Jewish Attitudes Toward Non-Jews
Judaism maintains that the righteous of all
nations have a place in the
world to come. This has been the majority rule
since the days of the Talmud. Judaism generally
recognizes that Christians and Moslems worship the same
G-d that we do and those who follow the tenets
of their religions can be considered righteous in the eyes of G-d.
Contrary to popular belief, Judaism does not maintain that Jews are better
than other people. Although we refer to ourselves as G-d's chosen people,
we do not believe that G-d chose the Jews because of any inherent superiority.
According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b), G-d offered the
Torah to all the
nations of the earth, and the Jews were the
only ones who accepted it. The story goes on to say that the Jews were offered
the Torah last, and accepted it only because G-d held a mountain over their
heads! (In Ex. 19:17, the words generally translated as "at the foot of the
mountain" literally mean "underneath the mountain"!) Another traditional
story suggests that G-d chose the Jewish nation
because they were the lowliest of nations, and their success would be attributed
to G-d's might rather than their own ability. Clearly, these are not the
ideas of a people who think they are better than other nations.
Because of our acceptance of Torah, Jews have a special status in the eyes
of G-d, but we lose that special status when we abandon Torah. Furthermore,
the blessings that we received from G-d by accepting the Torah come with
a high price: Jews have a greater responsibility than non-Jews. While non-Jews
are only obligated to obey the seven commandments
given to Noah, Jews are responsible for fulfilling the
613 mitzvot in the Torah, thus G-d will punish
Jews for doing things that would not be a sin for non-Jews.
According to traditional Judaism, G-d gave Noah
and his family seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the
flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments,
are inferred from Genesis Ch. 9, and are as follows: 1) to establish courts
of justice; 2) not to commit blasphemy; 3) not to commit idolatry; 4) not
to commit incest and adultery; 5) not to commit bloodshed; 6) not to commit
robbery; and 7) not to eat flesh cut from a living animal. These commandments
are fairly simple and straightforward, and most of them are recognized by
most of the world as sound moral principles. Any non-Jew who follows these
laws has a place in the world to come.
The Noahic commandments are binding on all people, because all people are
descended from Noah and his family. The 613 mitzvot
of the Torah, on the other hand, are only binding
on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon
those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily (by
conversion). In addition, the Noahic
commandments are applied more leniently to non-Jews than the corresponding
commandments are to Jews, because non-Jews do not have the benefit of
Oral Torah to guide them in interpreting the
laws. For example, worshipping G-d in the form of a man would constitute
idolatry for a Jew; however, according to some sources, the Christian worship
of Jesus does not constitute idolatry for non-Jews.
There is a growing movement of non-Jews who have consciously accepted these
seven laws of Noah and chosen to live their lives in accordance with these
laws. This movement is referred to as B'nei Noach (Children of Noah). For
more information about the B'nei Noach movement and the Noahic commandments,
B'nei Noach of Fort Worth, Texas.
The most commonly used word for a non-Jew is goy. The word "goy" means
"nation," and refers to the fact that goyim
are members of other nations, that is, nations other than the Children of
There is nothing inherently insulting about the word "goy." In fact, the
Torah occasionally refers to the
Jewish people using the term "goy." Most notably,
in Exodus 19:6, G-d says that the Children of Israel will be "a kingdom of
priests and a holy nation," that is, a goy kadosh. Because Jews have had
so many bad experiences with anti-Semitic non-Jews over the centuries, the
term "goy" has taken on some negative connotations, but in general the term
is no more insulting than the word "gentile."
The more insulting terms for non-Jews are shiksa (feminine) and shkutz
(masculine). I gather that these words are derived from the
Hebrew root Shin-Qof-Tzadei, meaning loathsome
or abomination. The word shiksa is most commonly used to refer to a non-Jewish
woman who is dating or married to a Jewish man, which should give some indication
of how strongly Jews are opposed to the idea of
intermarriage. The term shkutz is most
commonly used to refer to an anti-Semitic man. Both terms can be used in
a less serious, more joking way, but in general they should be used with
If you are offended to hear that Jewish culture has a negative term for non-Jews,
I would recommend that you stop and think about the many negative terms and
stereotypes that your culture has for Jews.
I once received a message from a man who told me that many Jews do not like
gentiles. He knew this because his (Jewish) girlfriend's friends and parents
disapproved of him. I explained that these people did not disapprove of him
because he was Christian; they disapproved of him because he was a Christian
dating a Jew, which is another issue altogether.
Traditional Judaism does not permit interfaith marriages. The
Torah states that the children of such marriages
would be lost to Judaism (Deut. 7:3-4), and experience has shown the truth
of this passage all too well. The
2000 National Jewish
Population Survey found that only a third of interfaith couples raise
their children Jewish, despite increasing efforts in the
Conservative communities to welcome
This may reflect the fact that Jews who intermarry are not deeply committed
to their religion in the first place: if they were, why would they marry
someone who did not share it? Certainly, the statistics show that intermarried
Jews are overwhelmingly less likely to be involved in Jewish activities:
85% of Jewish couples have or attend a Pesach
seder, while only 41% of intermarried Jews do;
66% of Jewish couples fast on Yom Kippur
while only 26% of intermarried Jews do; 59% of Jewish couples belong to a
synagogue while only 15% of intermarried
Jews do. These statistics and more are sufficiently alarming to be a matter
of great concern to the Jewish community. And the rate of intermarriage has
grown dramatically in recent years: according to the
Jewish Databank, the rate of
intermarriage has risen from 13% in 1970 to 47% since 1996, though the rate
of intermarriage seems to have stopped increasing. One Orthodox Jew I know
went so far as to state that intermarriage is accomplishing what Hitler could
not: the destruction of the Jewish people.
That is an extreme view, but it vividly illustrates how seriously many Jews
take the issue of intermarriage.
The more liberal branches of Judaism have tried to embrace intermarried couples,
hoping to slow the hemorrhaging from our community, but it is questionable
how effective this has been in stemming the tide, given the statistics that
intermarried couples are unlikely to have any Jewish involvement or to raise
their children Jewish.
Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin provide an excellent discussion of the
issues involved in intermarriage in their book
Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism (Simon & Schuster, 1981).
They note that if the non-Jewish spouse truly shares the same values as the
Jewish spouse, then the non-Jew is welcome to convert to Judaism, and if
the non-Jew does not share the same values, then the couple should not be
marrying in the first place.
Many people who are considering interfaith marriage or dating casually dismiss
any objections as prejudice, but there are some practical matters you should
consider. And before you casually dismiss this as ivory tower advice from
a Jewish ghetto, let me point out that both my father and my brother are
intermarried, as well as several of my cousins.
Why are you not seeking out a Jewish partner? If you ask many Jews why they
don't want to date other Jews, you will hear the ugliest list of antisemitic
stereotypes this side of Nazi propaganda. They will tell you that Jewish
men are cheap, neurotic mamma's boys, not handsome and macho like gentile
men. They will tell you that Jewish women are frigid, materialistic and plain,
not fun and sexy like gentile women. Interestingly, the stereotypes you hear
from gentiles seeking Jews are quite different: that Jewish men are good
providers, that they treat women well, that they don't abuse women or get
drunk, and they don't sleep around; that Jewish women are smart, level-headed
and loyal, not bubble-headed bimbos. In fact, there are quite a lot of gentiles
who have registered for JDate, a Jewish
dating network, because they specifically want to date and marry a Jew. If
you think the negative stereotypes don't fit you, what makes you think they
fit Jews of the opposite sex?
Where will you get married, who will perform the ceremony and where and how
will it be performed? Most movements of Judaism don't allow interfaith marriages
to be performed in their synagogues, nor do they allow their rabbis to perform
interfaith marriages, and before you casually dismiss this as bigotry, let's
remember that you are asking them to put a religious stamp of approval on
an act that has nothing to do with their religion. But now that you know
you may have to be married in a church: how do you feel about being married
under a cross or crucifix? How will your relatives feel when they are told,
"in Jesus' name, let us say 'Amen'," as happened at an interfaith marriage
in my family?
What will you do when Christmas and
Chanukkah overlap? When Easter and
Pesach overlap? Whose holiday will you celebrate?
Will your gentile husband veto the annual Chanukkah visit to your parents
because Christmas is more important, as happened to an intermarried friend
of mine? Will your wife be willing to cook and/or eat the cardboard meals
of Pesach? Will your gentile spouse be willing to sit through the lengthy
seder ritual at your parents' house, or the lengthy High Holiday services?
How will the children be raised? The Jewish grandparents want a
bris, and the gentile grandparents insist
on baptism. The Catholic grandparents want the child to learn catechism while
the Jewish grandparents are looking forward to the bar mitzvah. Many interfaith
couples think they are being oh-so-enlightened by raising the children with
both faiths and letting them choose. This makes about as much sense as asking
your child to choose which parent's surname he wants to keep: ultimately,
you're requiring the child to pick favorites with his parents. Aside from
that, the message you are giving your children is that none of it is real,
that none of it matters, that religion is a Chinese menu and you can pick
one from Column A and one from Column B. You are certainly welcome to believe
that, but don't expect your local church or synagogue to agree with you.
Even the more liberal movements of Judaism don't approve of bar mitzvah training
for a child who is simultaneously receiving religious training in another
faith, because it causes too much confusion for the child.
These are just a few of the more important considerations in interfaith
relationships that people tend to gloss over in the heat of passion or in
the desire to be politically fashionable.
In general, Jews do not try to convert non-Jews to Judaism. In fact, according
to halakhah (Jewish Law),
rabbis are supposed to make three vigorous attempts
to dissuade a person who wants to convert to Judaism.
As the discussion above explained, Jews have a lot of responsibilities that
non-Jews do not have. To be considered a good and righteous person in the
eyes of G-d, a non-Jew need only follow the seven
Noahic commandments, whereas a Jew has to follow all 613
commandments given in the Torah. If the
potential convert is not going to follow those extra rules, it's better for
him or her to stay a gentile, and since we as Jews are all responsible for
each other, it's better for us too if that person stayed a gentile. The
rabbinically mandated attempt to dissuade a convert is intended to make sure
that the prospective convert is serious and willing to take on all this extra
Once a person has decided to convert, the proselyte must begin to learn Jewish
religion, law and customs and begin to observe them. This teaching process
generally takes at least one year, because the prospective convert must
experience each of the Jewish holidays; however,
the actual amount of study required will vary from person to person (a convert
who was raised as a Jew might not need any further education, for example,
while another person might need several years).
After the teaching is complete, the proselyte is brought before a Beit Din
(rabbinical court) which examines the proselyte and determines whether he
or she is ready to become a Jew. If the proselyte passes this oral examination,
the rituals of conversion are performed. If the convert is male, he is
circumcised (or, if he was already
circumcised, a pinprick of blood is drawn for a symbolic circumcision). Both
male and female converts are immersed in the mikvah (a ritual bath used for
spiritual purification). The convert is given a Jewish name and is then
introduced into the Jewish community.
In theory, once the conversion procedure is complete, the convert is as much
a Jew as anyone who is born to the religion. In practice, the convert is
sometimes treated with caution, because we have had some of bad experiences
with converts who later return to their former faith in whole or in part.
However, it is important to remember that
Abraham himself was a convert, as were all
of the matriarchs of Judaism, as was Ruth, an ancestor of King David.
For more information about conversion to Judaism, see
The Conversion to Judaism Home Page.
The information provided by Professor Epstein at that site is written from
a Conservative perspective, but is valuable
to anyone considering conversion to any
movement of Judaism.
© Copyright 5756-5766 (1995-2006), Tracey