Ritual Roles Part 2 – Participation, Leadership & Non-Jews


Please Note:  This article is too brief a discussion of sensitive, complicated ideas. If anything I have said here is upsetting and angering to you, or you would like to explore these perspectives more fully, I particularly invite you to be in touch with me for conversation and so I can learn more about your experiences.

This most recent community conversation was difficult and brave, powerful and insightful.  I continue to be moved by the process we are engaging in, learning from one another, learning from this ever-evolving Jewish tradition that nourishes us, shapes us and that we grapple with together.  We shared questions, commitments and concerns, with honesty and respect, even in the face of disagreement.  This is rare and extraordinary.  And what a deeply Jewish practice of wrestling it is.

It was so clear that everyone in the room cares very deeply about connecting in meaningful ways to Jewish life, about belonging at the DJC and investing in its future.  There was a palpable sense, too, that the DJC is changing – as it grows, as new members of varying ages join, and as my commitment to Jewish education and to the thriving future of progressive, substantive Judaism and the Jewish people inform my rabbinic leadership.  Just as the overarching tension we are exploring in these conversations is about the relationship between tradition and change in Judaism (asking questions like:  How does the past inform the present?  What authority do tradition, history, and cultural collectivity have on our present practice?  What responsibility do we have to carry forward and build on the traditions we inherit for future generations?  What considerations guide change?), we are asking the identical questions in relation to the DJC – what original DJC goals and “traditions” are important to preserve and why?  What guides change?

I want to share here some of the perspectives I put forward for conversation the other night.  I prefaced my comments with an important reminder that I state from the bimah regularly and that shapes the ways I support interfaith/intercultural couples and families – I stand proudly and whole-hearted committed to the DJC continuing to be a place that is warm, welcoming, and inclusive of non-Jewish partners.  I am committed to ensuring that the DJC is a place where non-Jewish partners feel a sense of belonging, that you know that your presence and contributions enrich this community and that your commitment to raise Jewish children and to celebrate Jewish life with your Jewish beloveds is a significant commitment that deserves recognition, respect and support.  I would love to hear about your experiences and suggestions of ways that we can strengthen this aspect of life at the DJC.

Ours is not a community in which one has to be Jewish in order to actively participate in ritual (I am only addressing ritual roles here.  This is not a conversation questioning other forms of leadership in the community).  This inclusion is essential to the character of the DJC and I stand behind it. Anyone who steps into the DJC and wants to take part in Jewish community, Jewish learning and exploration, and Jewish ways of living, is joyfully welcome.  Whether you are Jewish or not, your choice to participate in any given mitzvah/Jewish action is based on your own sense of authenticity and how you step into Jewish practices.

The ritual actions that I stand behind being open to everyone include:

  • Participating in any prayer or ritual/mitzvah the community is doing together.
  • Group aliyot to the Torah (reciting the blessing before and after Torah reading as part of a group).
  • Touching the Torah, holding the Torah (eg. if we are passing the Torah for each person to hold), kissing the Torah.
  • Participating on the bimah for a family simcha (eg. a baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, etc.).
  • Opening or closing the ark.
  • Offering a reading, poem or community kavanah from the bimah.

I particularly encourage Jews and non-Jews alike to try on rituals you’ve never done before, le’shem chinukh, for the sake of learning and exploration, as well as deepening your learning about and relationship to the rituals you are already familiar with.

I think that there is, however, an important distinction between ritual participation and ritual leadership.  Here I am referring to a very specific group of ritual actions defined by Jewish sources that require that one individual act as a representative of the Jewish people and that this person say a blessing or do a ritual/mitzvah on behalf of the whole Jewish community, or lead the whole community.

The ritual roles in this category are:

  • An individual reciting a prayer or blessing on their own on behalf of the community (eg. lighting Shabbat candles as an individual, having an individual aliyah to the Torah, leading a prayer).
  • Chanting Torah on behalf of the community.
  • Blowing shofar on behalf of the community.
  • Lifting the Torah (hagba), dressing the Torah (gelila) or ritually carrying or holding the Torah as part of the Torah service/a Torah ritual.

Judaism’s term for someone who enacts a ritual/mitzvah on behalf of others is a shali’ach/shli’chat tzibbur, a representative or messenger of the community/the Jewish people.  I believe that a person cannot authentically be a representative of the Jewish people if they have not chosen to be part of the Jewish people, with both the rights AND the responsibilities that entails.  If a person has not formally claimed the Torah as their Torah (whether interpreted in religious, cultural, spiritual or ethical terms), their teachings, culture and heritage, I do not see it as appropriate for that person to lift the Torah for the community to witness and affirm, while we say “Ve’zot ha’Torah asher sam Moshe … This is the Torah that Moses passed on to us …”  Contemporary Rabbi Miles Cohen articulates it this way, “An individual aliyah carries with it the idea that each Jew has the responsibility to take the role of Moses our Teacher in his/her community, if even for just a few moments.  The oleh/olah [person called up for the aliyah] is not the one honoredRather, the oleh/olah pays honor to the Torah by virtue of wanting to be near the Torah and teach from it.”

I think it is important for us to honour all of our members’ invaluable contributions to the community and to give opportunities for our non-Jewish and Jewish members alike to share your gifts and leadership.  In the context of Jewish practices, it is important to have an understanding of these various rituals on their own terms, rather than labeling all actions in front of the community equally as “honours”.  Different rituals in Jewish life are framed by different purposes and intentions, and some of them rest on the person doing them stepping forward as a representative of the Jews and of Judaism.

While being born Jewish, like being born Canadian, I automatically inherit the rights and responsibilities of that identity, regardless of my interest, feelings or commitment, the door is open to anyone who wants to become part of the Jewish people, to throw your lot in with the Jews in difficult times as much as in good times, to claim Judaism as one’s own and to be invested in contributing to its creative growth.  This is a commitment that extends beyond being invested in the DJC or belonging to the DJC.  This is a choice that no one is being pressured to make.  It is perfectly legitimate for a person who is not Jewish to decide that they don’t want to convert to Judaism while still being deeply committed, involved and wanted at the DJC.  It is a choice that does not judge some people as more worthy or valuable or better intentioned.  But it is a choice of a particular kind of public commitment and it brings about a change in status recognized among the wider Jewish people, like becoming a Canadian citizen.  For these same reasons, a Jew under the age of 13 is also not allowed to take on these ritual leadership roles because they have not yet become bar/bat mitzvah, “owners” of the mitzvot, responsible for them and to them.

I think it is important that we hold respectful awareness of cultural appropriation in this regard. I don’t think that anyone has acted with negative intent.  In fact, I am profoundly moved by the sincerity and engagement of those of you who are not Jewish who bring Jewish life into your homes, families and our shared community.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the history and dynamics of Jewish oppression are inseparable from Jewish life.  As a people who have been targeted for persecution and annihilation, who continue to be labeled as society’s “problem” and are routinely blamed for society’s ills, Jewish community and Jewish living are a project of survival, resilience, and Jewish liberation, committed to preserving and celebrating our cultural integrity.  It is challenging for many Jews to claim Judaism and the Jewish people with ease, joy, and engaged curiosity!  There is profound healing work to do here, and Jewish rituals are among our sources and pathways of healing.  Part of our conversation about ritual leadership has to include the mindful attention to systems of power and privilege and how we work together to end anti-Semitism.  Here too, Jewish rituals are among our pathways of healing.  This is an important part of the conversation as we seek to create a community where everyone belongs, where differences are not glossed over but are honoured and where different roles do not define better or worse than, but acknowledge different commitments and choices.  These delicate, Jewishly rooted and important considerations are foundational for building joyous, wise, sustaining and inclusive Jewish life for ourselves and for the future.

* * *

Year of Wrestling Together Community Conversation #5

January 25th

Responses from the Community

“What is something you learned, a thought you want to share with the rest of the community, or a take-away from tonight’s conversation?”

  • The discussion provided great insight into the deeply held beliefs and motivations of the DJC members who were present and the rabbi
  • Change is difficult. Understand the “ritual leadership” division. But thought is required to list. Not able to meet all needs. Very well articulated points on both sides.
  • I appreciate Rabbi Miriam’s framing of the issue of who can “lead” Jewish ritual as an issue of integrity in ritual practice – of non-Jews, in the context of Jewish community acknowledging when it is appropriate to be content with being an ally, rather than taking a leadership/representative role. In the context of Jewish community, defined by boundaries that allow the distinction of what’s Jewish from what’s not, it is ok to acknowledge       a distinction between one’s personal identity and one’s status as a Jew.  Also – I (and many people I know) are members of the DJC because of Rabbi Miriam and her beliefs/convictions
  • A wonderful and important conversation. It was so helpful and Jewishly to hear different views.  Jewish-ness?  I have difficulty with this.
  • It’s a very emotional and divisive issue that we should postpone; nothing good will come from this … sadly.
  • The decision to convert is a choice with privileges and responsibilities. It is appropriate for there to be boundaries and for the rabbi to set some of them.
  • A circle would never be considered a line in the sand.
  • As a member of the ‘old guard’ like a parent, I acknowledge that at a certain point we are through parenting and become witnesses. With great love, we wish our children well on their path.
  • Community needs to understand what “leadership roles” in ritual are and why they are considered to be so.
  • We are only in conversation about four specific “roles” that are about speaking/acting on behalf of the DJC Jews.
  • I’d be interested in gathering a clearer answer to Miriam’s question from someone non-Jewish as to why they want to take a ritual leadership role.  I feel people brought up many good points to both sides, but no clear answer to that specific question.
  • I understand for the first time why some non-Jews are reluctant to convert to Judaism fi they have always felt part of or inside the Jewish community, it seems like an unnecessary step that rejects their feeling of belonging.   Can we honour that when making these decisions?
  • Can someone who identifies as Jewish or as someone who fully supports Jewish people speak alongside in a Jewish ritual?
  • … my understanding of our Rabbi’s limits/boundaries, it is a dangerous road we are navigating, because sooner or later it will mean exclusion.  PS: The one remark made as a reason for leaving the DJC for a while was the catering to non-Jews felt really offensive.
  • I have come to believe that you can be Jewish in your deepest self while being Christian at the same time in the same deepest self. Being human is messy.
  • Thank you.  I realize that having spiritual leadership matters to me, but/and I have not until DJC had the opportunity to interact with a Rabbi who could dialogue/would dialogue well!
  • I leave with the conviction that distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews is distasteful in the extreme.
  • There is a part of me that is very afraid that we will lose Rabbi Miriam over what was discussed tonight (albeit with great respect) and this makes me very sad.
  • We grapple, we grapple, we grapple – I think we are blessed to be part of a community that makes space for it.  I remain torn.  And yet comforted in the acknowledgement that, yes, we are a Jewish community.
  • I discovered that I am not alone in my questions, or in my search and need to belong. That DJC as a community is struggling with belonging – the issue of belonging and what that means – and all that is meant to be a positive search for growth, and self-reflection on a personal level and as a community.
  • We can trust our leaders.  They hold our priorities.
  • We can have difficult conversations and continue to have deep respect for one another.
  • We need to define ourselves by what we believe and value rather than by application of an arbitrary set of rules and boundaries and we need to be careful about creating exclusionary distinctions that have the effect of pushing or defining some as out or not worthy.
  • Fossilization can happen in any context.  This includes within the context of a community which considers its longstanding relationship to Torah and Judaism progressive because of a resistance to change.
  • The boundary of Judaism is limited by its inclusiveness.
  • The DJC is a Jewish community.  The members have “community” covered.  Rabbi Miriam has the “Jewish” covered.  We need both.  She is clearer than the members about what “Jewish” means.  Thus, some boundaries are inevitable.  Otherwise, let’s just be a “community” without the “Jewish”.
  • Under conventional Jewish thought there are real questions about leadership, but what opportunities exist in the DJC to find its own way, to be a unique community.  Is that an option?
  • Spirituality and democracy are difficult. We have the strength to encompass both.
  • How do we move forward to embrace boundaries, which is legitimate, without creating lines of division between those we accept as real Jews and non-Jews?

Join us for the next Year of Wrestling Together conversation on February 23rd as we continue to delve into these questions.


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