremony takes place on a bimah. There is no one answer, and even synagogues within the same movement do not always agree.
In the Spring 2012 edition of Reform Judaism, the magazine distributed by the Union of Reform Judaism, the “Debatable” section posed the following question: May Non-Jews Recite Any Blessings from the Bimah?
The magazine includes responses from two rabbis: one who allows non-Jews to recite Hebrew blessings from the bimah, and one who does not. Both, in my mind, make solid cases for their reasoning. However, I side with Rabbi Elliot Strom’s decision to allow non-Jewish family members to participate. I was also moved by what prompted his decision—a non-Jewish father who wanted to recite a blessing with his wife for their son’s Bar Mitzvah. This particular congregant has chosen to not convert out of respect for his devout Catholic mother, but for all intents and purposes, lives “Jewishly.” After losing some sleep over the issue, Rabbi Strom decided to allow the father to recite the blessing with his wife, and immediately knew it was the right thing to do:
“Anthony taught me that it is my responsibility to ask a person making such a request whether he or she could, in good conscience, say the words of the Torah blessings—or, for that matter, any blessing—on the bimah and really mean them.”
Interestingly, the argument Rabbi Arnold Gluck makes against allow non-Jews to recite blessings on the bimah is somewhat invalidated by Rabbi Strom’s explanation. Rabbi Gluck believes it to be a form of deception, allowing non-Jews to recite blessings that explicitly state Jews to be “the chosen people,” but Rabbi Strom clearly states that he only feels comfortable allowing non-Jews to participate if they fully understand what they are saying. As Rabbi Strom says, “the decision rests on each person’s conscience.”
It’s also worth noting the poll on ReformJudaismMag.org, posing this same question to readers. Currently, there are slightly more votes against allowing non-Jews to recite blessings on the bimah. Granted, less than 100 votes are in so far, but it will be interesting to watch, being as the Reform movement tends to be one of the more inclusive movements.
When it comes to participating in Jewish lifecycle events, there is no reason to not include non-Jewish family members, as long as they understand what they are saying and what is being asked of them.
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