TFN no.5754.5 55-76


Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual



What are the traditional and Reform positions on the participation of non-Jews in synagogue services? We are especially interested in the area of ritual and prayer leadership. (Question submitted by the C.C.A.R. Committee on Reform Jewish Practice)



Part of this responsum was based on a study paper prepared by Rabbi Joan Friedman, then of Bloomington, IN. While she was not at the time a member of our Committee, she graciously made her research available to us, but was not responsible for any formulations or conclusions at which this Committee arrived.



During the last quarter of the twentieth century profound changes have taken place in the demography of North American Judaism. The rate of mixed marriage has increased dramatically, with one marriage partner remaining outside the Jewish faith community. When such couples, often with their children, wish to find a synagogue where they can worship and enroll their offspring for a Jewish education, they will most likely turn to Reform congregations, which are sure to welcome and accommodate them.

Since in most congregations the family is the unit of membership, the status of the non-Jewish partners remains frequently undefined, especially when congregational constitutions do not specifically state that members must be of the Jewish religion.[1] But even where the constitution is unequivocal in this respect (as it probably is in the majority of temples), the fact is that emotionally, physically, and financially such families have a stake in the synagogue. They support it; they attend its services; and their children are enrolled in the religious school, where they prepare for bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation. Especially on the latter occasions, questions of parental participation in the celebratory ritual arise and may become the seed bed of conflict.[2] Rabbis are put under pressure to make the widest possible accommodation to the non-Jewish partners, in order to give them a role in the service.

This scenario is paralleled by other developments. The Responsa Committee has lately been asked questions about various kinds of non-Jewish appearances at services (e.g., Resp. 5751.14; 5753.13 and 19). which suggest a worrisome tendency toward increasing syncretism. Our decisions have held that there must be boundaries in order to assure the identity and continued health of our congregations as well as our movement. If we are everything to everyone, we are in the end nothing at all. On this, there is general agreement.

The debate begins when we try to formulate specifics and attempt to determine what is permissible and what is not. For it is not enough to say yesh gevul, “there must be boundaries.” As our teacher Leo Baeck, z’l, reminded us, God is served in small increments. The fabric of Jewish life is woven of single strands.

The sh’elah does not concern itself with the obvious, that is, with non-Jews attending Jewish services. Worshipping God in a synagogue is not dependent on the worshipper’s religion. Rather, the question asks about non-Jews leading any part of the service or being called to the bimah for any singular participation which at that moment is not available to others.

It is also clear that the sh’elah assumes that some participation of non-Jews in public ritual is possible. This responsum will consider the principles which would determine the degree and nature of such participation. Hopefully, this will provide a meaningful direction for the Reform movement.

As is our custom, we divide our answer into two parts. We first ask what Jewish tradition, as reflected in many centuries of halakhic rulings and debates, has to say on the issue. If indeed there is a body of precedents we inquire whether there are any Reform principles that would lead us to suggest departing from Tradition, and if so, why and to what extent. We begin with Halakhah, and then look at it in the light of contemporary insights and requirements.



When we turn to our traditional sources for guidance in this matter, we find that they do not have a great deal to say about this particular aspect of Jewish-Gentile relations, because it is not one that would easily have arisen before the modern period. When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, non-Israelites were permitted limited access to it and were also allowed to make offerings, including sacrifices.[3] These sacrifices, however, unlike the public offerings of the Jewish community, were entirely voluntary.

Until the modern period, non-Jewish attendance at synagogues was rare, for obvious reasons. The only period in which there were significant numbers of non-Jews regularly attending synagogues was the Roma period, when Judaism was fairly widespread in the Empire.[4] It is therefore significant that this question did not arise at that time, which was the very period during which the laws governing Jewish public worship were formalized, including laws concerning participation in public worship.

While an argument from silence is often risky, in this instance it would appear reasonable to infer that the question never arose because even the possibility of active non-Jewish participation was never admitted, and not because it was taken for granted as permitted. Just as in the Temple, participation in the form of offerings was open to all, but officiating was restricted to the kohanim. Similarly, participation in the form of attendance and reciting prayers in the synagogue was open to all, but leadership was still restricted, though according to different criteria. We will first consider what those criteria were.


  1. Leading a service.  

The liturgy of the service consists primarily of blessings and prayers whose recitation is fixed. Recital of the shema and its blessings, as well as the amidah, is considered a mitzvah.[5] In addition, there are individual prayers which, over the centuries, have become standard parts of the service, such as aleinu[6] As such, they are by definition not obligatory upon Gentiles, whom Tradition regards as subject only to the seven Noahide laws.[7] But, though Gentiles are free to worship with Jews, may they lead the service, i.e., function as shelichei tsibbur even though they are not obligated to recite those prayers? To answer this, we first must examine the function of the sheliach tsibbur (often known by the acronym shats), the “emissary of the congregation.”

Until as late as the tenth century there was a great deal of fluidity in the language of the liturgy (although not in its overall structure). Written copies of the liturgy were rare, and many, if not most, Jews, were not familiar enough with the prayers to be able to recite them by themselves. The leader, therefore, read or chanted them and the congregation had only to listen and respond Amen at the proper time, to fulfill their obligation. But the leader had to be a special kind of person. The Mishnah states:

This is the general principle: One who is not obligated in a matter [of ritual observance] cannot enable others to fulfill their obligation [in that matter].”[8]

Hence, since non-Jews are not so obligated, they do not qualify.[9]

An additional consideration is the emphasis upon communal worship in our tradition. Because of the value placed on community, it has always been considered more meritorious to recite one’s prayers with others rather than alone.[10] This is expressed halakhically in the principle that certain parts of the liturgy, devarim she-bik’dushah, “matters which [involve the] holiness [of the divine Name],” may only be recited in public.[11]

For liturgical purposes, “public” as opposed to individual, is defined through the concept of minyan, the minimum of ten qualified individuals required for public worship. When ten are present, they are no longer a random collection of individuals, but a community in which God is publicly worshipped.

From where [do we learn] that an individual does not recite the kedushah? As it is said, “that I might be sanctified [ve-nikdashti] in the midst of the Israelite people (Lev. 22:32).” All matters of holiness [devarim she-bik’dushah] should not have fewer than ten present. How is this derived? As Ravnai the brother of R. Hiyya bar Abba taught: from [the word] ‘midst’ [tokh] which comes [in two verses, and we interpret them in light of each other]. It is written here, `that I might be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people,’ and it is written there, `Separate yourselves from the midst of this community [edah]’ (Num. 16:21).” Just as in the latter [verse, edah meant] ten, so in the former [verse, b’nei Yisrael means] ten.[12]

A minyan is thus a mini-recreation of the entire people of Israel. When a minyan is present, God is present. This is the rabbinic understanding of the verse, “God stands in the divine assembly [edah]” (Ps. 82:1).[13] The constitution of a minyan for worship, therefore, is a reaffirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. Within the minyan, Israel collectively expresses its relationship with God, and the members of the minyan reaffirm their membership in the covenant community (b’nei b’rit). Minyan thus defines a Jewish community in a spiritual sense, as opposed to an organizational or institutional sense.

When this spiritual community gathers as such for communal prayer, it must be led by one who is a full member of the community, i.e., one who is obligated to participate in fixed prayer. For this reason Tradition restricted the function of sheliach tsibbur to those upon whom it placed the obligation for public worship: free adult Jewish males.[14]


  1. Analogies.

While we have no exact precedent in halakhic tradition that would respond to our sh’elah, there are passages that may appear analogous. Even though, as we shall point out, their application as precedents for the sh’elah submitted to us is inappropriate, we shall proceed with an extended exposition of the halakhah for the sake of completeness.

In the discussion of birkat hamazon, we find the following statement:

One answers “Amen” after a Jew who blesses, but one does not answer “Amen” after a Samaritan [kuti] who blesses, unless one hears the entire blessing.[15]

This mishnah clearly delineates a situation in which a non-Jew — specifically, a Samaritan — could recite a blessing and a Jew could fulfill a religious obligation by responding “Amen.”

At the time when this mishnah was written, relations between Jews and Samaritans, despite their hostility, were still closer in many ways than relations between Jews and any other religious/ethnic group. Samaritans were, after all, the only other monotheists in the Greco-Roman world, and possessed the same scripture as the Jews. There was an awareness of their historical links, as well as the reasons for their separation. The rabbis of the mishnaic period therefore were at pains to delineate both the points of contact and divergence.

It was different with Gentiles, who at that time were all pagans of various sorts. During the Middle Ages, however, when Jews lived almost exclusively in Christian or Muslim lands, many areas of halakhah concerning relations between Jews and non-Jews were re-examined and often modified, since most Jewish authorities clearly understood that Christians and Muslims were not idolaters in the classic sense.[16] They continued to refer to Christians and Muslims, however, in the same terms which their Talmudic predecessors had used for pagans: goy (Gentile), nokhri (stranger, foreigner), or, most commonly, akum (acronym for oved kokhavim um’zalot, literally “one who worships stars and constellations”).

Bearing these facts in mind, it is significant to find that the trend among rabbinic authorities, especially those living in Christian countries, has been to apply the provisions of the mishnah cited above to non-Jews in general.[17] The following comment by R. Yonah Gerondi (c.1200-1263) is the most articulate statement on the issue:[18]

“A Samaritan”: The reason that if one hears only the mention of God, one is not to respond “Amen” is that perhaps [the Samaritan’s] intent is [still] toward avodah zarah (idolatry). But if one hears the entire blessing, then one should respond “Amen,” since then it is proven that [the Samaritan’s] intent was not toward avodah zarah when he said the blessing.

And there are those who say that only with a Samaritan may one respond “Amen” after hearing the entire blessing, but not after any other foreigner, since it is certain that they are referring to false gods only; and now, since [the rabbis] have decreed that Samaritans are to be considered like any other foreigners, even if one hears a blessing from their lips, one is not to respond. But it appears to my teacher, may God preserve and bless him, that one should respond even after a foreigner, if one has heard him recite the entire blessing. For since we then see that he is making the blessing in this matter in God’s name, even though he does not really know God, but thinks that his false god is the Creator — even so, since his intention was to praise God, and we hear the blessing from his mouth, we answer “Amen.”

And a Samaritan in our day is like a foreigner in this regard, and we do respond if we have heard the entire blessing, as it says in the Palestinian Talmud[19]: “R. Berechiah said, `I answer “Amen” after anyone who blesses, because it is written, “You shall be blessed from all peoples.’ (Deut. 7:14)”[20] That is to say, he used to answer “Amen” to all the other nations, because the Holy One of Blessing is in the mouths of all nations. And even though they do not recognize him, since their intent is to bless God’s name, and we hear the entire blessing from their mouths, we answer “Amen” after them.

So it appears from the language of the baraita, “One answers `Amen’ after everyone [reciting a blessing];” for it excludes only children when they are learning [to recite the blessings], for then their intent [in reciting them] is not at all directed to God.[21]

As indicated earlier, we have listed these sources in extenso for the sake of completeness, and also because they throw a light on the process of the traditional halakhah. When all is said, however, this discussion cannot serve our teshuvah. For it teaches only what to do after a Gentile has blessed the name of God. It is a matter of bedi’avad, something that has already happened, and likely by chance. R. Yonah Gerondi and R. Asher b. Yechiel (and followed by Isserles)[22] rule that we say “Amen” if we have heard the entire blessing, because at that point we are certain that his intent was toward God and not toward a pagan deity. After all, what he has said is true, and “Amen” is our attestation to the truth.

Yet we cannot infer from this that the “Amen” which we pronounce bedi’avad, after we have heard a Gentile’s blessing, can serve as an analogy lekhatchilah (before it is spoken). It does not treat the subject with which we are concerned, for it says nothing about a Gentile being invited to say the blessing so that we may respond “Amen.”

The logical impossibility of using these cases as a precedent in such situations is highlighted by a passage in the Mishnah Berurah.[23] There we find that the logic of the above-noted permission to respond “Amen” applies even when the blessing has been spoken by an apostate Jew (assuming that his intent, too, is toward the Creator). Clearly, such a ruling would never have been made lekhatchilah. In fact, the Arukh HaShulchan states specifically that none of this applies to a situation when a Gentile recites a fixed berakhah, but only when he has simply declared the praise of God.[24]


  1. The public reading of Torah.

The locus classicus for the definition of which liturgical functions require a minyan is Mishnah Megillah 4:3, which explicitly includes the public reading of Torah among those functions. It did not necessarily follow, however, that only members of the minyan could participate in the actual reading of the Torah, and a baraita states:

All may come up as part of the seven [Torah readers on Shabbat morning], even a minor or a woman; but our sages say that a woman should not read for the sake of the honor of the congregation.[25]

It must be remembered that in the Tannaitic era the seven readers actually read from the scroll, but did not necessarily recite a blessing. The first reader recited the blessing before reading Torah; the seventh reader recited the concluding blessing.[26] The Amoraim changed this practice to require each reader to say both blessings.[27] Eventually the practice changed again, to what we are familiar with: a trained reader does the actual reading, and the seven people called to the Torah recite only the blessings.

What, exactly, is the status of public Torah reading in the hierarchy of mitsvot? Its origin sets it apart from the other practices in that it began as a form of public education and information, which only gradually became formalized and ritualized. This distinction becomes clear when we consider that the blessing asher kid’shanu be-mitsvotav vetzivanu la’asok b’divrei Torah is not recited for the public Torah reading. It was, however, understood as a takanah, which obligated people to hear it.[28]


Since the Torah reading takes place in a liturgical context, it was inevitable that many of the same considerations came to be applied to it. The most obvious was the exclusion of women. A related consequence was that those called up for aliyot (that is, to recite the blessings while another person does the actual reading) were required to be members of the minyan.[29] Although the authorities differ among themselves on whether a boy may be called for an aliyah, there is agreement that in order to read he must have reached his majority.[30]


Halakhic tradition considers participation in communal ritual as an outflow of obligation. The absence of obligation disqualifies a Jew from leading the congregation as a sheliach tsibbur.

By long-standing practice, being called to the bimah for an aliyah partakes of the same principle.




  1. General observations.

In its 180 years of development, the Reform movement has gone through a number of stages. It began in Europe with a pervasive concern for halakhic precedent, a concern that never left it up to the destruction of continental Jewry. It remains clearly visible in the reconstituted communities as well as in the United Kingdom, and especially in its vigorous expression in Israel.

In North America, however, in a frontier environment with its loosening of traditional bonds, the movement lost many of its halakhic moorings. But during the last generation, spurred on by the efforts of Rabbis Solomon B. Freehof and Walter Jacob, the presence of a developing Liberal Halakhah has become evident. The C.C.A.R.’s Responsa Committees were entrusted to give it voice.

During these decades the question to which our she’elah addresses itself has faced previous Committees in one form or another.

Thus, in 1969, R. Freehof was asked whether a non-Jewish stepfather of a bar mitzvah might receive an aliyah and recite Torah blessings. He suggested that the Jewish grandfather should do it instead.[31]

In 1979, the Responsa Committee was asked by the Committee on Education: “To what extent may non-Jews participate in a Jewish public service?” The answer touched on the status of non- Jews as b’nei noach and gerei tsedek and went on to say:


We have invited non-Jews, including ministers and priests, to address our congregations during our public services…In addition, nowadays, because of intermarriage, we find the non-Jewish parent involved in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It would be appropriate to have that parent participate in some way in the service, but not in the same way as a Jewish parent. For example, he or she should not recite the traditional blessing over the Torah… (The Committee recommended that, instead, a special English prayer might be read by the Gentile.)

The Committee went on to speak of “essential elements of the service” which should be reserved exclusively for Jews.

Non-Jews who fall into the category of b’nei noach may participate in a public service in any of the following ways: (1) though anything which may not require a specific statement from them, i.e., by standing silently witnessing whatever is taking place (e.g., as a member of a wedding party or as a pall bearer); (2) through the recitation of special prayers added to the service at non-liturgical community- wide services, commemorations, and celebrations (Thanksgiving, etc.); through the recitation of prayers for special family occasions (Bar/Bat Mitzvah of children raised as Jews, at a wedding or funeral, etc.). All such prayers and statements should reflect the mood of the service and be non-Christological in nature.[32]

In 1980, R. Freehof answered a question whether a Gentile might bless the Shabbat candles or recited the Kiddush. He answered in the negative.[33]

We will not here rehearse the principles which have become self-evident in these and in the many hundreds of responsa which have been issued over the last forty years. They advise the questioner of the view of Tradition and then ask whether there are overriding principles to which Reform subscribes which would counsel diverging from halakhic precedents. For Liberal Judaism has always seen itself as part of the total flow of historic Jewish life, and its Responsa Committees have tried to maintain this connection.

Therefore, the fact that certain terms and categories of Jewish tradition are no longer familiar to most Reform Jews is a regrettable fact but in itself not decisive for the decisions we reach. It is the task of our Committee to make it clear whence we came, so that we may more securely decide where we should go.

Thus, such categories as sheliach tsibbur or chiyuv (obligation) are not on the tongues of most of our members, but they belong to the underpinnings of the very traditions upon which our movement is founded. For that reason, we have taken pains to expose them in some detail.

We live in a time of unprecedented religious freedom – a freedom that not only allows Jews to exercise their religion without restraint, but also to choose the level on which they want to be Jewish (or, for that matter, choose not identify with their religion at all). The lure of a secular, non-particularistic, leveling environment is for many Jews irresistible. The increasing incidence of mixed marriages adds to the undeniable fact that Jewish identity is being seriously eroded.

Questions which are asked of the Responsa Committee may appear to many Reform Jews as marginal or even irrelevant to their lives. This increases, rather than diminishes our responsibility. We see it as our task to stem the tide of hefkerut, and to cast the growth and development of our movement into a framework of continuity rather than sectarian separation. If each Jew makes shabbes for him/herself, in the end no one will make shabbes at all.


  1. The sheliach tsibbur in Reform Jewish life.

It is generally understood that the rabbi has the function of leading the congregation in worship. While in theory every Jew should be capable of doing this, in practice it is the rabbi who holds the service together and gives it leadership. A similar function is assigned to the cantor, who will lead the congregation in singing and to whose recitation of prayers it will listen. Reform Jews (like other Jews) regard these positions with special respect, even though the terminology of earlier days is no longer current or even fully understood.

Therefore, when Jews assemble for prayer and ask a rabbi or cantor to lead them, they do so in the time- honored way of placing shelichei tsibbur into positions of special responsibility. They represent the community and guide it in carrying out its religious obligations.

What then about the fact that in many congregations (and in earlier days, in nearly all of them) non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur?

We note this fact with regret and consider it an anachronism for our time and, in retrospect, an historical error.[34] Yet we would claim that even when Gentile choirs were quite common in our temples, there was a vestige of embarrassment about that fact. How else would we explain the strange dichotomy: that the same choristers in their own Christian congregations sang as proud members of the congregation and guided it in worship, and could not only be heard but also be seen doing it. However, in Reform synagogues these same singers were carefully hidden away in choir lofts or behind screens, as if the purpose was to produce beautiful music which came from unidentified, unseen persons. One listened, so to speak, to the music and not to those who made it.

It is further noteworthy that even when the Gentile soloist stood on the bimah, s/he was never identified as “cantor” and certainly not as chazan/chazanit. Those terms were reserved for Jews. R. Freehof ruled that Gentile choristers were not to be considered shelichei tsibbur.[35]

What all of this says is that the employment of Gentile singers cannot and should not be a Reform precedent for us. There may have been historical reasons for their introduction – such as the absence of equivalent musical personnel who were Jewish – but those reasons have disappeared. Even when their presence was commonplace, they were always seen as apart from the congregation. Their voices provided lovely music – but they, as persons, were never considered representatives of those present. They enhanced the esthetic environment, but they were not part of the congregation who prayed and, most important, they were not expected to pray with it. They were there to sing, and nothing else.

It is no accident that while in their Christians churches they led the congregation in singing, they did not so in our temples. We listened to them; and many is the rabbi or cantor who has testified to the difficulty of turning a listening congregation toward active participation in the service.

We repeat: the phenomenon of non-Jewish choristers is on its way out. It represents a phase of Reform history which no longer can serve as precedent for our teshuvah. The shelichei tsibbur must be members of the covenant community and they cannot yield this responsibility to outsiders.


  1. The Torah reading and ritual. 

As with regard to the sheliach tsibbur (also known by the acronym shats), so here, too, the possibility of a non-Jew participating in the public Torah reading is simply beyond the pale of Tradition’s imagination. Can we extrapolate from this to find an answer to our concerns?

The answer lies in the traditional acknowledgment that the public reading of Torah is an essential community act.

Moses our teacher ordained that Israel should read from Torah publicly at the morning service on Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday, so that they would not allow more than three days to pass without hearing Torah.[36]

Participation in the Torah reading is one of the most potent symbols of inclusion in the Jewish community. It was precisely for that reason that Jewish women had to fight twenty years ago not only for the right to be called to the Torah and to read from it, but even to carry or even touch the scroll. The same emotional response is behind the new “tradition” of passing the Torah from family member to family member to the bar or bat mitzvah. Access to the Torah symbolizes full inclusion in the Jewish community. That is precisely why bar/bat mitzvah is celebrated in the way it is.

For this reason a non-Jew should not be called to the Torah for an aliyah. The reading of the Torah requires the presence of a community, because it is one of the central acts by which the community affirms its reason for existence, i.e., the covenant whose words are contained within the scroll. To be called to the Torah is to take one’s position in the chain of privilege and responsibility by which the Jewish community has perpetuated itself. A non-Jew, no matter how supportive, does not share that privilege or that responsibility as long as s/he remains formally outside the Jewish community.


In many congregations the pressure to grant non-Jews aliyot comes in connection with the celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah. The reasons for this may be found in the ways our movement has both deliberately and unintentionally given the public Torah reading an altogether different context and meaning than the one just outlined. Relieving this pressure, therefore, is for this Committee not merely a matter of issuing clear guidelines; it is also a matter of reeducating our people to the real significance of what they are doing.

First, we must acknowledge the extent to which our movement removed the Torah reading from the public. The “Ritual Directions” in I. M. Wise’s Divine Service of American Israelites for the Day of Atonement, for example, state:

The sections from the Pentateuch are read in a style agreeable to modern delivery and without calling any person to it [emphasis added]. The minister and two officers of the congregation have to do all the mitsvot connected therewith.[37]

While this practice, which was widespread, may have greatly added to the decorum of the service and reduced its length, it also ensured that the individual congregant had little personal access to the Torah scroll, and learned not to view an aliyah as something which the regular worshipper should be honored to do. This process was reinforced for some generations by the devaluation of bar mitzvah. Thus, any common understanding of the significance of the public Torah reading atrophied, and in some cases, disappeared altogether.

Second, in far too many of our congregations, so little Torah is read, and in such a disjointed fashion, that our congregants have little or no context in which to comprehend the ritual they are watching. Most of our people, even if they attend services weekly, do not perceive the Torah as a continuous whole, which is read in a particular order and in a particular fashion. How can they, when in the vast majority of cases perhaps they hear ten verses read, excerpted randomly from the week’s portion (except in parts of Leviticus, which some congregations skip completely)?

In addition, although many congregations have re-appropriated various degrees of traditional observance, the aesthetic element all too often takes precedence over the spiritual: rituals are seen to “enhance” our religious lives. Thus, any ritual becomes fair game for “enhancing” the experience of the congregation — including non-Jewish participation, if that end is served thereby.

Finally, there is the problem of bar/bat mitzvah itself. The vast majority of our children now celebrate the event. However, many of our congregations hold Shabbat morning services only when there is a bar/bat mitzvah, and, in these instances, many Reform Jews have come to think that a Shabbat morning service at which Torah is read is a “bar mitzvah service” — in fact, that it is “the child’s and the family’s service.” In their eyes it resembles other family occasions, such as b’rit milah, engagement or wedding celebrations, where the family chooses the participants.


Since this is the popular context, it is easy to see why so many of our people consider it quite natural that non- Jews, and especially a non-Jewish parent, should be asked to take an active part on this occasion as well.

It is the view of this Committee that it is essential to preserve or recover the central elements of the Jewish service. Our members may not know the traditional categories we have adumbrated, but the rabbis should use every occasion to make them understood. Their observance safeguards the integrity of the congregation whose members are and remain representatives of the total community of Jews.

This view in no wise denigrates the non-Jews in our midst. We should of course be sensitive to the Gentile parents who are committed to raising their children as Jews, and to acknowledge their commitment, but do so without violating the community’s integrity.

The nature of our service can and must be communicated to them with full respect for their integrity. While they have chosen to remain non-Jews, the congregation chooses to be Jewish and sets the parameters of its services. A child who prepares for bar/bat mitzvah must be taught to appreciate that there are boundaries and rules. They pertain to personal as well as communal life, and parents know this as a fundamental premise of education. It speaks to the essence of a child’s maturation, of growing into adulthood. Are Reform Jewish parents different in that they should not teach their offspring that there are standards which define who we are, what sets us apart and lends meaning to what we do as Jews?

What the congregation can accord the Gentile worshipper is proximity and recognition. There is no reason why a non-Jewish parent should not accompany the Jewish parent to the bimah when the latter is called for an aliyah. There are ways by which the non-Jewish parent may express his/her sentiments and make them meaningful to child and congregation. Boundaries of this sort will help the celebrant understand that the sacred occasion is observed with full respect both to Jewish tradition and to the non-Jews in the child’s family.[38]

There has been some discussion whether the rules enunciated above pertain also to the aliyot of hagbahah and g’lilah. After all, it might be argued, believing Christians too respect the Torah as part of their tradition – why then should they not be permitted to lift the scroll high and acknowledge their respect thereby?

We give the same answer because a principle is at stake: aliyot are reserved for the Jewish members of the worshipping congregation. In addition, there is the matter of mar’it ayin, that is, the question how an otherwise well-intentioned act is perceived by others. Worshippers will be hard put to make a distinction between one type of aliyah and another; therefore it is better to keep the lines clear, so that the essential elements of integrity and obligation not be obscured.


  1. A final observation.

Many of the questions we have addressed arise in connection with bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. We are cognizant that frequently they will be seen by many if not most of those attending as a symbolic rite de passage. This will be especially true for celebrations in congregations which ordinarily have no Shabbat morning service. For them, to put it baldly, the service is all too often a form of religious theatre, with actors filling prescribed roles. In Shakespeare’s plays, men played the role of women; here, youngsters play the scholar – so why should non-Jews not assume the role of Jews? After all, for many participants, a “bar/bat mitzvah service” is merely a symbolic performance.

But in our view, while religious services may use symbols they are not in themselves symbolic exercises. Whether arranged specially or whether they are weekly observances, our religious services must afford those who attend an opportunity to stand in the presence of the Living God, and do so as a covenantal congregation. True, such a service may fall short of its goal, and many a service may verge on “performance” – but we may not take these aberrations as excuses to alter the very nature of Jewish worship, where despite all obstacles, the essential element of mitzvah must not be lost sight of.

There will be individuals, perhaps many of them, who will have their own reaction patterns, but it is the congregation’s task to place the celebration on the common ground of Jewish tradition. That common ground, with all the respect we have for the non-Jewish parent’s sensitivity, must first and foremost be the way in which a Jewish congregation expresses its love for God, Torah and Israel. It is a community in which the young person affirms his/her membership, and that community too needs constant reaffirmation and strengthening.

At the same time we treat the non-Jews in our midst with full sensitivity. They are welcome amongst us; we welcome their support and will help them to fulfill their needs as much as possible within the limits possible. (For examples, see above, pp.13/14 and footnote 38.) We are confident that in this spirit they in turn will respect our needs in these changing times.

At the same time, we must make a clear distinction between Jewish worship service in the narrow sense of the word, and religious observances which by definition include participation of Gentiles. Such special events as communal Thanksgiving service, held in many parts of the United States, are of a different hue. Such services do not, as such, fall under the strictures we have delineated.

A brief word should also be said on congregational membership. Where the constitution of the synagogue is not specific on the subject, Gentiles have obtained membership as partners in a family unit. Some congregations therefore conclude that all who have the legal status of members must be entitled to all religious privileges as well. We would disagree. Religious membership is not the same as synagogue membership. The latter is the outflow of an institutional arrangement, the former a spiritual and historic category. Therefore, even where non-Jewish spouses of Jews are considered full temple members, their religious privileges and obligations derive from sources other than congregational by-laws and partake of the limitations set out above.

We are aware that there are differing views of the nature of Jewish worship and much that pertains to it.[39] However, in the view of this Committee, there is a clear and present danger that our movement is dissolving at the edges and is surrendering its singularity to a beckoning culture which champions the syncretistic. Jewish identity is being eroded and is in need of clear guide lines which will define it unmistakably. To provide such markers is the task of the Responsa Committee.[40]

The sh’elah to which we responded came to us from the Reform Practices Committee of the C.C.A.R. We hope that the Committee will create liturgical opportunities which will reflect the principles we have discussed and thereby provide our movement with further guidance in this complex area of Jewish existence.



  1. See further below.
  2. Rabbi Edwin Friedman describes such tensions when the parents have split up: “Bar Mitzvah When the Parents Are No longer Partners,” Journal of Reform Judaism, Spring 1981.
  3. The outermost courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem was sometimes called the “Court of the Gentiles, since they were not allowed to enter the innermost precincts. On contributions of sacrifices by non-Jews see B. Menachot 73b; Yad, Hilkhot Ma’aseh Hakarbanot 3:2-3; also Encyclopedia Judaica 15:979, “Temple”.
  4. Evidence for the attendance of large numbers of Gentiles interested in Judaism who regularly attended synagogue comes, for example, from the letters of Paul in the New Testament. See also Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), vol. I, pp. 171ff.
  5. M. B’rakhot, chapters 1 and 2, passim. The question of the exact nature of the mitzvah of the tefillah is a complicated one, but does not need to be discussed for the sake of the issue at hand.
  6. Arukh Ha-Shulchan, OC 133:1: “After U-va le-Tsiyon the shats recites the Kaddish Titkabal, since the Prayer is finished. However, it has been our practice to say following it the great praise of Aleinu le-shabbe’ach, of which the early authorities said that Joshua ben Nun instituted it at the conquest of Jericho. And the Ari of blessed memory cautioned that it should be recited following every Prayer, aloud and standing, joyously…”
  7. Maimonides, Yad, Hilchot Melachim 8:10-11; 9:1.
  8. M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8.
  9. This principle is at the crux of the Conservative movement’s debates over women in the minyan and the investiture of women as cantors.
  10. E.g.: “Said the Holy One of Blessing: Everyone who engages in Torah and in the practice of deeds of loving kindness and who prays with the community –I consider such persons as if they had redeemed Me and My children from among the nations.” (B. B’rakhot 8a)
  11. B.. B’rakhot 21b; B. Megillah 23b; SA OC 55:1. The Arukh HaShulchan sums it up: “All matters of holiness [kol davar she-b’kdushah] are impossible with fewer than ten free (thus excluding slaves), male, adult Jews. And therefore for kaddish, kedushah, and barekhu, are not said if there are not ten; for the Shekhinah dwells with the presence of ten.” (OC 55:6)
  12. B. B’rakhot 21b, and a fuller version in B. Megillah 23b. Numbers 16:21 needs to be understood in the light of Num. 14:26, “How long shall that wicked community [edah] keep muttering against Me?” referring to the ten spies who brought back evil reports of the Land of Israel. Thus, ten constitute an edah, and God is sanctified in the midst of an edah, which is like the whole people of Israel.
  13. B. B’rakhot 6a.
  14. Except for one who is an onen, i.e., who has just suffered the death of one of the seven immediate relatives for whom one is obligated to mourn, but the burial has not yet taken place. Such a person is not obligated to perform positive mitzvot, and hence cannot aid others to fulfill their obligations. For the onen is presumed to be immersed in the mitzvah of burying his dead and is therefore covered by the rule המתעסק במצוה פטור ממצוה (see SA. YD 341:1).
  15. M. B’rakhot 8:8.
  16. For an excellent analysis of this process in Christian lands, see Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).
  17. Maimonides (Yad, Hilkhot B’rakhot 1:13) prohibits responding to either a Samaritan or an akum, under which heading he subsumes all Gentiles, although he exempts Islam (Yad, Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 11:7 and Teshuvot HaRambam, ed. Freidman, #369). On the other hand, he was less generous toward Christians, with their religious statuary and concept of the Trinity (see the uncensored editions of Yad, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 9:4), probably following B. Avodah Zarah 6a and 7b, which in all MSS and in the Rashi of some of the old printed editions read our yom echad as yom notsri or yom notsrim,
  18. Isaac Or Zarua of Vienna (12th-13th century), an adherent of the pietist Hasidei Ashkenaz, also held it forbidden (Halakhot of Alfasi to B’rakhot, 40a, Shiltei ha-Gibborim 4). However, both Rabbenu Asher and his son R. Jacob ben Asher, author of the Tur, declare it permissible to answer “Amen” after a nokhri (“foreigner”) as long as one as heard God’s name mentioned (Ibid.). In the Shulchan Arukh (1575), R. Joseph Karo states only that one may not respond to a kuti; R. Moses Isserles in his gloss adds explicitly that one does respond after an akum (by this time, just a generic term for gentiles) if one hears the entire blessing (SA OC 215:2). The most authoritative modern commentary on this section of the Shulchan Arukh, by R. Israel Meir Kagan (“the Hafetz Hayim”), written around 1900, agrees with Isserles on the grounds that when a gentile mentions God, s/he is not referring to an idol or a false god; but he also notes that an earlier commentator on the same law declared that responding after a gentile was only optional (Mishnah Berurah, OC 215:2). If one analyzes all these and other references, one sees that while a wide range of attitudes toward the religiosity of non-Jews is expressed, the trend is mostly toward acceptance. This is true even if we allow for the fact that any of these sources may have read slightly differently in original form: terms such as kuti and akum (instead of goy) were very often inserted by Christian censors from the sixteenth century onward.
  19. R. Yonah is known as a halakhist (his comments on Alfasi’s Halakhot are included in the standard editions of the latter), an early kabbalist (he was a cousin and an associate of Nahmanides), and a pietist (his famous ethical treatise is called Sha’arei Teshuvah, “Gates of Repentance”). His fundamental conservatism was revealed in his active participation in the so-called Maimonidean controversy, on the side opposing Maimonides’ philosophical thought. Furthermore, his formative years were spent studying in the yeshivot of southern France during the period when the Cathars (Albigensians) flourished there, and when the Church launched its Crusade against them. The spearhead of this crusade was the Dominican Order, to which the pope entrusted the Holy Office, better known as the Inquisition, which soon broadened its investigations of “heresy” to writings by Jews. R. Yonah, in other words, lived in a time and place where the Catholic Church, out of its desire for internal reform, was beginning to take serious and organized action against Rabbinic literature. While it is not certain that the Dominican Inquisitors actually burned Maimonides’ works in Montpellier in 1232, a huge quantity of manuscripts of the Talmud were burned in Paris in 1244 under their auspices, at the order of King Louis IX (“St. Louis”); and in 1263 Nahmanides was forced to debate the friars (led by the Jewish apostate, Pablo Christiani) before King James of Aragon in Barcelona. R. Yonah’s statement is the more noteworthy when placed in this context.
  20. Y. B’rakhot 8:8 (12c).
  21. An unusual understanding of the Hebrew, which is ordinarily rendered as “above” all peoples.
  22. R. Yonah Gerondi in his commentary on Alfasi, Halakhot, Ber. 40a, s.v. Onin amen achar yisrael ha-mevarekh. R. Yonah’s commentary was redacted by one of his students. When he speaks of R. Yonah’s teacher as one of the most vociferous of Maimonides’ opponents, it is likely that R. Yonah himself is meant.
  23. SA, OC 215:2.
  24. 215:12.
  25. OC 215:3.
  26. B.Megillah 23a.
  27. M. Megillah 4:1-2.
  28. B. Megillah 21b. This is the procedure prescribed by Maimonides, Yad, Hilchot Tefillah 12:5.
  29. Massechet Sofrim 18:4; Be’er Hetev to SA OC 282:2. A takanah, literally “remedy,” was a rabbinic ordinance, introduced as a measure to improve the public welfare. Since the thrice-daily recitation of the tefillah is itself a takanah, it partakes of the obligation; see Yad, Hilkhot. Tefillah 1:5. The Rambam’s source is B. Bava Kama 82a.
  30. The end result of this evolution is amply demonstrated in the lengthy discussion of the phrase hakol olin l’minyan shiv’ah found in the Arukh Hashulchan, OC 282:9-11. The phrase refers to being called to the Torah to recite the blessings while another person reads. The same is also true of the briefer pronouncement in the SA OC 282:2.
  31. Ibid.
  32. “Gentile Stepfather at Bar Mitzvah,” Current Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1969), # 23, pp. 91-93, .
  33. American Reform Responsa, ed. Walter Jacob (New York: C.C.A.R. Press, 1983), #6, pp. 21-24, .
  34. “Gentiles’ Part in the Sabbath Service,” New Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1980), # 7, pp. 33-36, .
  35. Walter Jacob, Contemporary American Reform Responsa (New York: C.C.A.R. Press, 1987), # 132, 195-196, deals with this subject and says: “Despite their [the choristers’] frequent use we feel that every effort should be made to use a Jewish choir…the kavvanah of such a choir will add beauty to the service.” While he would allow their participation in songs which are not essential to Jewish belief or practice, this caution is surely honored only in the breach.
  36. Reform Jewish Practice, vol. II, p.71.
  37. Yad, Hilkhot Tefillah 12:1.
  38. Cincinnati: Bloch, 1891.
  39. Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote on December 7, 1993, in a letter his Board of Trustees , clarifying the intent of his address to the Union Biennial which had been held in San Francisco: “We should be as welcoming as possible, yet boundaries need to be drawn…My colleague [Rabbi] Norman Cohen of Hopkins, MN, established a pattern which concretizes to a ‘T’ what I have in mind: When a non-Jewish spouse is supportive of the Jewish upbringing of the children, he involves them in a number of ways in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. While the non-Jewish partners do not actually pass the Torah, they stand with the Jewish spouse and Norman says to them quite clearly: ‘The Torah is passed from your grandparents to your mother who, with the loving support of your father, passes it on to you.’ And when the Jewish parent is invited to do the Torah blessing, the non-Jewish parent stands with him/her and recites the following words: ‘My prayer, standing at the Torah, is that you, my son/daughter will always be worthy of this inheritance as a Jew. Know that you have my support. Take its teachings into your heart and, in turn, pass it on to your children and those who come after you. May you be a faithful Jew, searching for wisdom and truth, working for justice and peace.’ In this and like manner, we can meet our two-fold obligations: to be true to the integrity of our tradition, even as we respond to the sensitivities of those non-Jews who have not yet embraced Judaism., but who nonetheless have agreed, and indeed are determined, to rear their children as Jews.”
  40. Rabbi Lawrence A, Hoffman has occupied himself extensively with the nature of Jewish prayer. He speaks of categories such as “multivocality” and “performative liturgy.” The bottom line of his argument may be stated as follows: If a congregation sees a ritual as an affirmation of its covenantal status, the ritual is reserved for Jews, and for Jews only. But if it is symbolic and affirms the spiritual worth of the participant, whether Jew or non-Jew, we may insist that all parents say it, especially a non-Jewish parent who had an easy option of denying this child’s Jewish education, but did not do so. See “Non-Jew and Jewish Life-Cycle Liturgy,” in Journal of Reform Judaism, Summer 1990, pp. 1-16. (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote a response to his exposition, ibid., pp. 17-20.) See also R. Hoffman’s “Worship in Common: Babel or Mixed Multitude?” in Crosscurrents: Journal of the American Association for Religion and Intellectual Life, 40:1 (Spring 1990).
  41. Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus would be more accommodating to non-Jews, especially with regard to birchot nehenin. In view of rising mixed-marriages, he calls for such accommodation as a much needed “heroic measure.”

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.