Ask the Expert: Getting an Aliyah

Why can't a non-Jew be called up to the Torah?

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Question: Why can't a non-Jew have an aliyah (be called up to the Torah) at a Reform Temple? I thought the Reform movement was all about inclusiveness!
--Glenn

the expertAnswer:
I can understand why that could be upsetting, Glenn.

To help get an answer to your question I pulled out Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice by Rabbi Mark Washofsky. In his book, Rabbi Washofsky specifically addresses the issue of non-Jews receiving ritual honors at Reform temples. He writes: "To say that a non-Jew who has not formally adopted Judaism may be granted a full and equal role in the public religious life of a Jewish community is to say that the concepts of peoplehood, covenant, and historical identity do not, in the end, really matter very much, or that it makes no substantial religious difference whether one is a Jew or a non-Jew. Reform responsa have refused to go so far."

Rabbi Washofsky goes on to address the issue of non-Jews being involved in the Torah service in specific, "The non-Jew does not take an active part in the rituals surrounding the reading of the Torah… Gentiles may well support the religious education of their Jewish family members, particularly their children, but Torah itself is a Jewish experience. To learn and to teach Torah is both a privilege and a responsibility for Jews…A non-Jew, no matter how supportive, does not share that privilege and responsibility so long as he or she chooses to remain formally outside the Jewish community."

The emphasis of the Reform policy, according to Rabbi Washofsky, isn't on keeping some people out, but on ensuring that those who are Jewish feel the spiritual reward that comes with being a part of the Jewish people.

For more on how a Reform temple might demonstrate inclusiveness while maintaining that aliyot should only be given to Jews, I consulted with Rabbi Katie Bauman of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN.

She described a little of what her community does to ensure that non-Jewish family members are included: "We have a Torah passing through the generations at every Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Grandparents, parents, (or whomever the family chooses) [pass the Torah] down the line until the Sefer Torah is given to the child. This is of course symbolic of how this family has carefully passed down Jewish tradition and Torah study to the young adult. We absolutely include non-Jewish parents/grandparents in that passing if the family wishes because, from our perspective, they are indeed helping to pass down and perpetuate Torah in that household."

Rabbi Bauman emphasized that her community tries very hard to find meaningful roles for non-Jewish family members in lifecycle ceremonies.

If you've been present at an occasion where non-Jewish family members felt excluded from a family simcha (joyous event), you might want to approach your rabbi and ask about different ways that your community can include non-Jews in the future.

Good luck!

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