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What is Your Synagogue's Policy on Opening the Ark?
October 15, 2014
The national InterfaithFamily/Your Community staff and the directors of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area worked together to gather information about the ritual policies of synagogues in their communities. All rabbis were asked the same question, below, and their responses follow. The opinions expressed do not reflect a policy of InterfaithFamily, but are meant to be an educational resource to be shared and discussed with the greater Jewish community. Read the previous column, Which Parents' Names are Included in Their Child's Hebrew Name?
We have asked the rabbis from synagogues of different denominations about their policies around partaking in rituals during services for those who are not Jewish. We found the interpretation of Jewish law for this ritual differed by synagogue.
Synagogues have different policies about who can participate in various parts of the Torah service, in particular, when there are family members who are not Jewish. In your synagogue, who can open the ark?
Come One, Come All
Congregation Ahavas Achim of Newburyport MA (Independent)
In our synagogue we allow any person, Jewish or not, to open the ark. The simple reason being that there is no "hard" halakhic (Jewish legal) reason to limit the opening of the ark to those who are Jewish. This is unlike receiving an aliyah to the Torah, where halakha is clear, the individual needs to be a Jewish adult who is respected by their community. Undoubtedly, the sight of someone not Jewish opening the ark would have been shocking (and still is for many) to say the least, to any Jew (liberal or Orthodox) from a different generation. However, synagogues with high numbers of interfaith families need to do everything in their power to include the individuals who aren’t Jewish in as many parts of the service as possible.
Congregation Beth Am of Buffalo Grove, Illinois (Reform)
At Congregation Beth Am we understand that all are created in the image of God and that while all might not be of the same faith, we are all one family. Both Jews and those not Jewish may stand on the bima and open the ark. Those not Jewish may stand with a partner at the Torah during the aliyah, the blessing before and after the Torah reading and for all blessings and ceremonies on the bima.
Not a Jewishly-Unique Act
Temple Beth David of the South Shore of Canton, MA (Reform)
In our synagogue we have many interfaith couples and families and it's very important to us to be as inclusive as possible, especially since many of our members who aren't Jewish-by-birth see themselves as a part of or an extension of the Jewish community. When it comes to Jewish rituals, we try to include everyone, regardless of their religion of origin except in cases where the ritual is one where the liturgy specifies it as a Jewishly-unique act (for example, if the blessing says asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu which means "the One who sanctifies us through commandments by commanding us"; The "us" in this statement is understood to be "us Jews" and thus, it wouldn't be appropriate for someone who is not Jewish to say these words or perform the rituals associated with them).
Being honored by opening the ark, however, is a custom rather than a mitzvah (commandment), and thus is not an action uniquely designated for Jewish participants. The Torah contains universal truths, and our members who are not Jewish often learn from Torah along with our Jewish members, and so feel a connection to Torah and the role it plays in their lives. In this way, including those who are not Jewish in the honor of opening the ark is a way not only to validate their place in the community but also to validate their connection with Torah, not as the book that was given to the Jewish people, but as the book that contains wisdom and guidance for all humankind.
All Relatives Pass Down the Torah
Congregation Etz Chayim of Palo Alto, CA (Independent: Etz Chayim melds Reform and Conservative traditions with elements from across the spectrum of Judaism)
On a regular Shabbat, we do not have ark opening as a separate honor. On the High Holy Days, the ark is opened by the service leader and the Torah service leaders, all of whom are Bar/Bat Mitzvahs from the previous year, and thus, all Jewish. At a Bar Mitzvah, parents and grandparents who are not Jewish may open the ark and pass the Torah down the chain of tradition to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah because a child does receive Torah from all his/her relatives, even those who are not Jewish.
Welcome, Care & Support
Congregation Beth Shalom provides worship experiences in accordance with a Conservative Jewish interpretation of halacha (Jewish law). Within those guidelines, we strive to be a community which teaches and enables its members to welcome, care about and support one another. A partner who is not Jewish can attend and participate, to the extent that he or she wishes, in all worship at CBS. Ritual participation in the service on the bima, such as wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) or being called to the bima for an honor or aliyah, is limited to those of the Jewish faith.
Inclusive and Authentic
At Adath Israel, we invite family members who are not Jewish to stand by the ark as a part of the ark opening, though a Jewish person opens the ark and takes the Torah out. This is based on the understanding that the ark opening and Torah procession are a re-enactment of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to the Book of Exodus, there were non-Israelites in attendance at the base of Mount Sinai (the so-called “erev rav”), so it is arguably even more authentic to welcome at the ark people who are not Jewish.
Our Ritual Committee understood the person stepping forward to open the ark and take out the Torah as the representative of Moses, in the giving of the Torah, so this role is reserved for someone Jewish—but those in attendance can be of multiple faiths. This also allows interfaith couples to be together at the ark, as part of a family celebration. In addition to this ritual participation and the inclusion of English prayers for peace and the country, any family member, regardless of his/her faith, is welcome to be on the bimah for the family’s celebratory moments (such as the intergenerational blessing, the placing of the tallit on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s shoulders, and others). This is the manner in which our Adath Israel community strives to be welcoming and inclusive to all families, in a way that is authentic to our tradition.
North Shore Congregation Israel of Glencoe, IL (Reform)
At our synagogue, we strive to find inclusive, open ways that serve individual families best, meeting them where they are. We believe in the importance of honoring any family or community member who has helped bring a child to Torah and to mark becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. As such, we (the clergy) speak with the families to assure each individual's views and comfort level are met in a way that is meaningful and appropriate. This is certainly true for the honor of opening the door to the ark, as it is with all honors at a service.
Everyone Should Be Honored
Relatives that are not Jewish are welcome to open the ark, come up to light candles on Friday night and often to do an additional English reading in the service. We welcome parents and grandparents who are not Jewish and feel that they have facilitated the bar or bat mitzvah’s Jewish education to take part in our Torah Pass L’dor va Dor. They are welcome to come up to the bimah with their Jewish partners/family to participate in the aliyah.
Inclusion is one of our greatest values at PTBE, and many of our families are intermarried. We want everyone who feels that they are a part of the bar or bat mitzvah’s journey toward Jewish adulthood to be honored in this process—both Jewish and not alike.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman
Have a question regarding synagogue rituals that you'd like us to have answered in this column? Share your question in the comments below!