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Should Gentiles Be Barred from the Mitzvah? Deliberating the Participation of Non-Jews at Life-Cycle Events

Jewish law prescribes that a gentile cannot touch the Torah. In this age of interfaith families and increasing acceptance of patrilineal descendance, this prohibition can lead to painful situations. There are non-Jewish parents who are very involved in the Jewish upbringing and education of their children, who are active volunteers in their temple. Yet, when their involvement and efforts culminate in the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of their children, they all of a sudden become second-class human beings.  

We beg to differ, and can easily explain why. Both in the Shabbat (Sabbath) liturgy as well in the liturgy surrounding the reading of the Torah, we utter "l'dor v'dor," from generation to generation. Doesn't it make sense then to honor all of the generations that have brought the child to chant from the Torah? If there is anyone who deserves to be honored at the ceremony, it is the gentile parent, for he or she has shown above-average dedication to be a link in the chain of Torah transmission through the generations.

How do we do it in our congregation? Instead of having a B'nai Mitzvah schedule where the child has to fit in, we schedule around the child and the family. Tutoring takes place at home, even at 7:00 am if necessary! And even through time zones. Although we are located in the midwest, we are currently preparing a very dedicated candidate in Los Angeles with the means of web cam and voice chat.

During the process of mastering Hebrew, we have extensive discussions with the children to come to a theme that really defines each individual child. We consider the d'var Torah, the speech in which the child can express "This is who I am and this is what I stand for," basically of more importance than following the calendar of Torah readings. For a child with a handicap, it is more important to say: "Don't assume that I am not able to do something, let me try first" rather than to cite a few Talmudic quotes on kashrut. Thus we find a Torah reading that fits the message the child wants to convey. In consultation with the child, we choose a segment of the Torah that expresses his or her theme.

This personal approach is reflected in the service itself as well. The child is not part of the service, but leads the whole service, in most cases from a prayer book that is specially created for the child for that important day.

An individually created prayer book doesn't only give a personal touch to the ceremony, it also allows for the inclusion of people who otherwise could not be honored.

Where the gentile parent (or gentile grandparent) is included in the symbolic passing down of the Torah on the Friday night prior to the ceremony on Shabbat, and the gentile parent can receive the honor of an aliyah (being called up to say the blessing over the Torah reading), for more distant non-Jewish relatives and friends the issue becomes different. Although there are honors like opening the ark that can be done by gentiles, it can happen that there are more non-Jewish friends and relatives who are important to the family than that there are suitable honors. A specially created prayer book that has extra English readings in the form of poems, quotes, stories or self-written compositions, creates the opportunity for non-Jews to be involved in the service, as they can be given the honor of a reading.

We are sure there are many out there who will totally disagree with our approach. Yet, we see it as our task to serve the Jewish people and work for the survival of Judaism. And we do that with a long-term vision. Since Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are not mandatory in our congregation, but our children choose to put in the extra effort, we can do two things. We can say: "As a reward for your hard work we will embarrass your father or mother and we will make sure that this day will be unforgettable in the most negative way." Or we can say: "We think what you want to do is awesome. And we are extremely proud of you, and of your parents, who have instilled in you the desire to keep our tradition. We will make sure that this day will be unforgettable for you in the most positive way."

We will leave it up to you to judge which approach will most contribute to the survival of Judaism.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is the spiritual leader of the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, Mo.

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