I changed my position on this question 10 years ago, after Anthony, who was not Jewish, tearfully pleaded with me to allow him to recite the Torah blessings at his son’s bar mitzvah the next morning. At first, a compassionate “No” seemed the only appropriate response because, as I explained to Anthony, these blessings are meant to be recited by a Jew; they praise God for “choosing us from all the peoples and giving us God’s Torah.” Since he had not chosen to commit himself to the covenant of the Jewish people, how could he be comfortable reciting such a blessing?
“Rabbi, I don’t think it’s quite that simple,” he replied. He told me that he had lived as a Jew since marrying his Jewish wife. Together, they had created a Jewish home, which included reciting blessings at the table every Friday evening, and they had raised Jewish children. He had not converted to Judaism, he explained, solely because of the pain it would cause his observant Catholic mother. “But,” he affirmed, “I am a committed, observant, proud Reform Jew, and I wish to proclaim that truth, and honor my son, by chanting the Torah blessings.”
All that restless night, I wrestled with Anthony’s question. And in the morning, as Anthony and his wife chanted the Torah blessings together, I felt certain my decision was correct. Not only did it reinforce Anthony’s sense of identification with the Jewish people, it put the onus where it properly belonged: on the individual, who must come to grips with his or her own often complex sets of identities and loyalties.
Anthony taught me that it is my responsibility to ask a person making such a request whether he or she could, in good conscience, say the words of the Torah blessings—or, for that matter, any blessing—on the bimah and really mean them. If the answer is “yes,” I will allow that person to participate in all parts of the service.
Rabbi Elliot Strom is rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
For nearly 35 years, our Movement has opened its hearts and synagogues to the intermarried and to non-Jews who are seeking religious meaning. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have joined our congregations, significantly advancing the cause of Jewish continuity. Outreach, however, has never been about fudging the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. Rather, its intent has always been to invite individuals and families to make Jewish choices.
Whenever a person makes a Jewish choice, we must take great care never to practice coercion or deception of any kind. But this is exactly what we do when we allow non-Jews to lead prayers that include statements such as, “…You have chosen us from among the peoples by giving us Your Torah.” By uttering these words, a non-Jew who has not converted to Judaism is declaring him/herself to be Jewish. Making such a fundamentally untrue statement compromises both the integrity of the person who recites it and the meaning of the prayer itself.
Ever since Sinai, Jews have embraced the mitzvot, a unique set of obligations that define our covenantal relationship with God. Our synagogue service is an affirmation of that covenantal bond, as well as a fulfillment of specific ritual mitzvot. It makes no sense for someone who does not share a commitment to these obligations to lead the congregation in fulfilling them.
Fortunately, there are so many ways in which non-Jews can be active participants in our synagogue life, we do not need to blur boundaries in order to make them feel welcome and included.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey and serves on the URJ/CCAR Joint Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community.