Jewish, Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish:
Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium
by Reeve Robert Brenner

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CHAPTER EIGHT: CONVERSION AND CONVERGENCE

        For a Settled Sojourner making plans to wed a Jewish loved one and to raising Jewish children one day, a “convergence” has unquestionably and undeniably occurred. The decision has been made that he or she will marry a Jew, live in a Jewish home and be supportive of the Jewishness of children born of their union. The convergence is defined and almost invariably experienced as a transformative life-cycle event even when there is no unequivocal formal conversion contemplated. And by the nature of the process, when a non-Jewish partner does intend to convert, a convergence has already taken place. Convergence invariably precedes conversion.

        There is a certain irony in that the moment of convergence is almost universally disregarded despite all the written attention and conferences devoted to intermarriage issues. It is hardly noted at all. In fact, “hardly” may be replaced by “never.” No public ceremony is celebrated to mark the transition. Nevertheless the decision to take on the standing and responsibilities of a Settled Sojourner is as consequential and noteworthy a milestone occasion, a Jewish life-cycle event, as is an official conversion performed according to strict procedures and attested to by responsible witnesses. A Jewish life-cycle event played out in the experience of a non-Jew! But unlike Conversion, Convergence is observed inwardly, spiritually, privately.

          Both Conversion and Convergence are experienced as profound and powerful personal incidents of life-long transformation and attainment. And counter-intuitively, despite the apparent paradox, they are also Jewish events transpiring in the course of the life-time of non-Jews!  They may be understood as Jewish life-cycle events because in both instances the Jewish community is vitalized, invigorated and strengthened. As a life cycle event, it can be argued, convergence is unrivaled in impact on self-perception except for conversion. And, in some ways, reaching and getting past the convergence milepost is an even greater and more profound a process than that of conversion (also often overlooked and not adequately identified as a Jewish life cycle event) in the sense that a convergence almost always has to come first. The headlong leap toward convergence spans a longer distance than the way to go from convergence to conversion.

Clearly, without convergence there can be no conversion. This applies even when there is no significant other involved and the conversion is based on reasons other than a beloved who is a Jew and a desire to unite one’s family in a single faith. Well before a proselyte undertakes steps in a course leading to becoming a Jew, a determination has been made to go that way. A revision has taken place in the prospective convert’s self-awareness. That determination point is the defining moment of convergence preceding formal conversion. It constitutes an arrival at a crossroad, charting a new course along a radically altered landscape and taking a turn in the path of one’s life.  Such a determination is a decision. And on page one, paragraph one, the claim was made that this is, after all, a book about decisions!

It is not often that a conversion takes place without a convergence. But it does happen, particularly when the convert has felt herself (invariably a woman because of the rule of matrilineal descent) compelled, and in some rare instances coerced, to convert or lose her intended because otherwise the groom’s family and of course the family’s rabbi would not preside or attend the wedding. Moreover, among Orthodox and Conservative Jews, without a conversion her children would not be considered Jews. In short, it was “convert or else,” to quote the words of a woman marrying again later in life, this time to a non-Jew.

Reflecting on her conversion and subsequent reversion, she recalled, concerning her first marriage that “I couldn’t get married to my former husband otherwise. It was very clear, no conversion no wedding. I was given some instructions on keeping a kosher home but my fiancé was not himself really very kosher. We did keep a pretty kosher home for his parents and sister and her family but we ate out unkosher, but never pork, ham or bacon. I learned really very little about Judaism and Jewish history. Like the old Jewish jokes, my husband was a gastronomic Jew, careful he wouldn’t ‘eat chazr’ (pork) and a cardiac Jew too because he did next to nothing but often said he felt Jewish in his heart. As for me, I was that revolving door Jew, swinging in and swinging right out again. I never felt I belonged. I wasn’t Jewish; I wasn’t any longer Christian.” Her conversion was performed ritually impeccable by three presiding Orthodox rabbis but no internal convergence preceded her immersion and she adds, “It never really took. It never lasted. It had no staying power.” Not surprisingly, although she doesn’t profess Christian faith, her Conversion morphed into Reversion soon afterward.

WHAT IS A CONVERSION?

Conversion is the path or process by which a non-Jew enters the Covenant of Abraham, transitioning from Settled Sojourner to proselyte status as fully and unconditionally a Jew. By definition, a fundamental transformation - not “merely” a revision - has taken place in one’s self-perception. In both conversion and convergence the individual ventures into a new life. A convert is looked upon by the most ancient of traditions as possessing the status of a newborn.  

Throughout history and anchored in the pages of the book of Genesis there have been two ways to enter into the Covenant of Abraham: by birth and by conversion. The rite of Conversion is a public formal act transacted and carried out before members of the community. Convergence, by contrast, is most frequently covert: an undisclosed act of recognition or self-awareness that establishes for the individual that the future holds out a Jewish way of life. Convergence occurs when the determination has been made to take an entirely new path even if the converging cohort is still unfamiliar with the terrain up ahead.

 THE EMERGENCE OF CONVERGENCE

Almost invariably, convergence occurs when at a certain important moment in a developing relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew, the non-Jewish partner looks at him/herself in the mirror and realizes that the love is real, the beloved is a Jew and--now comes the convergence--says to him/herself, in the words of one such young woman, “I can hack it; I can do Jewish kids. My loved one can’t do or be otherwise than Jewish. And he can’t give it up – nor would I wish him to – nor can he fail to transmit that identity. It’s far too important to him. So I’ll have Jewish children. Ok! Others have done it and have produced terrific kids in a loving Jewish household, so can I.”

Not an audible word need be spoken – and the Jewish significant other may not even be immediately aware of his/her partner’s intentions. But an internal self-reorganization has taken place. That individual has become a ger toshav (masculine) or a giyoret toshav (feminine), a Settled Sojourner. A convergence has taken hold; a new and unanticipated journey is to be embarked upon for the rest of a lifetime.

I often point out, and assist the newly converged to recognize, that he/she has already attained the status of a Settled Sojourner. And the wedding – an ancient Anglo-Saxon term conveying the notion of sealing a contract, which, if not directly derived from, is comparable in meaning to kiddushin, the Jewish marital covenant uniting a couple as husband and wife – will be an occasion of a closeted Settled Sojourner to a publicly declared one. A double status change for the converged consort: from single to married and from non-Jew to Settled Sojourner.

That profoundly pivotal cross-roads is traversed and a new life path embarked upon when the Settled Sojourner utters the classic self-defining, re-defining, foundational words before a minimum of two qualified witnesses, “according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” standing beneath a chuppah, a canopy, signifying Jewish continuity within a Jewish household. The chuppah is a flag; the phrase “according to the traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel” is a pledge of allegiance to that flag and what it stands for.

For Jews a wedding is not a private episode but a community event. The formula, “traditions of Moses and the heritage of Israel,” is quite precisely an oath of fidelity just as the chuppah represents a signal, that is, an explicitly Jewish banner. In point of fact and history, the chuppah, the talit (prayer shawl), and the flag representing the reborn state of Israel, are all one and the same symbol referring to Jewish solidarity, allegiance and perpetuation. The chuppah is originally and fundamentally the bridegroom’s talit with which he drapes his beloved signifying bonding as mates – and symbolically tying one to the other. The talit, held above the two of them, also came to represent the marital chamber and the establishment of a newly created Jewish home. When in 1897 in Basle, Switzerland at the Zionist Congress someone asked what should the flag of the modern state of Israel be, someone else stood up and provided the answer that Jewish men have been wearing the Jewish flag around their shoulders at prayer for thousands of years. The final touch was to incorporate in the talit a Star of David - the Magen David - that was forced upon Jews to be worn as a sign of degradation under orders of the Nazis. It was placed defiantly in the center of the flag, as a badge of pride and as the focal point at the heart of the ancient standard.

Convergence is also a term of reference well suited to the image of the Judaic-Western-religious tree advanced in this essay to provide a way to understand the relationship between Jews and Christians (and Jews and Muslims) – that is, between Judaism and its daughter faiths. As has been noted, it conveys a sense of relocation or repositioning from one of the branches onto the parent stem, that is, from Christianity or Islam to Judaism, on the part of a non-Jew who has become a Settled Sojourner. The non-Jewish party, often for the sake of a Jewish loved one, climbs off the branch of the tree to the point of commonality that they both share, Judaism. For many persons partnering in interfaith marriages, the tree image holds deep metaphoric and metaphysical connotations.

 A convergence brings the non-Jew off the limb to the point of merger of the main ascending axis of the Jewish stem. The trunk line of the tree on whose branches they perch is rooted in Judaism, Jewish history and biblical Hebrew scripture. The implications issuing from this frequently chronicled and recorded reality is that the non-Jewish party need not feel marginalized but may instead experience the joining or fusing together of a family in a common heritage. They feel as a couple that they may build a sturdy well built tree house on the common stem of Judaism. They will establish a home-based faith within the Jewish community as part of the people Israel.

Even if self-evident, it is of value to point out that the process whereby a Jew repositions him/herself along one of the many branches of Christianity or Islam emerging from the trunk of the tree does not constitute a convergence. Going the opposite direction is not at all a similar journey to a shared heritage. Outward bound is not the same route as inward bound. It is assuredly not a joining or unifying at the common denominator “except in reverse,” (although a Messianic former Jew may indeed claim to feel fulfilled). Rather, an entirely new set of assumptions must be made.

The difference may be reduced to this: The “fruit” out on that limb – doctrines such as a Messiah walked the earth, that he was God’s son born of a virgin, sent to die as atonement for the sins of humankind, resurrected after his crucifixion and that belief in him offers salvation – may be abundant and bounteous for a believing Christian but extremely difficult for non-Christians to swallow. They regard these doctrines as indigestible fruit dangling suspended on a branch beyond reach. Still, unquestionably, uniting a family is an admirable objective and some non-Christians find that the yield is not uneatable. Or at least they can serve it to their children even if they can’t develop a taste for it themselves. Beyond doubt, regardless of the direction on the limb that one chooses to negotiate, the very attempt to undertake the climb constitutes a huge gift to one’s beloved partner in marriage.

CONVERSION AND STATUS CHANGE

Professor William Scott Green, of the University of Rochester, offers this summation on lineage and conversion: “In the life of the community, conversion to Judaism effects a change in the ontological status of the person. We have also seen that halacha (Jewish law) altered a basic biblical conception by shifting the line of descent from the father to the mother.”

We have observed that rabbis of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, addressing the needs of contemporary Jewry have in the twentieth century - the very century that witnessed the destruction of a third of the Jewish people - brought together the biblical and post-biblical lines of parental descent with the presumption of Jewish identity of the child of either Jewish parent.

In accordance with the new ruling, what was once conferred solely by one parent, the father, then solely by the other parent, the mother, may now be conferred by father or mother. Equality, balance and consistency were seen as important objectives. Fairness, justice and impartiality require that children must not be penalized by the gender of their parents. Many progressive rabbinical authorities understand this development to be a reasonable and natural adjustment to reality and a necessary march of historical events. But conferring status upon a newborn does not require a revolutionary adjustment; the ontological status changes of convergence and conversion for an adult most decidedly necessitate a radical overhaul. A midlife changeover in status and self-understanding– in one’s eyes as well as in the eyes of others - - ranks as a serious transformation.

Therefore, in terms of establishing criteria for what constitutes Jewish identity, either parent may be Jewish to establish for a child the standing and self-understanding of being Jewish. Then, self-declaration, the study and values of Torah, and participation in the mitzvah system also begin to be set in place to affirm and support the Jewish identity of a child. The same may be said for the convert. He or she starts life anew by self identifying as a Jew, performing mitzvot, and living a life of Torah.

DNA AND CONVERSION/CONVERGENCE

Whether converted or converged, the non-Jewish partner carries “non-Jewish genes” to the Jewish hereditary gene-pool mix of the people. “So what else is new?” one may respond. After all, Moses himself – not to speak of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons and daughter – married “out,” there being, for the Jewish patriarchs, no one else around except non-Hebrews to marry.  Moses, considered the greatest and most important Jew who ever lived, married a Midianite priest’s daughter!

A Jewish tradition has it that Moses and his wife Zipporah, perhaps to be fair to both sides of the family, had agreed initially to split the children, raising one a Hebrew and another son a Midianite. The two sons, Gershom, who was the eldest, and Ephraim were to be raised with two different heritages. It seems that at the supreme crisis moment - just before the Israelite people mobilized to embark upon their projected Exodus - Zipporah changed her mind about “the dual allegiance arrangement”: siblings with dissimilar ways of life splitting the family culturally and in identity. Both her sons will be Hebrews, she decided, and as the passages in the Bible inform us, she circumcised her Midianite son in an act of family solidarity. That made a Jew of him and established the first recorded case of Retrojected Identity and Ascending Lineality. 

Zipporah, by initiating her son into the covenant of Abraham, also took on for herself a new identity as a Settled Sojourner. After performing this ritual of identification she rejoined her husband at the foot of Mount Sinai, becoming perhaps the First Lady of the Exodus – one of the VIP members of the Mixed Multitude departing Egypt. Escaping with her husband’s people, these non-Hebrews became forged into the larger community of Israel.

ON THE ISSUE OF “PURITY”

Concern for “purity” and “the dilution of the ‘racial stock’ of the Jewish people” have been expressed in many Jewish quarters, particularly among Conservative and Orthodox authorities. This has been especially so since the period just after the Holocaust and the recreation of the state of Israel which led to the ingathering of so racially diverse a mixture of Jews – and would-be Jews - from all over the world. The question of Jewish identity has erupted regularly as a crisis issue in Israel and in the Diaspora ever since the establishment of the modern Jewish State.

Despite the fact that conversion and convergence have brought tens of thousands of non-Jews into the ranks of the people throughout the centuries, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary - in an essay composed long before the sharp rise in interfaith marriages and the unanticipated significant rate of increase of Jewish parents adopting children of color, wrote (in 1958):

“Jewish identification is not easily acquired. Aside from religious requirements and declarations, there are yet certain characteristics, unique with the truly Jewish person, which are not possessed by the convert into the Jewish fold. Jewish identity is precious, and Jews have zealously guarded it as to purity and sanctity of origin.” [1].

Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, Head of the Yeshiva of Montreux, Switzerland, an Orthodox institution, restates the same dubious opinion about purity and the misgivings concerning the dilution of genealogical pedigree, with his own response to the question of Jewish identity:

“Be the reason whichever way, the law is certain. A child of a non-Jewish mother is as his mother. Judaism is not a matter of rationalization but of religious belonging. Religion stamped itself upon our makeup as a people, and is thus our chief characteristic. Jewish consciousness is not easily acquired. It is a result of a unique history. We zealously and religiously guard the purity of our identity, and have no desire to dilute it by admixture of non-Jewish origins” [2].

By this unwavering logic, a significant number of individuals who see themselves as Jews are not. And by the same logic, many Muslims and Christians are Jews who do not know it. For example, since Mohammed married a Jewish woman and had three daughters all his descendants maternally derived would legally be Jews. Elvis Presley’s mother’s, mother’s mother, Nancy Burdine Tacket, according to an article in the Washington Post, was born Jewish (Elvis, ‘Schmelvis’ All Shtick Up: Blue Suede Schmooze [3]. This logic makes him Jewish but not his offspring from his non-Jewish wife. Similarly, the children of lifelong Presbyterians including an ordained Presbyterian clergywoman born of a Jewish mother, are Jews; and by the same legal matrilineal constructs, a number of rabbis born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers would not be Jews.

These maternal-descent-is-Jewish-law rabbis propounded their teachings before DNA findings disclosed that the Jewish fathers not the mothers transmitted the purported “purity” of Jewish identity. Recent scientific evidence shows that even after matrilineal descent was instituted “on the books” hundreds of years earlier, paternal descent remained the way in which Jewish communities began and became established. Later, that is after communities were rooted in a new settlement, matrilineal descent returned (perhaps with the arrival of rabbis and a scholar class of educated non-merchant Jews) and became reinstated as the sole means of transmission of Jewish identity.

Nicholas Wade, in an article entitled “In DNA, New Clues to Jewish Roots,” analyzed the data as follows:

“A new thread is being woven into the complex tapestry of Jewish history, a thread fashioned from a double twist of DNA.

“The DNA data suggest a particular version of Jewish history and origins that historians have not yet had time to appraise but that seem to be reconcilable in principle with the historical record, according to experts in Jewish studies.

“The emerging genetic picture is based largely on two studies…that together show that the men and women who founded the Jewish communities had surprisingly different genetic histories.”

“The earlier study, led by Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona, showed from an analysis of the male, or Y chromosomes, that Jewish men from seven communities were related to one another and to present-day Palestinian and Syrian populations, but not to the men of their host communities.” [4]

The conclusion to be drawn is that since the women in the Jewish communities studied, from Georgia, the former Soviet republic, to Morocco, have vastly different genetic histories than the men, we must conclude that the original communities had “just a small number of founding mothers.” In every community studied, the genetic evidence showed that “women carry very few genetic signatures on their mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element inherited only through the female line.”

The identities of the women are an unknown because their genetic signatures are unrelated to one another and unrelated to the populations of the present-day Middle East as well. In other words, Jewish men and the non-Jewish local women with whom they had children may have established the original Jewish communities all over the world. Intermarriage obviously also explains why in a relatively brief period of time Jews begin to look like the people of the host societies.  Clearly since the men were related genetically as the women were not, it is patrilineal descent which carried the Jewish gene pool, that is, Jewish biology. Matrilineal descent may have been on the books as law but men ventured forth (usually as traders and merchants) more adventurously than women to new distant communities.

The truth is whether Jewish men and/or Jewish women chose non-Jewish mates, we can be sure that the gene pool has been enhanced and strengthened over centuries were we to judge by the criteria of creativity and intelligence. Nathaniel Weyl, in his book, The Creative Elite in America [5], among many others, has researched the contributions to society by the various American immigrant nationalities. He has shown, by name analysis, that the Jewish names lead all others if we are to rely on the lists of Nobel Prizes, Who’s Who compilations and more than 50 other highest achievement categories (“elite rosters”). A considerable number of the Jewish Nobel Prize scientists and other intellectual and creative elite were products of intermarried parents/ancestors.

 Intermarriage also has an advantage for a gene pool over exclusive intra-marriage in the matter of evading hereditary diseases and detrimental pre-conditions. Dr. Heng Wang, director of a new research clinic, reported  that the Amish have organized to deal with “a myriad of hereditary disorders that have haunted children in close-knit Amish and Mennonite families.” [6] The Jewish people has also been chosen for certain exclusive designer disorders of their own as have African Americans and others. Adding new elements to the Jewish gene pool therefore serves to diminish the incidents of hereditary illnesses.

Purity, an unscientific fantasy and not especially advantageous for survival, is at best a questionable abstraction that rarely applied in the real world. Fortunately in this instance the first commandment in the Bible following the loss of Eden, biology (“be fruitful and multiply”), overruled theology and the steadfast strengths of Jewish identity then as now proved itself.

Even rabbis of impeccable Orthodox credentials such as Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, editor of Tradition magazine, although adamantly opposed to “conversions-for-the-sake-of-marriage,” which he refers to as “marriages with converts who aren’t interested in being Jews” nevertheless writes that “Judaism has always welcomed genuine converts. We have been enriched by those prepared to accept the yoke and privilege of Torah. My Atlanta congregation included a number of converts who were models of Jewish commitment and practice. And of course Ruth, herself a convert, was the great grandmother of King David, progenitor of the Messiah.

“To say, as she said, ‘your people are my people and your God my God…and only death shall separate us’ is serious business…” [7]. It can be seen that even among strict Orthodox rabbinic authorities, regarding conversion: many standing against in theory are lenient in practice.

Further concerning the matter of “purity,” the Khazars, a Turkic people in the Caucasus of far Eastern Europe (not to be confused with the Kazakhs, residents of Kazakhstan, now an independent country in Central Europe), converted to Judaism in the ninth century. History reports that they were ruled by Jewish kings.

“The hordes that swept in from Central Asia soon became ashamed of their spiritual nakedness, and most turned to one or other of the universal religions. The Khazars leaders apparently decided that if they became Christian they would be clients of Byzantium, and if they became Muslim they would be subject to the Caliphate; Judaism was a choice for independence. As other hordes succeeded them, the Khazars were dispersed.” [8].

Conclusions derived from the scholarly research of the history of the Khazars, for example, as well as genetic evidence from various other sources, discloses that Jews from all parts of the world are closely related genetically to Middle Eastern Jews and not so closely related to non-Jewish Russians, Eastern Europeans, or others in the countries they lived in.

Arthur Koestler’s thesis is that the Eastern Jewish community may have been primarily Khazar-Turkic in origin. Whether or not the theory is plausible that the “Khazar infusion” in Polish Jewry a thousand years ago was “predominant” or “substantial,” there is no uncertainty in the matter of mass conversion to Judaism in earlier Greek and Roman times.

Ernest Renan a hundred years earlier maintained that these extensive conversions “had already deprived Judaism of any ethnographic meaning.” Spiritual links replaced physical links for members of the people Israel. “Just as the Prophets had predicted, Judaism had become a universal religion.” Renan maintained that most of the Jews of Italy and Gaul, now mainly France and Belgium, came from these conversions. “As for the Jews of the Danube basin and southern Russia, Renan was already pointing at the Khazars: “These regions contain great masses of Jewish populations who probably have little or nothing ethnographically Jewish about them.”

Later Max Weber in Ancient Judaism gave the reason for the mass conversions of Hellenist and Roman times, “the great epoch of Jewish proselytism.” He explained that, regardless of race or nationality, “Jewry attracted people who found their religious satisfaction in the purity (my italics) of the ethic and the power of the conception of God.” [9] These were the facts that, still later, would be recalled in order to refute the absurd Nazi theory of the Jewish “race.”

Across the spectrum of Jewish religious thinking the issue of purity is therefore a non-issue and has been a non-issue ever since the book of Genesis proposed conversion along with biological descent (then paternal) as the two procedures attaining Jewish identity.

Mention has been made throughout this book that paternal descent preceded maternal descent in establishing Jewish identity and determining the social group to which a newborn child belongs. Clearly, in biblical society, the line of descent went from father to child. Likewise, the priesthood was handed down from father to son in ancient Israel. Only much later did Jewish status come to be defined exclusively by maternal descent. In all the many biblical tables of descent one learns of virtually no women’s names. There are no mother-based genealogical compilations. In fact, all recorded biblical genealogies are paternal.  For the most part, it is not that women were ignored - so many prominent women are written about in the Bible - but the prevailing attitudes and the laws establishing that they were acquired by and “belonged” to the men are unmistakable.

 Over the course of time very little changed until the contemporary era, or more correctly, until the second half of the previous century, with bat mitzvah introduced, feminism taking hold, women rabbis ordained and a huge change in sensibilities realized. Nor were attitudes regarding women any different for centuries in Christian Europe. Men there and then thought of women much as they regarded their fields, serviceable – and valuable - for sowing seeds. The earth received the seed and became fertile, as did wives.  

CONVERSION: THE PROCESS AND THE RITUAL

The ritual of conversion now - and probably in antiquity - is invariably preceded by a period of study and instruction in which the prospective Jew is taught the beliefs, disbeliefs, practices and history of the Jewish religion. After the formal instruction the candidate is interviewed by a panel of three judges, rabbis or elders in the community, known in Hebrew as a bet din, a “religious court.” This interview allows the prospect the opportunity to demonstrate his or her knowledge of Judaism, at least the knowledge of the basic forms.

After the rabbinic court approves, a male convert is circumcised

(milah) or if already circumcised a symbolic ritual ceremony is conducted. (Many Reform rabbis are lenient in this matter and will not require it; some would discourage, others would only urge and still others merely suggest the procedure, depending upon the candidate whose age and other circumstances are taken into consideration.) The officiant in charge of the circumcision recites a blessing which states: “Praised art Thou … who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to circumcise converts …Praised art Thou Eternal Maker of (literally, “who cuts”) the covenant.”

The next part of the procedure, for men as well as women, is immersion (tevilah) in a mikvah, a special ritual bath consisting of a certain percent of natural rain water, or in a body of “living” water such as a lake, river, stream or pond. To effect status change, water is used ontologically by many cultures of the world. We all begin our existence in a sea of life-giving water. We owe our continued existence to water and we have come to see water as a symbol of purification and the washing away of the past, in certain circumstances. Jews do not interpret immersion as a baptism whose effect is washing sin away. It was John the Baptist in the Gospel story who redefined the ritual to mean cleansing from sin. The Jewish conversion ceremony consists of three immersions in succession at which time blessings are recited praising the Eternal “who has sanctified us by God’s commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion of proselytes.” Judaism considers that person like a newborn starting over.

Conversion is a life cycle rite that is witnessed by members of the community, a public act. Conditions are met, a number of competent individuals gather to a place where a ritual event is to occur which will signify a status change. Convergence is by contrast a private, internal matter, off the record. When there is a Jewish significant other in the converging partner's life that beloved person would likely be among the first to know but no community bulletin board makes mention of it and no official proclamation or announcement is put forth.

STATUS CHANGES: A CASE STUDY OF MOTHER AND SON

It may be relevant and instructive to digress from our discussion to compare the status and self-understanding of a certain woman, a Settled Sojourner planning her conversion, with that of her son preparing for his bar mitzvah, an altogether different kind or category of status change. And yet, from the Polydox perspective of this presentation, the youngster’s legal standing prior to his status change is analogous to a conversion candidate’s standing in the community before s/he (in this case the youngster’s mother) “takes the plunge.” How?

The young man had reached the age of thirteen in late August. His bar mitzvah ceremony - at which time he would pronounce the Torah blessings (for the first time) before a congregation at a Sabbath service – was to take place in April, eight months into his 13th year. The rite of passage was scheduled on that date in consideration of a grandparent recovering from an operation who could not attend the event earlier. The young man was bar mitzvah – “of age” - at 13, in August. Only the ceremony marking the reality of the status change had been deferred a few months. Responsibility for keeping the commandments now that childhood had been left behind and the adolescent years entered upon was established in August. In April he intends to stand publicly before his congregation as a bar mitzvah. But from the time of his thirteenth birthday, several months prior to observing the rite of passage, he will have been counted as a member of the quorum.      

It is also relevant concerning this youngster’s status that, upon reaching the age of thirteen, he may choose not to self-identify as a Jew and to reject Judaism as his heritage. Whether of a Jewish mother or father, he would/should do so at this time –in August, (not months later when called upon to pronounce the bar mitzvah blessings in the presence of a congregation), and not afterwards. If the youngster decides to walk another path, the ceremony would then be canceled. Should he wish to be considered a Jew at a later time he would be obliged to undertake a course of study and undergo a conversion ceremony with all that entails. But the lad has no such intention. In fact he is most proud of his Jewish upbringing and even volunteers that studying to become a rabbi some day is not out of the question. His stated intention is to continue his studies through Confirmation and beyond.

 His mother had “converged” spiritually and without ceremonials some fifteen years earlier. Since then she has essentially been living de-facto as a Jew. Now she has decided to undergo the mikvah/immersion rite and convert. Her status will change publicly. The mother’s pre-conversion convergence and her son’s bar mitzvah status are analogous in that each had been observed inwardly.

In the period of time prior to his bar mitzvah ceremony, the youth is, of course, fully and unconditionally, a Jew; his mother in the period of time preceding her conversion, is not. But the mother will be able to self-declare Jewish identity when she has undergone the rite of passage. At that time she obligates herself publicly, in the presence of others - qualified witnesses - to observe the Jewish behavioral rules, just as her son publicly proclaims his taking on the commandments at the time of his ceremonial rite.

There is yet another wrinkle worth noting for its irony. If the mother were to decide to undergo her conversion in a ritual bath under the auspices of Orthodox authorities, she would be considered a Jew by all. Her son, raised as a Jew but born of a non-Jewish woman at the time, would not. Orthodox rabbis would require that, although raised a Jew, he too convert. Reform Rabbis would discourage his conversion as unnecessary and a sham because it would deny his life-long self-perception and his Jewish upbringing. And, just as important, it would challenge their ruling (halachah) concerning the validity of paternal descent.

DISCOURAGING THE CONVERSION CANDIDATE

            Sometime before a conversion is planned a rabbi would say to the prospective proselyte who was brought up Christian, “You wish to become a Jew? Do you still harbor any lingering uncertainty as to whether or not the Messiah has come or that salvation is achieved by belief in Jesus? Was he the son of God as other humans are not? Is God to be understood as a Trinity or a Triune composite? Do not undertake to become a Jew while still perhaps a Christian or if you are likely to ‘need Jesus’ in your life sometime in the future. Remember, Jews do not put forth the promise of salvation or offer Judaism as the truth.

         Rabbis are likely to admonish the candidate forthrightly along these lines:

“By your conversion to Judaism and taking on Jewish identity, by most standards, you don’t get much. You not only don’t get much in the way of promises in the next world but you may discover tough times for Jews in this world. My duty is to discourage you three times and to advise you, ‘shvare tzu zahn a yid,’ – It’s not easy to be a Jew. We are a tiny minority, numerically insignificant and outnumbered. We are often the opposition, the nay-sayers, out of the mainstream, representing the uncommon. That’s not always so easy. We are a stiff-necked stubborn people profoundly disinclined to throw in the towel and disappear. We willingly prostrate ourselves to The Eternal alone who is One. So don’t even think of becoming a Jew unless and until you are prepared to take on the negatives as well as the positives of your new identity.”

CONVERSION FOR THE SAKE OF MARRIAGE

            Many rabbis would discourage conversion for the sake of marriage alone. They would say, don’t take the step until you are absolutely certain and ready. That means having completed the necessary instructional requirements and having lived a period of time, usually no less than a full twelve months, observing the cycle of the liturgical year’s calendar as would a committed Jew. 

       These rabbis would argue that Jewish identity is too precious to be trivialized and diminished by requiring a non-Jew to convert as a precondition of rabbinical participation at a wedding. The proselyte may not be quite ready. Being prepared for marriage and being prepared for conversion require two distinctly different preparations. For the sake of encouraging genuineness and true sincerity it is wise to keep marriage and conversion separated. One should not be contingent upon the other. They would make the case for conversion to be considered afterwards.

They will say further to the prospective convert, “you have already converged; you are a Settled Sojourner. You have done far more than we can rightfully ask of you. We have already drawn you into the Mansion. This is a house with many doors and many rooms for many and diverse individuals, and you now reside in this house with us. We already know you to be part of our continuity, a mother- or father-to-be of Jewish children.

“You have strengthened us and we feel a deep love and gratitude toward you and we welcome you into our midst. You have already undergone one hugely important status change by your convergence. I’d be honored to officiate at your wedding, which will be conducted as a Jewish rite. Perhaps sometime after you are married and you have lived a Jewish life together with your husband in a Jewish household, you may wish to return to me. At that time I would be honored were you then to ask me to preside over your conversion. But no one will try to talk you into it. Jews don’t have a need to save souls. Regardless of your future decisions, we recognize your convergence and embrace you as a Settled Sojourner – a giyyoret or ger toshav."

Another rabbi particularly from the Orthodox and Conservative movements would say, “I will not participate in a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew. I also am not happy to preside over a conversion before a wedding ceremony of someone who became a Jew for the sake of marriage rather than out of deeply felt conviction. The conviction I am referring to is that the Torah contains/is the word of God and that you are committed to fulfilling the commandments. All the relevant commandments in both the written (Scripture) and the Oral (Talmudic, that is, Rabbinic) law are applicable. Taken together they constitute the dual Torah or, applying your metaphor, the twin towers of the Mansion. To become a Jew you have to desire and yearn for Torah and the commandments.”

            A rabbi of the progressive persuasion, by contrast, might say that one of the best reasons in the world for anyone to consider becoming a Jew is, like the biblical Ruth, for the sake of another person, especially a loved one. The case has been made previously that the onset of yearning to unite a family in a single faith often marks the moment of convergence. The instant of recognition of that desire is when convergence commences. For a considerable number of prospective proselytes, the mitzvah of conversion may be considered for the sake of a child or a child-to-come. Falling in love – love itself - may provide the impetus to contemplate such a pivotal transformation of self. Certainly one good reason! One with the authority of biblical precedence!

Not one but several sound and worthy reasons should be required to inform such a hugely important decision. If built on one reason alone, the fragility of the undertaking soon becomes evident. For example, a faith-based leap into the captivating philosophies of Judaism without supporting family participation, and without the “belonging and behaving,” may be seen later by the convert as based on unsupportable assumptions that have become revealed with change, growth and maturation.

And conversely, “family without philosophy,” considering that over a lifetime, changes in relationships, in household organizations and arrangements, can so readily lead to “reversion,” that is, abandoning commitments previously made, perhaps to someone no longer in one’s life. Should kinship composition deconstruct, particularly when there are no longer family members around to be supportive of a Jewish home and way of life, Jewish commitments may come to be seen as unnecessarily inconvenient.

John Powers converted to Judaism in a traditional manner and then lost his wife. There were no children and no compelling reason to “stick it out” as a Jew now that his wife was gone. He met an evangelical Christian and he sees himself as a Jew in a Christian marriage, Christian home, and Christian church.

 No catastrophe has occurred and pejorative conclusions need not be drawn. He may view his experiences positively. Furthermore, becoming a Jew may have shaped John’s sensibilities, may have refined his values and may have strengthened his will to do good. But a relatively short duration of time as a Settled Sojourner, arguably, might have been more appropriate and might have served just as well to forge a more generous and loving character.

If John were Jane the same rabbi who required the conversion as a condition of officiation would be witnessing Jane’s children - who are now considered halachically, legally Jewish - being raised in the church as believing Christians carrying the baggage of Jewish identity. Therefore, rather than bringing about a Jew of short duration, the way station of the ger toshav/Settled Sojourner status may be more judicious and fitting.

The Convergence way station helps hold up the Conversion milepost to the highest import and value. A Conversion must be experienced as a deeply imprinted and consciously felt change of heart simultaneous with establishing a permanently fixed and enduring change of identity. The convert’s newly revised self-perception must be upheld with continued growth, knowledge and commitment: all the sturdy girders of the edifice in place. As with every other committed Jew!

As for Jane, many Polydox rabbis would not consider her children Jews nor would they have likely recommended there be a conversion before marriage. A Convergence could have sufficed to justify their officiation at Jane’s wedding and would have proven far more appropriate and prudent in the long run.

 It is not that having only one reason to convert to Judaism, such as the desirability of uniting a family, is necessarily shallow or insignificant. But Conversion means taking on a new and permanent identity. Convergence, by contrast, is not as irreversible. It may be more correct to say that Conversion is adding an identity to an existing identity and a new “I” to the “Thou” of the people Israel. Such a move requires considerable mature reflection, serious study and relatively long-term practices referred to as the mitzvah system.

JEWISH PRACTICES

    As has been outlined in the pages above, among the principle components of the mitzvah system are the celebrations of life-cycle events and rites of passage affirming Jewish identity. The focus is on the lifetime of the individual person. Sabbaths, festivals and holy days observances at home and in the company of other Jews are determined by the distinctive calendar of the Jewish year. The focus is on the people – they are commandments that reflect the historical experiences of Israel. Also included in the mitzvah system are giving of your time, energy and funds for accomplishing good in the community and in the world – referred to in the tradition as tikkun olam – mending the world. Dietary (kosher/kashrut) practices never lose their relevance particularly as connected with the commandment to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain on another living creature.

Keeping mitzvot may also include even such subtle things as modifying one’s reading habits to keep up with current developments in a never constant, always transitioning, Jewish world. Also included: exulting in pride for achievements of Jews devoted to the betterment of society, becoming vigilant regarding the circumstances and perils Jews encounter world-wide, standing fast with the Jewish community as one of them and thinking beyond oneself alone for the greater good and for the sake of creative, meaningful, Jewish continuity. Additionally, fulfilling certain commandments may require bonding with other Jews by, for example, joining in social action with them and others.  Exploring Jewish art, dance, literature, music, history and philosophy through study and practice also inform and invigorate the Jewish way of life.

The Polydox rabbi may then suggest that “after a considerable time of keeping mitzvot, living as a Jew, letting the culture penetrate deeply into your soul and when you begin to feel as a Jew, meaning, when the fullness of Jewish life accounts for your own life – in behavior, attitudes, values and consciousness - you are ready to undergo a formal ritualized, conversion. When you are excited inwardly about becoming/being Jewish, and you experience yourself impatient to convert, you are ready. (I have witnessed that passion and enthusiasm many times.) You test yourself – and you must be your own judge of your state of being – for your level of Jewish pride, knowledge, and sense of purpose. When according to your own self-evaluation your commitment elevates to your full and unconditional satisfaction, you are ready. 

“Should you go forward and undergo conversion, know this: you are at that moment no different in status than any other Jew born or converted. This means, to invoke a different image, wherever you get on the train of Jewish life, whether at the first station or anywhere along the line, the instant you boarded you joined all others riding the tracks of Jewish continuity."

For all proselytes the conversion ceremony is incomparably momentous and of great consequence. "Overpowering," many converts report - a hugely affecting change of personal status and self-understanding. For some converts the proselytizing process is experienced as arriving at long last in fundamentally familiar and anticipated territory: "where I've always belonged."

Mary Hoffman underwent a conversion to Jewish identity thirty years ago and her husband did the same later on. She writes in her regular column in The Jewish Post and Opinion that "I felt that the conversion was more a stamp of authenticity than a 'conversion.'  I hadn't undergone any fundamental internal changes. Finding a whole group of people whose world view was compatible with mine was a matter of coming home, not of being altered."

"Surprisingly," she adds, "I've had very conservative Christian friends accept the situation with relative aplomb. Some born-again Presbyterian friends aren't worried about me at all. Since the Jews are 'one of the chosen people,' they think our souls (unlike the souls of my Mormon friends) are safe. Baptist friends, however, pray for me continually, as my soul is headed straight for the nether regions unless I repent and come back to the fold (hardly likely after 30 years)." [10]

A CONVERSION CATALOGUE

My conversion catalogue of mitzvot that prospective converts should undertake as part of the process includes the following responsibilities organized in the form of a to-do checklist:

1) Choose a Hebrew name with great care. It may derive from your own non-Hebrew name (like Stav, meaning autumn, from Steve and Keren meaning ray from Karen and Rae); a deceased family member or friend; or a biblical name such as Ruth, Sarah, Abraham or Joel.

 2) Select the conversion site.  It may be a lake, stream, pond, ocean or other body of water. Or you may prefer a Jewish community’s mikvah, a ritual bath carefully and aesthetically designed to enhance the sense of the importance of the occasion.

3) Before the open Ark the convert is publicly blessed, and the chosen Hebrew name conferred. You, the convert, are encouraged to bring family and dearest friends as witnesses of the event. And you should regard the occasion as a profoundly significant milestone in your life and the life of your loved ones. Make plans to celebrate.

4) Go to temple or synagogue that night or soon thereafter – as an authentic, irrefutable and fully qualified Jew, one of the minyan, the quorum of ten adult Jews.  For the first time, count yourself among them.

5) Consider sponsoring a kiddush (special festive collation) in honor of the occurrence marking your personal transformation and membership “in the tribe” either that night if the conversion is on a Friday or at a subsequent Sabbath evening.

6) Consider an appropriate generous contribution to charity in honor of the experience and your new-born-like status.

7) Prepare in advance your study regimen for the next three years including books, magazines and course work for your ever-increasing knowledge and intellectual growth as a Jew.

8) Join a congregation that is in accord with your thinking: Egalitarian, Equalineal, etc.

9) Meet with your rabbi to review your ceremony and your participation in it as well as the public affirmations and declarations you are to proclaim in connection with your conversion.

10) Start saving significant dollars with which to educate yourself and your family jewishly.

A prospective convert should be expected to answer the following questions in the affirmative:

Questions to be asked the Convert:

1) Is it of your own free will that you seek admittance into the Jewish fold?

2) Do you renounce your former faith?

3) Do you pledge your loyalty to Judaism?

4) Do you promise to cast in your lot with the people of Israel amid all circumstances and conditions?

5) Do you promise to lead a Jewish life?

6) Should you be blessed with children, do you agree to rear your children according to the Jewish faith?

7) Do you also agree to have male children circumcised?

When all these questions have been answered in the affirmative, the convert is to take the following pledge:

I do herewith declare in the presence of God and the witnesses here assembled, that I, of my own free will, seek the fellowship of Israel and that I fully accept the faith of Israel.

ON THE DISCOURAGEMENT OF CONVERTS

The rabbis of the Talmud some two thousand years ago taught: “In our time, should a person wish to become a proselyte, one must ask: What prompts you to become a convert? Do you not know that, in our time, Jews are scorned, oppressed, humiliated, and made to suffer? If he replies that he is aware of it, one shall admit him immediately.”

Rabbi Reuven Bulka writes that rather than subjecting the would-be convert to a possibly traumatic experience in the future, “we insist on discouraging the convert. This discouragement forces the convert to take a more sober look at the situation. If, in spite of the discouragement, the convert still pushes forward, we can at least be more confident that the convert is making this significant change fully aware of its implications.

“Jews must stand in awe and admiration of individuals who make an obviously overwhelming gesture to embrace Judaism. As excited as the community may be about the prospect, it cannot be so eager for this boost to its ego that it is oblivious to the ultimate welfare of the prospective convert. If, through discouragement, the convert actually rethinks the matter and has a change of heart, then the discouragement has done exactly what it was intended to do – to screen out those whose understanding of the implications of the conversion is minimal.” [11]

At some point prior to the conversion process, the presiding rabbi of the bet din – a tribunal of rabbis or responsible laymen convened to supervise the proceedings - will likely meet with the candidate and will explain and illustrate an unwritten but immemorial gesture. The motion the presiding rabbi makes is a kind of sign language. Although not specifically prescribed, it is a conventional and well established pantomime that begins with a pose: left hand held forward and upward in a vertical position signaling, “Stop! Halt! Don’t approach.” 

The second hand however is held closer to the chest and moves in a beckoning motion towards the heart signifying, “come forward, should you decide to proceed despite the stop sign and its warning of all the many hazards and down-sides to the move being contemplated, you will be embraced. Come forward.”

 Then words such as these are uttered: “Are you sure you want to do this? Why would you wish to become a Jew? There are at least three good reasons why you should give second and third thoughts to this plan of yours. This gesture you see with my left hand says reconsider, recoil, stop! You will see my left hand brought up before you three times. You must wave my stop sign away indicating that you wish to proceed despite your clear understanding of the many drawbacks and disadvantages to your decision to join the people Israel and become a Jew.”

Included among the three foremost negatives likely to confront a convert, which the presiding rabbi or one of the other judges must fully describe and elucidate, may be the minority social outsider status the Jew often represents, the financial costs connected with the educational requirements of a Jewish upbringing and the Jewish way of life. And, of course, anti-Semitism! 

Despite the very real downsides, “conversion happens.” Rabbis of the Orthodox as well as of the Polydox persuasions report on the Introduction to Judaism classes they offer, the kinds of programs they have organized for prospective proselytes, the guidelines they have established to reduce tension and anxiety in preparation for the conversion process and rituals, and other assignments and procedures they have instituted for Gentiles considering adopting Judaism as their way of life. In no way denigrating Christianity, Rabbi Bob Saks in a High Holyday address, pointed out that there are “millions of people in this country who were raised in Christian homes, for whom Christianity simply doesn’t work…Over the years I’ve led a steady stream of them into Judaism.

“What do they see?”  Rabbi Saks lists:

 “An approach to God that is simple and clear, spiritually nourishing and intellectually satisfying.

 “A tradition which is not satisfied with words or ideas unless they result in action;  that honors learning;  that doesn’t hit them over the head with heaven and hell;  that honors human beings;  that encourages us to enjoy life, and recognizes the stages of life.

 “A religion that says we sin but does not call us sinners.

 “A tradition and a people, small in size but outstanding in its devotion to social justice.”

CONVERGENCE-TO-BE: THE FUTURE

         New York attorney Richard D. Kuhn foresees a “convergence-in-the-future paradigm.” He anticipates mostly positive outcomes for Jewish continuity from a large percentage of interfaith Jewish-Christian unions. He suggests a possible forecast contending that "Judaism may flourish and the number of Jews may even be augmented by the net long-term results of intermarriage.”

          Kuhn reasons that “because of the hostility of every environment in which Jews have lived, the majority of descendants of mixed marriages were non-Jews. The dominant culture and the discomfort of discrimination produced inexorable pressure to assimilate. Jewish descendants tended to be produced only if there was unequivocal commitment to Judaism by both spouses.  If there was an ambivalent attitude, the results were dictated by the pressures of the dominant culture. Statistics on the results of mixed marriages prior to 1960 support this conclusion.

            “As a result of the explosion in the number of mixed marriages particularly in the last ten years (the 50% intermarriage period), statistical analysis is premature. It is the contention of this writer that when such statistics can be obtained they may be surprising. It may be that more Jews are resulting, that is, more than 50% of the offspring of Jewish mixed marriages will be Jewish.”

            Kuhn cites Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews [12] for his viewpoint that American Jewry comprises a unique category in addition to the classic dichotomy of the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora – the one homeland, the other Exile. In short, he contends that America is not Exile – defined by Jews as being subject to oppression and discrimination. In America Jews are part of the establishment, “possessing,” in Kuhn’s words, “an identity as Americans as fully as any other group:

            “American Jewish children today do not necessarily grow up feeling excluded. They are not inevitably led to believe that they would be more American, more accepted, if they were not Jewish. Many are more comfortable socializing with other Jews, but that fatal sensation possessed by Jews elsewhere – alienation, exclusion, being viewed as inferior – is not generally felt by American Jewish youth. Not only the professions, but now even previously unassailable bastions of discrimination such as banking and corporate boardrooms, are open to opportunity. And perhaps more important, the daily street and school life are not so threatening and do not inculcate early attitudes of isolation. A further influence is the existence of the State of Israel. The example of the aggressive, powerful Jew has helped outside Israel to discard the cringing assimilationist mentality. Pride in Jewish identity combines with feeling as fully American as anyone else. (The change in the position of Jews in the United States was dealt with by Philip Weiss.” [13])

            Moreover, if the forces that shape the identity of the offspring of interfaith marriages have “vastly changed,” then, in Kuhn‘s view, “the previously inexorable pressure of the dominant culture and the discomfort of discrimination are no longer compelling. The desire to assimilate, to lose one’s identity, to avoid discomfort or to become more American, may not be as strong as other influences.

            “If there is any lesson that Serbs, Croats, Russian national groups, French Canadian separatists, Kurds etc. have taught us in the past few years, it is that ethnic identification is a compelling human tendency. Are not the forces for assertion of ethnic identification in America as strong as the tendency to assimilate? And are not Jews as likely as others to feel the need to assert identity more strongly than to assimilate, especially if the negative pressures of the past are disappearing?"

         Kuhn, having studied the intermarriage lay of the land, goes on to suggest that the current merging may lead to Jewish converging:

         “The basic question is what will be the long-term result when initially no choice is made for children by two equally uncommitted parents. In many cases parents will be relatively unobservant. Probably a greater number will observe certain symbolic elements of both backgrounds: a Christian tree, a Seder, Chanukah and perhaps some Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances. All will be treated with a watered down secular orientation. Neutrality will be observed.

        “Out of this fog of confusion Judaism has two major advantages: one philosophical and the other cultural. The philosophical advantage is that to an uncommitted person with both backgrounds, the Jewish core of beliefs is not offensive to the Christian, whereas the Christian core of belief is offensive to the Jew…. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah is fundamentally unacceptable to a Jew.

“Two young people I met recently are interesting examples of the preferred attractiveness of Jewish identity.  They are both children of mixed marriages in an environment traditionally far more hostile to Jews than in the United States – Argentina – and Germany.  The German was a 28-year-old tourist guide in Berlin whose mother was Jewish.  The Argentine was a 17-year-old daughter of a Jewish mayor of a small town, Las Carlota.  Both feel their Jewish identity strongly and for the same reason.  Given their mixed background they both felt aware of a sense of identity to the Jewish community than to the non-Jewish community.  If such an attitude can develop in Argentina and Germany it is likely to exist also in the United States as well.” [14]

       Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a national organization that advances Judaism to interfaith families and others who are unaffiliated, expressed a similar optimistic perspective as quoted in the Cleveland Sun:

       “As much as we want to look at intermarriage as a problem, perhaps even bury our head in the sand, the reality is that we have one million Jewish families in the United States."  He noted that one-third of Jewish households in North America are headed by someone who was not born Jewish.

“Our goal is to make sure these families remain within the orbit of the Jewish community, and to make sure their children are provided an opportunity to make informed choices, so that they maintain Jewish continuity. "

Rabbi Olitzky pointed out that:

1)      “Intermarriage is a result of Jewish success, not failure;

2)      “Intermarriage often creates a Jewish family, where there might not have become one;

3)      “A successful intermarriage often leads to a stronger commitment to Jewish continuity;

4)      “Intermarried parents often take a more active role in the education of their children;

5)      “Intermarried families take the decisions they make for themselves very seriously;

6)      “We’ve often overlooked the positive choice that the intermarried person has made to remain Jewish. [15]

            The Orlando Sentinel reported on a study that showed that “efforts to boost the involvement of intermarried families in Jewish life actually result in a stronger sense of Jewish identity and increased synagogue membership.” The study by the Jewish Outreach Institute “shows the importance of embracing, not rejecting mixed-faith families.” The survey of 735 families – 40 percent from interfaith families and 60 percent from Jewish families – discloses a drop in the number of families who reported low involvement in Jewish life, from 51 percent to 34 percent, after attending an outreach program. On the other end of the spectrum, interfaith families who said they were “moderately” involved in Jewish life rose to 47 percent after completing an outreach program. Those who said they were “highly involved” increased nearly four-fold, from 3 to 11 percent. [16]  

            Ellen Jaffe McClain conducted more than three years of research and interviews on the subject of interfaith marriages. She found that “marriages in which the non-Jewish partners identify with different religions but are committed to making Jewish homes and raising their children as Jews…are quite typical of a large segment of intermarried couples.

            “Moreover, for every such family there is probably at least one other in which the gentile partner has no religion and lives as a de facto Jew.

            “Although many Jews fall in love with and marry non-Jews, relatively few choose partners who insist on making a Christian denomination the dominant religious presence in the home.”

She also maintains that “Jewish leaders need to understand that the choice of a non-Jewish partner isn’t necessarily a statement of alienation from Judaism – although failure to welcome intermarried couples into Jewish institutions often engenders resentment and causes such families to turn away from participation in Jewish life.

“On the other hand, a willingness by the Jewish community to take an intermarrying couple’s commitment to Judaism at face value can often be a catalyst for their lifelong involvement in Jewish life and even for conversion of the gentile partner to Judaism.” She and others who have studied the issues are convinced that Jewish leaders “exacerbate the problem by labeling almost all marriages between Jews and non-Jews as destructive of Jewish continuity.” [17]

The “negative strategy” of rabbis who refuse to officiate at such marriages and who set onerous wedding conditions is, according to University of Pennsylvania Professor of Sociology Samuel Z. Klausner (ibid.), “really a defensive strategy, a minimalist choice in preference to some alternative social policies.”

Nevertheless there is no denying that current statistics continue to be disheartening for those deeply concerned about Jewish survival. Nathan Guttman, the statistician/sociologist of the Guttman Institute, recently confirmed the disappointing current trend toward assimilation in interfaith families by stating the case as follows: “In the United States, most children of mixed marriages don’t see themselves as Jewish.”

A new study by researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles found that many children in homes with only one Jewish parent do not define themselves as Jewish. We do not have reports on whether the children of such families were welcomed or rebuffed by their Jewish communities and how many might have found a suitable home in the Jewish mansion if the door had been opened to them by rabbis, Jewish institutions and congregational schools.

The family of William Cohen experienced precisely this kind of rejection when their children were brought for enrollment in a Jewish congregational religious school program. The family members had thought of themselves as Jews until they were rebuffed by an inflexible maternal descent legalism that ushered them out the door.

 The University of California study which was commissioned by the Hillel Jewish students’ organization found that the children of interfaith households have “a very tenuous link with religion” – although we are not told how a Jewish education or the absence of a Jewish education factors into the equation.

Linda Sax, a UCLA researcher, polled hundreds of students during their first year in college and found that while more than 90 percent of those born to two Jewish parents defined and declared themselves to be Jews, fewer than half of those from interfaith families did. Most telling was the finding that while 40 percent of the students whose mothers were Jews defined themselves as Jews, only 16 percent of those students whose father was Jewish and whose mother was not saw themselves as Jews.

One wonders how many of them with Jewish fathers were repulsed or anticipated rejection in advance of turning to the Jewish community for validation and support, believing that such would not be forthcoming. How many have turned elsewhere or nowhere because from early on they were operating with the assumption long held in the Jewish community that only mothers convey Jewish identity. “I did not bother,” several such young Jewish men have said to me and other rabbis, “because raised in an Orthodox and then in a Conservative congregation I was taught that fathers do not transmit Jewish identity.” Many others bring to mind their all too familiar and shared unpleasant recollections: “My rabbi would have none of it when I came to him and had him understand that my wife-to-be wished to preserve her Christian identity but was nevertheless considering or committed to raising Jewish children.”

The study also found that in families where the mother is Jewish and the parents were divorced – and some reports calculate that some 50% of all marriages do not last but interfaith marriages may be failing at an astonishing rate of 75 percent – children were more likely to consider themselves Jewish once the father left the home. Presumably such children were no longer quite as conflicted in loyalties as in a directionally uncertain two faiths household. And perhaps divorced Jewish wives of non-Jewish former husbands re-embraced their heritage in part for vengeful reasons of “getting even.” Or for no-need-to-compromise-any-longer reasons now that he’s gone. I am familiar with a number of such families.

There is no question that as matters stand - and there is no telling what factors would be required to turn the interfaith statistics around – the second generation of interfaith marriages is largely losing its connection to Judaism. Hillel and other outreach oriented Jewish institutions and organizations are working on and off campus to strengthen Jewish identity in an attempt to effect a change in this paradigm.

It is, however, a misconception to think that the present rate of assimilation is unique and unparalleled in Jewish history. Rabbi Bulka points out that “what is unprecedented in Jewish history is the scope of freedom that is available to Jews who reside in a democratic society, especially in North America. With greater openness also comes the greater likelihood that assimilation will occur.

“The intermarriage rate today is much higher than it has been in previous generations, primarily because the opportunity is there. However, many generations ago, the problem of assimilation was more pronounced. One such instance was in the time of Ezra, and a more pointed example was in the period of the Maccabean revolt, the revolt that gave birth to the festival of Hanukkah, in the second century B.C.E. The Hashmonean uprising began with only a handful of Jews, because most of them had already become assimilated and saw no reason to fight for their religious autonomy. The miracle of Hanukkah was such a vital moment in Jewish history, not only because the Jews returned to the Bet Hamikdash (the Temple), but also because the Jews returned to their roots.”

Rabbi Bulka, examining the issue from a traditionally Orthodox perspective, is convinced, as are many rabbis espousing non-traditional convictions, that “those who are imbued with a strong sense of the vitality of Jewish values will repel the assimilationist tendency and instead will integrate these (Jewish) values into their life-style.” [18]

CONCLUSIONS

Rabbis and all other Jewish leaders, whether they are in favor of or against rabbinical officiation at interfaith marriages, are at one in their ardent wish to preserve and support the establishment of homes where partners and children share, celebrate and venerate Jewish values, Jewish traditions and Jewish commitments.  

Renowned for his scholarship, Rabbi David Ellison, President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical seminary that trains and ordains Reform Rabbis, reflected, in a letter to his colleagues dated November 22, 2002, on the “challenge that the late Professor Shimon Rawidowicz laid before our people.”

In a reassuring essay Professor Rawidowicz entitled “The Ever-Dying People,” he offers an encouraging observation based on the authority of the far-reaching and enduring perspective of Jewish history. In David Ellison’s restatement of the considered judgement expressed by Professor Rawidowicz, the point is made that “every generation in Jewish history had its pessimists and doomsayers who regarded the demands of the day as too overwhelming and who predicted that the ongoing flow of Jewish experience would soon come to an end. Yet, Professor Rawidowicz observed that this was never so, and that the converse of ‘ever-dying’ was ‘ever living.’”

Richard Kuhn’s faith in the future may lend itself best to conclude this chapter on Convergence and Conversion. Kuhn makes the case that “Jews should be optimistic about their survival. They should see that the very characteristics of Judaism of which they are so proud would continue to have the power to attract their descendents. Pride in Judaism should allow Jews to be confident. They shouldn’t have an inferiority complex about the ability of their traditions to compete with Christian traditions in the minds of the next generation.

“Confidence and optimism will help in the long-term trend. Rabbis and lay leaders must gradually learn not to turn their backs on all those mixed marriages that do not immediately define themselves as Jewish according to ancient definitions. If Judaism is to continue to attract the uncommitted it must develop the capacity to relate to them. In particular, it would be constructive if children of Jewish fathers could be treated in the same way as children of Jewish mothers. The rigidity of the ancient definition of Jewishness on a matrilineal basis is an anachronism which discourages one half of the offspring of interfaith marriages.

“In the 21st century, Judaism’s survival and growth may exist in two directions. Orthodoxy may continue to expand. It can grow while continuing to disdain and remain relatively unrelated to the mixed community. However, the non-orthodox component may be able to grow best only if it reaches out with confidence and openness to the mixed community, which is likely to exist in increasing numbers in the 21st century.”

 

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A Friendly Copyright Notice
© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

Even though most copyright notices say all kinds of mean things about not reproducing the book in any form, I not only wouldn't mind if you copy parts of this book, I would be thrilled if you do. All I ask is that you tell people where this material came from and who is the author. If you want copies of the entire book, it's easier and probably cheaper to buy nice pretty printed originals from our website. Thanks!


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