My very good friend is Jewish, I am a Christian. We have been very close friends for most of our lives, and I have attended countless Sabbath dinners at her house. This past Friday, one of her friends who was also at the dinner expressed displeasure at my being there. They stated that it was wrong to observe the Sabbath in the presence of a Christian. I was wondering if that was correct. I have always enjoyed going to these dinners and would like to continue to be invited, but I don't want to put my friend in a situation where they are in conflict with their beliefs. Should I bow out at the next invitation?
Thank you for sharing your painful question. From my perspective, it is wonderful for you to attend these dinners, and I do not believe that you should bow out at the next invitation. Allow me to explain:
There is no prohibition in Jewish law against inviting someone who is not Jewish to a Shabbat dinner, and people who are not Jewish are certainly welcome to be present at a Shabbat dinner celebration.
While it is impossible to know why that friend objected, it may be related to some historical realities. Interfaith relations in contemporary America have generally been outstanding, but there are those who still associate Christianity with events in previous generations, such as anti-Semitic persecution and attempts to proselytize non-Christians. Therefore, some Jews might be uncomfortable in accepting Christians into the inner confines of Jewish life, which could make them feel vulnerable and religiously compromised. You should thus not take this friend’s objections personally, but try to understand the historic and cultural context out of which his or her objection may have arisen.
Your attendance at these meals is thus not only acceptable, but also can serve to enhance both of your religious lives. It can improve your friend’s religiosity by forcing her to have to think about how to explain rituals to you and to personally observe Shabbat in a way that is inspiring to everyone present. It can also enhance your own life by sharing with you the beauty of an authentic Jewish Sabbath observance.
I thus feel that while in-depth theological discussions and religious comparing and contrasting might not be beneficial to your friendship, your attendance at these enjoyable meals should be warmly welcomed. I hope you will enjoy many more Shabbat dinners together and that together you can find a peaceful way of navigating around her other friend’s objections.
In considering your question, my thoughts immediately turned to Abraham, whom Jews consider to be the patriarch of our people (incidentally, Christians and Muslims also consider Abraham to be the forefather of their faiths as well).
One of the biblical stories that most illuminates Abraham’s character is found in Genesis chapter 18. Three strangers appear near Abraham’s tent. Abraham hastens to greet them, invite them inside, bathe and clothe them, prepare a meal for them, and share a conversation with them. The lesson is that Jews, the Children of Abraham, are expected to engage in the mitzvah (sacred obligation) of hakhnasat or’him (welcoming guests). What’s more, Jews are expected to welcome guests – even if those guests are complete strangers – in the same manner Abraham does.
If that weren’t enough, our ancient sages believed that Abraham, the first Jew, regularly engaged with non-Jews. He invited them into his home and shared meals with them. He showed them the beauty, warmth, kindness, and joy of his newfound religion. As a result, many of those people followed Abraham and became Jews themselves.
From the very beginning, it has been a central Jewish value to welcome guests, even proverbial strangers who are not part of our people. Doing so offers an opportunity to publicize how the beauty of Judaism. This is good for all Jews. It is a great Kiddush Hashem, a public sanctification of God’s name, ensuring that our God, and therefore our religion, retains a good reputation. It can provide an invitation (where it is welcome) to convert to Judaism, and Jews by Choice bring so much energy and vibrancy to the Jewish community. It helps educate the non-Jewish world about Jews and Judaism, which diminishes the ignorance that fuels anti-Semitism. More importantly, welcoming guests expresses that we view each person who enters our homes as an image of God.
It is, of course, true that there have been Jewish voices that argue we should remain insular and separate, that welcoming in guests and sharing in our traditions should apply only to fellow Jews. In various times and places in Jewish history, this was a life-saving posture: In medieval Europe, for example, when virulent and violent anti-Semitism was the norm, it was simply unsafe to invite a Christian to one’s Sabbath table. In other contexts, we feared that socializing with non-Jews at all, much less inviting them to participate in Jewish rituals, was the first step toward assimilation and abandoning one’s Judaism.
But in our context, when interaction and good relations among various religious and ethnicities is the norm, these arguments no longer hold water. Sharing our traditions with non-Jews poses no threat to Jewish body or soul. Quite the contrary. Jews today should feel empowered to follow the precedent of our father Abraham. I hope your friend continues to invite you for Shabbat, that you continue to attend, and that you now have tools for refuting those Jews who are sadly still stuck in an outdated, exclusionist mindset.
I am sorry to hear about this reaction. You are correct to want to avoid putting your friend in an awkward situation. Yet, there is absolutely nothing wroing in observing the Sabbath in the presence of someone who is not Jewish. In fact, hospitality (hachnasat orchim) is a core Jewish value.
To welcome the Sabbath with those of different faiths and expose them to the beauties of Jewish observance is a mitzvah. In fact, the way we behave around our dining room table says a great deal about our ethics and values. Are we open-minded or close-off? Do we welcome those in need or turn them away? If you feel comfortable, I would share this dilemma with your friend who hosts the Sabbath meals and tell him/her how grateful you are and how welcome you feel. If he/she wonders whether it is okay to observe Shabbat with those who are not Jewish, feel free to refer him/her to this response.
All the best, and feel free to ask for any more clarification. Evan Moffic
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