The role of non-Jews in the synagogue

An intermarried couple joins the synagogue. What are the boundaries for participating in services?

Temple Beth Abraham

For comparison, having no boundaries is a characteristic of another religion, Unitarian-Universalism. Not allowing any intermarried couples to join a synagogue removes the question entirely – which is the common Orthodox approach – but also drives the children of such couples eventually to other faiths.

Orthodox Judaism

Many Orthodox synagogues won’t allow intermarried couples or join. For those that do, a gentile may not become a member of a synagogue, nor serve on synagogue committees. For both halakhic and theological reasons, they may not lead prayers or recite a berakhah. Gentiles, however, are warmly welcomed to prayer services and communal events. And if they choose to learn more about Judaism, and eventually convert to Judaism, they are welcomes.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism

For both halakhic and theological reasons, non-Jews may not lead prayer services or recite a berakhah. They are welcomed to prayer services, and communal events. Conservative synagogues recognize that many intermarried families exist, and has created roles for non-Jewish parents/grand-parents who wish to participate in life-cycle events for their Jewish children/grandchildren.

This could include the recitation of a personal prayer, a relevant section from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible.)

The booklet “Building the Faith: A Book of Inclusion for Dual-Faith Families” (Volume 4 in a series of books books recently by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, notes that non-Jewish family members may be given honors to open and close the ark that contains the Torah scrolls; they may dress the Torah in its cover, and may lead the congregation in various English readings.

The CJLS (official law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly) offers several responsa giving halakhic guidance on these issues. CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) responsa

Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism

In many Reform Temples gentiles may serve on Temple committees, and may count as full members of the movement. “In many congregations…non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur [cantor, leader of prayer services].”

Some Reform teshuvot (e.g. “Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual 5754.5”) offer guidance limiting the role of gentiles in Reform prayer service, but the leadership is not obligated to follow these papers. Surveys show that 87% of Reform congregations allow gentiles to serve on synagogue committees; 22% allow gentiles to have an aliyah to the Torah.

Survery conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, noted in “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America”, Jack Wertheimer

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionism has progressively been eliminating differences between Jewish and non-Jewish people. The movement allows rabbis to officiate at intermarriages, and even allows Reconstructionist rabbis to be intermarried, [Guttman] The policy goes further to criticize all other Jewish people (other than Reconstructionists) as having a primitive form of tribalism:

The new policy, announced September 30, was a result of internal consultation and was based on the polling responses received from 31 congregations of the 100 synagogues and havurot, or fellowship communities, affiliated with the movement. A document prepared by the movement before the decision was adopted made the case for including intermarried rabbis by stating that “many younger progressive Jews, including many rabbis and rabbinical students, now perceive restrictions placed on those who are intermarried as reinforcing a tribalism that feels personally alienating and morally troubling in the 21st century.”

The movement accepts patrilineal descent: children of a gentile mother are considered Jewish; despite official policy, in many congregations this does not matter whether or not they are raised as a Jew. As such, non-Jewish children raised as Christians may nonetheless be accepted as “Jews” in Reconstructionism. [Feld]

Gentiles may become members of Reconstructionist Temples, they may serve on Temple ritual committees. They may sing prayers on the bima during prayer services. The JRF has issued a non-binding statement limiting the role of gentiles in services, “Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in JRF Congregation.” However these issues are ultimately decided by local lay leadership.

  • “7 Reconstructionist Rabbis Quit as Synagogues Debate Intermarried Rabbis”, Nathan Guttman, The Forward, 1/8/2016
  • From “Can Halakha Live?” by Rabbi Edward Feld, “The Reconstructionist”, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p.64-72

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