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Congregational Membership for a Non-Jewish

Congregational Membership for a Non-Jewish

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Published by Zari WEiss

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Published by: Zari WEiss on Feb 16, 2011
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Contemporary American Reform Responsa
 
162. Congregational Membership for a Non-Jewish
Spouse*QUESTION:
Should we reinstitute the ancient category of semiproselyte known in the Talmudic literatureas
yirei adonai, ger toshav 
and
ger shaar?
Would this be a way of solving the problem of non-Jewishspouse whose Jewish husband or wife belong to our congregations while they, as non-Jews with aconsiderable interest in Judaism, have either no status or a status which has not been properly andclearly defined? Would this ancient Talmudic category help us with our modern problems? What kind of status should be granted to such an individual? (Rabbi G. Raiskin, Burlingame, CA)
A
NSWER:
The problem of the non-Jewish spouse is a serious one in many congregations. Every efforttoward a solution deserves our attention and consideration. We should begin by looking at the Talmudiccategories,
yirei adonai, gerei toshav 
and
gerei shaar,
and try to understand their precise meaning. Whatrights, if any, did individuals in each category possess? How were they treated in the Temple, in thesynagogue, by Jewish courts, etc.?The general question of conversion to Judaism has been well treated by a number of our colleagues (J.Rosenbloom,
Conversion to Judaism,
Cincinnati, 1978; H. Eichorn,
Conversion to Judaism,
New York,1965; B. Bamberger,
Proselytism in the Talmudic Period,
New York, 1939; W. Braude,
Jewish Proselyting in the First Five Centuries of the Common Era,
Providence, 1940). These volumes indicate thatconversion to Judaism has continued through the centuries. They discuss what was expected of theconvert, motives which led to conversion, and the way in which converts have fit into the generalcommunity. Relatively little space in these volumes is given to our categories, which existed for only a fewcenturies. These categories play no role in rabbinic literature after the
Talmud 
, and when these terms areused they are synonymous with
benei noah,
in other words, a Gentile who had accepted basic humanmorality and was no longer a pagan. The terms also designate individuals who had adopted certainJewish thoughts in the post Talmudic period. No special status has been accorded to them (S. Zeitlin,"Proselyte and Proselytism,"
Harry Wolfson Jubilee Volumes,
Vol. 2, pp. 587 ff; see also A. Bertholet,
DieStellung der Israeliten und der Jüden zu den Fremden,
Leipzig, 1896). If we follow the generally acceptedview, individuals characterized by these designations seem to have fallen into four categories during theMishnaic and early Talmudic period:1. A theoretical designation which indicated how the rabbis would have liked to treat resident aliens
(gerei toshav)
in Israel (
M.
Gerim 3.1; A. Z. 64b; San 56a ff; Arak. 29a).2. Individuals who were on their way to becoming full proselytes but had not yet fulfilled all the conditions.In other words, they may have undergone immersion or circumcision, but not yet brought the mandatorysacrifice in Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple (Moore,
Judaism in the First Centuries of theChristian Era,
Vol. I, pp. 330 ff;
Mishnat R. Eliezer,
p. 374; Juvenal,
Satire,
XIV, 96 ff).3. Individuals who were married to Jews, accepted basic Jewish morality and religious thought, but for avariety of reasons were unwilling to undergo complete conversion. Usually this category seemed toconsist of husbands of women who had become Jewish and were unwilling to follow as this entailed thedifficult operation of circumcision. Other reasons may also have been operative.4. Individuals who had accepted some of the ethics and morality of Judaism and left their ancient paganbeliefs, in other words, a synonym for 
benei noah
(A. Z. 64a; Pes. 21a; Ker. 8b; Hul. 5a; Meg. 13a; Philo,
Contra Apion;
Josephus,
 Antiq.
20.8.7;
Wars
2.18.2, 7.3.3).One scholar, Solomon Zeitlin, felt that these categories did not exist at all. The terms merely designatedGentiles who were no longer idolaters but in no way semi-proselytes (Zeitlin,
op. cit.
).

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