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Strangers in Your Midst

A Forward Editorial

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

A proposal currently making its way through rabbinic circles would have the Jewish community reframe its response to interfaith marriage by creating a new status for non-Jewish spouses rather than trying to chase them away. As reported by our Ami Eden last week, some rabbis are trying to revive the biblical category known as ger toshav, "the stranger in your midst" or, as it were, resident alien.

They're on to something important.

Advocates see the new status as a way of giving non-Jews a defined relationship to the Jewish community without requiring a religious conversion to Judaism. Opponents fret that such halfway measures will reduce the incentive for spouses to convert and further weaken existing communal taboos against exogamy.

The advocates reply that the intermarriage phenomenon isn't going away anytime soon, and the best strategy for the Jewish community is to encourage interfaith couples to create Jewish homes. Formalizing the status of the non-Jewish spouse is seen as one way of offering such encouragement. A few rabbis have taken up the banner by introducing rituals for--well, conversion to the new status.

The truth is, the rabbis are playing catch-up here. Over the last decade, while Jewish communal leaders have been agonizing over the specter of hordes of young Jews "marrying out" and abandoning the faith, the reality on the ground has been very different: Enormous numbers of non-Jews have in fact been marrying in, seeking with their Jewish spouses to create Jewish households and raise their children as Jews, on their own terms. In many places they've started taking on leadership roles in synagogues and even federations. In effect, American Judaism's resident aliens are already here, ritual or no ritual.

Still, if the rabbis are behind the curve, there's a great value in their efforts to catch up. Judaism, particularly in its traditional wings, is a religion of laws. The free-wheeling, do-it-yourself spirit of the new American Judaism hasn't changed that historic fact; it's simply fueled tension between the community's traditionalist and liberal wings.

Efforts to define a new legal status for non-Jewish spouses within the rabbinic code may not change much in the lives of your average interfaith couple. But it could help rabbis to get their minds around the new world in which we're living. That's to everyone's benefit.

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