The Becoming Jewish exchange, part 1: Is a global conversion phenomenon changing the Jewish people?
Dr. Netanel Fisher is a visiting scholar at the Kohelet Forum and at the Israel’s Open University. Dr. Fisher holds a PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has served as an adjunct scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hebrew University and as an Associate Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
This exchange focuses on Becoming Jewish, a new book edited by Dr. Fisher and Professor Tudor Parfitt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). In the next installments we will also be speaking to Professor Parfitt.
Dear Dr. Fisher,
Let’s start with the opening paragraph of the introduction to the book:
Over the last fifty years or so we have witnessed the global phenomenon of a vast number of individuals and groups choosing to become part of the Jewish people, either through marriage, conversion or self-identification as Jews. In many cases this development is being played out through the creation of new religious movements of a Judaic or partially Judaic nature. This overall phenomenon constitutes a dramatic turning point in Jewish history, since traditionally non-Jews had little or no interest in joining the Jewish people. This new reality has many implications, as it is beginning to change the face of Jewish communities and at the same time sharpen the debate over the boundaries of the Jewish collectivity. However it is also creating new opportunities and possibilities both in terms of increasing and reinforcing the world’s Jewish population.
We have two introductory questions:
- Define “vast” – is this really a global movement?
- Define “join” – is marrying a Jewish person in the same category as conversion? You seem to imply that any connection with a Jewish person amounts to joining the Jewish people – is that what you think?
I’ll start with the first question –
The phenomenon we describe in Becoming Jewish is indeed a vast global movement in both quantity and quality. Quantitatively, we are talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. All across Asia and Africa, groups – such as Benei Menashe and Benei Ephraim, Ibo and the Lemba – see themselves as the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. In South America, Spain, Portugal and south Italy, thousands who carry Crypto-Jewish family traditions are seeking their way back to Judaism. In the US and other western countries there are members of interfaith families who adopt the Jewish lifestyle of their Jewish family members (and many others without Jewish background just choose to be Jewish). In post-communist countries, people of Jewish descent are returning to their Jewish roots, which were hidden since World War II; in Germany, hundreds have converted since the Holocaust. In Israel, the case I know the best, non-Jewish immigrants are joining Israeli society, mostly without going through formal conversion, and gradually becoming Israeli Jews. If we put all these cases together, it brings us to great, unprecedented numbers.
Qualitatively too, this is a vast movement. Beyond the numbers, all around the world people want to join the Jewish nation. They identify as Jews and adopt rituals and Jewish lifecycle practices and customs. Does this mean they are Jewish? Do these people see themselves as solely Jewish? That’s a different question I will address shortly. However, the phenomenon is qualitatively different from all other precedents in Jewish history. Throughout most of Jewish history, non-Jews had no interest in joining the Jewish people. Since the period of emancipation, when legal barriers started falling, the main trend was outward, as hundreds of thousands of Jews – a marginalized ethno-faith community – tried to assimilate in the non-Jewish majority groups of their different countries. In the recent past, there has been no other such trend of joining the Jewish people in terms of scope, intensity and dramatic implications on the Jewish people.
This is why we define the phenomenon as a vast global one. However, I’m sure it is also a very familiar phenomenon to your readers. In the current Jewish world, each one of us, regardless of were we live, know someone who fits this “new Jew” character. Someone who fully or partially sees himself as Jewish although traditionally he is not. So we are talking exactly about these people.
Your second question touches the heart of the classical issue of who is a Jew. In recent decades, this question has been discussed from many perspectives (rabbinical, juristic, philosophical, etc.). Our claim is that for many people the question is not as relevant as it was before.
Let me explain this in short: According to Jewish tradition, one who wants to join the Jewish people must go through a formal rite of passage, namely conversion (and for the purpose of our discussion it doesn’t matter which type of conversion). This is exactly what’s changing as many individuals join the Jewish people without any formal action. For them, our discussion is irrelevant. Let’s take congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as an example. She is affiliated with a Reform synagogue, identified herself solely with Judaism, although (only) her father is Jewish. It is true that the Reform movement declared a new definition (in the 80s) according to which a person is also Jewish if his or her father Jewish. However, this decision indicated the new trend: people don’t need to follow the traditional ways of joining. New ways are coming into existence in theory and in practice.
Moreover: those who join the Jewish people no longer wait for rabbis or other Jewish leaders or movements (including the liberal ones) to decide whether they are Jews or not. Our discussion doesn’t mean too much for them. They join the Jewish people and declare themselves as Jews without asking any “gatekeepers” for permission. They have decided that they are Jewish, period. We need to carefully pay attention to this new reality: joining the Jewish people has become a vague and fluid action. This phenomenon marks a new step in Jewish history, as individuals independently declare themselves as Jews in one way or another and thus join the extended Jewish family.
Is the phenomenon described in Becoming Jewish creating a modern way of joining the Jewish people? Probably. Will it turn out to be an improvement upon the tradition? It doesn’t seem so, but who knows? Does it mean a new type of Judaism or syncretism? I hope not. However, we need to seriously think about it and put our collective attention towards it. We are, no doubt, in the midst of a new stage in Jewish history.