A recent Ritual Committee meeting addressed two potentially volatile issues of congregational concern. The first was a question about the presence of non-Jews on the bima during the course of services. The second was about the use of instrumental music during Friday night services before the onset of Shabbat. While the committee has already taken note of the halakhic permissibility of affirmative answers in both cases, the members also note that just because something is permissible does not mean it is proper practice in our congregation.
The Board of Directors has been consulted on both of these issues and handed them back to the committee and to me for decisions on if and when to change our current standard practice. The matter of music is moot for the time being. Daylight Savings Time will not reappear until April, and so we will put off the discussion of music until later in the winter. However, the time is appropriate to discuss with the congregation the matter of non-Jewish presence on the bima during life-cycle celebrations. What follows is a brief description of the issues involved and practices of some other Conservative congregations. (The practice of the Orthodox, who do not allow Jewish women on the bima, and of the Reform, who have no such restrictions, are not relevant to our discussion.) You are invited to be in synagogue on December 18 and December 25 when we will devote time to discussing this matter during services. I also welcome written responses, but may not be able to introduce them on your behalf at the discussions.
Most importantly, I must set the context for this discussion. We will not be discussing the matter of intermarriage, only its results. I will not permit pronouncements about the evils of intermarriage nor about the blessings of intermarriage in these discussions; we can have that conversation a different time. The choices we must make are about matters of personal sensitivity: the reactions of regular worshipers, of casual observers, of intermarried couples, of parents of marriageable or growing children, of the community we serve. Only the most respectful language will be permitted; I will make many humorous comments to relieve the inevitable tension, and you will laugh heartily. There will be no vote (not that I expect consensus!), but I will continually plead for respect amidst disagreement, and that includes your promise to listen carefully and not to attack another person publicly or privately for holding an opinion different from yours. Anyone who threatens to leave the congregation if the decision does not go a particular way will be invited to do so before the decision is made - we do not decide by intimidation.
The two questions of halakha which seem relevant are these: Is it permissible for a non-Jew to ascend the bima? If yes, is it a violation of the principle of mar’it ayin (“how it looks,” the proscription against creating a false impression) to allow the practice?
The first question is answered by the Shulchan Arukh, the medieval code of Jewish law, in Orekh Chayyim 154:7. There it clearly states that the bima is considered a part of the synagogue like any other part, with no special sanctity or restriction. Therefore, if a non-Jew is allowed into the sanctuary at all, then a non-Jew may stand on the bima.
Of course, what that individual might do on the bima is the essence of the other question. Only a person obligated to the statutory prayers may lead the congregation in prayer. Hence, any essential part of the service (e.g., Barkhu) must be led by an adult Jew. Integrity also demands that the person who makes declarations on behalf of the congregation before God must believe those declarations. Therefore, even a non-essential inclusion (like the “prayer for the congregation and country,” which begins “May God who blessed OUR ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob...”) which affirms something particular about the covenant is inappropriate. Moreover, it must be presumed that a non-Jew with sufficient religious conviction to pray regularly would pray in a manner appropriate to his or her own tradition. Short of an inquisitorial requirement, we could not be certain that prayers so uttered would not lead the congregation in pronouncements at odds with our values.
To this point, we have addressed the matter by allowing non-Jews to recite non-essential readings or selected psalms from their seats in the sanctuary. Acoustics aside, it is a solution which avoids the crux question: is there a role in a worship service for a non-Jewish parent who supports the Jewish upbringing of his/her child? The answer may range from a flat “no” to prescribed readings, designated remarks or silent presence at one or more points.
Lest you think this question is simple, consider our current unquestioned practice regarding non- Jews in our sanctuary. Men are asked to wear a kipa and asked not to wear a tallit. The kipa (a custom, not requirement of Jewish tradition) gives the impression of respect. The tallit (a requirement of Jewish law) must be respected as a sign of the covenant, not merely proper worship fashion. One hand draws near, the other keeps at bay.
I look forward to a frank and respectful conversation which will allow the Ritual Committee greater insight into the feelings of the congregation.