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The Toshav Tzedek: Identity, Weddings, and Co-Officiation: Halakhic Structural Connectives

Reeve Robert Brenner


In a lecture delivered in 1970 in Jerusalem to a convention of American Reform rabbis—and talking about his brother’s daughter, who wished to be counted as Jewish notwithstanding that her mother was not halakhically Jewish—Gershom Scholem taught that Judaism is a

living and undefined organism. It is a phenomenon which changes and is transformed in the course of its history… Jewish identity is not a fixed and static but a dynamic and even dialectical thing.[1]

So too, I suggest, as to non-Jewish identity, in relation to Judaism.

Consistent with Scholem’s observation, in recent years, both in the United States and elsewhere, we have seen the emergence of a new category of non-Jewish identity: persons who wish to participate in Jewish life but who, out of loyalty to their own birth family, do not wish to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism. Some famous examples of persons residing in Jewish homes and raising their children as Jewish include baseball player Rod Carew and actress and political candidate Cynthia Nixon.

I previously, in a few informal blog posts, proposed that it would be helpful, as a first step towards analyzing this phenomenon, to give it a name. In English, I have suggested that these persons are looking, not for conversion, but for convergence. And in Hebrew, I have suggested that we apply to persons in this category the designation toshav tzedek (male) or toshevet tzedek (female).

In a recent article titled “Interfaith Families,” Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz endorsed my proposal as indeed helpful.[2] Particularly in light of this encouragement and endorsement, I would like here to provide some background for my proposal and to illustrate how identification of this category might be useful in considering the question of officiating at a wedding between a toshav tzedek and a ‘halakhic’ Jew (whether in accordance with ‘traditional’ or Reform Movement halakhah).

Ger Tzedek, Ger Toshav, and Toshav Tzedek

The concept of conversion to Judaism is a post-biblical concept, emerging perhaps during the Hasmonean period (around 150 B.C.E.).[3] Accordingly, when the Torah uses the term ‘ger,’ it is referring to a “stranger,” just as the Israelites were strangers in Egypt. In the Rabbinic period, the term ‘ger’ was often used to refer to a person who formally converted in accordance with the prevailing halakhic standards. For purposes of clarity, such a convert was also referred to as a ‘ger tzedek,’ a “righteous convert.”[4] Thus, in the daily Amidah, in the 13th blessing, we thank God for sustaining the righteous, including the Elders of the House of Israel, and the ‘gerei ha-tzedek’ (the definite plural form of ‘ger tzedek’).[5]

The Rabbis also identified another category, ‘ger toshav.’[6] In doing so, they drew upon the references, at a number of points in the Torah, to a category of persons often translated today as ‘resident alien.’ See, e.g., Gen. 23:4 (á la the New Jewish Publication Society translation—henceforth NJPS), when Abraham, in seeking to purchase a burial plot for his deceased wife Sarah, identifies himself as a ger vetoshav amongst the local Hittites. See also Lev. 25:35 and 25:47 (NJPS), discussing the obligation of an Israelite to redeem a kinsman who has become forced, due to poverty, to indenture himself to a resident alien. (The ve prefix in the phrase ger vetoshav introduces the semantic form known as a hendiadys. Like the ‘and’ in the phrase ‘I am good and angry,’ the prefixal conjunctive ve [“and”] comes here to combine two concepts to create a new concept.)

Rabbinic literature was fascinated with the concept of the ‘ger toshav’ and connected it with a second Rabbinic concept—viz., the so-called ‘Seven Commandments incumbent upon all descendants of the sons of Noah’—that is, upon everyone. A ‘ger toshav’ thus became identified with a non-Jew who fulfilled the Seven Noahide Commandments (and did so by virtue of, among other forms of obedience, a belief in God).[7]

A number of thinkers have proposed re-visiting, and revising, this category of ‘ger toshav,’ to try to expand it to address our modern context.[8] However, I suggest that, as the Rabbis expanded their conception of the Noahide commandments, this category conversely became relatively narrow and inflexible and, hence, is not useful for our purposes.

Accordingly, I have proposed a new designation: ‘toshav tzedek,’ or ‘toshevet tzedek,’ to refer to persons who wish to live a Jewish life in convergence with the other members of a Jewish family, but do not wish to formally convert. More specifically, in the Reform context, such a person expects to be the parent of a child who will in due course identify and qualify as Jewish in accordance with the principles of ‘patrilineal descent’—or, as I prefer to call it, ‘equalineality.’[9]

The concept of toshav tzedek thus comes about as the synthetic (as in synthesis or put-together) offspring of the highly original Reform Movement evolving halakhah that we have been referring to, in a kind of shorthand, as “presumptiveness”[10]—the assumed Jewish identity of children of a Jewish and non-Jewish parent.

A toshav tzedek is one who takes up residence in—and now abides permanently instantiated and incorporated (physically as well as spiritually) within—the people, by virtue of “ascending lineality,” or “retrojected identity,” from child to parent, brought about by that ‘presumptiveness.’ Just as the halakhah of chazakah (“presumptiveness”) does, the halakha of the toshav tzedek recognizes the sociological reality that raising a Jewish child in an affirmatively Jewish home, for all intents and purposes, makes for a Jewish parent. More precisely, a converged non-Jew’s identity is that of a spouse or parent of Jews, partnering in raising Jewish children in a committed Jewish home, who self-identifies as a toshav/toshevet tzedek.

As such, the toshav tzedek might care to, and might be encouraged to, participate in Jewish rites, and, if she or he elects to do so, might invoke the words “us” and “we” when employed in our liturgy. Indeed, such a declaration would serve further the solemn and sincere intent of having converged by committing to upholding and affirming a Jewish way of life. Such an affirmation would translate into being activelysupportive of the Jewish identity of the family. His or her self-identification would be that of a parent of Jewish children, a toshav or toshevet tzedek, a ‘righteous resident;’ and “a resident” is a person, one dictionary offers, “A resident is one having residence… present or existing, not migratory; a person who lives in a place, not just a visitor.”[11]

Officiating At the Wedding Of a Toshav Tzedek

In many cases, the first time that such persons encounter a rabbi is in connection with their marriages to a halakhic Jew. How should we respond?

Can a Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal Rabbi co-officiate with a non-Jewish clergy colleague at a wedding, any wedding? According to traditional halakhah, and according to Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish law as well, can a wedding be co-officiated? The answer is beyond dispute. There is no such thing as co-officiation. Priests and Christian ministers, withwhom I have discussed the matter in considerable detail, concur from their own traditions. The question does not occur in any known documented halakhic presentation—apart from arguably in Reform responsa, and the idea is, at best, minimally referenced there as well. That is because there is no reality to co-officiation, regardless of (i) how the wedding might be characterized, or (ii) who else besides the mesadder (the person giving ‘order’ to the ceremony) participates in the ceremony.

Having said this, however—and to see what room there might nevertheless be for Jewish clergy in connection with the marriage of a toshav tzedek—I suggest that it is necessary to ask both what a wedding is and what is it not. In the Catholic tradition, a wedding is a ‘sacrament;’ it is a formal ceremony permitting an action—cohabitation between a man and woman—that would otherwise be forbidden, and indeed that is forbidden to a priest. By contrast, marriage for Jews “is not a Jewish sacrament. It is not sacred.”[12] The only ceremony in Judaism that resembles such a ‘sacrament’ is the berit milah (“covenant of circumcision”), the initiation into the covenant.

As for the idea of a ‘wedding’—that is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘sealing a contract.’ Here, there is an analog in Judaism, for the ketubah (the wedding “document”) is a contract. It is not primarily a religious document despite the layers of ritual heaped upon it; a ketubah evidences a change in status of a couple legally in the eyes of society.

A Jewish wedding, by contrast, consists of two steps: (a) the kiddushin, when the woman is declared precluded from relations with any other person (and indeed with the prospective spouse, until the marriage), and (b) the marriage, as effected by something of value being given to the wife by the husband, and evidenced by the ketubah. As noted by the Conservative Rabbi Isaac Klein (in the 20th century U.S.A.) in his Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, “since marriage is not an affair of the state in Jewish law, but a private transaction between the bride and groom, the requirement of an officiant is not obligatory”[13]—but, in the U.S.A., some recognized figure is required to officiate.

As a matter of history, rabbis became involved in weddings because rabbis, schooled in the law, were presumptively the most knowledgeable and qualified persons to be called upon to arrange such things legally among Jews. They could read, understand and explain the conditions of the contract. However, as a technical matter, according to Jewish law, anyone learned and capable could officiate a wedding. Whoever presides over the exchange of rings (or any other consideration of value) is the officiant. That is, any Jew can act as the arranger, the mesadder, of the couple’s separation from others, which is the ur-meaning of kiddushin, rendering the couple ineligible to other unions. And the persons who establish the validity of the marriage are the (two) witnesses who sign the ketubah.

Note that whoever presides over that specific wedding element, i.e., with either the husband and wife presenting rings to each other, or the husband alone giving something of value to the wife (depending upon their particular practice), validating the contractual arrangement is the officiant. It can’t be done by more than one person. Even if there is more than one person under the huppah, only one is considered the officiant. There can be no co-officiant, although there may be additional witnesses.

In Contemporary American Reform Responsa, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the question of the non-Jewish clergy participating in a Jewish wedding with a rabbi was addressed with great skill and scholarship. Chairman Walter Jacob concludes the responsum in question by saying that

it would be improper for a Christian minister to co-officiate with the Rabbi in equal terms. The central portion [italics added] of the wedding ceremony must be performed by the Rabbi; the minister may, however, participate . . . in such a fashion as to preclude any inference that he or she is performing or validating a Jewish rite.”[14]

Walter Jacob further observes:

in the case of a wedding… (T)he officiating individual (Mesader Kiddushin) must be Jewish. Nothing would prevent a non-Jewish clergymen or friend from participating . . . as a social, nonreligious gesture. He might add a prayer (without Trinitarian references), give a homily, or be included in the wedding party. This would be considered appropriate and within the bounds of Jewish tradition.[15]

If appropriately arranged, Rabbi Jacob informs, “no one would have the impression that the Gentile participated in the actual ritual.”[16]

In accordance with the meaning of “separated out,” kiddushin is basically social and economic at its core. The transmission of the consideration along with the words attached as expressed by the couple to one another in the presence of witnesses establishes the couple as having wed. The non-Jewish partner, and parent-to-be of a presumptive Jewish child that we are identifying as a toshav or toshevet tzedek, a “righteous resident,” would have, I propose, the option of invoking the words “traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel” to signify openly by declaration the “converged” non-Jewish partner’s intention of taking on the role of a presumptive parent of Jewish children.

Keiruv (“Outreach”) vs. Shimmur (“Preservation”)

Approaches to intermarriage today tend to fall within two broad categories. Some stress the imperative of shimmur, in which the rabbi’s role is primarily understood as “guardian,” i.e., “preserver of Judaism,” or “keeper of the faith/tradition.” A rabbi committed to this view will likely not act as interfaith wedding organizer. Preservers seek to strengthen and conserve the essence and integrity of the heritage, as they understand that heritage, over which they stand sentinel.

By contrast, some rabbis stress the imperative of keiruv, of “outreach.” Such a rabbi would more likely take upon himself or herself to act as the wedding organizer and officiant for an interfaith couple. Kiruv advocates are incorporators, enfolders, who seek to draw others near and to include, integrate and socialize.

 Given that Reform has committed itself to favoring kiruv, over shimmur (but without neglecting shimmur,)one would expect that there would be some discussion in the Reform responsa concerning the marriage of a converged non-Jewish parent, but none has been published.[17]

If, however, we accept that a parent of presumptively Jewish children, a toshav/toshevet tzedek, is prepared to and desires to say “anu” (and, thereby, to mean “us” and “we”), and to wed as “consecrated according to the traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel,” one might expect that the Reform Movement keiruv-oriented rabbis would embrace that individual and happily officiate at the marriage ceremony as an expression of welcome and would offer friendship, guidance, and support (and many sessions of counseling.)

According to Jewish law, although there are blessings recited and ceremonial rituals performed, the Jewish wedding is nevertheless fundamentally a secular matter, despite attempts in all rabbinic movements to enhance and to augment the religious elements of the ceremony. Reference to the sacred aspect of what are commonly referred to as the “sacred bonds of marriage” may be added appropriately, but not as importantly. The contract, the financials, the caregiving responsibilities, living arrangements and prenuptial agreements register as the important practical priorities for the protection of all parties, as rabbis writing responsa have shown in reasoned detail over the recent decades. However, should the non-Jewish partner wish to commit to convergence in the presence of the company of family and guests—that is, to take on the status of a toshav tzedek at the transformative life passage that is the wedding ceremony—the keiruv-oriented officiating rabbi would happily support that decision, and the toshav tzedek might be offered the opportunity to invoke the classic words “with this ring be thou consecrated unto me as my wife/husband according to the traditions of Moses and heritage of Israel.”


Perhaps as an inadvertent byproduct of the ‘equalineality’ decision by the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements, a new category of non-Jew, relative to Jewish identity, has come into existence—unobtrusively, without fanfare and rather subtly.

My proposal is that once we have identified persons in this category as a toshav/toshevet tzedek, we can better deploy that concept, to help identify the obligations and responsibilities that come with this status.A yeshivah-educated Brooklyn native ordained at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (at the New York campus) in 1964, Reeve Robert Brenner has served as Chaplain in the U.S. military and as Senior Staff Chaplain at the National Institutes of Health; as a professor of Jewish Studies at St. Vincent College and Seminary; in the Israeli Army reserves; and as a congregational rabbi. The father of three Israeli children and the grandfather of eight grandchildren, Brenner is the inventor of wheelchair-accessible Bankshot basketball. His American Jewry & The Rise of Nazism was recognized with the YIVO award of 1968. His other books include While the Skies Were Falling: The Exodus and the Cosmos(Cleveland, OH: Divrei Piv, 2013), The Faith & Doubt of Holocaust Survivors (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2014); and Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewish: Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium (Cleveland, OH: Divrei Piv, 2007). His columns on sports and recreation, “Reeve’s Peeves and Obsessions,” are published in Play and Playground Magazine.

[1]    See Gershom Scholem, “Who Is a Jew,” in Scholem, On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), at pp. 93 and 98–99 (emphasis added). This talk is described in David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah (New Haven: Yale University Press [Jewish Lives Series]; 2018), at pp. 194–195. I had the privilege to study with Prof. Scholem at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 1960–1961.

[2]    Rachel Gurevitz, “Interfaith Families,” in Dana Evan Kaplan (ed.), A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, (New York, NY: CCAR Press, 2018), at pp. 439–450.

[3]    See generally, e.g., Shaye J.D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Judaism: Boundaries, Variations, Uncertainties (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[4]    See, e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57b and Yevamot 48b.

[5]    I will not further address herein the debates within the Rabbinic literature as to whether conversion should be encouraged and/or whether converts tend to be beneficial or harmful to the Jewish people—a debate plainly affected by the social-political environments of particular times and places. Moshe Zemer, Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1999), pp. 142–143, summarizes the debate as follows: early on, Jewish law in general objected to a conversion for marriage, based upon a concern for the “insincerity” of the prospective convert and so determined that a conversion must not be conducted if there is “a suspicion that the purpose of [the conversion] is to marry a Jew.” A conversion which requires the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments [kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot]must be out of “pure conviction of the truth of Judaism, and not for any ulterior purpose, such as marriage to a Jew.” In the case of many converts, however, it is acknowledged and obvious that the “purpose is marriage to a Jew.” A Mishnaic law states that if a man is suspected of living with a gentile woman, he may never marry her if she ever converted “because such a marriage would confirm the suspicion” that she converted with an improper motive. It is recognized today, however, that many, if not most, interfaith conversions prior to marriages are not out of conviction (of the truth of ‘Torah Judaism’)—although a considerable number of converts do grow in measurable development into that sort of conviction, as most practicing rabbis will relate. Accordingly, Rabbi Solomon Freehof writes that “these objections (of insincerity) have been losing ground in recent decisions.” For example, the Orthodox Rabbi Jehiel Weinberg (in 19th–20th century Europe) arrived at the determination to permit a “conversion [for the sake of] a Jewish marriage.” See ibid..

[6]    See, e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 64b.

[7]    See generally, e.g., David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: The Idea of Noahide Law (Oxford, UK: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, second ed., 2011). ‘

[8]    See, e.g., Shaul Magid, “Should Rabbis Proselytize Non-Jewish Spouses? A Response to JTSA Chancellor Eisen,” in Zeek, (August 20, 2014), citing an unpublished proposal by the late Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi. See also Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1934) (paperback reprint, New York, NY: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1981) at pp. 418–419; and Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York, NY: UAHC Press, 2001) at p. 208.

[9]    Sometimes spelled ‘equilineality’ in the literature. On “non-lineal descent,” see Zev Eleff, “Patrilineal Descent & the Shaping of Intermarriage Discourse in American Judaism,” in Zeramim III:1 (Fall 2018), pp. 27–38, esp. pp. 34–35.

[10]   For a review of the Reform Movement’s 1983 Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, and the idea that “the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent,” see Washofsky, Jewish Living, supra at p. 137.

[11]   Webster’s New World Dictionary (New York: Prentice Hall, 1983), p. 817.

[12]   George Foot Moore, Judaism: In the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1958), p. 1.

[13]   Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (New York, NY: Jewish Theological Seminary of America; 1979), at p. 397. Compare Washofsky, Jewish Living, supra, at p. 160, explaining that

[t]he rabbi does not ‘marry’ the couple, even if the law of the state grants that power to the rabbis. The couple marry each other, and they can do so only according to the religious traditions of Moses and Israel,’ that is, as Jews.

[14]   Walter Jacob, Contemporary American Reform Responsa (NY: CCAR, 1987), pp. 475–476.

[15]   Id., p. 476.

[16]   Ibid..

[17]   See, however, noting the continued debate, Washofsky, Jewish Life, supra, at pp. 159–161.