Jew-ish — welcoming ‘common-law Jews’
Yes, the congressman who “embellished” his résumé can be ridiculed for first claiming he was a proud Jew and then saying he was not Jewish, but Jew-ish. As a colleague wrote in these pages last week, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
But hold on a second. What if George Santos is on to something? Inadvertently, that is, since Santos simply lied about having a Jewish background or affiliation.
Maybe there should be a new word, “Jew-ish,” to signify someone who casts their lot with the Jewish people but doesn’t actually convert.
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Maybe it’s time to welcome a new category of almost Jews into the fold.
For some time now, I have considered such people in my congregation and beyond as “common-law Jews.” The expression is my own. But the few colleagues I have shared the expression with don’t like it. They argue, as will most, that we should not refer to a non-Jew who has not converted to Judaism as Jewish; that certain boundaries should not be blurred.
After four decades in the rabbinate, I know that there are legions of non-Jews who are deeply and wonderfully committed to our congregations. But I also know that there are a host of reasons why many of these devoted people stop short of converting. One of the most common is a desire to do nothing that would disrespect or alienate the parents who raised them.
In the same way that civil society recognizes that two people who share their lives together eventually deserve the status of a common-law marriage, so we should proclaim that after years of living in a Jewish home and community, a person who supports a Jewish family deserves to be counted in some way as a member of the tribe. In effect, we are saying that we cherish your role in perpetuating Judaism as a loving partner to a Jewish spouse, as a parent to a Jewish child, or simply as a spiritual seeker in our midst.
While the idea is novel, I suggest that there are deep roots with affinity to the notion in our tradition. After all, the concept of the ger toshav, the non-citizen who resides among us, being deserving of rights, is a well-recognized teaching of Torah. “There shall be one law for the citizen and non-citizen [ger] who dwells among you” (Ex.12:49). Taking the next step toward full inclusion means creating a path for the resident non-Jew to become a common-law Jew; for the ger toshav to become a yehudi toshav.
Sometimes new circumstances call not only for new thinking but a new vocabulary. If “common-law Jew” is a bridge too far, perhaps “Jew-ish” is better. If we agree that those who live among Jews and even live as Jews should be greater appreciated, we should say so.
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, and director emeritus of the Jewish Publication Society. His newest book, “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists and Agnostics,” will be published this spring.