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Do Jewish converts have to believe in God?

A recent Alma column by an atheist convert to Judaism has provoked intense reactions

In a recent essay on the Jewish feminist site Alma, a young woman explained that she had converted to Judaism while maintaining her atheist beliefs.

Abby Jo Morris grew up an evangelical Christian. While she no longer believes in God, she incorporates aspects of Jewish spirituality, culture and customs into her life, including blessings of gratitude.

The online discourse that followed her essay’s publication was intense. Some wrote that a conversion devoid of true religious belief is invalid, and took offense at the entire essay. A fellow convert tweeted that enjoying the community and traditions of Judaism is not sufficient reason to convert. To her, Jewish theology and observance itself should be the selling point for converts.

I believe that boundaries are important and that we need certain guardrails in order to maintain Jewish community and identity. Becoming Jewish is a big deal, and it should require significant investment, commitment and learning on the part of the person converting. There are serious rabbinic and legal issues surrounding conversion, and these issues are too challenging to distill in such a short piece. But the Alma piece — and the reactions to it — afford us an important opportunity to examine our expectations of people who convert to Judaism. 

I cannot speak to the relationship between atheism and the conversion process. But to expect every convert to be a walking billboard for a totally uncomplicated Jewish life and identity is unreasonable. As someone who converted, I believe that as a community we should build our tolerance to stories such as this one. While reading it can make us tense and defensive, the experience also reminds us that Jewish identity is complicated, even for the people who choose it. And that is okay.

People who convert to Judaism are as human and imperfect as any other Jews. And like any other Jews, converts are entitled to complex, nuanced understandings of their spiritual journeys. As with any long-term commitment, there will be moments when you feel ecstasy and jubilation, but other times when you might feel uncertainty and regret.

Jewish atheists certainly exist, as do a wide range of beliefs about God in the Jewish community. Only one-quarter of American Jews believe in God as described in the Bible, according to the most recent Pew study of American Jews. Critics of Morris don’t seem to be concerned with people who are born Jewish and don’t believe in God, but with someone appearing to have culturally appropriated Jewish identity as an adult newcomer to the community.

Morris herself admits that she has worried about culturally appropriating Judaism. However, reflecting upon her experiences, Morris concludes that Judaism is simply the right fit for her. She says, “I just love it. I love being Jewish and eating Jewish food and singing Jewish melodies. I am Jewish and, in some ways, feel like I always have been. I certainly always will be.”

To me, if a person feels a deep cultural pull toward Judaism and simultaneously wants to take on the obligations and disadvantages of being Jewish by converting, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As humans, we have a limited understanding of the guiding spiritual forces that could create that sort of attraction in a person. Besides, converting leaves open the door for those people to potentially expand their relationship with religious Judaism if they want to do so later.

No one’s life is static. Conversion, I believe, should provide a helpful educational foundation from which one can continue to grow Jewishly long after the process is complete.

When you convert, you make yourself vulnerable. Becoming a Jew is a powerful change with many consequences, not all of them always stellar. And it is never a good idea to require newcomers to perform their Jewishness in order to prove that they belong.

Giving potential newcomers a little more “breathing room” — not expecting them to have perfect, unquestioning relationships with their Judaism — would be a helpful start in creating more emotional safety for all Jews in the community.

The way I tend to conceptualize Jewish conversion is more along the lines of joining a people with a shared destiny than a religious transformation. If you have ever attended a U.S. citizenship ceremony, you know what a moving and special experience it is. When I attended one, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude and pride regarding my American roots and identity. OK, I cried my eyes out.

Do I expect all new United States citizens to be perfect Americans? No. Do I anticipate that all new citizens to only speak well of being American, and approve of everything the United States government does since they should just feel lucky to be “one of us” now? Of course not.

Would the expectation that newly naturalized immigrants adopt all our customs perfectly and enthusiastically, all of the time and unquestioningly, be unjust? Yes.

I think there are certain things we Americans shouldn’t compromise on, such as a shared sense of duty, compassion, loyalty and civic responsibility. I believe most people can fulfill those expectations.

I think it’s time for a more realistic treatment of new Jewish “citizens” as well.

To contact the author, email [email protected]

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