Do you need to believe in God to convert to Judaism?
Over the past week, plenty of people got the chance to chime in on the matter when Hey Alma, a Jewish feminist website, published an essay by Abby Jo Morris titled “I’m a Jewish Convert. I’m Also an Atheist.”
As far as my own corner of Jewish Twitter is concerned, the answer to the above question is a loud and indignant “no.” One person wrote that the author is “misguided & mistaken about what being Jewish & Judaism are all about” and further called her an “insincere convert who needs her conversion rescinded.”
This, it turned out, was a common theme. Many seemed convinced that her conversion was inherently invalid because of her atheism, or at the very least needed to be “invalidated” ex post facto.
These are claims about halacha, or Jewish law, and my intention here is not to discuss the halacha of conversion. For one thing, it’s not something I’ve studied. I can, however, share what little I do know:
There are generally four agreed-upon requirements for conversion to Judaism.
One, immersion in a Mikveh, or ritual bath. Two, circumcision or symbolic circumcision (hatafat dam brit) for males. Three, an interview with a Beit Din, or religious court. Four, “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments,” which is usually part of the Beit Din meeting.
It would seem from this list that belief in God is not a requirement for conversion — that is, until one remembers that belief in God is considered to be one of the commandments — the first of the decalogue, in fact.
Like many things in Judaism, however, there are disagreements about what “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments” means. Is it simply a verbal act? Or does it require utter sincerity of heart? On this matter, there are diverse opinions and debates.
All of this is to say that the matter is complicated, and that the people tweeting about the halachic validity of the author’s conversion seem lacking in intellectual humility on the matter.
Furthermore, I suspect that the issue here isn’t really about halacha. Rather, something else is bothering people, and they are using the language of halacha to express it.
The real issue, it seems to me, has more to do with identity and cultural appropriation than with Jewish jurisprudence, and I admit that I also bristled when I first read the essay because of my sensitivities around these issues.
The author writes, “Jewish identity is not quite a culture, race, ethnicity, or religion because it predates these delineations which are a Western (read: Christian) creation.”
Indeed, this is true. Judaism is not just a religion — but isn’t conversion a religious institution of the Jewish people? By way of parallel, being Black is more than just a skin color. Black identity also involves culture, family, faith, and history. That said, one cannot simply adopt Black culture, family, faith, and history as one’s own if one isn’t Black.
Someone tried this already. Her name is Rachel Dolezal, and society largely rejected her experiment in trans-racial identification. Shouldn’t we similarly reject the attempt to “convert” to Jewish ethnicity?
Here, one can’t help but be reminded of the episode of “Seinfeld” in which Jerry fears his dentist has converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
That said, we should examine the claim that one can’t, or shouldn’t, convert primarily for cultural/ethnic reasons.
Let’s look at the example of Ruth — the prototypical Jewish convert. Granted, halacha has evolved since the days of Ruth, but I still think we can look to her story to understand the ethos of the act of conversion itself.
In the Book of Ruth, we are introduced to Ruth, a Moabite woman. She and her sister are married to two Israelite brothers from Judah. When their husbands both die suddenly, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decides to leave Moab to return to Judah.
The sisters, who love Naomi greatly, ask to come with her.
Naomi demurs, stating “turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you?” (1:11).
Her sister agrees to stay in Moab, but Ruth persists. “Do not urge me to leave you,” she states, “for wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (1:16-17).
This is Ruth’s conversion, and it is interesting to note that it is not a confession of faith. Rather, it is an expression of solidarity. Ruth vows to join her fate to Naomi and to the Jewish people. This is the essence of her statement.
Of course, Ruth does not disavow the Israelite God. God may not be first on Ruth’s list, but He is present and accounted for nonetheless. Still, her statement about God is not a statement about “believing in” God.
This is consistent with the rest of the Torah, which doesn’t traffic much in theological propositions. For the Torah, “belief” does not mean “belief in the claim that something exists,” but rather is an expression of trust, loyalty, and dedication.
For instance, after the Israelites cross the sea in their flight from Pharaoh and his army, it is written that the people “believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses.” (14:31).
What is the nature of this belief?
Surely, it cannot be the belief that God and Moses exist, for this would make no sense regarding Moses, who obviously exists. Rather, it is that they have given themselves over to God and Moses in trust. They have aligned themselves with God and Moses.
Considering this, I am disinclined to consider “propositional” belief in God as all that important when it comes to Judaism. After all, God is not a proposition. God transcends any words we use, propositions we “believe in,” or theologies we devise.
Ultimately, God can’t be grasped by this kind of belief. God can only be grasped by relationship—by the ways in which we draw close to God and align ourselves with God.
Ultimately, God can’t be grasped by this kind of belief. God can only be grasped by relationship — by the ways in which we draw close to God and align ourselves with God.
And so, I would encourage the haters to read past the headline of this controversial Hey Alma essay. If they do so, they will see an individual who attends synagogue, participates joyfully in Jewish community and ritual, and who blesses God daily with the ancient words of our people’s liturgy.
This is someone who has said “your God will be my God” and who has joined her fate to the Jewish people. That she calls herself an atheist has, in my humble opinion, no bearing on any of that.
It is, after all, just words.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.