Question: Does Humanistic Judaism provide for conversion? If Judaism is viewed primarily as a culture, what does conversion mean?
Responsum: Conversion is a Christian term. It refers to the dramatic transformation of the individual who “sees the light” and is saved. This transforming or “born again” experience is not only the result of personal choice but also of divine grace and intervention. In the broader sense conversion refers to any act of becoming a Christian, whether that transforming experience occurs or not. In both cases there is a theistic component. If the conversion is sincere, the convert comes to believe certain things about God that he or she did not believe before. The sign of conversion is baptism.
Becoming a Jew has been an entirely different experience. First of all, we Jews started out as a nation, not a theological fraternity. Joining a nation is different from joining a religious denomination.
In biblical times, Jewish identity was not tied to the affirmation of any theological principles. Until the imposition of priestly tyranny around 450 B.C., there was no enforced religious conformity. Both monotheism and polytheism were Jewish. In the absence of formal naturalization, becoming a Jew meant that you were adopted into a Jewish family or married to a Jewish man (since women were the possessions of their husbands).
In the priestly period (450-165 B.C.), great emphasis was placed on racial purity. Non-Jews were discouraged from joining the Jewish nation, by intermarriage or otherwise. Male circumcision became a sign of Jewish identity. If a non-Jewish man wanted to become a Jew and was not circumcised, he had to undergo this painful surgery.
The Book of Ruth, which was written during the priestly period but set in an earlier time, was most likely a protest against the racial policies of the priests. Ruth, a Moabite, became a Jew by marrying a Jew. When her husband died, she had to choose between returning to her family and staying with her husband’s family. By choosing to follow her mother-in-law (an interesting development, to say the least), she remained a Jew.
In the rabbinic period (100 B.C.-500 C.E.), very clear procedures for becoming a Jew were defined. Jews had come to equate national identity with religious conformity, especially the conformity prescribed by the rabbis. Moreover, because rabbinic ideology was Salvationist and promised life after death (very much like Christianity, which ultimately imitated it), many people were choosing to become Jews for religious reasons and not for national or marriage reasons.
Rabbinic Judaism is what today is called Orthodoxy. Despite the large influx of non- Jews into the Jewish nation for religious reasons, the Orthodox procedure for becoming a Jew remained profoundly racial. An invidious distinction was made between born Jews and entering Jews. Jews born of a Jewish mother were Jewish forever. Even if they repudiated God and the rabbinic religion, they remained Jews. No religious criterion could alter their right to be called Jews. Their tribal and national origin was sufficient. Entering male Jews, on the other hand, confronted three tests. The first was the repudiation of their former religious practices and the adoption of the halakhic lifestyle. The second was circumcision. The third was ritual purification in a ritual pool (mikvah). Entering women were spared circumcision and now could join in their own right and not merely as attachments to their husbands.
During the Middle Ages, becoming a Jew was not an important issue because both Christian and Muslim governments forbade Jews to accept “converts.” But the emancipation period, with its open society and increasing intermarriage, made “conversion” an important issue in Jewish life.
Conservative Judaism maintained the Orthodox provisions. Reform Judaism, in its most radical expansion, abandoned all three rabbinic criteria and simply required an affirmation of faith (Christian style). But, in recent years, many Reform rabbis have returned to traditional procedures.
Humanistic Judaism welcomes everybody who wants to be Jewish. The process of becoming a Jew rests on premises quite different from traditional assumptions.
Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. And Jewish identity is a cultural identity.
Any person who wishes to identify with the culture, history and fate of the Jewish people is eligible for membership.
There are no ideological or theological requirements for membership. However, Humanistic Jews can, with integrity, welcome only other humanists.
There is no necessity for the potential “convert” to repudiate his or her beliefs or lifestyle. We are wary of people who “suddenly see the light” or who reject the commitments of a lifetime. Loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a cultural addition, not a personal transformation.
Entering the Jewish people is not a religious conversion. It is more like being adopted by a family. Perhaps adoption would be a good humanistic substitute for the word conversion.
Acceptance should be mutual. An individual cannot unilaterally decide to join the Jewish people. An existing Jewish community must extend the invitation.
Every Humanistic Jewish community is free to establish procedures for adoption. The procedures that now exist usually involve the following activities:
Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.
Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.
Celebration of welcome.
Receiving a Hebrew name as a sign of membership in the Jewish people.
Humanistic Judaism recognizes that the motivation to become Jewish is rarely ideological. People want to become Jews because they are married to Jews, because they are comfortable with Jewish culture, because they like their association with Jewish people. The adoption process ought to reflect these realities.