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 Post subject: What is Jewishness?
PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 7:21 am 
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Ordinarily, to discuss religious conversion is to discuss something very straightforward as to form. Before, you are not-A, and afterwards you are A, where A describes the group of people who subscribe to a particular philosophical framework with requisite beliefs and actions.

As in so many other ways, Judaism is unique. A person who possesses an interest in "converting" to Judaism quickly confronts the question of what she or he is doing. Is she simply embracing a belief structure, as above? Is she embracing an identity transcending a mere belief structure - somehow becoming one of the Jewish people? What exactly is it that happens when she immerses herself in the waters of the mikveh in the presence of a bet din, says the ritual blessings, and is deemed to have completed the final step of a halachically valid conversion? From the fact that her children will be deemed Jewish, we can infer that more has occurred than a mere acknowledgment of shared theological beliefs. But, when she emerges from the mikveh, does she, a "Jew-by-choice", truly share an identity with a Jew-by-birth? Or, are they two distinct identities, both somehow Jewish? Or, is only the latter identity Jewish at all?

I realized keenly that the conversion question leads naturally to the more fundamental question, "What is Jewishness?" when I had a long discussion with an Israeli friend who does not believe that true conversion to Judaism (assumption of a Jewish identity) is possible for someone born a Gentile, Talmudic enthusiasm for the concept notwithstanding. I do respect this view. She was trying to explain to me that no matter how knowledgeable a Gentile becomes about the traditions, customs, and beliefs of Judaism - how fluent in Hebrew - how observant in practice - how assimilated into a community of observant Jews, there would still be a gap that could never be bridged, which she classified as the gap between Jew and non-Jew.

The problem, for proponents of her view, is to explain what makes a Jewish person (i.e. one born to a Jewish mother) who has no relevant Jewish religious or cultural upbringing, "Jewish" in some way that the earnest would-be convert is not. And to provide the tautological response - that the non-observant/ignorant Jew is Jewish purely by virtue of his matrilineal descent - is to beg the question of what, exactly, that purely genetic link provides.

If one puts the question, "What is Jewishness?", to people who identify as Jews-by-birth, they will answer it in an infinite number of ways (thus confirming the age-old, "Two Jews, three opinions." :)) Some point to the religious philosophy; others point to a perceived link to the Jewish people through history; for others, it is family ties to the Holocaust that mark them as indelibly Jewish; for others, it is Jewish rituals (even absent theological belief); for others, it is their childhood upbringing; for others, it is some combination of these things and more.

The question is further complicated by the presence of many individuals who identify as Jewish but do not satisfy the traditional matrilineal test. (For example, people with a Jewish father/non-Jewish mother, or people with a Jewish father/mother-who-converted-but-not-according-to-halacha.) What makes them Jewish? If self-identification, is this in some way different from a convert who, having completed the conversion process, self-identifies as Jewish? From a convert who invokes Shavuot 39a, suggesting that the souls of converts were present at Sinai?

Perhaps, then, Jewishness is the state of having a Jewish soul. Regardless of the extent of a born Jew's Jewish background/knowledge level, he or she would still have a Jewish soul. Perhaps then, upon emerging from the mikveh, a convert is granted a Jewish soul (as some traditions suggest). If so, it is hard to imagine a more weighty proposition.

****

On a personal note:

I find this question uniquely frustrating. For the past thirteen years, I have verbalized a desire to "be" Jewish, or have felt a certainty that at some point in the future I will be Jewish. This...dissonance, for lack of a better word...arose years before I knew anything about Jewish religious belief (aside from the texts shared with Christianity), persisted and intensified for the 5-6 year period in which I studied for conversion under rabbinic supervision, and continues, frustratingly, despite the complete incompatibility of my current agnosticism with Jewish religious teaching. For this reason, metaphysical notions suggesting that the souls of gerim were present at Sinai, or the Kabbalistic notion that a "spark" of a Jewish soul exists in many Gentiles, some subset of whom actually convert, almost come as a relief to me. These explanations, which I view as transcending rationality, offer to provide some explanation for what otherwise appears to be an irrational form of dissonance.

But this personal frustration is neither here nor there - it's just keeping me from bed at 2:40 am. I am interested in people's answers to the general question posed in the title of this thread, whatever form they might take.

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I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 3:47 pm 
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I hope you don't mind me meandering in here, tp, since I'm not Jewish and can't answer the question.

One thing I wanted to say is that a good Jewish friend of ours recently expressed frustration with her synagogue because they never talk about God, and she says many of them actually don't believe in God (talking the scriptures that refer to God to be metaphorical). So maybe it isn't the case that your current agnostic beliefs are as incompatible with Judaism as you suppose?

I hope my next comments won't be offensive to anyone! I see Christianity as essentially offering everyone the opportunity to become Jewish, that is, to come into the family of God's chosen people. This is what I see as the blessing of Abraham, that through the righteousness that is imputed on the basis of faith (as righteousness was imputed to Abraham because of his faith), the Gentiles can be brought into the fold. The New Testament refers to Gentile believers as the grafted on (whereas the Israelites are the natural olive tree), and as the adopted (whereas the Israelites are the natural children). This concept is a very precious aspect of Christianity to me (though I don't know whether many Jews would be enthused about the idea).


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 11:25 pm 
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I also can't answer this question, but I would agree that what you say is quite irrational (hope that's not offensive, as you said it yourself ;) ).

I don't understand why you feel "Jewish" when you don't believe in any of the Jewish religious teachings. Can you tell why you feel like that?

A long time ago I heard a joke in some movie: some Jews were talking and someone said something like "this is like converting to Judaism" and they were talking about something that was physically impossible - so I concluded that for a Jew it's not possible to convert to their religion. And in a weird way it made sense to me, too, because, even though I personally have always tried to resist this view, Jewishness sometimes seems more to be an ethnicity than a religion. It seems it's something you are born, not something you can become - or leave behind.

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 11:50 pm 
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I keep on thinking of Charlotte's conversion in 'Sex and the City'.

"Guys! I just said my first 'oy'!"

:rofl:

Yes, I used to watch 'Sex and the City'. I hope you don't all now think of me as irredeemably shallow.

I know it was a very silly - and immoral :P - show.

But it had its serious moments, and the story of Charlotte's conversion to Judaism was quite a touching one. :) (Her Jewish hubby, the plump balding one, was such a sweetheart.)

Sorry, tp. :oops: I have nothing of substance to add to this thread. :oops:

Just to say that for me, as an outsider, Jewishness is a blood-thing, an ethnicity even more than it's a faith (although obviously the faith is important.) You can't eradicate someone's Jewishness, whatever their personal beliefs may be. :)

That doesn't help you one iota on the conversion thing, sorry ... :oops:

Cerin - yes, quite, we Gentiles should never forget we are the 'Johnny-come-latelies' on the spiritual scene ... :)

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 12:29 am 
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Just to clear up a few things:

Hobby (this is also a response to Pearly Di as well :)) - no, of course it's not offensive; apart from my oversensitivity about violent lawyer jokes :P, I'm actually pretty hard to offend. I did not mean, however, that I *felt Jewish*. I meant two other things.

First, from the time I was 7-8, I had wanted to become Jewish - an entirely different matter than feeling that I was Jewish. At that young age, it wasn't based on anything doctrinal, and I did consider myself Christian and hold Christian beliefs. It was just an early fascination - one that meant that I treasured taking violin lessons in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and felt closest to the Divine in that house of worship. I don't read too much into it, but it means something to me that it was there.

Second, I do not by any means feel Jewish now. I feel 100% Gentile and agnostic. What I do feel is an admittedly irrational sentiment that at some point in the future, I will end up converting to Judaism. In essence, that notwithstanding the fact that my current views, sincerely held, are incompatible with Jewish religious doctrine, I feel that my future views will align with (probably egalitarian conservative) Jewish doctrine. I spent around 5 1/2 years of my life continually studying Judaism - primarily m college years, and the 1-2 years preceding college. Although the more you study Judaism, the more you realize how much is outside of your grasp, I do have sufficient elementary knowledge on which I'm basing this presentiment.

Does that make any more sense?

However, your conclusion - that it is physically impossible to convert to Judaism - is factually incorrect. Gentiles have converted to Judaism for thousands of years, and conversions are recognized by rabbis of virtually every denomination worldwide. Normally, it entails the would-be convert's embracing Jewish teaching, abandoning his or her former religion, and pledging to live his/her life and raise any children as Jewish.

Think to the words of the Moabite Ruth (possibly the most meaningful words in the Biblical texts to anyone who has considered conversion to Judaism): "Do not beg me to leave you, to return from following after you. For where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me." Remember - Ruth, the great-grandmother of David - the woman from whom, Jews and Christians alike believe, the Messiah is to descend or has descended - was herself a Gentile by birth and convert to Judaism.

In virtually no countries do modern-day Jews proselytize. (I have read that the Jewish community in Cochin, India is beginning to, to renew their numbers given how many of them have made aliyah to Israel. But that sort of thing is very rare.) To the contrary, the time-honored tradition is to turn a would-be convert away three times to test their seriousness. (Any well-read prospective convert knows this requirement before approaching a rabbi, but it doesn't happen in the manner you would expect. It is much more subtle than a rabbi sending you away three weeks in a row, and sitting down to talk with you the fourth week.) But the sincere convert is, over time, embraced by the overwhelming majority of Jews.

For a Gentile, I think that whatever else conversion entails, it surely must entail embracing Judaism as a religion. You cannot "convert" to a cultural or ethnic tradition, although I imagine that over time you could be assimilated to one if you were committed for some reason.

The last part of what you said - that a born Jew cannot abandon his or her Jewish identity - is indeed the view of many Jews I have talked to. I myself will not say this for one reason: I have been informed that I can never be anything but Catholic, since I was born Catholic - and I find this to be completely absurd, given my views.

Cerin, of course I don't mind you in this thread! This isn't a "For Jews Only" thread - and if it was, I'd be excluded. ;)

Your friend's experience is interesting. I have been to one Reform synagogue, two Orthodox synagogues, and more Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues than I can count or remember - and in none of these has there ever been anything other than talking about God (which is, in fact, what you expect when you go to a place of religious worship). I also cannot recall a single instance in which I spoke to a Jewish person who was actually at synagogue services who did not believe in God. I have the level of Jewish experience of a very young child, at best, but I don't think it is too presumptuous to say her experience seems atypical.

Even if they were not, though, I do not think that for a Gentile seeking to become Jewish, agnosticism would suffice. Again, the question is, "What am I doing by converting?" Possibly the best answer is found in Ruth's words - "Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God." Even if a Jewish person cannot shake off her Jewishness by disclaiming belief in this God, I do not think a non-Jewish person can assume Jewishness without asserting belief in the God of the Jewish people.

I hope that my comments in response to you will not be offensive, because I see the relationship between Judaism and Christianity very differently than you seem to. I do not believe that any non-Jew can become Jewish except through conversion to Judaism. The Christian conception of Jesus is incompatible with Judaism. One of the 2 (for women) or 3 (for men) steps involved in conversion to Judaism is to appear before a bet din, a rabbinic court, and respond to their questions regarding your religious beliefs and your practical preparation to live as a Jew. I have been told that those converting from Christianity are often asked to affirm that they do not believe in Jesus as the "son of God" or as Divine; those who do are not permitted to convert. Indeed, none of the rabbis I spoke with would accept people to study for conversion so long as they held that belief, because it would ultimately be a bar to their conversion. Christianity has conscripted a large number of Jewish texts, but interprets them in a manner radically different than, and largely inconsistent with, the Jewish view of those texts. I cannot see the two as part of any common fold, in terms of religious views.

Of course, in the search to become better people, we are all united - Jews, Christians, and those of us meandering between. :)

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 12:36 am 
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No offense taken, tp. Mine is, of course, the Christian perspective on the relationship of Gentile believers to Jews. I thought it was probably something that would not go over so well from the Jewish perspective.

Yes, my friend characterized her synagogue as exceptionally liberal.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 12:39 am 
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Quote:
I had a long discussion with an Israeli friend who does not believe that true conversion to Judaism (assumption of a Jewish identity) is possible for someone born a Gentile.


Excuse me - really, excuse my next word, don't take it as a personal rebuttal but...

Crapola.

Every mainstream rabbi (whether Reform, Reconstructionist or Orthodox) would balk at such a claim. The Jews who hold to that view deny what Judaism explicitly states - ironically, it is often Jews who are not religious who are most likely to say such a thing, often because they themselves do not define themselves with reference to religious ideas.

Both Torah and Talmud accept conversion. In fact, a whole book - Ruth - extols this, and Ruth is always linked with Shavuot, the festival which celebrates the receiving of the Torah. Welcoming the convert is a big message.

Why? Torah was received in the desert; not in the Promised Land, where it could be claimed to be the sole possession of the Israelites, but in the desert, a public place, a no-man's land, because it is available to all peoples who may wish to accept it. The Jews do not own Torah.

And that's another thing: the Torah was received (say the rabbis), not given - received because that is an act of volition on the part of those who accept it. And every year, in celebration of Shavuot, one ought to feel that one is at Sinai, with Moses, accepting Torah. It is an ongoing act of volition.

In fact, once a person converts, one is not supposed to refer to that fact again, to keep reminding that person that s/he has come from elsewhere and is a newcomer on the block; a Jew is a Jew and it is frowned upon to infer that someone is less so than another because of their antecedents.

I certainly understand, TP, how one can feel Jewish without being able to accept all the tenets of the theology, because Judaism is more an idea, I think. It encompasses a particular view of the world, a philosophy of living that, while based on Torah, has become over the eons something that much more. One can subscribe to that world view, to the values and ethics encompassed in that philosophy, without actually believing in God.

Judaism does not demand belief; it demands that one lives justly and well, by the values and ethics derived from the mitzvot, the commandments.

This is such a big topic and quite beyond me - Defining Jewishness; I know my comments are scattered and don't really address the central point - apologies, I don't really have the kind of mind and application required for this type of exposition.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 12:51 am 
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tolkienpurist wrote:
Christianity has conscripted a large number of Jewish texts, but interprets them in a manner radically different than, and largely inconsistent with, the Jewish view of those texts.


I will confine myself to remarking that the first 'Christians' were Jews, and that their understanding of biblical prophecies was Jewish ... but I'm taking part in too many contentious discussions right now at HoF so will say no more. :hug:

Quote:
I cannot see the two as part of any common fold, in terms of religious views.


It's sad to see this great gulf between the two faiths, and I believe that the Church has much to answer for in this respect. There was tension between Judaism and the new 'sect' in its midst from the get-go, of course, but the Church's short memory regarding the Jewishness of Jesus, and the gradually hardening insistence that Jewish converts to the faith had to leave their Jewishness behind them, increased the gulf tenfold.

OK. I'm done now.

:)

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 1:30 am 
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Bravo, Imp. I wrote a very long post but got involved (along with Di) in another discussion and have not posted it yet. You have said everything so much better and so much more concisely than I did, but I'm going to post it anyway. It is so refreshing to hear another Jewish person speaking with like mind ...

******************

tp, I think you've touched on the deepest wound and the deepest folly that troubles Judaism today. I don't believe your question could even have been asked 100 years ago; yet today it is one of our most gripping questions.

A personal note - I obtained a halachic conversion before marrying so that my children and grandchildren would never be questioned by the powers that be. As an adopted child I failed the matrilineal test and I was worried that we might end up living in Israel and that the laws might change, as in fact they did about four years ago.

For the uninitiated, the Law of Return - the right of Jews to immigrate into Israel - is what made it necessary, politically, to define 'who is a Jew.' The Holocaust made it necessary for that definition to be as inclusive as possible. Religious sensibility and financial considerations have prompted the Orthodox Union to be as non-inclusive as possible. So we now have a situation that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago - the largest Jewish community in the world is a community of secular Jews who do not hold to uniform religious beliefs or practices; Jews who are religiously Jews but converted under rabbis whose smecha is not universally acknowledged; people who ended up in Israel after WWII and call themselves Jews because it is inconvenient to be otherwise in Israel; Jews who are technically Jews but don't know it because their families emigrated to escape persecution and assimilated wherever they went ... all of this taking place in the context of a political entity that must, for legal reasons, come up with an acceptable definition of something that defies definition.

The shulkhan arukh is not ambiguous. Although it lays down the procedure for a halachic conversion, it also says that a person claiming to have converted may not be questioned about their conversion. That would seem to cover any person who converted in a Reform Temple and lived as a Jew and raised their children as Jews, etc.

David Ben Gurion's take on it was that anyone crazy enough to say they're a Jew is a Jew. That is, in an odd sort of way, the secular version of the belief in the presence of our souls at Mt. Sinai ... which is not completely out of the question, btw, imo. :)

Ben Gurion's definition is the only useful one, imo. It's not like there are lots of non-Jews running around claiming to be Jews and trying to emigrate to Israel. Politically, the whole debate is about money and power within the Jewish community, not about religion. IMHO.

But psychologically, something else is going on, as evidenced by the answer given by your friend. I too have heard this from any number of Jews, that it is impossible to become a Jew. (And will edit in here agreement with Imp's comment that this is crapola.)

The idea behind this, I believe, is that one must have some connection to the Holocaust in order to be a 'real Jew.' I understand the sentiment but I consider it to be deadly to our survival. From expressions like this, and from other evidence I've seen within the synagogue, I fear that we are becoming a People who are defined by their enemies, and this is always fatal.

It is also impossible to sustain a community on the basis of descent from some past event. Everyone has ultimate ancestors but few of us have ultimate progeny - so the biologists tell me. Judaism has survived for ages because most Jews who consider themselves Jews today, and are considered Jews by the rest of the community, are not in fact ultimately Jewish either matrilineally or halachic-ly. Standing on a street corner in Israel (or Long Island) should be enough to convince anyone that modern Jews are an amalgam of all the peoples among whom they've lived. It was not our physical ancestors who stood at Mt. Sinai.

But another factor feeding into modern notions of Judaism is the post-Nuremberg sense among born Jews that they cannot escape their Judaism. It is not really a religion because you will never be considered something else by your enemies when the chips are down, no matter what church you join. One definition of Judaism offered during early debates over the Law of Return was: a person is a Jew if they would have died in the Holocaust.

This is also deadly, in my opinion, because it gives backhanded validation to what has been called 'Jewish self-hatred.' There is some portion of the Jewish community that really just does not feel Jewish and does not want to be Jewish but considers itself without alternative, unlike every other American ethnic group which can, within a generation or two, expunge their ethnicity if they want to.

I think that I myself occupy some middle ground in the minds of most of my co-religionists. On the one hand, the Nuremberg laws would not include me because adopted children of Jews were not considered Jews. On the other hand, how likely is it that I would have been saved? As a practical matter, whole towns were emptied at once. Families went down together and I would have gone down with mine. On the third hand, it was extremely rare ... did it happen at all? ... that a Jewish family would be raising a non-Jewish child in those days; whereas today in America nearly all adopted Jewish children are non-Jewish by birth. Families are encouraged not to adopt Jewish children because of the genetic winnowing that has taken place.

What is my personal opinion? I think we should be welcoming with open arms anyone who wishes to be Jewish because of religious or philosophical conviction. It is the only way we will save ourselves, ultimately, from the curse of Nuremberg.

And ... it's really not up to the rest of us to decide who is a Jew and who is not a Jew. The central message of Judaism is that God called certain people to be the living embodiment of this particular Law on Earth. Anyone who identifies with that Law is a member of that People. To reject a person who accepts the Law is to do what Saruman did - reject the free will of God. It is to tell God who He can give the Law to and who not. But the bottom line is that anyone who considers God to have given the Torah to them is a Jew.

Jn

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 5:43 am 
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After reading the posts here, I will say I find the arguments that one can convert to being Jewish both logically and emotionally convincing.

So, I wonder, what about the other direction?

Can someone become not-Jewish? Can someone renounce being Jewish?

Renouncing Jewishness probably wouldn't have let one escape the death camps during the Holocaust, but I don't think that should be the standard.


The following passage relates directly to my question:

Pearl: There was tension between Judaism and the new 'sect' in its midst from the get-go, of course, but the Church's short memory regarding the Jewishness of Jesus, and the gradually hardening insistence that Jewish converts to the faith had to leave their Jewishness behind them, increased the gulf tenfold.

Who insists that Jewish converts to Christianity have to leave behind their Jewishness? Is is only Christians who do this? Do most Jews think it's possible to be Jewish and Christian as well?


My thought on my initial question: If a man ( or woman ) views his own Jewishness as a sort of stain, if he is a self-hating Jew, in other words, then in the end it will be impossible for him to escape that 'stain'. If a person views his Jewishness as a stain, then he is letting his enemies define himself, and no amount of renounciation or playacting will change how those enemies characterize him. He'd have to renounce letting himself be defined by his enemies first, I guess. But then likely the reason he didn't want to be Jewish would go away!

But if someone views his or her own Jewishness as acceptance of the Torah, then there must also be freedom to walk away from that.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 7:09 am 
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Faramond wrote:
Pearl: There was tension between Judaism and the new 'sect' in its midst from the get-go, of course, but the Church's short memory regarding the Jewishness of Jesus, and the gradually hardening insistence that Jewish converts to the faith had to leave their Jewishness behind them, increased the gulf tenfold.

Who insists that Jewish converts to Christianity have to leave behind their Jewishness? Is is only Christians who do this? Do most Jews think it's possible to be Jewish and Christian as well?


As I understand it, in the early days of Christianity it was widely seen as a Jewish sect. Some of the Epistles were written to address the problem that many Jewish Christians did not view non-Jewish Christians as full members of the church. It had to be established, for example, that circumcision wasn't a prerequisite for Christianity.

I use the phrase "Jewish Christians" in the context of those times (first century AD). I don't know what would be asked of a Jewish convert to Christianity now. It would depend on the Christian denomination, I suspect, and for many denominations, on the individual church and pastor. Christianity is pretty diverse, and many denominations have little or no centrally controlled policy or theology.

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― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 7:49 am 
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That was a very difficult question you asked, TP. You knew I'd show up in this thread, didn't you? I have to apologize in advance for not being aware of any other discussions that are taking place on HoF, as I've been away for a while.

Cerin wrote:
So maybe it isn't the case that your current agnostic beliefs are as incompatible with Judaism as you suppose?

Agnostic belief IS incompatible with Judaism, which is, after all, a religion. As TP pointed out, if an agnostic converts to Judaism - what is it, exactly, that she is converting to?

That said, I was at a woman's study group at my synagogue, and the topic was "How women talk to God." There was maybe a dozen women there, and at least 5 of them began by saying that they are not sure there was any-One to talk to. Yet they were all at this Torah study group.

There's also a group of "Humanistic Jews" in the area, who view Judaism as a cultural tradition and a guide to moral behavior.

Cerin wrote:
I see Christianity as essentially offering everyone the opportunity to become Jewish, that is, to come into the family of God's chosen people.


I think this is historically true.

Point of interest: At the same study group, our rabbi told us that the reason for the rule of matrilineal descent was the large number of Roman matrons who converted to Judaism. Among other things, Jewish women 2,000 years ago had a lot more rights than their Roman sisters (or American women of a hundred years ago). Their husbands were well enough where they were, and even those interested were deterred by the requirement of circumcision (which Christianity later allowed them to circumvent). So the question rose - were the children of those women converts Jewish even if their fathers were not? As the rabbi put it, the decision was made in favor of having more Jews.

Now in the Reform community, there is a growing opinion that children with any one Jewish parent should be considered Jewish if their families are willing to give them a Jewish education. Again, the logic is in favor of having more Jews.

Impish wrote:
And every year, in celebration of Shavuot, one ought to feel that one is at Sinai, with Moses, accepting Torah. It is an ongoing act of volition.


TP, that's the best answer I can give you. As you know, I'm sure, there is a belief that the soul of every Jew ever to be born was present at the moment of the receiving of Torah. I don't know how much of my genes are "Jewish", and I don't think that it matters in any practical sense. But in the spiritual sense, it matters a great deal.

Does that apply to a convert? I think it does. As the group of desert wanderers accepted the Torah, so does a modern convert choose to shoulder his or her part of the burden and the privilege.

Jn wrote:
It is not really a religion because you will never be considered something else by your enemies when the chips are down, no matter what church you join. One definition of Judaism offered during early debates over the Law of Return was: a person is a Jew if they would have died in the Holocaust

This is also deadly, in my opinion, because it gives backhanded validation to what has been called 'Jewish self-hatred.' There is some portion of the Jewish community that really just does not feel Jewish and does not want to be Jewish but considers itself without alternative, unlike every other American ethnic group which can, within a generation or two, expunge their ethnicity if they want to.


Jn, I really don't see how your second paragraph follows from the first. The reasoning behind The Law of Return, at least in part, was to provide a shelter to anyone who would have been endangered due to their Jewish identity, as perceived by themselves or those around them.

I also don't see how any other ethnicity can "expunge" itself. Can a black American declare him/herself to be "white" and be free from prejudice? Can a third-generation Japanese do that? I've heard of Asian Americans - born in America to American-born parents - who are constantly being asked where they are from, or complimented on their excellent command of English. There is no way for them to head that off, no matter how much they want to "expunge" those questions.

And that reminds me…

Once an elderly Jew on the Subway saw an elderly Black man reading a newspaper in Yiddish. After some hesitation, the Jew addressed his neighbor, "I beg your pardon a thousand times, but isn't being Black hard enough?"

When I was growing up, my Jewish looks were as conspicuous as skin color. Nobody ever asked what my religious beliefs were - I was defined by my appearance. And I think that is one of the reasons why many Jews are reluctant to encourage converts, with the exception of those who marry Jews. Personally, I do think there may be a disconnect between a convert's uninhibited joy at discovering the rich traditions of Judaism, and their new community, which experienced and inherited the risks and pressures that go along with being Jewish.

Faramond wrote:
Can someone become not-Jewish? Can someone renounce being Jewish?


Sure someone can renounce being anything they don't want to be. How would that work, though? Can someone become non-Irish? Non-French? Non-Arab?

Faramond wrote:
Who insists that Jewish converts to Christianity have to leave behind their Jewishness? Is is only Christians who do this? Do most Jews think it's possible to be Jewish and Christian as well?


Would it help to answer your question if I said that the concept of original sin does not exist in Judaism?

Yes, I'm answering a question with a question. I'm Jewish. :P

Faramond wrote:
But if someone views his or her own Jewishness as acceptance of the Torah, then there must also be freedom to walk away from that.

I am not the best source here, but personally "acceptance of the Torah" does not ring right to me. It's more "inheritance" than acceptance. It's being part to something handed down over millennia. Like the prodigal son of the parable, one can turn away, run away from that inheritance, but it's there, waiting to be picked up.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 8:07 pm 
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Frelga: Jn, I really don't see how your second paragraph follows from the first. The reasoning behind The Law of Return, at least in part, was to provide a shelter to anyone who would have been endangered due to their Jewish identity, as perceived by themselves or those around them.

I was referring only to that one suggestion that vulernability to persecution should be the formal criterion for the Law of Return; not that the Law of Return itself validates self-hatred. I hope that was not misunderstood.

Previous persecutions had been about our non-acceptance of Christianity. The Holocaust was about blood percentages - something over which no person has control. The Nazis were able to create a new definition of Judaism and enforce it by violence. I believe that incorporating that definition into our own identity has/could/will damage our personal sense of autonomy. Incorporating it into our political definition, though desirable from one perspective, is complicated.

The Nazi definition of Jewishness, so precise about ancestry, was completely arbitrary with respect to individual identity. People who had been born Christian and raised Christian and considered Christian by everyone were declared Jews and sent to the camps. These folks were actually among the earliest targets. Arbitrary consequence is especially damaging to personality no matter what form it takes, but just as importantly, now that we have our own political entity, how should we think about those people? They would be martyred as Jews without being Jews. How ought a Law of Return treat them? I’d like to think we would take them in, but Israel was created to be a Jewish State, not a state for Jews and people mistaken for Jews. Clearly those people are not Jews - no one says they are except their persecutors - and aren’t motivated to build a Jewish state. So there’s something both neccessary and nonsensical about making the Law of Return the antidote for persecution in its modern form.

Enter the opposite extreme - the Orthdox Right. I concede that they are at least partly motivated by the halacha, and worry about the legitimacy of marriages and so forth, but I have to ask myself: now that they’ve gotten what they wanted and the Law of Return excludes Reform and Conservative converts, if there were another persecution would Israel really close its doors to those wives and husbands and mothers and children who go to Temple? How could anything be more antithetical to Judaism than that?

And remember that under the new law we are not just talking about the woman who converted yesterday in some American Temple, but also the grandmother who left Europe with her husband during the Holocaust and raised her children as Jews in Israel without ever bothering to convert. Now there are three generations of ‘born Jews,’ Sabras, who are disqualified and don’t know it. And it’s not as if the Orthodox community is looking the other way where they are concerned. They are researching public documents and even digging up graves to remove the taint of the goy. It is beyond insanity. It is almost a mirror image of the Nuremburg Laws ... and I fear that in a scary, deep, psychological way there is a family relationship between them that we have not yet been able to bring ourselves to address as a community.

Gazed at from yet another direction, if a Jew could convert to some other religion and, as a result, really no longer be considered a Jew by non-Jews, that person would not need to be covered by any ‘persecution clause’ in the Law of Return. In such a circumstance we also would not need to debate for 48 years who does and does not qualify under the Law of Return because no one who did not qualify would be using it for asylum.

So, what I was trying to say is that I believe we have been trapped by someone else’s definition of us, and it is this circumstance that threatens the health of personal identity, imo.

I don’t believe that there really is such a thing as ‘Jewish self-hatred,’ that is, some syndrome unique to Jews. I think it is an unpleasant name for a different, universal phenomenon, whereby internalizing someone else’s bizarre definition of us necessarily erodes our sense of control over our own life choices.

African Americans have a similar problem in more visible form. Their inescapable identity is used to discriminate against them and a corresponding ‘self-hatred’ phenomenon is a recognized problem within the Black community.

I also don't see how any other ethnicity can "expunge" itself ...

I should have said “other white ethnicity.”

At some point in the assimilation process, other people lose their ability to identify your ethnicity unless you tell them what it is. For people who desire assimilation, I think that’s the goal.

Of course, only a white person can disappear into a white crowd. But as American becomes less white, even physical appearance becomes less of a defining factor. Third generation Asians who are culturally assimilated? I suspect that their ethnicity is barely noticed by friends and co-workers. But I’m white myself, so I can’t really know how other physically identifiable ethnic groups experience assimilation.

Jn

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 24, 2006 4:08 pm 
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This is a very interesting thread, and of course my point of view is deeply influenced by my Germaness… I am sorry if my post does not reach the intellectual level of this thread.

When I was a child, I wanted to be Jewish. Not for any religious or spiritual reason, but to escape the curse of being a murderer and descendant of potential murderers. I wanted to be on the side of the victims, of the innocent. Now, of course has played a great role in that that my grandmother was openly a Nazi – not that she had actively done any persecutions… but she supported the spirit. When my uncle married a French Jewish woman, I was so proud. My cousins had Bar Mitzvahs… It was like getting closer to the Promised Land. Yet, within the family it created a great conflict.

For years, when I was with strangers only, I liked to use the fact that I have a biblical name, Miriam, to pretend that I am Jewish. My children are named Samuel and Benjamin, my sister’s children Simon and Marc-David – I don’t think it’s by chance. I wore a “chai” (Hebrew letter) for years. It seemed inappropriate for me to wear a David’s Star (do you say so in English?), especially because I am German. But I liked to create a doubt about my identity. My sister spent twice several months in a kibbutz in Israel…

But I never learned a lot about Jewish spirituality until I read Jnyusa’s or Impy’s posts. Not even my aunt ever taught us something about me, nor did she talk about what it meant to be Jewish – but not an Ashkenazi – and to live in Germany.

I think that it is a question if you define Jewish as a religion – in which case conversion is in my opinion not different from conversion to any other religion – or if you define Jewish as an ethnicity which might in fact come from the Nuremberg laws… But Jnyusa, in the French speaking part of the world, especially in Geneva, many families have never been touched by the Holocaust – either because they are Sepharadim or because they are Swiss. And yet, I have hardly ever seen such strong Jewish identities. We even had students fasting in Prague, because it was Yom Kippur. How do you bring in agreement your first post and those, who, even Jewish don’t have Ashkenazi roots and thus no Holocaust connection – but are so clearly and fully Jewish?

Oh, and I have given up my desire. In fact, although agnostic, I am aware that my protestant education is important to explain who I am. A European, protestant education, I must say.

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Nin, that was a beautiful post! :hug:

When I lived in Germany, I appreciated that culture very much. And I felt a great deal of empathy for the younger generation that had to struggle with their relationship to that moment in history they have inherited. I think that the problem for the modern German is very similar to the problem for the modern Jew: we have to not allow our identity to be engulfed by the events of that one period but consider the whole of who we have been throughout history.

I think that it is a question if you define Jewish as a religion – in which case conversion is in my opinion not different from conversion to any other religion – or if you define Jewish as an ethnicity which might in fact come from the Nuremberg laws… But Jnyusa, in the French speaking part of the world, especially in Geneva, many families have never been touched by the Holocaust – either because they are Sepharadim or because they are Swiss. And yet, I have hardly ever seen such strong Jewish identities. We even had students fasting in Prague, because it was Yom Kippur. How do you bring in agreement your first post and those, who, even Jewish don’t have Ashkenazi roots and thus no Holocaust connection – but are so clearly and fully Jewish?

Allow me to clarify two things.

First, there is no Jew living today who is unconnected to the Holocaust. It touches everyone.

By 'connection' with regard to converts, I meant the potential for having been a victim. If those Swiss Jews had lived over the border in Germany, they would have been killed. And they grow up knowing this. That is not true for the non-Jew who converts.

When Jews say that a convert cannot know what it is like to be Jewish even if they know everything about Judaism, what they are saying, I think, is that one can't know what it is like to grow up knowing one would have been a victim if one has not actually lived with this.

I think there is a certain amount of validity to this, but I also think that it is important not to make too much of it. There is more than one kind of suffering in the world. It is a small death of empathy to say that no one else could possibly know how I feel about suffering because they were not touched in by that one event.

Second, I did not mean to imply that our ethnicity derives from the Nuremberg laws. There was Jewish cultural identity for thousands of years before there was Nuremberg. But one can assimilate to that culture the same as one would assimilate to any other culture. It does not happen completely for the convert themselves, perhaps, but certainly for their children. And by the third generation the non-Jewish origin of a grandparent is likely forgotten, by the Jews themselves at least. But when we talk about the difficulty of assimilating to Jewish culture, it is not this we are talking about, I think, but rather the background of modern persecutions which might be difficult for a non-Jew to fully appreciate.

Jn

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:45 pm 
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I'm not sure what I have to add is relevant ... but ... because of this thread I separately asked each of my Jewish friends ( a couple of whom have converted spouses) if they consider the converted to be Jews.

All of them, after some hemming and hawing, replied similarly and said no: A Jew is defined by more than holding a belief in the religious tenets of Judaism and no convert, regardless of sincerity or knowledge, is ever really accepted as a Jew.

The five people I asked are all thoughtful, intelligent professionals ... an infinitesimal number out of 13 million worldwide.

Atheistic or agnostic Jews do not (in my experience) ever renounce the cultural, ethnic or racial identity. No matter what their personal belief system, they, first and foremost, consider themselves Jews.

Nin, I second Jn. That was a lovely post. :)

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 24, 2006 9:32 pm 
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Sass, do your friends practice their religion?

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 25, 2006 12:05 am 
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All are reform and all except one belong to Temple and although none of them attend beyond the obligatory High Holy days, all of their children are Mitzvahed (is that the correct term for both boys and girls?) and all contribute financially to the local Jewish community.

Of the five, two say they doubt the existence of God. One of these two was a major financial contributor to the Temple renovation. When I asked why (since he isn't a believer) he said he felt it important that Jewish traditions were continued ... and expressed a regret that his children would most likely marry gentiles. (!)

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They sound pretty typical to me! :D

I had two good friends when I lived in Ohio, the woman was from South Africa and had been born Jewish and her husband was from the US and had converted. They belonged to the conservative synagogue, which is where I met them, but were really uncomfortable there because of the way the husband was treated. They finally moved to a slightly larger city in Ohio where there was a larger Jewish community and joined the orthodox synagogue there. They said that the level of acceptance was world's away from what they had experienced in the C. synagogue. They also had three adopted children, who were apparently welcomed much more warmly by the orthodox community.

I don't know how to evaluate that difference really. Perhaps if one is very religious oneself, then it is less threatening to acknowledge a co-religionist who comes from a different culture? But if one is culturally Jewish without actually believing in the religion, then a convert whose Jewishness is purely religious feels more alien?

But ... the story had a very sad ending. There was something not quite kosher about this family. She had either had a sex-change operation or was living as a permanent transvestite (is that the right word?).Those of us who knew them well figured out pretty early on that there was more to their story than what appeared on the surface. We never found out whether she was surgically altered or simply a physical man living life as a woman ... I remember talking about it among our mutual friends and agreeing that there was so much love between the two of them and for their children that it would be beyond impertinence to question how they had arrived at this arrangement. Whatever they were underneath their clothes, they were a great couple and a great family.

Well, whatever the underlying truth was, they either naively revealed it to someone in their new synagogue or else were found out surreptitiously, and they were ejected from the community in a very ugly way. They actually had to move out of their house and into an apartment because of harrassment ... I drove with a friend to visit them right after this happened ... they were both so bitter, and said that at that point in time they felt there was no community where they would be able to practice their religion because either he would be discriminated against or else she would be. It was their intention to give up trying to belong to a Jewish community. And they did in fact move away and told none of us where they were going. I never saw or heard from them again. (And have many lingering questions ... e.g. whether anyone pursued them to take their children away. I suspect that is the reason they vanished without a trace - to avoid that happening.)

Anyway, I rather doubt that they would have been ejected with such ferocity from a Conservative or Reform community.

We all harbor areas of tolerance and areas of bigotry I guess. Just depends on what window you happen to look through.

Jn

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I seem to have a much easier time keeping up with threads that other people have started than my own threads. :scratch: I wonder why that is?

Impy,

I certainly understand, TP, how one can feel Jewish without being able to accept all the tenets of the theology, because Judaism is more an idea, I think. It encompasses a particular view of the world, a philosophy of living that, while based on Torah, has become over the eons something that much more. One can subscribe to that world view, to the values and ethics encompassed in that philosophy, without actually believing in God.

I think I understand what you are saying here. There is an Idea of Judaism that is powerful and moving to me, even as I hover uncertain about the existence and the nature of the Divine Being said to have originated the religion. As was alluded to in Cerin's Jewish afterlife thread, Judaism focuses - in a lot of ways - far more on the here-and-now, on the ushering-in of the Messianic Age here on Earth, than on an afterlife about which none of us can be fully informed. Perhaps that is part of the reason that "agnostic Jew" does not feel quite so oxymoronic as, say, "agnostic Christian" (although I continue to believe that "agnostic Jewish convert" is a contradiction in terms). Even the born Jew lacking faith can feel a powerful connection to his spiritual roots through, say, a loose conception of tikkun olam.

Still, I trace the beginning of this journey back to when I was seven, tiptoeing up to the bimah of the synagogue in which I was taking violin lessons and praying that I could be Jewish one day. They had a printed Torah lying open, there, and I remember the surge of excitement I felt, seeing the Hebrew words on one side, and the English words that were familiar to me on the other. (:scratch: I really don't think that is normal behavior for Christian children.) As I said, I don't place more than anecdotal weight on that, but it's there.

Jn,

I hadn't put two-and-two together to realize that you would have needed to convert formally, as an adopted child. My understanding is that you do not/have not lived as Orthodox, and that makes me wonder - did you run into any obstacles in obtaining a halachic conversion? As I mentioned in LBL yesterday, a major source of angst for me has been this issue of halachic vs. nonhalachic conversion. After years of struggling with this, I have finally reconciled that there is no way under the sun that my beliefs on gender roles/women/feminism and sexuality can ever square with Orthodox Judaism, and I would be lying to myself to pretend otherwise. This would seem to be a significant obstacle to a conversion supervised by any Orthodox rabbi, unless I flat-out lied about my intentions and beliefs - not typically a good way to enter a new religion.

And...I question the validity of a non-halachic conversion (I know that you said you didn't). This goes back to what I was posting in the other thread yesterday. I can accept that if you are born a Jew, you remain a Jew regardless of your beliefs. I can accept that if you voluntarily embrace part-and-parcel of traditional Judaism - all of the 613 mitzvot that are possible in the Temple's absence - you become Jewish. What I'm not sure about is what happens if you selectively embrace aspects of traditional Judaism, via a conversion to Conservative/Reconstructionist/Reform Judaism. I guess the question is, can you embrace less than 100% of traditional Judaism and yet *become* Jewish when you were not before?

I spent probably three years in college agonizing over this question. Everyone around me - the Reform Jews who made up most of my college's Hillel, the local Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis, the non-Jews I knew - thought the answer was obvious: of course you could. At the time, though, Israeli law said you could not, and of course the Orthodox said you could not. I decided to wait until law school, because I knew the Jewish community in the Boston area was infinitely more dynamic than the one in my hometown, and I wanted to explore Orthodox Judaism more. (This probably sounds laughable to you who have heard my political views now, but I was far more conservative and tradition-focused before beginning law school.) Jn, I did find as you described - the Orthodox are far more welcoming of prospective converts than Liberal Jewry as a whole. In particular, Orthodox Jewish female students and women in their twenties and thirties were so welcoming, friendly, willing to converse at length, eager to share whatever knowledge and insights they could, and very generous in welcoming me (and others) into their homes for Shabbat dinner. And, of course, as with all branches of Judaism - no pressure whatsoever regarding conversion. As a result of those months of exploration, my respect for Orthodox Jews vastly exceeds my respect for all other religious denominations so far to the right. Truly, an incredible group of people, by and large.

I am sorry, although not terribly surprised, to hear of the Orthodox treatment of your transgender friend's family. (To answer your question - transgender or transgendered is the preferred term for people who are born with the bodies of one sex and who identify as/live as the opposite gender. Transvestites are fetishistic cross-dressers.) My understanding is that Orthodox Judaism does not recognize any sexuality other than heterosexuality, nor any gender identity other than cisgender identity (i.e. where your gender identity matches your birth sex). I, too, doubt that your friend would have received quite that treatment from a Conservative community - she would almost certainly not have met with that reception from a Reform community.

I want to question your statement that converts to Judaism would not have been victims of the Holocaust. My understanding was that Jews who had converted, who had married into the community, etc were very much victims. I have read of some rare cases in which one-time converts successfully disclaimed their ties to Judaism in order to escape death, but for the most part, I thought that they shared the fate of their adopted community. Certainly, in conversion classes today, prospective converts are urged by rabbis to think about what they are doing in voluntarily becoming members of a disfavored social group - I have heard that in some synagogues, would-be converts are confronted with classes on the Holocaust, and asked to think carefully about the identity they are considering assuming - not only on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of whatever children they might have.

Also, non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel are sufficient to give converts the Right of Return, by the way.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4396285.stm)

Frelga,

TP, that's the best answer I can give you. As you know, I'm sure, there is a belief that the soul of every Jew ever to be born was present at the moment of the receiving of Torah. I don't know how much of my genes are "Jewish", and I don't think that it matters in any practical sense. But in the spiritual sense, it matters a great deal.

Does that apply to a convert? I think it does. As the group of desert wanderers accepted the Torah, so does a modern convert choose to shoulder his or her part of the burden and the privilege.


Brilliantly well put.

OK, that's only a small part of what I have to say (I have a lot more to say about Sassy's point and Jn's response in particular), but I really should get going. Looking forward to continuing on with this discussion. Thanks so much to all who have contributed such thoughtful posts to this thread!

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