Dec 29, 2009

I'm Probably Opening a Can of Worms ...

I'm about two seconds away from throwing myself into oncoming traffic. Okay, not really, but in my head it sounds like a marvelous end to my current project: editing a book manuscript. I'm such a kvetcher, but the amount of incredibly poor writing that exists in the world makes me want to cry. At this point, we're so reliant on technology and spell check and every other fancy widget out there that it's completely hopeless to assume that man will learn grammar or how to properly compose a sentence or not split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. But I digress. (Yes, it's okay to start a sentence with "but." And to put the punctuation inside the quotation mark. Wanna fight about it?)

At any rate, I'm here right now to discuss something that I came across in said editing project: the idea of the Jew by choice being someone who is a born Jew but that chooses not to completely dilute their identity completely into the secular, American (or whatever country you choose) persona. It's a really controversial topic (at least, it used to be) in the convert community, and I even spent some time discussing it with people at a former blog project of which I was a part.

Here's my opinion: if you're a born Jew, if your mother is Jewish or however you want to look at it genetically (patrilineal, etc.), then you're Jewish. You don't choose it, you just are. Few peoples in the world actually view the genetic/ethnic/etc. background of someone as defining who they are. You don't have to go through the conversion process, the irritation, the frustration, the not belonging, the years of confusion and a non-Jewish upbringing and the repercussions of not having those Jewish memories, etc. Even the most secular Jews-by-birth manage to have a latke or light a menorah or visit a synagogue. Maybe I'm too hardline? It's probably one of the few things I really am a hardass about. If you're born a Jew, you're a Jew, whether you choose to be religious/observant/shomer mitzvot, is a whole other story. Either way, you're Jewish.

This is a much bigger debate than I care to get into here, but let's just scratch the surface. Can a born-Jew be a Jew by choice? 


Anonymous said...

i cannot wait to read the responses on this one...still mulling it over.


Chaviva said...

Who knows, maybe someone will change my mind!

I'm not trying to antagonize -- just facilitate a conversation. I know there are people who really take this issue to heart and will be offended by my position and question. I just hope people come to the discussion to discuss, not fight.

YC said...

Read the following essay and see what you think:

Brother Daniel case by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein:

IF a Jew can "leave" and have no “Jewish sanctity" then yes- they can come back and "be a Jew by choice".

But that is a big if, see what RA"L has to say.

Chaviva said...

Very familiar with Brother Daniel, btw. Some things from the link you sent me.

"Halakhah's rejection of the apostate in these areas does not necessarily imply, however, that either here or elsewhere, he is considered a Gentile."

"Instinctively, I think, we feel that these aliens are not simply like Russian Cossacks or Mexican mestizos. We feel that halakhic obligations are relevant to them, and that, should they return to the fold, they would represent reformed prodigal children rather than fresh converts."

The ultimate conclusion, it looks like, by the author, is that one can dispense of one's Jewishness if there is no spiritual or active connection. However, I think that when that person returns to Judaism, they are not by any means a Jew by Choice in the sense that a convert -- grown up completely independent of Jewish culture/religion/society -- is a Jew by Choice.

Anonymous said...

You absolutely can be. I feel that I have more in common with converts than with many born Jews. I grew up in a largely secular family, aggressively secular in many respects. I was taught to support Israel, but that was about it. My parents had a sort of inborn yiddishkeit from growing up in Montreal, a city with a large and vibrant Jewish community, and from some objective hurdles that that put in their way- my Dad's class at McGill was the first that didn't have an admissions quota for Jews.
Growing up in St. Louis was different. Except for one stint at the JCCA preschool, I had no Jewish education or knowledge. I sometimes laugh at myself for things that I thought or for things that I didn't know. I first learned the aleph-bet in my freshman year at college.
My observance, which is currently mostly in the Conservative mode, and my knowledge, which includes doctoral-level work in Jewish studies, in completely dependent on my own choices and my own drive, and I find that I have the same strengths and gaps in my religious life that converts often do. I don't know many of the songs that people learned at camp. I had never seen people do the little up and down dip dance during Aleinu. I grew up eating cheeseburgers, and boy do I miss them.
Of course, since my mother is Jewish, I am too. Hitler would have come for me even if I were a catholic priest or something. But the same could be said of Jews by Choice. I don't know statistics about this, but I do know that non-Jews who married Jews (especially women) were considered race traitors and perhaps even worse than Jews. Being circumcised at 30 rather than 8 days wouldn't have saved anyone from Auschwitz. So I would say that while there are, of course, major differences in the experiences of Jews by birth and Jews by choice, it is possible for them to line up in more ways than not. - Jonathan

Chaviva said...

An interesting note, in most surveys of Jews in the United States, the individuals respond to the question "what is your religion?" with "Jewish." At the same time, in 2000, the American Religious Identification Survey asked, "would you describe your outlook as religious, somewhat religious, somewhat secular, or secular?" Forty-four percent of those who answered that their religion was "Jewish" also responded that they were "somewhat secular or secular."


@Jonathan Your point is valid. I know plenty of Jews who grew up completely secular. At the same time, they're still Jews. They might not be religious or even necessarily "Jew-ish." But you knew at least from when you were in preschool that you were a Jew, right? That's a start. I guess, as a convert, sometimes there's a feeling of marginalization, added onto the feelings of needing to keep up with the Joneses -- even the most secular Jewish Joneses that don't know jack about being Jewish, because at least they were granted the birthright. You know?

YC said...

re they are not by any means a Jew by Choice in the sense that a convert

This was the closest I could think of. A Baal Tshuva and a convert have a special place. Each their OWN special place.

Dr. Eviatar said...

I agree with @YC: a BT is not the same as a convert, which is the usual meaning of JBC. Even a Jew who grew up completely secular, if they knew they were Jewish, they have a different experience from that of a convert.

Maybe the term "Jew By Choice" needs to be defined more precisely.

Kol tuv, Hadass (lionsima on Twitter)

Carrie said...

In the Reform world, I've often heard people say that "In today's world, every Jew is a Jew By Choice." In this context "Jew By Choice" does not mean BT, but means someone who "chooses" in some way or another, to be actively Jewish. The idea behind this statement is that we don't live in a walled, secluded world anymore, and that we mix and socialize with lots of groups of people. We are exposed to lots of different ideas, and in America, these ideas and choices are protected to various degrees. Because our legal system allows for freedom of religion, the thought goes, someone 'born' a Jew can just as easily 'choose' to be Christian as they can 'choose' to be Jewish.

This also touches upon the Reform movement's ruling that they consider anyone to be Jewish who has a Jewish parent and who was raised with Jewish lifecycle events. I don't think that most people in the Reform world have really thought through the implications of that. So in this context, someone can be born to a Jewish mother, not be raised with the Jewish lifecycle events (such as bris/babynaming and bar/bat mitzvah). Technically, the Reform movement holds that they are not Jewish. (Does the Reform movement actually require them to convert--in my experience--no). But many of these people identify as a "Jew By Choice." I once heard a woman make a comment, "Everyone in this choir is a convert." I looked around, and questioned her on it, and she said, "Well, I mean, I wasn't raised with any of the traditions, and came to it as an adult, so I think of myself as a convert." This was a woman with two Jewish parents.

Mottel said...

I think the idea of a "Jew by Choice" applies no more to a convert then it does a born Jew - no one is Jew by choice.
The Mashnaic expression is Ger sh'nisgayer - not Goy sh'nisgayer - a convert that converted as opposed to a non-Jew that converted.
The term is used to express the belief that the divine soul and it's character are immutable - if the person is Jewish, then they always were.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Check out this amazing piece in the Piaczena Rebbe's personal journal, "Tzav V'Ziruz," #19. He writes about the great longing he had to be new and real in his connection to Hashem, like a Ger. Tzav V'Ziruz is printed at the end of Hachsharas Ha'avreichim by the Rebbe (Rav Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro).

In that piece, he said "פשוט רוצה אני מעתה להתגייר ולהיות מעתה יהודי." "I only want, from now on, to convert and become a real Jew."

N said...

Unless I've got the wrong end of the stick it seems pretty cut and dry to me...

For the uneducated Jews, there are less (or no?) questions, and their faith is a given and automatic. For more modern and educated people, and people with access to information, the fact that we perceive other lifestyles makes our own lifestyle a choice. There is no doubt that I'm choosing to be religious, as by definition, I have a choice to make. For simpler Jews this is not the case.

Vicki said...

I think the issue here, as it frequently is, is that if you are born with a Jewish mother and/or Jewish father, you are at least half ethnically Jewish and can't forsake it any more than you can call yourself "Italian by Choice" or "Indian by Choice." Whether you choose to follow Jewish religion in another story. In that case, you can be religiously Jewish by choice, but you can never shake your ethnic identity.

Anonymous said...

I guess that this highlights the difference between Judaism and other 'religions'. The one of which I have the most understanding, Christianity, seems to me to be all about the going to church, the religiosity - it has nothing to do with culture or even ethnicity (and I hate to use that word, but it's the best I could find at 8.30am).

I have a lot of 'born into Jewish families' friends and also those who converted. For those who were born into a Jewish environment, their Judaism is important to them, irrespective of their level of observance. For people like me, who have chosen a path to outward Jewish observance, we range from those who have some Jewish family roots, to those who have none at all. In my opinion, I chose to outwardly observe what has been in my heart for as far back as I could remember. But I didn't choose Judaism, didn't become a Jew by Choice - I don't really think I had an option.

My closest Jewish friend, born into a Jewish family, started coming back to shul after decades of non-observance. At first he was adamant that it was more of an educational exercise, learn Hebrew, reconnecting with his roots. Now, he says the blessing before putting on his tallit, performs the home rituals and is certainly far more observant and connected spiritually than he ever imagined. I don't think he had a choice either.


Suburban Sweetheart said...

Anyone born Jewish can choose to be "more observant" or "less observant" in their Judaism - but even if they choose not to be observant at all, they still have a Jewish background. I mean, if you stop speaking Spanish and celebrating national holidays, do you quit being Mexican? (Right. No. And sure, that's a ridiculous example...)

I'm quite sure I'll be in the minority on this view, which I'm too exhausted to fully or thoughtfully explain. But comments like "Technically, the Reform movement holds that they are not Jewish" are incredibly insulting and part of the reason I don't want to bother anymore...

Thanks for your consistent thoughtfulness, Chavi. Even when I'm not quite sure about the topics at hand, you always make me think.

Slave to my Bulldog said...

Reading your post, I was reminded of the apocryphal tale of Otto Kahn, the famous banker from the early 20th century. and the hunchback wit, Marshall P. Walsh. The banker and the hunchback were walking along Fifth Avenue, and the banker, pointing to a Christian place of worship, said to the hunchback: "This is my church." The hunchback replied: "I thought you were a Jew." The banker said: "I was a Jew." The hunchback looked up at him, walked a few steps, stopped and looked up at the banker again and said: "You know, Mr. Kahn—I was a hunchback!"

Other versions of the story have Mr. Kahn being "You know, I used to be a Jew" outside Temple Emanu-El, but no matter how the story's told, I think it still carries the same message. If you're born from Jewish parents, even if only from one Jewish parent, you can't escape that reality, even if it's only on a national or ethnic level. I think it's all part of what Rebbetzin Jungreis would call the "pintele Yid."

Speaking in terms of faith & emumah, I would have to say that most gerim and baal'eh teshuva are totally valid and "religiously" Jewish, and in most cases even better when it comes to observance & yirat shamayim than non-observant Jews or even FFB's.

What I find disgusting is what happens way too often in so-called "religious" communities, when certain members decide to take it upon themselves to be the true "shomerei emunah" for the kehillah. Whispers and rumors are spread by people behind closed doors. People avoid eating out at your home (or even worse, bring their own food when invited) your children aren't being invited to certain playdates, or told to not bother applying at certain yeshivot and seminaries, etc., etc. The whole idea of judging converts, and their children by "blood" standard smacks of Nuremburg, not Sinai.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that coming into the faith as a geruta can involve a certain amount of struggle, and you need to be prepared for the long haul. You need to have a thick skin, and a good sense of humor to deal with the bulvanische attitudes of some. G-d willing, your experience will be one filled with hatzlacha, ahava, and brachot.

Carrie said...

@Suburban Sweetheart, you wrote that "Technically, the Reform movement holds that they are not Jewish" is insulting. I hope you mean by the statement, not by me, the author that included that comment. I was explaining what the formal policy is, not my personal opinion. I included it because when the Reform movement created that policy (which is largely unenforced) I don't think it was fully considered what it means or what would happen if it was enforced. Seriously, are Reform rabbis and congregations really supposed to tell people who have one Jewish parent they aren't Jewish because they didn't do XYZ Jewish thing as a child? How many people would that exclude? I have found that most people who are very involved in the Reform movement have no idea that this is policy at the national level, and I personally like to bring it up in discussion because of the fact of how problematic it is.

Anonymous said...

Maybe every Jew is exercising choice, if not for themselves, then certainly for their descendants. And that, in essence, is "choosing" for a heck of a lot more people than oneself. And because so many are affected, it is perhaps even more important.


Suburban Sweetheart said...

@Carrie - I'm sorry, I read your comment wrong! I didn't see it being connected to what you'd said before & took it much differently than I now see you'd written it. Apologies!

However, I'm not familiar with the Reform "policy" you're talking about - which is odd, because I work for the Reform Movement. The Movement even changed its policy (a point of contention among the Orthodox, who often don't find us "Jewish enough" to begin with) a few years back to include patrilineal descent as well as matrilineal - so that if you have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, we still say you're born a Jew! My mother wasn't raised in "Jewish lifecycle events" (i.e. didn't have a bat mitzvah) & I've never come across anyone within the Movement who holds that she is not a Jew, nor have I been able to find it in our policy online. Can you point me to the policy to which you're referring?

Again, sorry for the miscommunication. :)

Kathy said...
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