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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

CONVERSION? ADOPTION? HOW HUMANISTIC JEWS VIEW "JOINING THE TRIBE"

If you were one of the millions of fans of HBO's "Sex and the City" you probably remember television's most famous conversion to Judaism. It began with a visit by Charlotte York, one of the four main characters, to a synagogue:


Charlotte : Hello, My name is Charlotte York and I am interested in joining the Jewish faith.


Rabbi : Sorry, we're not interested.


Ultimately, Charlotte was admitted to the "tribe" but not before going through intensive classes, facing more rejection, living as a Jew for more than a year, facing more rejection, marrying a Jewish man, and facing more rejection. You get the idea.


Her rabbi's initial response aligns with the myth that rabbis are required to reject potential converts three times to test their ardor. In fact, ancient Jews were frequently quite active proselytizers. The Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers of second-century B.C.E. Judea even imposed forced conversion on their conquered neighbors!


When the rabbinical class rose to power sometime later, it sought converts quite actively (though never by force). Their success rates were uneven. Plenty of their failures were the result of requiring circumcision, quite the high price of entry (and why women joined more frequently). With the rise of Christianity, however, most Jewish communities were forbidden to convert new members and that was that. External prohibitions evolved into internal reticence.


Charlotte's disinterested rabbi became the norm.


Now contrast his response with a description of Rabbi Wine's interaction with a potential new entrant to the Jewish scene:


He held his palm up under his mouth and quickly expelled a puff of air as if he was blowing fairy dust at me. This was followed by the proclamation, "Poof! You're Jewish!"


This particular memory of how he accepted newcomers reflects Humanistic Judaism's openness to anyone who "identifies with the history, culture, and future of the Jewish people," as our congregational mission statement proclaims.


Yet while some may recall Rabbi Wine doing something like this (and I've done it too!) he was actually not quite so flippant about the significance of a ceremony or other rituals to welcome people into our Jewish community. In fact, he advocated creating ceremonies because of the importance they have always had for newcomers and the communities that welcome them. Rituals, he taught, provide newcomers with the kind of recognition of membership that Jews from birth experience through their earlier ceremonies. For the community they also present an opportunity to embrace new members.


In conventional Jewish communities, conversion ceremonies have several requirements. For both men and women, these include appearing before a beit din - a ritual court (usually comprised of three rabbis) and engaging in ritual immersion in a mikvah - a ritual pool (or open-air substitute like the ocean, a river, etc.). For men there is the additional requirement of circumcision or, if already circumcised, having a tiny amount of blood taken from the site of the earlier procedure.


Of the major conventional movements, Reform Judaism is the only one that does not require these elements. However, the vast majority of Reform rabbis urge their converts to undergo them if for no other reason than to obtain recognition of their conversion by movements to their right. (Forget about Orthodox Judaism. They only recognize Orthodox conversions and many times not even those.)


A Humanistic Jewish welcoming ceremony is unlikely to include any of those elements (except perhaps for the ritual immersion which I've heard has been offered on occasion). This makes it improbable that our newcomers will enjoy recognition as Jews by those to our right. Which is everyone. Nevertheless, Rabbi Wine's wisdom about offering such ceremonies—without requiring them—still stands.


Alongside discussions about how to avoid gatekeeping and our realism about how about the limited recognition of joining the Jewish people through our movement, we have also talked a great deal about what we should call the process of joining.


Outside of Humanistic Judaism, the undisputed English term is conversion, a word that Rabbi Wine felt was inappropriate to becoming a Jew. Conversion, he said, implies a change in belief. That's not really something that a humanist attracted to Humanistic Judaism is doing. He noted that our version is more like that of naturalization, affiliation, or adoption. Ultimately, our movement started using the language of adoption. Not about our communities adopting the newcomer, but about the newcomer adopting us.


While I certainly agree with the desire to abandon outdated language, I also believe that our new words should meet people's needs. In the case of becoming Jewish, adoption language is just not cutting it.


I think part of this is because when we think of adoption we think of a child being welcomed into a new family. The child is the adoptee, not the adopter. In our use of the word, the newcomers (analogous to the children) are the adopters. They are adopting the family. That is not a thing that children or newcomers do. With respect for the thought that has gone into this, I have found that adoption language is overly confusing. People are always going to say conversion. The word is too ingrained in our lexicon.


Sadly, the Hebrew nomenclature does not help us much. The word for a convert is ger. It probably derives from the sense of that word as sojourner, but it also happens to be the word for stranger. Oddly, to call a convert a stranger does not represent the attitude of the rabbis of old. They actually considered it a great transgression to bring up a proselyte's past, especially with any sense of derision. It turns out that just like the word convert, a term that does not quite fit our sensibilities, the word ger just stuck.


That said, no matter what word we choose, our ceremonies should still reflect the fact that what is really happening is an adoption by newcomers of their new community. My own  ceremonies emphasize the notion of affirmation. Celebrants affirm their sense of belonging to the Jewish people and our community affirms its embrace of a new member.


Humanistic Jews are far from disinterested in welcoming new members. Jewish culture has always been blessed by what they bring to us even as we hope, in return, to bless them with the beauty of our heritage. We are a tiny little people. At 15.7 million we comprise just 0.2% of the eight billion worldwide population. A culture cannot exist without members. Which is why, in the spirit of those ancient and more welcoming rabbis of old, we Humanistic Jews have opened our arms to embrace all who would join us.

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