Saturday, December 18, 2010

Having a Jewish Heart But Not a Jewish Soul: The Problem of Conversion to Secular Judaism

In her book, Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant recounts a famous episode of Louis Brandeis’ life:
A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, "Brandeis, you're brilliant. If you weren't a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don't you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. "I'm sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own."
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation. In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Brandeis was, of course, a religious man. And he was right. Conversion is only possible when moving from one religion to another or from a state of non-belief to belief. If, like Brandeis, you happen to be born into the religion you love, you cannot enjoy the additional privilege of deliberately choosing the religion you love.

For the secular person who would like to convert to religious secularism, there is a parallel but opposite roadblock. The very term religious secularism may sound like a non sequitur, a contradiction in terms, but there are many secular people who would, nonetheless, align themselves with a religion—most often the religion of their birth. Many Jews, in particular, claim both their Jewishness and their secularism. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that 80 percent of Jews in Israel were secular. The percentage is undoubtedly much lower in the United States, but here, too, secular Jewish life is common.

But here is the rub. Just as conversion to the Judaism of one’s birth is impossible; so too is conversion from some other faith—or none—to secular Judaism. Conversion to Judaism is a particularly serious business. Jews are prohibited from proselytizing, and to convert you must demonstrate a strong desire to be Jewish and work hard to accomplish the goal. So the person who is born Jewish is granted the choice of being a religious or a secular Jew. Though it might never have occurred to him to be anything but a religious Jew, this was a choice that Brandeis retained. But for the secular person who is not born Jewish, Jewish secularism is another kind of impossible conversion. The path to secular Judaism must go through belief, and if belief in the Jewish religion is impossible, then Jewish secularism is unattainable.

While this may be frustrating for a small group of secular non-Jews who are attracted to Jewish life—people who might be said to have a Jewish heart but not a Jewish soul—I think, in the end, there is something fitting about it. Judaism is, after all, a religion. There is a Jewish culture, too, but it is a culture that grows out of a people with a common religion. It is one thing to be born into a religion and then, at some point in your life, decide that the religion does not work for you. This is a question that resides at an appropriately level. A question about whether or not to choose a religious life.

The secular person who would like to adopt the culture of a religion and who may also be drawn—in a spiritual but not truly religious way—to the teachings of the religion is not struggling with questions at the same level. He or she wrestles with a less central kind of life choice. In most cases, the secular person made the decision about a religious or non-religious life long ago. As a result, I think it is perfectly appropriate that the rabbis draw the line. Judaism is a religion. The synagogue door is open. You may come in and sit with the congregation. But the person who is not born Jewish cannot call him or herself a Jew without adopting the religion.

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