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Open a Secular Door to Judaism

When the bomb was thrown 22 years ago, many were aghast: Surely it would lead to an irreparable schism in the Jewish people. Even within the Reform Jewish movement, from which the explosive decision known as “patrilineal descent” had emanated, there were cautionary voices.

The Reform rabbinate in Israel, as also Reform Hillel rabbis here in America, were either ruggedly opposed or, at the least, very skeptical of the wisdom of the movement’s new policy. They shared the fear insistently voiced by Orthodox officials, the fear that the policy would fracture Jewish unity.

Patrilineal descent: Traditionally, Jews have believed that a Jew is the offspring of a Jewish mother. In 1983, as the number of mixed marriages mushroomed, the Reform movement chose to expand the traditional definition. It simply would not do, not any longer, to hold that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man was automatically Jewish, while the child of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman was not. Henceforward, said Reform, the offspring of a Jewish father would qualify as a Jew, if and as the child participated in “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.”

(This policy led in at least one case to a curious result: A young couple, he Jewish and she the child of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother, presented themselves to his rabbi and asked that he marry them. But she had never participated in “formal acts of identification.” The rabbi reluctantly declined, since the Reform policy applied equally to mothers. The couple then turned to an Orthodox rabbi, who had no problem at all, since the young woman was halachically Jewish.)

In any event, the results of the new Reform policy were considerably less drastic than had been predicted. People of “questionable” lineage who want to marry an Orthodox Jew can convert, just as they could before 1983. Still, there is reason to believe that the dramatic drop in the number of conversions (which traditionally were much more frequently between a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man) owes to the policy of accepting the children of mixed unions as Jews, and there is also evidence that the children of such couples (that is, of a mixed marriage without a conversion) are less likely to be raised as or to think of themselves as Jews.

This is all background for pushing the envelope. In my experience, numbers of non-Jewish people who are in a relationship with Jews are reluctant to consider converting because they cannot honestly say that they accept the religious principles that conversion requires them to accept. Some eventually convert anyway, hiding their crossed fingers; others marry their beloved but remain distant from Judaism and the Jewish people because they have “failed” (actually, absented themselves from) the entrance exam.

And others? Some move out and on, others go along with their mate’s preference and themselves participate in the Jewish life to which their mate remains loyal; and sometimes that is adequate, even comfortable, and often it is as if they are experiencing Judaism through a gauze partition, inside in body, outside in spirit.

Now: There is some confusion of terms here. “Judaism” typically refers to the Jewish religious system, whereas “the Jewish people” means a Judaism that is principally cultural, or perhaps just sociological; ethnic, we usually call it. One can, of course, convert to Judaism, but there is no way to convert to Jewish peoplehood. You are without formal religious belief, yet your spouse is Jewish and you reject the idea that blood descent is a meaningful way of differentiating human being one from the other, and you love the Jewish saga and want to be part of it, want to be among those who live that saga and extend it? Then we resolutely say, you must convert.

Is there not something awry in insisting that the only door through which one can enter Judaism is a door marked “religion,” especially since those born Jewish may be agnostics or atheists or, these days, even Buddhists yet still be counted — and count themselves — as Jews?

So why not spend some time thinking through what a secular conversion might entail? It would have to require more than “I want to be Jewish,” and it would for sure not involve developing a taste for pastrami or learning a valise-full of Yiddish expressions. Although it would not demand belief in the texts, it might require familiarity with them.

De facto, this seems to be what the Reform movement is doing, as it welcomes the non-converted spouses of Jewish members, seeks to embrace them, in some synagogues is agreeable to their serving on committees and even the board, offers them pulpit honors and such. But much as the American synagogue is the central institution of our community, it is not the exclusive address nor in all cases the appropriate address. We need other communal institutions and venues — JCCs, chavurot, grass-root efforts not yet imagined, let alone realized.

Nor need our efforts be restricted to prospective spouses of Jewish men and women. Each of us knows, outside the framework that romantic involvement provides, people who have converted out of respect for what the Jews have said and done, for what Jews say and do. Others — no one knows how many — though reluctant or opposed to identifying with “organized religion,” may be willing to become Jewish in other meaningful ways. Ought we not search for ways to welcome them?

Plainly, such an idea requires extended discussion, well beyond what can here be argued. As plainly, I believe, it merits such discussion.


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