Gag Rule For Gentiles
05/05/2010 - 14:58
Anonymous has published a very disturbing personal essay by a mom who wasn’t allowed to speak from the bima at her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

The essay by Debbie Burton doesn’t say how long ago the incident occurred, but the gag rule for gentiles remains in place at her Chicago congregation, which she describes as an independent lay-led minyan that relies on “Conservative legal opinions.” (To learn more about independent minyanim, which vary tremendously in their overall outlooks as well as their approaches toward interfaith families, read my colleague Rivka Oppenheim's excellent recent article or go to the Mechon Hadar Web site.)

My understanding of Conservative legal opinion is that, while a gentile can’t say the blessings associated with having an aliyah, nothing prohibits him or her from standing on the bima and speaking to the congregation. Also, I know of many Conservative shuls where non-Jewish family members can and do receive honors at life-cycle events. J.J. Goldberg, the former Forward editor and a onetime Jewish Week columnist, recently wrote about a Conservative bar mitzvah in which gentile family members participated. At my niece’s upcoming bat mitzvah, at a Conservative shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my lapsed Catholic husband will help open the Ark.

A few months ago, I attended a Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs workshop for the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary students, where the Federation’s executive director, Rabbi Charles Simon, noted that the restrictions many synagogues debate about where non-Jews can stand or if they can touch the Torah are “minhag,” or tradition, rather than Jewish law.

“It’s about perception, culture, how do you create a sacred space,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a halachic issue. How you handle this is up to you, but don’t get stuck” thinking that Jewish law prohibits things it does not actually prohibit.

So, I don’t know why the leaders of Burton’s minyan feel the need to stick to such a hard line, especially since, as she writes:

...even though I wasn't Jewish, I had played an important role in my children's Jewish education and upbringing. Not only had I driven my children to and from many of their three-times-a-week Hebrew school classes, but I had pushed for greater Jewish observance in our household. I was the one, not Joshua, my Jewish husband, who suggested that we should always say the appropriate food blessings before eating together as a family at home. I was also the parent who wanted to establish the weekly habit of always doing the Havdalah rituals that mark the end of Shabbat.

Also, she later adds, “I did not feel that speaking at my daughter's bat mitzvah would be speaking on behalf of the congregation, thus requiring me to be Jewish. I would have been speaking for myself as a mother of a Jewish child whose bat mitzvah was being celebrated with the congregation that we felt privileged to be a part of.”

Not allowing non-Jewish parents, particularly ones who’ve been supportive of their children’s Jewish upbringing, to participate in their children’s bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies just seems mean-spirited to me. Do people think it will actually discourage intermarriage and encourage gentiles to convert in hopes of getting better treatment?

Amazingly, despite being treated so poorly, Burton continued participating in the minyan and chose to convert to Judaism. I have to wonder how many people in her situation would have thrown up their hands in frustration and left the Jewish community, or at least that particular Jewish community, altogether.

The happy ending to this story is that Burton’s son’s bar mitzvah is coming up and as a full-fledged Jew not only will she be able to speak from the bima, she’ll be one of the Torah readers. According to Burton, she learned to chant Torah by helping her son prepare for his bar mitzvah and “now I am more skilled at chanting Torah than my husband.”

Once the bar mitzvah is over she plans to suggest that the minyan revise its policies. Best of luck, Debbie, welcome to the Jewish people and kol hakavod (way to go/congratulations) on your many accomplishments!

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When your only response to "wow" is a personal attack, it shows you have very little in the way of a concrete response. The comment was not nasty, it was just factual, pointing out that there are no magic words or good intentions that can make someone Jewish, and it is sad that parents - sometimes Jewish parents who adopt children, other times non-Jews who marry Jewish women - think that they can wave a magic wand and make the kids into Jews. "Wow" was trying to point out that being Jewish is about following the Torah. Alas, many Jews do not follow the Torah, but since they were born of Jewish mothers, one hopes that being immersed in a Jewish womb affected the child's soul positively and we hope the child can eventually find their way to Torah observance. However, when someone converts a minor child against their will (for we do not know their hopes) it only makes sense IF the parents are Jewish and are committed to living a Jewish life, otherwise it seems kind of sad and pointless to declare them "Jews" but then not raise them to be truly Jewish. I think a lot of heartbreak comes that way for many families. It is great that Debbie became Jewish and keeps kosher etc., but in the Jewish view, it would ALSO be great if she had chosen to remain the gentile soul in the way she was created, and find her path to greatness that way. So if a shul had chosen not to welcome her and therefore she had not become Jewish, I don't see the problem with that. Some people here seem to feel that being Jewish is better than being gentile - for some that is true, for others not. Debbie, you are quick to accuse others of being nasty, but it seems that you have some very negative feelings about Orthodox Jews - "the Orthodox Jews need special ed, my kids need gifted programs." Orthodox Jews are nice people!
Look, if the holocaust and assorted other disasters hadn't happened it would be fine to take a hard line on this if you wanted to. The fact is we need everyone. And if her kids come aboard the "team" I don't see what's wrong with that. Particularly when you have a roll call of Jews, Chomsky, Finkelstein, Falk, Weiss, Goldstone, etc who are halachally Jewish, and are enemies of our people.
Debbie: Thank you for adding more to our understanding about your experience in the minyan and for your well-put response to "Wow." I am continually amazed by the vitriol and lack of respect many people display (usually anonymously) when online, often at the same time they are presenting themselves as exemplars of Torah values. Incidentally, I was saddened by the need of several early commenters to immediately question and mock the Jewish authenticity of Debbie's children. To the person who posted at 13:01, I am sorry you have such a low opinion of my column. I did not claim to have spoken directly to Debbie in my blog post; rather, I was basing my interpretation on a careful reading of her essay, which she had published in However, I think it is unfair and quite a stretch to say I "made up my own version" of her story. I am, of course, pleased that her overall experience at the minyan has been so positive. However, I still wonder whether all people would have felt so welcome under the circumstances as she did.
To Debbie Burton: Your story is very inspiring, and I hope to learn of more families like yours in which a non-Jewish spouse becomes a "Jew by choice" and is an active partner in raising a children in what sounds like a happy Jewish home. While it might have been easier to explain to others if you had converted before you got married and had your daughter and son, to me your Jewishness is even more authentic because converting is something you came to on your own (an internal decision) did because you wanted to, and not because of external pressure, which always sounds to me like proselytizing (a very un-Jewish thing to do). A pro forma conversion of a bride that is (pre-wedding) to satisfy prospective in-laws, leaves the Jewishness of any children open to debate anyway. Reading about your journey to Judaism made my day. To Julie Weiner: Your interpretation of the story on is disturbing, but it's what I've come to expect from your column. You obviously didn't speak to the subject of your column; instead you made up your own version of her story. If you had spoken to Debbie Burton yourself, you would have had to draw the opposite conclusion about her experience with her egalitarian minyan and that Jewish community. By the way, those of us who care about Judaism and the future of the Jewish people would find the "happy ending" long before Debbie's plan to speak at her son's bar mitzvah. It is said that every Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai when Moses recieved the laws. To me, the happy ending was when Debbie found her way back to the Jewish people, and formalized her membership by converting.
Wow - the kids were converted to "Judaism." Some "Rabbi" said "hocus-pocus" and POOF! the kids became Jewish, despite the fact that their mother was not a Jew, their home was not following the most key parts of the Torah - and the mother feels all proud because she pushed for saying blessings on the pork and making a havdala ceremony and driving her kids to "Hebrew" school, where they didn't even learn that you aren't Jewish unless your mom was or unless you convert and agree to follow the Torah. Being Jewish is not about speaking in shul, or even going to shul. It is about keeping kosher, Sabbath (and holidays), family purity laws, and being ethical in your interactions with others. This story would be funny if it didn't make me cry. So the mother is now Jewish? What makes her Jewish? Does she keep Shabbat? What is the point of being Jewish if you don't believe you have to follow the Torah?
"What makes her Jewish? Does she keep Shabbat? What is the point of being Jewish if you don't believe you have to follow the Torah?" The same can be said of her husband!! Why have you no words for him? This is precisely the kind of disgusting hypocrisy that the "hocus-pocus" of simply being BORN to a "Jewish" mother provides. I think less and less everyday that Judaism is a religion about righteous action.
To the person who posted "Wow..." Why would you make so many nasty INCORRECT assumptions? My son was circumcised by an Orthodox mohel "for the purpose of conversion" with two valid witnesses. (We chose strictly observant friends who do not self-identify as Orthodox to sign as witnesses, but in addition to the mohel, there was at least one other Orthodox male in attendance.) Our children were brought before three observant Jewish men and immersed in a mikvah. (But perhaps you feel that a Conservative rabbi is by definition not a valid eid?) As you surmise from my comments, our home was less observant when the kids were very young, but it was never as lacking in Jewish observance as you assume. Now, our home is kosher with 4 separate sets of dishes (2 for Pesach, and our Orthodox friends do eat by us), we observe Shabbat and holidays (my kids miss many days of public school as do the Orthodox children who attend their schools*), I have used the mikveh for other purposes since my conversion.... As for "ethical interactions with others"---I think YOU are the one who needs to re-read the Torah, this time paying attention to "mitzvot ben adam l'chavero" in addition to the "mitzvot ben adam l'makom" (since I'm assuming you follow the ones you accuse me of violating). [*The Orthodox children in my children's schools need special ed services, whereas my kids benefit from the gifted education and flexibility to do math a grade ahead as well as the multi-ethnic composition of the school. We have supplemented and then substituted with private tutoring when the Hebrew school did not provide the Jewish education we wanted.] An Orthodox conversion was out of the question for various reasons, of which the most important is that I would never leave my wonderful egalitarian minyan that has no mechitza. I have no doubt that YOU would not consider me to be Jewish, but that doesn't matter because I certainly have no desire to join any Orthodox congregation that would have members as judgmental as you.
A correction by Debbie Burton: A more careful reading of my story would have shown that I will not be reading Torah at my son's bar mitzvah because it is a Monday morning service so there are only three short Torah readings which he will do himself. Instead, I will be simply sharing a aliyah with my husband. I do know my son's Torah readings better than he does though and will hold my breath for each of the parts where I know he sometimes makes errors. I also do leyn once or twice a month for both of my lay-led minyanim: I read for parashah Emor last Shabbat and will read the special holiday maftir for Shavuot.
Another comment from Debbie Burton: We have no decision-making "leaders" for our minyan. Our board members are simply members willing to take on extra organizational responsibilities. We say that we have "Egalitarian" in our name because we allow women in all ritual roles AND we have no hierarchy. Members who are rabbis (who serve as hospital chaplains and a director of a Jewish summer camp) get a single vote like any member (such as myself now that I'm a "Jew by Choice" and entitled to be an official member). So any policies were voted on by the membership. There are now only two intermarried families: One family has a Catholic father who does not participate. Another member's second husband is not Jewish and comes to services occasionally with his daughter. But he is not as involved in Judaism as I always was. So I think I was the only person that these rules ever really affected.
I'm Debbie Burton, the author of the article. I had wanted to convert myself since before getting married (long, complicated story), but felt I could not for various reasons. But I definitely wanted to raise my children as Jews, so we converted them when they were young, a decade before I finally converted myself. Julie: I worried about whether my story would make my minyan seem uncaring to people. I think you don't understand that this small detail was only in an obscure document that had never had to be invoked before while we were members. I'm not even sure if most minyan members knew about the rule and perhaps no one would have objected if I had chosen to speak, especially from a spot not "at the bima". As I wrote, I could have spoken at other times, but just felt marginalized by the knowledge of this little rule. But my minyan WAS welcoming of my family. We were invited to members' homes for Shabbat and holiday meals. Our apartment was crowded with people for my son's bris. They brought meals and babysat when I was hospitalized after an emergency appendectomy. And I was accepted as a "member of the community" if not an official "member" of the minyan. One reason I finally converted is because I felt and continue to feel valued and loved my my Jewish community. My "The Unofficial Member" story also on the Interfaith Family website even talks about how I was offered and I accepted the responsibility for coordinating services which shows the way my minyan was willing to do something that was not traditional, but did not violate halacha. (So I distributed honors I myself was ineligible for.) The minyan chose its policies by vote, not by following USCJ guidelines. They did not think they were discouraging intermarriage with their policies. They probably thought that having a non-Jew speak from the bima "dishonored the congregation" (similar to the Talmudic justification that is often used to bar women from leading services in Traditional and Orthodox congregations [except for the new Orthodox "partnership minyanim"]. I was also the main editor for the cookbook put together to celebrate my minyan's 25th anniversary. No one thought it was a problem for a non-Jew to do head up that project. And I was allowed to speak at a very important minyan meeting when we were considering a merger with our host shul which was a very contentious event. I was allowed to publicly express my opinion even though I was not allowed to vote on that merger. Some members were literally moved to tears when I was first called for an aliyah after my conversion. But they were happy not because they thought I was better for being Jewish, but rather that they understood how it represented my desire to fully join them as part of the Jewish people with my whole heart and soul, and how happy I was to have finally been able to do so. In fact, several of them made a point to tell me that I had *always* been a valued member of the community even before I converted.