Shalom Goldman’s recent book examines the lives of several converts – some converting from Christianity to Judaism, and some going the other way, leaving Judaism to become Christians. His book is called Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity.
I have been reflecting on my reading of it for a a week now. Here are some of my initial observations and thoughts.
First, it can be difficult for Christians to fully grasp the nuances of what comprises Jewish identity. For most Christians, being a follower of Jesus is a matter of choice and behavior. One decides to be a Christian and one can stop being a Christian by choice. Christianity is primarily a matter of belief. Few, if any people, claim they are Christian as a matter of ethnicity, race, or peoplehood – or because their mother was Christian.
Second, Judaism has the unique reality of the State of Israel, a self-proclaimed Jewish State. Therefore, at least in Israel, there are legal parameters to who is a Jew and who isn’t – and courts and state approved rabbis get to adjudicate one’s claim of Jewish religious identity.
Third, Judaism and Christianity share much in common and Christianity emerged largely in part from the Jewish tradition. Despite the sad history of anti-semitism, it should, in theory, be easy for Jews and Christians to get along given how much they share in common. This also means that some people will understand their own moving from one tradition to another as a matter of personal growth and see their “conversion” as a matter of natural evolution or return.
As one who moved from Christianity (Catholicism) to Judaism (Reform), Goldman’s book created a mixed set of emotions for me.
One the one hand, I understand how many of my fellow Jews by birth see themselves as Jewish in terms of both religious identity and ethnicity. I don’t share this sense of ethnicity, but I appreciate how being Jewish and Polish or Jewish and Russian or Jewish and fill in the blank is genuinely different that being simply Polish or whatever. This makes even more sense when one considers the role Christianity played in these ethnic-national cultures and how not being Christian yet being Polish would drastically impact one’s ethnic-national identity.
On the other hand, I’ve engaged Judaism solely as a spirituality; as a religion based on core convictions concerning human dignity, interconnectedness, love, wisdom, kindness and justice. For me, Judaism is a worldview that has little to do with ethnicity, cuisine, humor-style, or Israeli politics.
My Jewish community here in Western Michigan, is small to moderate sized, yet reflects all of the above. Among my closer friends, religious identity is taken seriously be they Jewish or Christian, but perhaps a bit more fluidly than those described in Goldman’s book.
Our Reform Temple, and the broader, local Jewish community is comprised of many converts. There are also many inter-married couples and families. People seem to be able to maintain their primary identity while participating in their spouse’s or friend’s tradition. Blending and cross-participation doesn’t seem to lead to watering down.
In fact, in my opinion, it’s been good for the local Jewish community in terms of growth, respect, and vitality.
The book is a bit of a dry read, but fascinating in terms of the individual stories. If religious identity issues interest you, you’ll want this book.
Information on the book, and conversation about it, can be found here at Patheos in the Book Club.