My Opinion
Redefine Jewish Peoplehood

by Ed Case

I disagree with UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's statement: "Let us not be afraid to ask non-Jews within our congregations to convert." Encouraging conversion implies a lesser welcome for those who don't choose Judaism.

Yes, conversion is wonderful for those who make that very personal choice. But for those in our congregations who have not, we must convey the message that we welcome and accept them just as they are.

The most important thing we can do for Jewish continuity is to raise children so committed to their Judaism that they will want to have a Jewish family and raise their own children as Jews. This is true for families with two Jewish parents, but it is even more important that we support the efforts of our families to raise their children as Jews when one of the parents is not a Jew.

If our goal is to perpetuate Judaism in an open society, one in which intermarriage is common, we should adopt a policy of "total inclusion" of the intermarried by broadening the definition of Jewish peoplehood to include both Jews and their non-Jewish partners.

There is historic precedent for this proposal. The non-Jews among us have always had a recognized place within the Jewish community. In the Torah they are referred to as gerim toshavim -- "strangers in your camp"; in Everett Fox's new translation, they are known as "sojourners who sojourn with you." The Yom Kippur morning Torah portion suggests that the sojourners were included among the people who entered into God's covenant. "You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God...every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the sojourners who sojourn among enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day, in order to establish you henceforth as [a] people...." (Deut. 29:9-12).

Many of the sojourners in our congregations are comfortable with the Jewish religion and want to take part in all the rituals of Judaism, but in many congregations they face barriers to full participation. Many feel they can't identify as Jews because their ethnic background is not Jewish. These feelings of being different, and excluded, can inhibit their efforts to raise their children as Jews. If we stop thinking in ethnic terms and broaden our concept of Jewish identity to include the sojourners who sojourn with us, then they could feel included as full members of the Jewish community, reinforcing their efforts to raise Jewish children. It might even lead them to convert.

The Torah portion concerning the Jubilee Year (Behar, Lev. 25:1) forbids planting in the 50th year, when all land is to revert to its original owners. In a striking passage, God explains that land cannot be conveyed forever because "the land is mine, and you [i.e. the children of Israel] are but gerim toshavim -- sojourners with me." As we seek to build a more inclusive Jewish community, may we all be guided by knowing that the Torah uses the very same words to characterize the relationship of the Jewish people to the sojourners as it does to describe the holy partnership between God and the Jewish people.

Ed Case is the president of Temple Shalom of Newton, MA and executive director of Jewish Family & Life!

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