Cultural Jewish Conversion: A New Old Idea

Cultural Jewish Conversion: A New Old Idea December 10, 2013

Steven Cohen and Kerry Olitzky are two great advocates of Jewish inclusion. Now they have come up with an incredibly innovative idea that they’ve written about in the Forward. After noting that many, many people are already affiliating with Jewish communities and even calling themselves Jews without undergoing any kind of religious conversion, they offer this:

For those who would prefer not (yet?) to acquire a Jewish religious identity but still want a Jewish social/cultural identity, they could undergo what we tentatively called, “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.”

We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what, for them, would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition.

Wow! I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Of course, I have said it many, many times. And all of my fellow Humanistic rabbis have said it, too. And studied it. And written about it. And talked about it at symposiums.

Since Cohen and Olitzky have surely heard about Humanistic Judaism, it would have been nice to receive a little bit of credit for their innovation, given that we innovated it right here at my temple about fifty some-odd years ago.

No matter. It’s not about credit. It’s about a fantastic idea and I could not be more pleased that two incredibly well-respected Jewish communal activists and scholars are recognizing the wisdom in in.

As you might expect, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Andy Bachman would like to remind us that conversion is hardly a religious or theistic process at all. Why on earth would we ever need anything else? He writes in the Forward:

The idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that one can actually strip Judaism, Jews and Jewishness of religion. I mean, I guess you can if you want to. There may even be an app for it — who knows? But seriously, for the tiny sliver of non-Jews interested in binding their lives to a Jewish community, whether alone or with partners, there’s no need to imagine that faith would be a stumbling block to plain old conversion. I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.

While I applaud Bachman for his openness to non-believers, I’m incredibly weary of hearing him and others rabbisplaining to me why my way of being Jewish is based upon a “flawed notion.”

And is he really telling the whole story? If I were a betting man, I would gamble that Bachman’s openness ends where his ceremonial work begins.

Would he ever conduct a bar mitzvah ceremony for a non-believing family that didn’t praise, worship or otherwise center around God? Would he perform a wedding ceremony sans theistic blessings? Would he alter the Kaddish to meet the needs of nontheistic mourners?

I know one thing for sure, he won’t conduct a conversion without a circumcision, the ultimate sign of the covenant with God. He tells us that in the comment section. His openness has some pretty obvious limits.

But really, the inadequacy of Bachman’s supposed openness is encapsulated by something else that he writes even as he protests his tolerance for disbelief:

You don’t want to believe? So don’t believe. Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation….

I guess it wouldn’t do much good trying to explain to him that this idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that Abraham and Moses existed.

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  • cipher

    I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.

    Is he kidding? That may be one of the stupidest remarks I’ve ever seen online. Does he actually know any other rabbis?

    I’d post this to the Forward’s site as well, but I don’t go there any longer. Jane Eisner has made a career out of pandering to the Orthodox, who are allowed to post whatever they like there, no matter how hateful, stupid, ignorant or merely untrue – yet as soon as you say something in reply that goes beyond, “I respectfully disagree”, you get your comment pulled.

    That, combined with the juvenile quality of some of their reportage, has killed one of the last bastions of Jewish Liberalism in general and the old Yiddish Socialist culture in particular. Abe Cahan must be spinning.

  • Cynthia

    What’s your view on creating a new category/reviving the old Biblical category of the “ger toshav”?

    http://www.clal.org/ss43.html

    The article is talking specifically about intermarriage, but I think the category would apply to many people that I know: allies and fellow travelers who are happy to be supportive and be among us, who have a basic commitment to moral living, but who have no desire to completely take on all beliefs and commandments.

  • I had a Humanist Jewish ‘conversion’ or adoption with two of the most wonderful rabbis on the planet. I am exceedingly grateful to them for taking what was about 4 years of solo study for me, in every major sect of Judaism, and seeing potential for an addition to the greater Jewish community. The link above is a blog post I wrote on the subject. Thanks so much for addressing it!