Non-Jewish Mothers and the Blessings on the Torah

Could an aliyah be a way to honor the sacrifices of a non-Jewish mother who raises a Jewish child?

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Interfaithfamily.com is just one of the communal resources that have emerged to help Jewish professionals understand and support the experience of interfaith families. While the article sensitizes us to the role of non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, others might argue that full inclusion of a non-Jewish parent in every aspect of synagogue life would provide a disincentive to conversion.

Many synagogues in the Reform movement are currently struggling to resolve questions surrounding the role of the non-Jew in ritual participation. Rabbi Eric Yoffie–president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform umbrella group–wrote in the fall 1999 issue of Reform Judaism, “We all understand that those who have not converted cannot participate in certain rituals.” The issue comes to a head when non-Jewish parents wish to have an aliyah, to be called up to the Torah, at their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. 

At the Reform movement’s December 1999 biennial convention in Orlando, the vast majority of rabbis asked about this issue were categorically opposed to allowing non-Jews to have an aliyah. How could a non-Jew recite a prayer that thanks God for choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah? How could a non-Jew have the highest honor that a Jew can have, being called to the Torah?

There’s a simple answer: an intermarried non-Jew who has participated in raising a child as a Jew to the point of that child becoming bar or bat mitzvah could say, with complete integrity and authenticity, that his or her family is included among the “us” who were chosen and to whom the Torah was given. Moreover, such a parent arguably deserves the highest honor that the Jewish community can bestow. What can be harder for a parent to do than to give a child permission to have an identity different from that parent? Given the sacrifices involved, honor is exactly what these parents deserve.

Telling a non-Jewish parent that he or she cannot have an aliyah because he or she isn’t included in the “us” is destructive and counterproductive. Telling them that it’s fine for them to say the prayers in the pews, but not to go up on the bimah (pulpit) and receive an honor for Jews, is not logical or convincing. They are left questioning whether they can authentically say all of the many Jewish prayers that refer to “us.”

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Edmund Case is the president and publisher of InterfaithFamily.com and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001).

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