Rabbi Samantha Kahn officiates an interfaith wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/Courtesy of 18Doors)
Rabbi Samantha Kahn officiates an interfaith wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/Courtesy of 18Doors)

Who is included in the ‘us’ of our prayers? 

This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, about 40% of non-Orthodox Jews will attend religious services. They will hear and recite many prayers that refer to “us” — blessing God for making “us” holy and commanding “us,” and, in the Torah, blessing God for choosing “us” among the nations and giving the Torah to “us.”

I’d like to ask congregants and their clergy to pause for a moment during services this year to consider this question: Who is included in the “us” of our prayers?

Is it only those who identify as Jews? Can we understand partners from different faith backgrounds who are attending services or otherwise living Jewishly to also be part of the “us”? Is the only meaning of these prayers a formal declaration of Jewish identity? Could they also be an expression of gratitude for being part of a family and community that is engaged in Jewish life?

These questions are important, because while there is growing consensus that people will engage in a community if they feel included — that they belong — national and local Jewish community studies show that many partners from different faith backgrounds feel othered — made to feel like outsiders — in Jewish settings.

And with a continuing 72% rate of interfaith marriage and continuing less engagement by those in interfaith families on traditional measures — 33% fasted for all or part of the last Yom Kippur compared to 64% of those in inmarried families — it is imperative that efforts be made to engage more interfaith families.

But in many liberal communities, where the message to partners from different faith backgrounds is that they can’t recite or lead Jewish prayers because only Jews are part of the “us,” they are left feeling othered and excluded, made to feel that they have to convert if they want to belong.

Liberal congregants and their clergy presumably want to see interfaith families marking Shabbat at home. I can’t imagine a rabbi telling partners from different faith backgrounds that they shouldn’t say the traditional Shabbat blessings — including the one about making us holy by commanding us to light the Shabbat candles — unless they convert.

Liberal congregants and their clergy want to see interfaith families marking Shabbat at services, too. I can’t imagine rabbis telling the partners from different faith backgrounds that they shouldn’t say the candlelighting blessing there, either. In 68% of Reform congregations and in 68% of emerging spiritual communities, partners from different faith backgrounds are, in fact, permitted to lead the lighting of Shabbat candles, either by themselves or with their Jewish partner. But in 32% of these homes, they are not.

The “acid test” of inclusion in non-Orthodox spiritual communities is whether they permit partners from different backgrounds to have an aliyah — by themselves — and lead recitation of the blessings that thank God for choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah.

Liberal communities are divided as to whether to permit this at b’nei mitzvah services for children in interfaith families. A forthcoming survey shows that only 34% of Reconstructionist congregations allow parents from different faith backgrounds to have an aliyah alone (47% allow them to join with the Jewish parent); only 41% of emerging spiritual communities allow parents from different faith backgrounds to have an aliyah alone (38% allow them to join with the Jewish parent).

In the senior seminar at a rabbinic school last spring, one student said it would “offend my sensibilities for a non-Jew to recite the Torah blessings” because the words mean a declaration of Jewish identity.

The next student who spoke told of working with the Catholic mother in a b’nei mitzvah family who wanted to have an aliyah. The mother understood the words to mean that she was part of her family and her family was part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given — an understanding that many in interfaith relationships could claim.

A proposal that the Reform movement set a goal of full inclusion of partners from different faith backgrounds has been met with harsh criticism from a number of rabbis.

Some rabbis say that partners from different faith backgrounds leading the Torah blessings perpetrates a falsehood on the bimah; but that’s only if the words can only mean a declaration of Jewish identity.

On a recent Reform movement discussion board, after one person said their synagogue did not draw any distinctions as to which members could perform which rituals, another suggested that at that synagogue there was no reason for someone to convert.

Conversion is a wonderful, personal, existential choice to identify formally as a Jew.

Do we want people to convert so that they can participate in rituals that are reserved only for Jews, at the risk of alienating partners from different faith backgrounds who are barred from participation?

Do we so lack confidence in the awe and beauty of conversion that we feel the need to offer incentives?

It shouldn’t demean or disrespect the conversion of somebody to whom the Torah blessing is a declaration of Jewish identity to allow a partner from a different faith background to say the blessing as an expression of gratitude for being Jewishly engaged. Conversion should not be a condition for inclusion. It should be seen as a possible very positive outcome of inclusion.

These High Holidays, when considering who is included in the “us,” the important question is whether we want partners from different faith backgrounds to feel like they belong.

Telling partners from different faith backgrounds that they cannot lead prayers that refer to “us,” either alone or with their Jewish partner, sends a very clear message that they are other, outsider, not really part of “us.”

In Reform synagogues, the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion (Deuteronomy 29:9-12) suggests that the people who stood at Sinai to enter into God’s covenant included “the stranger in the midst of your camp.” It would be a mark of truly full inclusion to see partners from different faith backgrounds having an aliyah by themselves when that portion is read at future High Holiday services.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Edmund Case
Edmund Case

Edmund Case is the retired founder of InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors), president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism and author of “A New Theory of Interfaith Marriage.”