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Coverting to Judaism

Amidst all the other wonderful news today, a friend of ours completed her conversion to Judaism. Nomi accompanied her to the mikvah for the culmination of this phase of her religious and spiritual growth, for which she was very grateful.

That conversion, and the post Nosy Questions by another friend of mine who converted to Judaism, got me thinking. As Shimshonit notes in her post, many of us who are born Jewish have an odd reaction when meeting a convert, which is to ask them point-blank why they would choose to convert to our religion. I doubt this sort of thing happens in other religions. I can't see a Catholic person, for example, expressing surprise that a new acquaintance of theirs had chosen to follow a Catholic life. But those of us who are Jewish are often surprised that someone would choose to follow a Jewish life, and sad to say, to the dismay of many converts we often express our surprise out loud.

Shimshonit's post is more concerned with the etiquette of responding when someone asks such a personal question. I'm more interested in the flip side of the story, though, which is to wonder why a Jew would ask such a question in the first place. After thinking it through, I think I've come up with a few reasons.

Let's begin with the obvious one: anti-Semitism. Almost everywhere in the world, Judaism is a minority religion, and even for those Jews who choose not to practice it, being Jewish can be a daily struggle. For many of us, it doesn't seem logical for a person to choose to affiliate with a group that has been persecuted for many years and is still marginalized today. Furthermore, many anti-Semites will still bear their irrational hatred against some who was born Jewish, even if that person converted to some other religion. So if someone converted to Judaism and then changed their mind, they might still face anti-Semitism for the rest of their life. For those of us born Jewish, it seems an odd burden for anyone to choose.

Furthermore, anti-Semitism of the past caused Jewish communities to be skittish about a non-Jew's desire to convert in general. In many countries, laws were passed forbidding Jews from soliciting converts, which is one of the many reasons why we tend not to proselytize even today (except to other Jews). I suspect there's still a tribal unease that the non-Jew expressing interest in converting might be insincere, because of the history of non-Jewish spies catching Jews in elaborate stings and bringing them up on charges of trying to convert non-Jews. So this skittishness would naturally transmute into a wariness toward someone expressing interest in conversion.

The next obstacle we would see to conversion is the bizarre customs of Judaism. Now, personally, I don't consider them bizarre, as they are the customs I mostly grew up with, and for me they're natural. But I have little problem viewing my lifestyle from the outside, and realizing that a lot of what we do can seem a little odd. (I think it was Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long who said that one person's religion is another person's belly laugh.) Those of us who enjoy these observances, however, can usually discuss them in the greater context of how they enrich our lives. So why would we flip around and drop our jaws when meeting someone who chose to adopt these customs into their own life?

My guess is that it once again has to do with our minority status in the world. I know that when I try to explain my customs of keeping the sabbath or keeping kosher to non-Jewish friends, some of it can come off sounding, well, a little weird. And truth to tell, I've had close friends who weren't Jewish confide that they do think my customs are weird. So again, when much of the world tells you that your lifestyle is an odd one, you start to wonder why anyone would choose it if it hadn't been chosen for them from the beginning.

While I do think all of the above is relevant to the question, from a religious perspective there's an even more important reason why we wouldn't expect anyone to convert voluntarily to Judaism. According to our beliefs, you don't have to be Jewish to benefit from Judaism. Like most religions, Judaism has an afterlife concept, and although the emphasis in the religion is on the here and now, we do maintain a belief in some sort of world to come. But you don't have to be Jewish to earn a share in that world to come. A non-Jew who decides that Judaism has it "right," as it were, can choose to follow a set of seven principles called the Noachide laws, and as long as they follow those principles, they can know that they too will enjoy whatever afterlife awaits those of us who practice Judaism.

The concept that non-Jews can share in the world to come is even made explicit at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. There's a whole section devoted to righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Jewish belief is that these righteous Gentiles have the same standing as the high priests of Israel.

On the other hand, many other religions include a need to believe in their tenets and to practice their customs in order to benefit from the afterlife. For example, there is a Christian belief that one must be "saved" in order to go to heaven. (Before I continue, let me emphasize here that I understand that not all Christians share in this belief.) According to this belief, there are some Christians who would say that without accepting Jesus as one's savior, the good deeds performed by a non-Christian are simply not enough to get the non-Christian into heaven.

(My older brother actually learned this as a hard fact in college. In one of those late-night college bull sessions filled with blunt honesty, a Catholic acquaintance of his admitted to the belief that my older brother's soul was eventually destined for hell. This was in spite of the guy's belief that my older brother was essentially a good and decent human being. My older brother shrugged it off, since the guy clearly didn't let his belief stand in the way of being friends with non-Catholics; but I was somewhat taken aback when I heard the story.)

So that's the third and final piece from what I can see. The born Jews who ask converts why they would choose to convert to Judaism might well be looking at it from this perspective. From a cost-benefit analysis, it's a lot easier to follow seven precepts than 613 commandments, and in the end, the result is the same. So if you don't have to do it, why bother?

As it turns out, I also think I have an answer to that question.

Years ago, when I was a callow teenager too stupid to realize how rude I was being, I asked a recent convert to the Russian Orthodox church why she had chosen to convert. I was doing a paper for Social Studies on the Russian Orthodox church and had arranged to interview some of the members of a church near my high school. One of them, the secretary of the church, told me that she had just converted within the year, and without thinking I blurted out my question. She was very gracious, though, and without rancor she answered me.

I don't remember her exact words, but she said something like this: When you have finally found the perfect way to live your life, you want to start living your life like that as soon as possible.

So for those fellow born-Jews out there who would wonder why someone would convert to our religion, the answer is simple: believe it or not, it's because they want to be Jewish.

My own feelings are that the converts to my religion validate my own choice to remain Jewish and to practice my religion, and for that I thank them.


A slightly different perspective, from a born Jew who is completely secular but deeply nationalist:

I don't see conversion as being a matter of choosing a faith -- as you point out, they can experience the world through the eyes of believing the Jewish religion is accurate without converting -- or of choosing a way of life. Most aspects, even the odd little ritual ones, one could do without a formal conversion and nobody would mind, and indeed I know people who do. There are a few exceptions, but they're relatively rare.

I see conversion as the equivalent of taking naturalized citizenship in a nation to which you were not born. Part of that citizenship, like any other, involves a willingness to put your life at stake to stand with and defend your new people should they be endangered. Given the prevalence of antisemitism over the history over the world, it seems to me to be rather more likely that any given individual is going to be called on that point sometime within their lifetime than that they won't.

So what I mean, when I ask, "Why did you convert?" is, "You do realize that this means you're likely to die? And that we'll want you to do it the same as we would: fighting to protect some of the rest of us from dying? That if you repudiate your choice out of fear when the chips are down, you'll be leaving some innocent people in terrible trouble? Can we count on you? Why should we count on you? What reasons can you give for why you would want to do this, which make sense enough to make me believe you've thought this thing through and will stay and do your duty and not regret it when your duty involves carrying our sleeping children past armed guards?"
I have considered conversion to Judaism off and on for the last 25 years. I think the person you interviewed had it right: when one finds the perfect way, one wishes to start living that way.

I'm not saying that Judaism isn't perfect, but that it isn't perfect for me, which is why I've never taken the steps to convert.

And as for Catholics, they don't think anyone except Catholics are going to go to heaven, if there is such a place (and one has one's doubts). Even Protestants are to be denied the joys of heaven. There is a joke about a bunch of people arriving in heaven, and St Peter says, "OK, you Episcopalians, you can have room number six, you go anywhere but room number one. And you Baptists have room number five, and you can go every where but room number one." And so on, through Methodists and Presbyterians and even Unitarians, giving them each a room, but denying them room number one. And a Unitarian asks, "Um, what's in room number one?" And St Peter says, "Oh, that's the Catholics. They think they're the only ones up here."

Divinity school humour.

Oh, and you obey fewer than 613 laws, since some of those can only be obeyed in HaEretz.
Amusingly enough, I too discovered the "you have to believe in Jesus" clause in college and for a similar reason (I like to joke that I was clearly absent from Sunday school that day but in retrospect it boggles my mind that I somehow missed this major tenant of Christianity). A very religious friend of mine turned to myself and another of our friends and told us point blank that while she considered us good people, we were going to hell. As she was completely serious about the entire thing, it was rather off-putting.

And often, it has to be the right kind of Christianity. If one is one of "those" Christians, then one will not be saved. Orthodox Christians say only Orthodox, Catholics say there won't be any Protestants, some Prots say no Catholics, some Prots say only those who've been born again (and I always wonder if one is born again, does one's mother mind?), and everyone is excluded, quite missing out on the main message of the Yiddische guy who delivered it.

It's rather a tiresome theology, and I do wish they'd get over themselves.
One of the attractive features of UUism is the belief that all humans will, or at least can, be saved.
I know, I used to be a UU minister.

The Universalists believed that G-d was too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believed they were too good to be G-d damned.

Ah yes, my favorite part. According to my father, I'm going to hell because I'm not Roman Catholic. According to my mother, I'm going to hell because I'm not Southern Baptist.

I eventually got smart enough to go, so that means, Dad, you think Mom is going to hell and vice versa, right?

The ensuing uncomfortable silence was amusing at least.
I think asking someone why they convert to a particular religion is perfectly acceptable. Sure, doing so with a tone of clear surprise, like, "why would anyone ever want to do that?" is rude. But just wanting to know?

"Because they want to be Jewish" is not the answer. The question then becomes, why did they want to be Jewish? What about Judaism called to them, rather than any other religion? The answer is most likely different for every different person, and I would have the same question for a convert to any religion. Why that one?

I expect that the answer has to do with friends or family or community in many cases. My mom converted to Catholicism because my dad was Catholic, and they wanted to raise the family unified in a single church. With Buddhism the answer often seems to me to be philosophical, or to have something to do with expanding mental horizons, or working with the mental constructs specific to buddhism--meditation, search for enlightenment. Paganism strikes me as, at least in part, an effort to incorporate political ideals like feminism and egalitarianism into a new religious movement (they might argue that it's not new, but I don't think neo-paganism is that much like classical Pagan belief systems).
When my beit din raised the cost-benefit question and asked me why I wanted to convert anyway, I said I preferred to get married rather than live together. (In approximately those words, yes.)

One source of confusion I perceive in people who ask me is the deep-seated idea -- which falls down on rational inspection, but not all ideas pass through an inspection phase on the way to the mouth -- that Judaism is an ethnicity and a culture, and they see it as sort of like converting to being Italian.

(More after Shabbat if you remind me.)
You can convert to be Italian! Kinda a pain in the ass tho.
Sorry, poor example because you can acquire citizenship. For Italian, substitute (for example) native American. (You can maybe join a tribe -- I have no idea if any of them allow that -- but it doesn't make you native American.)

I find a lot of parallels here with my (entire secular) decision to move to the place where I live now; upon finding out that I used to live on the mainland, I'm greeted with (by people who love their home very much) an incredulous "but why here?" My answer is generally that it seemed like a good idea at the time, and still does. When it doesn't, I'll move. *grin* (Though religion is not generally as lightly followed as a place of residence is chosen.)

EDIT: The other reason I have given for continuing to live here, to those who know me better, is that when I am in this place, I feel more like myself. Given what I understand of religion, I imagine that there can be a similar feeling of "this was my home all along - I just hadn't found it yet."

Edited at 2009-04-03 10:31 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read the book My Rabbi Doesn't Make House Calls?

We are G-d's Inquisitive People. This is why we ask so many nosy questions.
Nice post--thanks for writing it. You give several very sound rationales for why one might wonder about a convert choosing Judaism. The weirdness one rings true: A friend of mine who also converted says, when parading around the shul holding three branches and a lemon, "I can't believe I'm doing this."

As for other religions, I'm reminded of the line from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding": "Is your lucky day, the day you convert to the Greek Orthodox Church."
a Catholic acquaintance of his admitted to the belief that my older brother's soul was eventually destined for hell. ... I was somewhat taken aback when I heard the story.

One of my mother's close friends (who's Jewish) went to college with a very sheltered Midwestern girl who once asked her, meekly and sincerely, "May I see your horns?"

This girl actually thought that Jews had literal horns -- spawn-of-the-devil, Halloween-costume horns -- coming out of their heads. It's impressive what social programming can make you believe about other people.
Nice post, thanks. I have to admit I was a little bothered by R"B's broadcast announcement; it just felt...inappropriate somehow.

One consideration I wanted to bring up in the born-Jews asking "why on earth would you want to do that?" arena: most born Jews I've met aren't tremendously religious. Even the nominally observant ones who theoretically believe in G-d don't talk about G-d, and the religious part of the Jewish culture-religion gets short shrift even among the Orthodox. Those born Jews I've met who ARE religious normally don't even ask, or they ask a rather different question, along the lines of "how did you come to do it?" If you're coming from a perspective of religion as an encounter with G-d, rather than with anti-Semites, overbearing mothers, and indigestion, someone's choice to convert seems a little more sensible. Or at least, a little less odd.

December 2016

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