A friend of mine who is an atheist recently converted to Judaism--said she wanted to convert to the Jewish culture, appropriate the symbolic ethnicity of he Jews. Something about this is wrong, I told her. I thought about it and here are my thoughts. Your feedback is always welcome.
Given the protracted moral identity of religious Jews arduously forged in a tortured relationship with God who asked them to prove themselves over and over again, is it not clear that the atheist or agnostic who wants to convert to the Jewish religion is someone who wants an unfair and unearned short cut to Jewish identity via a morally questionable path?
If one is born Jewish but becomes an atheist, then the situation is different. An historical example would not be Sigmund Freud, who took his Jewishness seriously despite his irreligiosity, but rather the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and later changed her name to Ayn Rand. She never denied that she was born a Jew; however, it held no personal significance for her identity since it had not anything to do with a self that was consciously chosen and imbued with her own values. Being born Jewish was an accident of birth she could not undo, but she saw no reason to be either proud or ashamed of it. It was a neutral part of her past.
The atheist who converts to Judaism acquires a religious not an ethnic or
national identity, and therein lies the moral duplicity. Such a person
would be accepting the teachings of the Jewish faith. What such a person
craves, really, is the prestige of inheriting a religious and cultural heritage
without the struggle of religious conversion. There can be no such thing
as an atheistic Jewish convert. To convert to a religion and be a non-
believer is oxymoronic. It is to say to oneself: I will abstract my identity
from the religious sphere of Judaism. I will be able to tell people I am a
Jew and be able to experience from their responses, and from the rituals
of conversion, a new sense of self that is not earned but manufactured
The authentic religious convert places himself in the narrative history of a people, realizing that his own history until now has been sequestered from theirs. However, he assimilates their past into his present by actively reframing his experiences and values according to his acquired Judaic identity-in-the-making. That assimilated past also shapes his future to the extent that it influences the choices he makes that directly impact his future. There is, so to speak, a lot of catching up to do. One must re-insert oneself into a tradition that is really like no other. There is a huge narrative chasm between one’s lived experience as a Gentile (or Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) and not only the life one must live as a Jew, but also the life one must re-imagine one has lived as a Jew in the past. Memory takes on a new dimension in the life of this type of religious convert. The annals of Jewish history cause one to reinterpret one’s life retrospectively according to a new historical augury.
The Jews are God’s chosen people. Before becoming a convert one was not among the chosen. However, as a non-native believer, one may now insert oneself retroactively into this historical drama, provided one believes in the historical conditions that gave rise to the special relationship between the Jewish people and their God. To the extent that access to one’s past and the various interpretations that one has of one’s past are crucial for the present identities one holds, then retrospective insertion into the Jewish past for a believing convert is helpful in making one into an authentic Jew. The conversion is aided since it is not just a moral issue, but also one that relies on psychological and emotional continuity between past selves that still add up—recognizably—to the same individual, albeit one who has become. The past, re-shaped and sculpted through one’s gradual present conversion, makes the conversion process even more organic. Given a significant passage of time, it begins to seem as if one had always been a Jew.
The Jewish appropriator works in no such fashion. He cannot, since all he wants are the accoutrements associated with things Jewish via Judaic religious oficialese and rabbinic sleight of hand. He wants what he thinks is the moral currency of Jewish superiority without having to undergo any of the moral transformations required for this. He wants an associational identity that is unlike others, that is, he wants to be a Jew without becoming one.
Jews are God’s chosen people. We have yet to speak about the problem of hereditary chosenness from the perspective of tribalism. This I shall reserve for the last chapter when I highlight the problems it poses for a cosmopolitan ethics of equality among all God’s children. For now, however, let us meditate on the short cut that the non-believing moral appropriator wants to take in order to be counted as one among the chosen people. Again, to be born Jewish and to become an atheist is to remain tethered to an inescapable part of one’s historicity. One is among the chosen by virtue of an accident of birth, and what one makes of that is quite literally the prerogative of the individual.
The Gentile, however, can never opt for a secular, non-believing religious/ethnic changeover into Jewishness anymore than an Amish girl can opt to become Chinese through some sort of wishful thinking. Since Judaism does contain a conversion clause, chosenness is possible for non-native Jews who follow prescribed rules and rituals. In that process one is also a literal value maker as a newly minted Jew (some dissenting opinions from various Jewish quarters notwithstanding). One does not intend to appropriate values. One has assimilated them into one’s humanity and, as a new stand-in for Israel, one reproduces Jewishness through one’s moral personality and good works.