Why Beta Gershom (House of Gershom) ?
Gershom is a very appropriate 'patron' for descendants of Jewish intermarriage. Gershom is the son of no less than Moses himself and Zeporah the Midianite.
We know that there is no record whatsoever in Exodus (or anywhere in the Torah) to indicate that Zeporah ever "converted" to Judaism, either before or after the Law was given.
In fact we know that Moses' marriage was considered a marriage to a non-Israelite because his own sister Myriam critizes Moses for having married out of the Jewish tribe. For this criticism God punishes Myriam, inflicting her with leprosy for seven days.
Not only was Zeporah a non-Jew, but she even was the daughter of a Priest of Midian !! Her father, Jethro, is of a different religion and tribe than the Israelites. Yet, Jethro recognizes the God that Moses refers to, and in fact Jethro, even though being of a different tribe and religion, remains in good standing with Moses and even assists Moses in establishing the very first institutions to administer the Law given to the Israelites. Also, there is no record in Exodus that Zeporah stops being faithful to her father Jethro's tribe or religion.
How can this be? Is it not after all a great sin to intermarry pagans ? The answer is that even though Jethro and his clan were non-Israelites, they were not pagans. The tribe of Midian is actually a descendant of Abraham thru his wife Keturah. As Abrahamites, the Midianites would also have been partakers of the circumcision covenant that God made with Abraham. Furthermore, although not much is said in Exodus about the details of Jethro's religion (other than the fact that he is Priest of Midian), what is said is that Jethro does indeed recognize the same God as the God of the Israelites.
What we then have here is Moses marrying a non-Jewish woman who belongs to a different revelation and tradition, yet one that recognizes Israel's God. Therefore, Moses' marriage to her does not violate the injunctions against marrying pagans !!
It is not necessary to infer that Zeporah 'must have converted to Judaism', in order to avert Moses from violating the Law against marrying pagans. In fact God himself chastises Myriam when she dares question Moses' judgement in maintaining a marriage to a non-Jew. One of the passages sometimes quoted to claim that Zeporah must have been a convert to Judaism is the passage where she rushes to circumcise Gershom. Let us examine this:
- The logic here is as follows: If Gershom was Jewish (because God is demanding his circumcision) then his Mother must have been Jewish (assuming the interpretation of Rabbinical Judaism that Jewishness flows only thru the Mother). This is of course circular reasoning (i.e. Zeporah must have been Jewish, because Gershom is deemed Jewish by God).
- The position of Karaite Judaism is the opposite: that Gershom is Jewish because Moses was Jewish; and therefore Zeporah is simply doing her duty as a mother in assisting to perform what Moses' Law mandates for Gershom.
- What is often overlooked in both of the above interpretations is that Zeporah is also a descendant of Abraham, and hence Gershom would need circumcision thru both his mother's and his father's lineage. In other words, we can not infer anything about Zeporah's religion simply by virtue of Gershom being required by God to be circumcised.
So, we have in Gershom a wonderful paradigm of someone who has, both, Jewish ancestry and non-Jewish ancestry. And his credentials as a descendant of "kosher" intermarriage are absolutely impecable : he is son to none other than Moses and to the daughter of the Priest of Midian. And we know that God does not shun Moses' marriage to Zeporah, in spite of Myriam's criticism. Rather, God ratifies the validity of their marriage by chastising Myriam for her comments.
For these reasons we feel that Gershom, whose name means "I was a foreigner" (for Moses was a foreigner in Midian), is an ideal paradigm for Descendants of Jewish Intermarriage. We use the term Beta Gershom (House of Gershom), or simply "Gershom", as a appropriate alternative to the term "Half-Jewish", which tends to create the erroneous impression that a person can be only partially committed to the Sinai covenant. Also note that we have not chosen the term "Bnai Gershom" (Children of Gershom), because that would imply that we are descendants of Gershom (which most people are not) and also has the connotation of patrilineality (Gershom being a patrilineal Jew), while only a portion of Descendants of Intermarriage are patrilineal.
As a Beta Gershom community, and certainly in this website, we will always honor the the self-identification of a Descendant of Jewish-intermarriage, whether that person self-identifies as a Jew, or as a non-Jew. To our interpretation, the Pentateuch does not issue a statement one way or the other regarding the status of a descendant of Jewish intermarriage (see our page "Who is born a Jew"). Especially since there are conflicting denominational interpretations (Rabbinical Orthodox and Conservative being for matrilineal descent, Karaite being for patrilineal, and Reform and Reconstructionist being for either matrilineal or patrilineal plus self-assertion of Jewishness) it is incumbent on us to provide a structure or House (Beta Gershom) where all Descendants of Intermarriage can receive Torah-compliant support, and form community, whether they self-identify as Jews or non-Jews.