Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Equal Rights to Rites For All

This one is going to make me widely unpopular, but for too long I've avoided taking it on.

I'm thrilled to death that synagogues (and churches, et al) are championing important causes like gay marriage, issues of the transgender community, and GLBT issues in general (not to mention plain old civil rights for all people of color-though I'm not sure synagogues measure up in this regard as much as they believe they do.) The Jewish community has worked long and hard to enfranchise as many as possible. Barriers for women, already falling (if not yet completely gone) in the liberal Jewish community, are even starting to fall in the orthodox world.

Yet one group of people in our community remain singularly disenfranchised, particularly in matters of ritual. These are the so-called "gerim toshvim." A pluralized form of the term, "ger toshav," it is a term describing those who live within and integrate into the Jewish community but are not Jewish. In modern terms, these are people who maintain Jewish homes, are raising their children as Jews, etc.

Now, I've heard all the arguments about why non-Jews should not participate in particular prayers or rituals. Primarily, it's a matter of someone saying a prayer or blessing in which one professes something that is particularly covenantal, specific to the Jewish covenant. There was a time in my life when I accepted those arguments. I can accept them no more.

"Well, why don't these people just convert?" is the oft asked question. Well, other than in the midrashic inventions of some, can it really be derived from the text that even Ruth "converted" per se? I can think of countless personal and/or practical reasons why a ger toshav might not choose to become a convert.

With the many Jewish paths that now exist, each of them defining covenant and covenantal relationships in different ways, can we really insist on some sort of absurd standard as covenant/brit? There are plenty of Jews who are considered part of the covenant by one stream of Judaism and not another. Yet the more liberal streams, fearful of forever cutting themselves off from the traditional streams just won't make that last leap of faith into the abyss of totally involving the ger toshav at a ritual level. (there's an increasing self-deception in liberal Jewish circles that this rift hasn't really happened already. Wake up and smell the coffee. There IS more than one type of Judaism being practiced today-and that was true in the past as well. Remember karaitism?)

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..." Too many actively involved gerim toshvim in our community are made second-class members of the community-prevented from participating in some of the most meaningful of ritual moments in their lives and the lives of their family. It's wrong. It's disenfranchising. (Oho, I hear you cry-but they aren't part of the franchise since they haven't converted. Hmmm-isn't this the same argument being used harmfully against so many immigrants of questionable or illegal status and that so many in the Jewish community are decrying?  For years here in Amherst, people have tried to get the State legislature to allow the Town to permit resident aliens to vote in Town elections-precisely because they are impacted by them. I see the situation within the Jewish community pretty much the same. The gerim toshvim are affected by community decisions, and should have a right to participate in them. If they are this much a part of the community, how can we deny them the chance to hold a Torah or say certain blessings?

Sometimes, this little bit of exclusion can be viewed as a punishment-and worse yet, it's viewed as a punishment by someone who has Jewish bona fides. Horrors-a member of the tribe fell in love with someone from outside the tribe and married them. It's the end of the Jewish people, the end of the world. No, it's not. It's reality, and it has been happening from the beginning of Jewish existence.

We all know too well the realities of non-Jewish spouses/partners who are often more engaged and active than the Jewish spouse/partner. Every time we deny the non-Jewish partner a ritual opportunity, we twist the knife of punishment not only into the ger toshav, but even deeper into the Jewish partner. We Jews do guilt so well.

Oh, I can hear the arguments already. Choices were made. We have to live with the consequences of our choices.  Really? Then why are there such things as recall elections? Why are laws that once prohibited gay marriage now being changed?  Why are once disenfranchised minorities now enfranchised? However, you argue, being black, or gay, etc. is not a choice! They must have their rights protected. Is falling in love with a non-Jew any different?

It's hard to be a Jew. It's a burden. Yet we make sharing the load really hard by making conversion difficult. Then, to make matters worse, we refuse the assistance of the gerim toshvim in shouldering the load. Seems to me that if we are to succeed in tikkun olam, we need all the people we can participating with us.

My female domestic partner (and don't get me started on the whole question of rights for hetero-sexual male-female domestic partnerships who may choose not to pursue the marriage path for whatever reasons) is Jewish. Her child's father is not, but is an active part in raising her Jewishly. My second wife was Jewish, though she had one child whose father was not. My first wife was not Jewish when we married, but was a ger toshav from day one, and later converted totally of her own volition and free choice. Prior to her conversion, as her family was not that accepting of her choice, and we didn't have children, we never, as a couple, encountered some of these ritual walls that the ger toshav experiences. I can't speak for her on how it felt to be excluded from certain rituals while truly living as immersed in a Jewish life as possible or whether  she believes conversion is the best choice. I can tell you that I would not be the active Jewish professional I am today if not for her influence at bringing me to me own tradition.

I would never ask any non-Jew to say ritual words, or perform ritual acts that they did not fully comprehend, and with which they were comfortable. Yet, if they are willing to do so with full knowledge and understanding, and if they are truly a ger toshav, I believe we should let them participate.

Who are the real "lanu" in "asher bakhar banu mikol..." and "asher natan lanu Torat emet?" How can you say that those living with us, living like us, are not part of us? The liberal movements chafe at the idea of chosen-ness, some even going so far as to remove such words from their ritual prayers. Yet in this one area they have no problem saying "sorry, you're not one of the chosen." Who are we to determine whom G*d chooses? Who are we to question those who say they feel that they feel chosen, even convenanted, even if they haven't engaged in  a human-created/defined ritual that determines the state of chosen-ness?

We pray that a day will come when all will know that G*d is One. There are people knocking on the door now. We'll let them in, after closing the door in their face a few times. Others have decided not to wait for the door to be opened to them, and have come right in and made themselves at home.  They are a part of us. Give them their equal right to rites!

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