Project of IISHJ

Conversion in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer 1980, (vol. 8 no. 1, p12-15)

‘I want to become a Jew.’

‘I want to convert to Judaism.’

How should Humanistic Judaism deal with these requests?

More conventional branches of Judaism – the Orthodox, the Conservatives and the Reformers – have developed procedures of formal admission to the Jewish people. The English word ‘conversion’ is now generally used to describe this acceptance.

The Orthodox and Conservative converters tend to downplay affirmations of belief and to ‘upplay’ non-verbal initiation behaviors like circumcision or ritual dunking. They also tend to discourage conversion and to emphasize the hardships of Jewish identity.

Reformers, on the other hand, place great emphasis on verbal behavior, especially declarations of theological belief in

the presence of witnesses. They also encourage conversion. In fact, their national leader, Alexander Schindler, frightened by the declining Jewish birthrate, has proposed that Reform Jews actively missionize the American Gentile population.

Humanistic Jews and Humanistic rabbis have, so far, articulated no clear stand of their own. The openness of our congregations to anyone who wishes to join, and the general willingness to allow anybody to be Jewish who thinks that he is Jewish has provided an informal operating procedure. However, some humanistic choosers of Jewish identity want community recognition of their new status They want some form of initiation ritual. But in a movement that has long since given up ceremonial circumcision, ritual dunking and public declarations of theological conviction, what does one do?

Before we can answer this question, there are certain facts, certain social realities, we have to acknowledge.

Most potential converts to Judaism do not seek Jewish identity because they have suddenly seen the ‘light.’ In the end, most theologies are busy work for clergymen and are of no interest to lay people. The petitioners arrive because they are involved in intermarriage and want to remove a barrier to family acceptance and to the labeling of future children. Most conversions throughout history have had very little to do with internal belief. They arise out of the necessity of changing membership from one group to another, either because of marriage or because of government decree.

Among the potential converts who are not involved in an intermarriage, most of them are attracted to Jews and to Jewish culture, and not to a list of official theological statements. They like Jewish people and want to be associated with them. Oddly enough, it is the intellectual power and secular achievements of the modern Jew that make Jewish identity attractive to many people.

Jewish identity is an ethnic identity. The Jewish people antedates any system of theological belief. Even Orthodoxy recognizes that Jews are normally Jews because they are born of Jewish mothers. Even Gentiles (meaning other nations) usually identify people as Jews by checking their parents or their last names. In neither case does anyone assume that theological belief or ritual practice is essential to Jewishness. Like the authors of the Bible who identified the Hebrews as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, most of the people of the world, including traditional authorities, view Jewish identity as an ethnic reality.

Christian identity is similar to but also different from Jewish identity. It is similar because most people derive their Christian label through birth and not through choice. The overwhelming majority of Christians are attached to their religion through ancestral loyalty and have very little awareness of theological distinctions. Traditional ritual, the ways of the fathers, defines the behavior of membership. Christianity is different from Judaism because it is an imperial religion and not a national religion. As the patriotic religion of the Roman Empire, it became a way of binding many nations together into a larger political structure. An imperial trans-national religion is more than ethnic but less than universal. Christianity is the ancestral attachment of those who identify with European culture and its historic memories. To become a Christian is to go beyond national patriotism to imperial patriotism. Although history has divided the church along ethnic lines – Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox for examples – the division still plays on a single broader cultural theme.

Religion and patriotism, whether national or imperial, go hand in hand. Religions do not begin with people who want to promote theological ideas. They begin with tribes, nations and empires who use religion as the ritual of patriotic celebration. Mystical groups who lack historic roots and ancestral approval are only cults. When they receive political recognition and are identified with the welfare of the political order, they become religions. Only in modern times, when the reactionary clergy were overthrown by the science oriented bourgeoisie, did the secular notion of the separation of church and state, of the distinction between religious and national identities, ever arise. Judaism and Christianity represent old political and cultural loyalties that antedate the founding of the United States of America and of most modern states.

The word conversion is inappropriate to becoming a Jew, because it implies a change in belief. Since we cannot choose to change our beliefs (in the same way that we choose to change our behavior) the cause of the transformation has to be some external compelling force such as ‘divine grace.’ Conversion is a word that fits the reality of cults, not the reality of religions. Naturalization, affiliation or adoption are more accurate terms. Changing religions has more to do with changing family relations and cultural aspirations than with experiencing fundamental alterations of belief. Normal, stable people do not experience such quick massive breaks with their past views of life. If they move from religion to religion, they do so for reasons other than theological.

All national and religious communities have initiation ceremonies. The purpose of the ritual is clear. It allows the adoptee to receive what the native-born has already received in his childhood ceremony of naming, circumcision or baptism, the personal recognition of his membership by the members of his new community. Joining a group without the consent of the group is an act of insanity. If nobody wants you, unilateral decisions are silly. Religious adoption is a group affair. One cannot have the adopted unless there are adopters. Even where there exists no formal ceremony, the group informally offers its acceptance by allowing the person to participate in the work of the group.

Since the Jewish community is presently divided and has no central authority to determine ‘naturalization’, the decision making has to be congregational. Since taxing and conscription are no longer Jewish community issues outside of Israel, this decentralization is harmless. If orthodox Jews do not wish to recognize Reform and Humanistic ‘joiners’ as Jews, the rejected ‘can care less.’ They are not excommunicates. They have their own congregations who accept them and give them a sense of belonging. Only in Israel is this arrangement insufficient.

Since Jewish identity involves political responsibilities and political privileges, the state must provide some uniform test. Turning the power to naturalize over to orthodox rabbis deprives the state of many potential good citizens who will not subject themselves to the humiliation of orthodox testing.

If religion is derived from ethnic and cultural loyalties, and not from dogmatic convictions, then one can enjoy more than one religious identity. One can be a Jew, an American and a Humanist simultaneously. If one is the child of a Jewish and Scottish intermarriage, one can be both Jewish and Scottish. There is no reason for either – or. Each of us is capable of participating in more than one cultural tradition. The limits are defined by the amount of time each person wants to devote to group celebration and by the numbers of religious groups who are willing to treat religion as a matter of culture and not as a matter of belief. For most of us, one or two ethnic attachments are all we have time for, if we are not going to be shallow dilettantes.

Because Jewish identity is ethnic, national and cultural, active solicitation of non-Jews is inappropriate. We already share a human identity with all of them and a growing universal secular world culture. Becoming Jewish is not urgent in the way that becoming a Christian is urgent to fundamentalists. They see religion in cultic terms. Liberal Christians who view their religion as a cultural inheritance are far less pushy. Since we Jews are a bright and interesting group, we should be open to anyone who wants; to join us. Either marriage or cultural admiration are legitimate reasons. Our presence should be well-known and well-publicized. Cultural missionaries – yes! But cultic missionaries – never!

Paying attention to the realities which have just been noted, we, as Humanist Jews should provide the following opportunities to potential ‘converts’

  1. We should openly announce that we welcome non-Jews to join Our community.
  1. We should provide opportunities for those who are interested in joining us to receive information about Jewish history, Jewish celebration and humanistic philosophy. At the Birmingham Temple, we use the weekly class on Humanistic Judaism for this purpose. The class follows an annual cycle and allows both ‘natives’ and ‘joiners’ to share study and discussion.
  1. We should allow congregational membership to constitute ‘adoption’ or ‘conversion’. Since we do not require the uninformed native-born to take a course in Humanistic Judaism before he joins, we should not impose this requirement on those who come from the outside. Philosophic and cultural education should be recommended to all members.
  1. We should provide an initiation ceremony, a joining ritual, for those who want it. Some non-Jewish members will be satisfied with just being Humanists. Others, will choose to call themselves Jews, but will find a formal ceremony either unnecessary or too contrived. But many will want some public recognition of their new status.
  1. We should use the confirmation ceremony as the model for the ‘adoption’ ritual. Just as the native-born confirm their membership in the community in late adolescence or in adulthood, so can newcomers do the same. The ceremony does not ‘magically’ turn the non-Jew into a Jew. It simply allows the community to celebrate a decision already made. The ceremony can be either group or individual, active or passive, depending on the desire of the joiner.
  1. We should provide a certificate of adoption to those who want it. The certificate should be modeled after both the confirmation and naming documents. It should allow the ‘convert’ to choose a Hebrew name (if he desires it) as a sign of his new ethnic attachment.
  1. We should develop procedures for ‘conversion’ which can serve as guides to congregations and interested individuals. The Society for Humanistic Judaism should begin this task immediately.

In a heterogeneous culture like America, where intermarriage increases unavoidably and where individual mobility exposes each of us to greater and greater numbers of options, the old procedures for joining the Jewish people are obsolete. Checking on Jewish mothers, arranging for ceremonies of eternal commitment, insisting on dogmatic conformity are both unrealistic and insulting. No ethnic group can be a fortress anymore, with forbidding walls to scale. It has to be an open house, with easy entry – and with an eagerness to share its family treasures.

Related Categories

Related Tags

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.