Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson is on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His interests include interreligious activities, religious pluralism in Israel, and welcoming the gay and lesbian Jewish community into synagogue life.
Seeing the Non-Jewish Partner as a Ger Toshav
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I know that the question of officiation at mixed marriages confronts rabbis with painfully difficult issues. Concerns regarding personal integrity, relations with rabbis from other branches of Judaism, feelings for our own congregants, employment security and what is best for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people are all entangled in a decision each of us must face. I wrestled with the issue long and hard, especially during the past decade, and led a national ad hoc group within the Reform rabbinate studying the matter much of that time. The conclusion reached with which I am comfortable, and that required I change a long held position, I now urge upon colleagues, young and older, to consider seriously for themselves.
The question of intermarriage officiation had always been troublesome for me; about 10 years ago I realized it had become much more pressing and painful. The reasons were clear enough. The spiraling rate of intermarriage meant that those like myself who did not officiate must turn away a high percentage of our own young people. More likely, because our position of refusal was well-known in the community, we were never asked. But equally significant, the Jewish partner today, often, indeed very often, really wanted a Jewish home, and if his or her spouse-to-be was ready to share in that endeavor though not yet ready to convert, I recognized refusal did not provide the encouraging support so desperately needed. Referral to colleagues who would officiate, outreach programs, yes, of course, I did all that. But increasingly there were situations when I felt I was not doing what I should.
Early in my rabbinate I was reasonably certain that the requests to officiate were usually for cosmetic reasons, and that my officiation would be perceived as condoning and thereby encouraging intermarriage in the congregation. I also believed I could not make judgment calls couple by couple. Gradually, I became much less certain that these positions were correct. I saw too many intermarried couples struggling valiantly to maintain Jewish homes, and too many Jewish couples who do not. I became hostage to a policy that was hurtful to many, unsatisfactory to me and contrary to my goal of helping to sustain the Jewish faith into the next generation.
What was occurring in the larger community beyond my own congregation corroborated these impressions. Over 50 percent of Jews were marrying non-Jews. The problem was compounded. "We Jews are alone in calling for in-group marriage," wrote Professor Jonathan Sarna. "Intermarriage is normative in the United States and accepted as such by Catholics, Protestants and ethnic groups of all kinds." As Hebrew Union College Professor Bruce Philips has observed, soon the majority of our families will have one non-Jewish parent.
The need for new directions becomes clear when we acknowledge the great differences in the intermarried couples in our communities today. I am referring to those marriages where no conversion has taken place. Yet our own observations tell us that many such couples are deeply committed to raising Jewish families, and having exclusively Jewish homes. I am often moved by their enthusiastic commitment to the synagogue and the Jewish community. In particular, the dedication of the non-Jewish partner to his or her child's Jewish education can truly be inspiring. Indeed, an increasing number of our Reform movement's congregational leaders have come from precisely such families.
The late social scientist Egon Mayer, the preeminent scholar working in the field of intermarriage, underscored in his research the significance of our own anecdotal observations. He asserted that there is a growing minority of couples who, without conversion, are maintaining a distinctly Jewish family life. That includes High Holiday worship, Shabbat observance, Jewish study and synagogue affiliation. And even as the numbers of intermarried couples increase, so too the numbers of these couples who, without conversion, tend toward the same Jewish quotient, the Jewish observance level, of those where a conversion has occurred. We have no term for them, nor special category for the participating non-Jew, but these couples and these individuals distinguish themselves among us.
I believe we need to look upon these couples, and especially the non-Jew, fully participating in the synagogue and Jewish life, yet not ready or able to convert, in a new way. Actually we need to look upon them in an old, new way.
Dr. David Sperling, Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College, observed, "There is no unanimity of opinion in the Bible regarding the status of gentiles who have some kind of connection to Israelites or Jews…. It seems to me that the responses of the different writers are the result of the needs of Jewish society to respond to the challenges of their own times." Thus, we might add, in good biblical tradition, the dramatically new needs of our time are clear and require a new response.
There are more hints from the Jewish past. Professor Lawrence Schiffman of the Department of Jewish Studies at New York University, in his volume, Who Was a Jew (Ktav Publishing Inc., 1985), points out that in Greco-Roman times, semi-proselytes or "God fearers" attached themselves to the Jewish community. They did not convert for family or political reasons. Yet, while they were not considered Jews, they were nonetheless welcomed into the Jewish community itself.
In the rabbinic tradition too, according to the great Reform halachic authority Rabbi Solomon Freehof, we find reference to the gentile who had accepted the ethical commandments of Judaism, who adhered to no other faith and who was considered by religious teaching as being a proselyte, a "ger toshav." The term, originally used by Abraham to define himself to the citizens of Hebron when he negotiated for a burial place for Sarah, literally means a stranger and sojourner, a resident alien. Indeed, it was to become a paradigm for the ages to come, of Jews living in the midst of others.
But it has also become a paradigm for today, of others living in the midst of Jews. Rabbi Eric Yoffie observes, "In the Bible, the ger toshav is the stranger who lives among Jews. He has not adopted the Jewish faith, but he has acquired Jewish customs, values and friends… He is as close as one could come to being an Israelite without a formal change of status." Rabbi Yoffie continues, "Not every Jewish spouse fits this category, of course, but our movement operates on the assumption that this is the situation that either does exist or potentially might exist…. More often than not, the non-Jewish spouse comes to see himself or herself as a ger toshav, sharing the values of Judaism and participating in the rituals and customs of our community." All this reflects, I believe, that marvelous, enriching tendency within Jewish life to include rather than to exclude, to welcome rather than to reject.
Whatever term we choose to use, it is clear that the Jewish past has found ways to accommodate the non-Jew in our midst. Thus I believe it behooves us to encourage the involvement and identification of those Jews who, though not yet ready or able formally to convert to Judaism for family reasons, or a hesitancy to take such a major step without a long period of thought, are, with their Jewish spouses, creating exclusively Jewish homes, raising and educating Jewish children and actively participating in Jewish life.
We urge conversion, of course. As well, we employ the many creative and effective outreach approaches that seek to make mixed couples feel at home in our synagogues. But there is another step to be taken.
My sense of urgency to move toward a new position was greatly influenced by the insights of Dr. Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist who has done ground-breaking work in the conceptualization of Jewish identity. She asserts that Jewish identity is a journey, a process, a composite of developed feelings that become a commitment. The two elements that contribute to a developed Jewish identity are experience and significant relationships. Far beyond a formal event, as a conversion, identity is shaped by what happens in our lives. I realized, what event more than marriage provides the ingredients of experience and relationships. The wedding ceremony and the preparation for it comprise the gateway to that journey.
We are prepared to accept the Jewish identity of patrilineal children. Why not begin a step earlier with those who are clearly ready to be on their way, and encourage the rest of the journey as best we can? I recognized that my officiation would affirm the choice of those who wish to create an exclusively Jewish home. I would be there for them at the beginning of their journey, as they share the experiences and significant family relationships that would encourage the development of the non-Jewish partner's commitment to Jewish life.
Thus I am delighted to officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew based upon the following guidelines: the non-Jew is not a practicing adherent of another faith, the couple is committed to an exclusively Jewish home, to raising their children exclusively as Jews, to synagogue affiliation and to Jewish study, and if the non-Jewish partner is not closed to the consideration of conversion to Judaism in the future.
In my officiation I utilized the words of the Jewish wedding ceremony, making clear to all those attending, this couple is committed to the creation of a Jewish home that will thereby aid in sustaining the Jewish community. In such a situation, I take pride in standing beneath the huppah with that bride and groom, and I feel doing so strengthens both the couple's commitment to Judaism and to our people's hope for the future.
Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles.