Lovers of Israel: A Review of A Place in the Tent

By Rabbi Carl Perkins

February 2005

February 2005

Review of A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism, by Rabbis Mark Bloom, Ted Feldman, Gordon Freeman, Stuart Kelman, Harry Manhoff, Mimi Weisel, and Rose Levinson and Glenn Masarano (EKS Publishing Co., Oakland: 2005).

Judaism, as Mordecai Kaplan, the great twentieth century American Jewish philosopher taught, is a religious civilization with a unique culture, set of values, and world view expressed in its own languages, traditions and idioms. For most of Jewish history, Judaism was experienced, preserved and passed on by Jews within Jewish families and communities. Jews understood themselves to be “a people that dwells apart”—a people with a unique mission, mandate, and set of responsibilities. For the most part, those who were not Jewish did not live lives that could meaningfully be described as “Jewish;” nor did they play a role in transmitting Jewish knowledge and identity within the Jewish community.

Recently, however, as the rate of interfaith marriages by Jews in America has increased dramatically, a new phenomenon has arisen: there are an increasing number of those who are nor Jewish, married or partnered to Jews, who desire to promote Judaism within their homes and communities—even though they don’t want to become Jewish. These partners who are not Jewish may be enormously supportive of their family’s decision to affiliate with a Jewish congregation. Some may be the drivers of their children’s Hebrew School carpools; they may be regular attendees at services; they may be enthusiastic participants in adult or family education programs; they may be very spiritual and caring individuals who wish to perform acts of loving-kindness together with others in the synagogue community. They may be interested in helping the synagogue and the broader Jewish community in various ways… and yet, they might not, for a variety of reasons, wish to become Jewish.

This has posed a series of challenges for Jewish religious movements in this country. How involved should these supporters who are not Jewish be in the religious life of the Jewish community? Given their unwillingness personally to identify as Jews, might their involvement distort or dilute the shared religious experience within the congregation? What should be their status? If they are not Jewish, what are they? Are there aspects of Jewish communal life that are appropriate for them to participate in?
place in the tent

A Place in the Tent seeks to help leaders within the Conservative movement address these issues. The volume was written by over a half-dozen rabbis and lay leaders in several Northern California Conservative congregations who spent two years grappling with the issues raised by interfaith marriages in their communities. Because of its concern for Jewish continuity, its commitment to halakha (Jewish law), and its understanding of what it means to be a member of a covenantal community, the Conservative movement has not believed it to be appropriate to grant membership rights or other privileges to partners who are not Jewish. It has not wished to normalize behavior which is not only proscribed by Jewish law but which can also, in its view, hinder the full expression of Judaism. The authors of this volume are committed to the Conservative movement. Nonetheless, they believe that there can and should be a place within Conservative congregations for supportive partners who are not Jewish who are not practicing another religious faith and who, if they are parents, are raising, exclusively, Jewish children in the Jewish faith.

In order more easily to identify those whom the authors would encourage Conservative shuls (congregations) to recognize, welcome and embrace, and because “[w]ithout a name, [an] individual is rendered invisible within the larger social order,” (p.14) the authors urge congregations to give such individuals an identity. In the book, they present their own choice: “k’rov Yisrael“–plural, “k’rovei Yisrael“–meaning “a relative or a friend of Israel” or “close to the Jews” (p.13). By giving supportive partners/spouses/parents who are not Jewish a Hebrew title, they are providing them with an identity within the context of the Jewish community. The authors are thus asserting that such a person is not just a “[someone who is not Jewish],”–i.e., not just not a member of the group, not eligible for honors—he/she is also someone to be taken seriously and treated respectfully. Not just as a potential Jew (which he/she may be), but for who he/she is today.

The book is divided into several sections. First, there is a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings to developing a welcoming attitude and set of policies toward k’rovei yisrael. Following a presentation of the values that have inspired Conservative policies up until now, there is a discussion of other Jewish values (such as hachnasat orchim—hospitality, shalom bayit—domestic tranquility, and lifnim mishurat hadin—going beyond the letter of the law) that might have been missing from earlier discussions of this issue and that might ultimately motivate change. The authors, on the one hand, “affirm the sacred teachings of Judaism and its core values.” (p. 5) On the other hand, they also affirm that:

· Interfaith marriage is a reality in the life of many, if not all, Conservative synagogues.
· This reality needs to be acknowledged.
· Without violating the spirit and/or letter of halakha as interpreted in the Conservative Movement, there are ample opportunities for the creative integration of those who are not Jewish into the life of the synagogue. (p.6)

The bulk of the volume consists of an informal Q. & A., in which the rabbinic authors present their varied perspectives on questions regarding the participation by k’rovei Yisrael in the religious life of the congregation. For example, may a k’rov Yisrael stand at the bimah when a Jewish family member is honored with an aliyah to the Torah on, say, the occasion of a bar/bat mitzvah of a child? One response is that, since there is no explicit halakhic prohibition against a gentile standing on the bimah, and since someone who is not Jewish does not impart ritual unfitness (tumah) to the Torah, it should be permitted. Another answer is that those who are not Jewish should not stand on the bimah during an aliyah because of marit ayin (concern lest it be misconstrued–i.e., lest one think that he/she is Jewish). A third response stresses that since this is not technically a halakhic issue, “[v]ariables must be weighed with a bias towards inclusion and recognition.” (p.29)

To those for whom Jewish law lacks sacredness, this section may seem to be full of tedious nitpicking over very small issues. Consider the following question: “Should a k’rov Yisrael be permitted to serve as an usher at services?” Some might wonder why one would bother to ask such a question, whose answer must surely, obviously, be “Yes,” whereas others, though they’d respond quite differently, would also think the answer is obvious. That fact alone explains why such questions must be addressed analytically and carefully. The book’s authors care about Jewish law and tradition as well as human sensitivities; to this and similar questions, they present a variety of nuanced responses.

The volume also includes several first-person accounts of living as those who are not Jewish in a Conservative congregation. Several of these are quite moving. One woman (who eventually converted to Judaism) has advice for Conservative congregational leaders:

Welcome interfaith couples into your congregation. … The very fact that they are in your congregation is a huge gesture indicating they want some kind of Jewish home life–more so than for some in-married Jewish couples. I doubt any interfaith couple joins a Conservative synagogue casually, and they deserve to be dealt with honestly and frankly… Even if you are disturbed by interfaith marriage, resist the urge to be judgmental and disapproving. Few things are more painful–or harder to forgive–than being told that the most intimate and important relationship of your life is misguided, destructive or will lead to “cultural genocide.” (p. 58-59)

This book seeks to dispel some of the concerns that Conservative Jewish members and leaders might voice: Should Judaism support a spirit of inclusiveness toward intermarried families? Do policies that provide an identity and a role to those who are not Jewish distort the nature of Judaism? Will they lead to the dilution of the Jewish tradition within Jewish communities? The book offers several responses to each of these questions. It reminds the reader that “the question of the role and place of people [who are not Jewish] in the context of the Jewish community is not a new one.” (p.45) It also argues that the desire to foster inclusion stems from core values within Judaism. (p.12) More radically (and perhaps unnecessarily), the book’s appendix suggests that it may be necessary to “rethink the Jewish narrative” (p.41) for it fully to address contemporary realities. Finally–and this is the strongest argument of all, in our view–rather than diluting the Jewish tradition, the authors insist that the welcoming policies described in the book are intended to help preserve Jewish continuity. (p.48) As the authors put it, “efforts to involve [those who are not Jewish] in the community …will benefit Jewish family life and strengthen the community.” (p.6)

This is a warm, inviting, sensitively written work that is respectful of the halakhic process within the Conservative movement. It wisely seeks to distinguish between halakhic and non-halakhic issues. The authors of A Place in the Tent are to be commended for stimulating Conservative Jewish leaders to think more creatively about how to respond to interfaith marriage. It is a phenomenon too significant to ignore, and many of the old assumptions about it are simply inadequate. This volume is a helpful guide to generating a new approach of interfaith marriage that is responsive to contemporary realities. In the words of the authors,

The interfaith marriages who dwell amongst us give us many gifts…. It is our task to acknowledge that they are part of our shared destiny and to ‘enlarge the size of our tent’ so that together we may live out an enriched Jewish story. (p. 40)


About Rabbi Carl Perkins

Rabbi Carl Perkins is the rabbi of Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Needham, Mass.