Identity, Religion

Loving the Stranger, Even When He's Estranged

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed some radical reconfiguring of my own views on inclusivity and exclusivity in Jewish community and Jewish tradition. I’ve become much more conscious of the ways we speak about Jews of multiple heritages, Jews born into other faiths, etc.
From the time I was a kid (I’m going to guess the seventh grade, when we spent a year of Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust), I have been very uncomfortable by any reference to Jews as a race. (“That’s how Hitler defined us!” I was trained to think.) But I never really thought about the concept of “Jewish Blood” as anything other than metaphor until BatyaD objected to the phrase in a comment on this blog.
Her comment got me thinking about the way we speak of converts. There’s a somewhat accepted, conventional (dare I say “traditional?”) narrative of the “Jewish soul” that many people use to conceptualize conversion into the Jewish faith. Somehow, the idea that converts were born Jewish but just didn’t know it yet is supposed to make someone feel more comfortable about including them in the Jewish people. This bothers me. If someone finds that the teachings of Judaism feel like the appropriate framework for her life, and wants to cast her lot in with the Jewish people, I don’t know what benefit there is to say “it was predestined.” Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway.
But there’s another problem with this creepy Jewish soul business. Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?) are those insisting that if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish no matter whether you renounce Judaism or take on some other religion or no religion or what have you. This, to me, feels hypocritical. I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path. Either souls can get born into the “wrong” religion or not. Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not.
I know I’m largely (but not entirely) preaching to the choir here, but I had to get this off my chest. I feel better already.

14 thoughts on “Loving the Stranger, Even When He's Estranged

  1. I know it sounds cheesy and weird but that predestined stuff really resonated with me and many of the converts I know. I’ve been wanting to convert since I was 13 years old. At 8, I was watching The Ten Commandments as a religious experience. It really does feel like I’ve come home.

  2. Well, much of religion sounds cheesy and weird, so there’s that. And in this case, I think it’s less cheesy and weird as a self-descriptive narrative than when it’s a way for the establishment to make themselves (ourselves?) feel better about loosening boundaries. In the latter case, I think there’s a potentially harmful hidden message there.

  3. Glad you feel better.
    First off as Aliza Hausman commented many converts really do feel a sense of homecoming and return when they complete their entrance into Judaism.
    You said: “Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?)…”
    Oh, come on. That’s just lazy theology. Obviously, if somebody had a kind of metaphysical ‘Jewish soul’ and was born non-Jewish then there’s a reason for it. The Torah itself mentions converts explicitly and repeatedly.
    Y’also said: “I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path….”
    That’s because Judaism, or maybe better the people Israel, are not exclusively determined by ideology or exclusively by blood.
    It’s kind of like American citizenship. If you’re born into it, you’re born into it and that’s that. If you’re not born into it but believe in the principles, commit yourself to furthering them and cast your lot with the country, then you’re in — just as much as anybody who was born into it.
    Once you’re born into a family, you’re born into it too — and that bond exists eternally. But if you want to marry into another family then you’re also in that one for good. And if it’s a good family you’ll also feel like you’ve arrived home. (And even if you later get divorced you’ll always be known in that family as “Cousin Jane’s ex-husband…” You’re still there even when you’re not.)
    Every human has the self-sovereignty to choose whatever path or framework on this Earth that they want. But as far as the Torah is concerned no matter where they may go or what they may do someone who is Jewish remains existentially and eternally a part of the family of Israel.

  4. Obviously, the God makes mistakes comment was sarcasm, not theology. I’ll be more careful to use emoticons in the future to make sure that’s clear to the readership.
    Eric, one can renounce one’s American citizenship. In fact, Israel’s current ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, did just that.
    As someone who’s stayed within the same faith that I was born into, I can’t speak to personal experience with regards to your family metaphor, but while I suspect that holds for some, I also suspect it doesn’t hold for others. And there’s a big difference between saying “I’m a Catholic with a Jewish history” and “I’m a Catholic, but I’m also Jewish” and “That guy might think he’s Catholic, but we all know that he’s really eternally Jewish.”

  5. Terrific post, dlevy.
    Eric, when you say “Obviously, if somebody had a kind of metaphysical ‘Jewish soul’ and was born non-Jewish then there’s a reason for it.”, what do you mean? I.e. are you saying that person was born not-Jewish for a reason even if they were “destined” to be Jewish? Assuming the whole destiny thing is true, as dlevy explores in the post, why would they not have just been born into the religion in the first place? Is there some value to conversion that those of us born in don’t have?

  6. I think we run into difficulty with this question partly because in the modern (dare I say “post-modern”?) world we think of religion as a separate category from the rest of the life of a people. In former times, being born of Jewish or Christian parents (for example), meant something fundamental about one’s nature and even one’s physical being. Moving from one faith to another meant altering oneself in these fundamental ways, not just changing a set of intellectual assents. So Jews (and others) did not separate “religion” from the rest of life, at least until Enlightenment thought filtered down to masses of people in 19th century Europe. So conversion involved (and still does) both taking on what we call religious practice, and also adoption into the Jewish people.
    I find myself drawn to this notion of Jews as a people — or as an extended family — rather than just as adherents of the Jewish faith. This idea is supported by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, among many others. It releases us from the need to consider Jews a race, while accounting for the idea that there is something distinctive about being a Jew that does not fade if we convert or leave religion altogether. For example, a Jew who becomes a Christian is frequently referred to as a Jewish Christian, or a Christian Jew. In my experience, it’s rare to find such a person called a former Jew. Is this racism, or an acknowledgment of a social truth? Hard to say.
    The idea of Jews being a people/family allows for converts to be adopted in without our needing to resort to the Jewish-but-didn’t-know-it mentality (although I know that’s a strong feeling among some converts and don’t entirely discount it, as “soul” need not be equated with “blood”). Just as an adopted child is accepted as a family member, so converts can be fully welcomed into the family. Or people. Or tribe.
    Weirdly enough, maybe “member of the tribe” actually works better than concepts of race or blood.

  7. Yeah, a tribe, aka an ethnic group; sharing much cultural and linguistic commonality along with a shared religion, and of course a good bit of variation in all of that too. As for the concept of separate races of humans, that is just a social construct which is easily debunked by the fact that there is far more variation within any perceived “races” than between them. The idea of Jews being a race is particularly absurd considering all the conversions over the millenniums; throughout Mesopotamia as mentioned in the Book of Esther, the Berber tribes, when Christianity didn’t save Rome, and so on. I think having a rich heritage and culture should be enough to forgo any compulsion for straining science to claim common blood our promoting theological conjecture about unique souls.

  8. I agree with you kyleb. I wish we could lose “race” as a construct, but we seem to have adopted it as a linguistic convention, at least in the U.S. Sad.
    Just want to point out that tribe is not the same as ethnic group, as your discussion about the ethnic variations among Jews demonstrates so well. A tribe can be made up of individuals of varying ethnicity, and there can be many tribes that are ethnically linked. Also, you can’t be adopted into an ethnic group as you can into a tribe.

  9. Is this a question of semantics? Would calling us a nation instead of a race answer? I derive tremendous comfort, concretely and abstractly, from the notion that I can find Jews around the world with whom I have a shared vocabulary and a shared understanding, no matter the differences in minhag or observance-and it’s a different feeling when I run into co-religionists rather than fellow countrymen.
    The notion of remaining Jewish, btw, doesn’t stem from some desire to falsely inflate our census numbers or to claim a level of religious superiority. Remember that keeping the door open to Jewish identity is intended to keep clear the path of t’shuvah, and it comes more from the practice of forced conversion than chosen conversion. Rather than slamming the door behind those who leave, this concept of remaining Jewish helps to clear the way for those who want to return. The mistake is in assuming chauvinism when in truth we’re talking about compassion.
    I’m willing to bet you that any ger out there can share stories from when he or she was made to feel less-than because of his or her choices. You might be creeped out by a folk narrative (one that I challenge is not normative, widely-accepted, or traditional) about a Jewish soul, but if it helps break down the resistance that the ffbs have to converts, I say more power to it.
    Shabbat shalom, all!

  10. It’s not that G-d makes mistakes, it’s that he likes to mess with us. Putting Jews in non-Jewish bodies, giving big men small penises, sending tsunamis on the poorest people in the world, it’s all part of a divine sense of humor we’re just too small to understand. But we can’t get offended, otherwise he’ll send another horrible pogrom against us.

  11. Thank you for this post. I used to have a friend who, though born to Jewish parents and raised Jewish, didn’t see himself as Jewish – and the better I got to know him, the more I agreed with his self-assessment. (Most Jews, or at least a lot of us, wouldn’t have agreed.)
    I agree with your premise. People who are perfectly comfortable describing a convert as Jewish from the start are only willing to describe someone who’s left Judaism as “off the derech.” It is a double standard.

  12. BatyaD, if you check the definitions of the two terms in question, you’ll see that characteristics of ethnicity do not resist adoption, and I believe you will find it and “tribe” are reasonably synonymous. As Aaron noted, it is a matter of semantics, though I contest that “nation” is too narrow of a term in its modern connotation, and applying concept of “race” to distinguish between groups of humans is not scientifically sound. Tribe also has the narrow connotation issue, which is why I prefer “ethnic group”.
    koheleth, chalking it up to humor seems unnecessarily cynical to me. I maintain that we are simply not position to judge the works of God. To exemplify this, I recommend The Story of the Taoist Farmer.

  13. “Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway”.
    As one of 13 principles of faith, believing in the coming of Moshiach is a predestined event. Freedom of choice is something we do have and how we make our choices effects the path… to the destination.
    While that may also seem disingenuous or hypocritical to you it is as you put it: “Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not”.
    Its the result that we cannot change… as well as who we are. A man can’t determine he is a turkey, at least it wouldnt be TRUE. The reality does not change based on what we may or may not understand… you cant expect to completely understand “G-d” which by definition is not even realistic. The concept of understanding is based on a personal (limited) level.
    Lets not get into a whole “why bother trying to understand anything” conversation because the idea is to understand what we can and strive for a bit more, but Its just as important to realize our shortcomings.

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