Monday, December 21, 2015


There is a Jewish tradition called “Responsa” in which a lay Jew asks a rabbi or panel of rabbis for advice on a particular question about religious law or practice that is either too nuanced for him/her to figure out or is related to a modern situation that isn’t covered. The answers are published in sets kind of like the Federal Register so everyone can benefit from the answers. 

I love reading these for a variety of reasons. 

  1. As a religious person, I benefit directly by learning from the answers. 
  2. As a closet philosopher, I enjoy parsing the logical arguments to see how they come up with the answers.
  3. As a policy wonk, I am curious to see how they craft the answers to be true to the core principles of the religion while also adapting to the realities of the modern world, the decreasing religiosity of the population, and the desire (for some rabbis at least) to be inclusive.

The question this week asked what parts of religious practice can non-Jews participate in, particularly during a religious service.  My gut reaction to hearing the question was “Uh-oh, here is a chance for some rabbi to circle the wagons and keep the non-believers out.”  But I was pleasantly surprised.

First, the rabbi noted that the answer should depend on contextual nuances such as whether the non-Jew was someone who was in the process of converting to Judaism, a non-Jewish spouse of a mixed marriage who is supporting the Jewish spouse by attending service, a random visitor, or someone with a strong interest in a limited topic but not the rest.

Then, he gave an answer based on a generalizable framework rather than just saying this or that. This approach really resonated with the policy wonk in me.  What he boiled it down to is whether the particular activity is something that Jews are religiously obligated to do.  In that case, a non-Jew doing it would take the spot away from someone who needs that spot.  That would be unfair. But for anything else, it should be permitted (if not encouraged). This would include leading prayers that are not part of the core service, participating in a social or charitable activity – even bringing sacrifices to the Temple (if it is ever rebuilt) excepting the mandatory sacrifices of the major holidays.

Interesting thoughts. A great example of why I like following these.