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What is the religious standing of a Gentile attending a Jewish service? In other words, why is it allowed? And is it encouraged or discouraged?

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(I'm speaking from an Orthodox perspective here. The Reform movement pushes for maximum participation from, let's say, non-Jewish spouses of Jewish congregants, so they may have different views or norms on this.)

First off, contact the synagogue in advance -- they have security concerns.

Synagogues are used to having non-Jews show up in about three circumstances:

a.) Those thinking about, or planning to, convert to Judaism.

b.) Attending a Jewish colleague's lifecycle event (e.g. their kid's bar mitzvah).

c.) Curious about Judaism, with no interest in converting, e.g. they're taking a World Religions class. I once encountered a few Christian seminarians at synagogue who were supposed to see a Jewish worship as part of their studies.

A & B are quite common; the reaction to C will range from a shrug to a raised eyebrow.

A non-Jew who has no interest in converting to Judaism (say they want to be a Noahide) and keeps showing up week after week to synagogue would probably be told "hey, this really isn't the place for you."

(After centuries of Christian missionary efforts -- and they are still around -- you can forgive us for being a bit sensitive about who's in our pews on a regular basis.)

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, considered the greatest Orthodox authority on Jewish law in 20th Century America, was asked about a non-Jew who wants to show up just to see what it's like. (This is not in his formal responsa, but the notes from his personal secretary.) He replied that if we tell them NO YOU MAY NOT!!, it will only cause more intrigue (or enmity, or both). He suggested to tell them "there's really not that much to see", but if they really want to show up, eh, fine whatever.

(He's right, by the way. It's not that exciting. Check out a Hebrew/English prayer book such as the Artscroll [black or brown edition, essentially the same] or Koren translations; if you don't want to buy one, many libraries have them. Most of the service will be people reading quietly out of those, in Hebrew. Then find a Jewish translation of the Five Books of Moses; we read about a hundred verses of that per week in the Hebrew.)

Noahides -- non-Jews who follow Judaism's prescriptions for them -- can pray anywhere. The whole point of a synagogue is communal prayer, which requires ten Jews (so it's not really something Noahides need), and reading Jewish Scripture (again, not really something Noahides need). Noahides would certainly praise God for sustaining life, but not for sanctifying the Sabbath (as that's something they actually should not be keeping).

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    Our security committee says "no" to group C now because of safety concerns and missionaries who, once they get in, are hard to remove.
    – rosends
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 11:24
  • @rosends thanks! Exactly. There is no "religious status" per se about a non-Jew who happens to be there, only practical concerns.
    – Shalom
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 12:27
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    @rosends In case of religious studies students, the professor usually asks the permission of the local rabbi. The rest are really suspicious. Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 12:40
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    The problem apparently is that once they ask and are allowed in, they are not formally "tresspassing" so if they start preaching, no one is allowed to touch them until police are called.
    – rosends
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 13:09
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Jewish prayer is often modeled on precedents from the sacrificial system described in the Bible. One can see in Numbers 15:14 the idea of a non-Israelite bringing a burnt offering as a sacrifice:

And when, throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD - as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the LORD.

Today, we no longer offer sacrifices of meat or grain, but instead we offer up prayers from our hearts. In this endeavor, it is also appropriate to allow a Gentile of honest intentions to join us in praying to G-d.

As to whether it is encouraged or discouraged, this is more of a sociological question and the answer will vary according to the community you are in. Some synagogues go out of their way to welcome Gentiles and to facilitate their praying with a Jewish congregation. Other synagogues are indifferent to the matter and may allow a visitor, but will not particularly encourage them. At other places, a Gentile might feel actively discouraged from participating or even viewing.

This range of responses has to do more with history, intercommunity relations, and who makes up a particular community than it does with formal legal standards or theology. I can only recommend that if you want to observe or participate with a Jewish congregation at prayer, you try to find one who finds your presence at a minimum to be tolerable.

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  • Numbers is talking about a convert. It is true that non-Jews could offer sacrifices at the Temple, and Isaiah refers to the Temple as "a place of prayer for all nations." Still, I'm not aware of synagogues reaching out to non-Jews saying "come do your prayers here despite your lack of interest in converting!"
    – Shalom
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 9:12
  • @Shalom maybe that happens somewhere, but why limit it to invitation to pray?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 13:50
  • @Shalom no need to reach out. Just not barring the door or making people feel unwelcome. Maybe they want to convert, maybe they don't, maybe they don't know themselves yet. I've been in Orthodox places where this was an acceptable standard.
    – Mike
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 15:04

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