HONORING OUR NON-JEWISH FRIENDS
By the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank
I've read that some rabbis are paying "koved" (honor) to non-Jewish congregants. They are offering "deepest gratitude" for those who are raising their children as Jews. As intermarriage rates continue to rise--and more intermarried families join congregations--some non-Orthodox rabbis are looking for ways to acknowledge the non-Jews in their midst.
Some choose to do their honoring during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur services. One rabbi chooses four non-Jewish spouses every year to stand on the bimah during the Yom Kippur service and read the story of a Righteous Gentile, a non-Jew who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
As a Conservative rabbi, how do you feel about this practice? Do you know of any other rabbis who follow a similar practice? Thanks for your input.
Interested in an Evolving Judaism
Dear Interested in an Evolving Judaism,
I have heard of colleagues who honor non-Jewish spouses for taking a principal role in raising their children Jewishly. I wouldn't be surprised if a Conservative colleague, here and there, did, though I suspect the practice is not widespread within the Conservative Movement.
I understand why my colleagues might think this is a good idea, as raising Jewish children is a noble and welcome gesture on the part of the non-Jewish spouses, and in the very least, I sympathize with that sentiment. Nevertheless, I don't think it’s a practice that helps the Jewish community much.
First, I try not to distinguish the non-Jewish spouses from other parents but rather try to make them feel welcome as members of the community in spite of some restrictions that apply to them.
Secondly, the honor suggests that the community has no interest in their conversion, which is probably true though from a purely political perspective, is harmful to the Jewish future. Our distaste for proselytization has cost us dearly and the price of our distaste will only increase over time. Religious affiliation in western culture has diminished as a fate and strengthened as a choice. Simply put, people increasingly feel empowered to choose what church they will belong to. They do not necessarily allow an accident of birth to determine their religious future. Until Jewish people begin to actively promote their Jewishness, non-Jews will continue to view them as apathetic and hence uninterested in Judaism as a religion. Would you convert to a religion populated by people who seemed uncaring or uninvolved with their religion? I wouldn't. And, of course, we don't promote religion because of 2,000 years of baggage that would suggest that such proselytization is hurtful if not deadly. But, this is no longer the Middle Ages. No one is demanding: convert or die. We would simply try to guide people who are either lost or searching for a legitimate way to connect with God and a community. I would sooner honor the converts to Judaism than the non-Jews who raise their children Jewishly, though the latter group is certainly deserving of our respect and admiration.
Finally, and perhaps this is less germane but I think it important all the same, having dedicated non-Jews read stories about righteous gentiles as if to suggest that what they are doing is on a par with righteous gentiles of the Holocaust strikes me as distasteful. Righteous gentiles acted at the risk of their very lives, and some, indeed, lost their lives. Our non-Jewish members are hardly doing that. But this detail is more a criticism of the rite than the rightness of what the rabbis are trying to do by honoring the non-Jews.
When I ask Jews if they have asked their non-Jewish son-in-law, daughter-in-law, husband, wife, etc., about the possibility of converting, I almost always get a wishy-washy answer--a little, not so much, once we talked about it, not really, it's too personal, etc. Imagine asking a real estate agent if they spoke to the customer about buying a house and the agent answers-- a little, not so much, once we talked about it, not really, it's too personal, etc. Of course, you don't hear that from real estate agents because real estate agents really want to sell the house so they are going to be a bit more assertive and even aggressive. Not so Jews when it comes to Judaism. We would sooner sell a house than a spiritual/ethical/communal system that has endured for 3,000 years--and that's a problem, a very big problem.
So, in the end, I understand what my colleagues are doing but it is a short term answer to a long term problem. They are doing it out of the gooodness of their hearts, but I disagree with the approach. There is place for non-Jews in Conservative synagogues, and they are deserving of our admiration, and they should know that we would love for them to enter the covenant of Abraham and officially throw their destiny with the Jewish people and our God.
Have a great Thanksgiving!
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav
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