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An 'Alien' Solution to Intermarriage Dilemma

This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, the Forward. Visit www.Forward.com. For subscription information, call 1-866-399-7900.


If one Orthodox rabbi has his way, the next round of the intermarriage debate will involve a monumental step back--more than 3,000 years back--to the days of ancient Israel.   

Rabbi Steve Greenberg has published an article arguing for the reinstitution of the biblical category of ger toshav, or resident alien, in order to formalize the status of non-Jews who have chosen to build Jewish homes and raise Jewish children. According to Rabbi Greenberg, a teaching fellow at CLAL-National Jewish Center of Learning and Leadership, such a person was the "Jewish goy at the seder table"--a gentile who lived among and supported the Jewish people. By tradition, such people were permitted to eat non-kosher food, but were prohibited from publicly worshipping other gods.

Posted at the CLAL Web site and interfaithfamily.com, the article is part of a quiet, but growing, push to create a "middle ground" category for the rapidly increasing number of non-Jewish spouses taking part in synagogue life. In his piece, Rabbi Greenberg avoids the controversial task of deciding which rights would be extended to a modern-day ger toshav, and he declines to outline a specific ritual for achieving that status. Instead, Rabbi Greenberg told the Forward, his goal was simply to spark a much-needed communal discussion.

"Right now we either force some people to distance themselves because they have refused conversion and feel left out, or force people to adopt a religious framework under duress," Rabbi Greenberg said. The alternative, he added, is to offer an "in-between" option.

"I want there to be a process of affiliating with the Jewish people that focuses less on the do-or-die of conversion and the identity of the convert," Rabbi Greenberg said, "and more on the behaviors that the person is willing to take part in, the identity of the home that he or she is willing to shape and the educational trajectory that they envision for their kids."

The idea, several observers said, has been picking up steam in recent years within Reform circles. At least one of the movement's rabbis, Adam Fisher of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y., has actually performed about 50 ger toshav ceremonies during the past three decades.

"I'm surprised that others haven't started doing it," Rabbi Fisher said. "It may not be for everybody, but from a Reconstructionist or Reform perspective, where we are not so bound by strict halachic (Jewish legal) limitations, it can be a good option in many cases."

Rabbi Fisher said that he created the ceremony after being asked on several occasions to perform an interfaith marriage. The willingness of a non-Jewish partner to become a ger toshav became Rabbi Fisher's litmus test for deciding whether to officiate at such ceremonies.

As with a potential convert, Rabbi Fisher requires that anyone wishing to become a ger toshav attend synagogue services and enroll in an introduction to Judaism class. The process is capped with a public ceremony at a Friday night service, during which the person must pledge to create a Jewish home and support the Jewish people. Those who obtain the status of ger toshav are treated virtually the same as Jewish members of the synagogue, while limits are placed on the participation of other non-Jewish spouses.

"I'm asking them to commit to being a de facto Jew," Rabbi Fisher said of a potential ger toshav, adding that the person should no longer be an adherent of another religion. Rabbi Greenberg told the Forward that he would not rule out the possibility of a ger toshav following another religion, so long as it was a monotheistic faith.

"The marriage of a Jew and a ger toshav would not be legitimate under existing halachic frameworks," said Rabbi Greenberg, who has attracted a great deal of media attention in recent years ago as Orthodoxy's most prominent out-of-the-closet gay rabbi. "However, my own work in finding solutions to gay and lesbian marriage has shed light on this issue for me" in terms of exploring the development of new commitment ceremonies.

Several rabbis involved with outreach to intermarried couples confirmed that there appears to be a growing number of non-Jewish spouses in synagogue life who choose not to convert, either to avoid a break with their gentile parents or because they don't yet feel theologically comfortable with becoming a Jew. If nothing else, several observers said, Rabbi Greenberg's proposal could provide synagogue leaders with a terminology for speaking about their committed non-Jewish followers.

"I think it would give us a language to describe their status," said Rabbi Leonard Gordon, religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia and a past chair of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly's regional committee on outreach and conversion. "I'm just not sure there should be a ritual expression of that status."

One rabbi worried that the creation of a middle-ground category could in many cases remove whatever small incentive remains for converting to Judaism within liberal congregations. At Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, where the children of all mixed couples are considered Jewish and non-Jewish spouses are given more chances for ritual participation, conversion is already a tough sell, said Andrea Goldstein, an assistant rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, a Reform synagogue with about 2,000 families.

At least one of the non-Jewish spouses at Rabbi Goldstein's congregation, Bob Luhrs, said the notion of becoming a ger toshav did not appeal to him, though he attends services every month or two, and has been raising his 14-year-old daughter as a Jew. "Going to synagogue is like going to church, it just doesn't do anything for me; my mind wanders," said Mr. Luhrs, a manager at an ice cream plant who was raised a Lutheran.

While some non-Jews are simply not interested in any change of status, Rabbi Fisher acknowledged that his system could inadvertently end up keeping some people from becoming full Jews. But, the rabbi added, in recent years he has seen an increase in the number of people who end up using the ger toshav classification as a middle step toward conversion.

Jenny Stadler, a 34-year-old educational researcher at Stanford University, converted in 1998, two years after becoming a ger toshav under Rabbi Fisher's tutelage.

"I was getting married [to a Jewish man], but I wasn't ready to convert," said Ms. Stadler, who was raised Unitarian. "We loved [Rabbi Fisher] so much and wanted him to perform the ceremony, but I would not have converted at that point because I wasn't ready to take that theologically step. This was a way to experience being Jewish and living Jewishly without making the full commitment."

As for Rabbi Greenberg's article, it drew muted reactions from leading combatants on both sides of the argument over whether the Jewish community should be more welcoming to intermarried couples.

"The proposal is unobjectionable, and it has a lot of history behind it--but it doesn't address the crisis of today's reality," said Steven Bayme, a leading proponent of maintaining a strict taboo against intermarriage.

"On the one hand, the establishment of this category does not address the self-need of many mixed couples to claim Jewish status," said Mr. Bayme, Jewish communal affairs director at the American Jewish Committee. But for those who want tighter standards, he added, the proposal would probably do nothing to end the "blurring" of the line between Jewish and non-Jewish.

Ed Case, publisher of interfaithfamily.com, said that he also didn't see any major benefit to introducing the concept, since the lack of a uniform standard would simply lead to the same interdenominational squabbles already taking place over conversion. And, he said, creating a new standard wouldn't eliminate the need to tackle controversial issues, like whether or not a non-Jewish parent should be called to the Torah as part of a child's bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.

However, at least one visitor to Mr. Case's Web site said she found Rabbi Greenberg's proposal thought-provoking.

"As a non-Jewish wife [raising Jewish children], I appreciate Rabbi Greenberg's attempt to think creatively about the situation so many of us are in," wrote the woman, identified as "Lisa," in response to the article.

"Your article does make me think again about why I chose not to convert. I do consider religious belief as a journey, one in which I am still participating."

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." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Ami Eden

Ami Eden writes for the Forward.

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