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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Why the aversion to conversion?

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The discourse among Conservative, Reform and other progressive Jewish scholars and clergy has been dominated more than usual over the past few months by the theme of intermarriage. This recent round of debate seems to have been spurred in March by a vote of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s General Assembly to allow individual Conservative synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews. Since then, numerous articles by rabbis, academics and other Jewish professionals have appeared on this topic. The discussion has continued to pick up steam given the Jewish People Policy Institute’s early-June release of two significant studies: “Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews” and “Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education, and Jewish Identity.”

The commentators go back and forth on whether, and how, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should welcome intermarried couples, but surprisingly, there is relative silence on a related, and even more significant, topic: conversion. True, some Conservative rabbis, notably Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, are attempting to highlight the importance of conversion and to emphasize the need for some leniency in the ceremony. In an April essay in The New York Jewish Week, Cosgrove wrote: “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” Despite his efforts to highlight a need for a new direction for his movement, much of the discussion in and about Conservative Judaism continues to grapple with how to address intermarriage rather than how to promote conversion to Judaism.

In some Reform congregations, conversion before marriage is not actively encouraged. One of my non-Jewish students is marrying a Jewish man this summer. When they spoke with the Reform rabbi who will be officiating, the rabbi actually discouraged my student from considering conversion prior to the marriage. According to my student, the rabbi said the decision to convert should be driven by her personal desire to convert, rather than by her desire to marry a Jewish man. Ironically, the Reform rabbi’s response about personal conviction comports with Orthodoxy with one significant difference: a Reform rabbi will still perform the marriage.

In recent years, sociologist Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have proposed a means of joining the Jewish people that would not require a formal conversion according to Jewish law, halachah, but instead would allow non-Jews to acquire a Jewish cultural identity without a Jewish religious identity. In essence, this is a “cultural” conversion. To be fair, Cohen has long been advocating increased rabbinic conversion, and he sees their concept as a “half-step” between this and nothing.

Although Cohen and Olitzky get points for creativity, this proposal seems to assume that Jewish culture and Jewish law are distinct entities. From a theoretical perspective, however, the reality is that Jewish law and Jewish culture are completely tied together. The law has influenced the culture and the culture has influenced the law. Taken together, both the law and the culture are embedded in the entire chain of Jewish tradition.

I suggest that progressive movements need to develop better marketing skills, because the Jewish religion is a wonderful product. It is a way of life that touches both the mind and the heart. We need to take more pride in our product and encourage others — particularly those who are marrying Jews — to join us as members rather than as spectators. In short, we need to actively encourage conversion.

Of course, there can and should be flexibility as to what conversion standards should look like, depending on the overall nature of a particular Jewish community. But at a minimum, non-Jews contemplating marriage to a Jew must be educated as to the beauty of Jewish tradition and why formal membership matters to the couple and to their future offspring.

In this respect, progressive synagogues can take a lesson from Catholic communities. Recently, a close Catholic friend started taking her 8-year-old daughter to Mass at a liberal Catholic church. Her daughter was upset that she could not receive communion, given that she had not been baptized into the Catholic faith. My friend was told that the situation could be remedied if her daughter converted after taking a one-year program of instruction and initiation, including receiving the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.

So why do Jews feel that what we have to offer the world should be accessed so much more easily? More lenient conversion standards do make sense for progressive Jews, but when we ignore formal membership as a criterion we do so at our peril.

A Jewish colleague involved with a non-Jewish partner wrote to me just yesterday about all of the current intermarriage discourse in the news and on social media. He remarked that these conversations served as a reminder that his life choices can have drastic consequences, and most significantly, that he may end up “ceding something wonderful.” Progressive Jewish communities should not be able to live with this result.


Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

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