01 December 2013

Why A Duck?

In the latest iteration of communal thinkers parsing the meaning of how Jews mate and what it means for our numbers, the sociologist Steven Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky propose a new path to affiliation with the Jewish people in order to capture the ever elusive number of people who identify as Jews even though they have no Jewish parents.  That group was 7% in a recent study of New York Jews--5% who never converted but considered themselves part of the Jewish people and 2% who actually converted.

They even have a name for this process.  It's called Jewish Cultural Affirmation.  It's meant to provide a formal entryway to the Jewish community by actually creating a learning process, a group of people to oversee it, and then there'd be a ceremony and even a certificate.

Of course, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, you get the point.

But it's not conversion.  God forbid.

As someone who has been working in the community as a rabbi at the grassroots level my whole career, I have to say that this is one of the sillier ideas I've ever heard come from my friends Steven and Kerry.

At so many turns in the process of working with couples and individuals who are interested in affiliating with and living among the Jewish people, I have encountered virtually every degree of expression between faith and faithlessness and have never seen someone walk away from their connection to Jewish peoplehood by virtue of "having to believe in God" or being required to demonstrate anything other than a commitment to learning, observance of rituals they find meaningful, and fealty to the values and traditions of Judaism as well as the Jewish people.  And most, in fact, explicitly state that what they love about becoming Jewish is that there isn't one definition of Jewishness; that Jewish discourse requires critical thinking and dissent; and that one's faith (or lack thereof) are as much a source of self-examination and discourse as any other aspect of their identity.

I'll grant that "conversion" is not the right word.  It is borrowed from other religious traditions, which privilege the centrality of a 'conversionary' experience (think Paul on the road to Damascus) that Judaism is inherently skeptical of.  In fact, while many people are familiar with the relatively apocryphal notion of rabbis turning away would-be converts three times (to test their sincerity) one sees beneath the surface a healthy degree of doubt exhibited about those claiming to have experienced revelation.

On a certain level, then, it's not about what you believe but about what you do.

Which is not to say that anything goes with regard to faith.  Jews for Jesus, for instance, may think they're "doing Jewish" while obviously serving Jesus.  It's a free country, of course.  They're just not Jews by faith.  They're Christian.

But back to the point.  I've converted Chinese Buddhists who've said, "Sorry, Rabbi.  I just don't believe in God.  But I love Judaism and Jewish ritual and the Jewish people."  In.  "Rabbi, I certainly don't believe in Jesus, am not sure about God, but I love the way Judaism allows me to question, commands me to live a moral life, and fills my life with meaningful ritual, holidays, great food, humor and a strong sense of family."  In.  "Rabbi.  My husband doesn't believe in God.  Regrets having had a Bar Mitzvah.  I'm not sure what I think but I know that leading this family and raising these children as Jews will fall to me."  In.

So maybe it's not "Conversion" per se but Citizenship.  That's what I tell people, anyway.  You study for a period of time, you demonstrate knowledge and loyalty, you get to become a citizen.  That's how we do it in America and I would argue that this is what the Sages had in mind when they created the process.

Some were strict (Shammai) and others were lenient (Hillel.)  And without a doubt there were multiple choices of varying levels of commitment in between.  But the notion of separating faith and culture when dealing with Judaism, Jews and Jewish civilization, is like making a kugel without eggs.  Or drawing Woody Allen without glasses.  Or Larry David *with* hair.  It doesn't work.

What is Jewish culture anyway if not the aggregation of our experiences through multiple lenses of language and learning; land and faith; ritual observance, morality, ethics and values?  Whether or not you believe in the divine attributes of the Jewish god, he/she/it is certainly a character in the story.

You don't want to believe?  So don't believe.  Someone/Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Someone/Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation;  Someone/Something enraged the Prophets to speak of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and turning swords into plowshares; and, Someone/Something spoke our Ancestors and said, "Every seventh day, it would be a good idea for everyone involved to stop working and rest.  It will remind you about what really matters."

A non-Jew once came to Hillel the Elder and asked to be taught the essence of Torah.  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  All the rest is commentary.  Go forth and learn."

This is the point.  Not even as easy to do as say deciding whether or not you believe in God.

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