What If the Religion You Choose Doesn't Want You? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The reader who prompted that question, Abby, was raised Catholic and converted to Conservative Judaism in college but feels she hasn’t been fully accepted by traditionalist Jews. I updated Abby’s note with a really thoughtful response from a Jewish reader, Alex, who described how “our religion is tribal-based, in a way,” and that “Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.” Building on that discussion is Michael, an Orthodox Jew:

First of all, the Notes section is absolutely amazing. It’s hard to find a place on the internet which hosts thoughtful and civil conversations about sensitive subjects.

As an Orthodox Jew, I want to add the following point to give context to the discussion about conversion: Judaism discourages potential converts because it does not view being Jewish [as] the only path to a relationship with God and a life well lived. According to Jewish beliefs, all that is asked of gentiles is to recognize that there is only one God and to commit to observe basic moral obligations (a set of seven commandments commonly referred to as “Noahide laws”).

Being Jewish is to be part of the covenantal relationship that God established with Abraham and his descendants, a relationship that comes with added responsibilities that are not demanded of the rest of humanity. Because this level of observance is not for everyone, we typically dissuade potential converts and recommend the universal means of serving God, unless they are truly committed to Judaism on principle and not for ulterior motives.

That being said, the Bible does repeatedly remind us to love converts and not hurt them in any way, including emotionally. I echo Alex’s suggestion that many Jews’ questions to converts are a result of curiosity more than anything else. Observant Jews struggle with the tension of leading religious lives in modern society on a daily basis and often wonder how a convert would choose to accept that tension when it would seem much easier to avoid it entirely.

Our next reader is Lekha, who grew up in North Carolina with a Jewish father and a Hindu mother:

As someone who both considers herself Jewish, but is not recognized as such by many other Jews, Abby’s experience as a Jewish convert brought up a lot of feelings for me. I myself often feel like an outsider to Judaism in many ways.

My mother is not Jewish; she is a South Asian Hindu. So to many people I do not “look” Jewish, but I was raised in the religion of my father’s family. I have been lucky enough that people do not generally question my Jewish identity when I claim it, but I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences where people try to explain Judaism to me because they assume that I could never have that background based on how I look.

Also, unlike many Jews in this country, I was raised in a small Southern town with a very tiny Jewish community and no synagogue. I attended a Jewish Sunday school run by the local Jewish group, but I did not have the experience of being raised in a vibrant, large, Jewish community with an established synagogue and lots of opportunities to participate in religious life. Outside of regular Shabbat dinners, and some Sunday school attendance, I didn’t have much access to the kinds of resources that would bolster my knowledge and identity within Judaism.

This has also left me feeling a bit insecure about my Judaism with respect to others who grew up in large (usually Northeastern) cities and thus had access to those resources, feel part of an established community, and make other Jewish friends. This was very different from being part of a very small community in an area where Jews are mostly looked upon with confusion or curiosity (and sometimes prejudice—the number of times I was told I was going to hell / asked to come to Jesus during my childhood is staggering).

Throughout my childhood I only had one Jewish friend, and most of my other friends were Protestants of various stripes who were kind but convinced that my religion was sinfully wrong. This, combined with the lack of community support and being a Jewish person of color, left me feeling very much an outsider to Judaism and Jewish identity—especially when I went to college outside Philadelphia and encountered people who had spent their whole lives surrounded by other Jews, engaging in BBYO, Jewish summer camps, and other activities that reinforced that identity.

As I got older I realized that my actual beliefs about god(s) were not in line with traditional Judaism. However, I still very much claim myself as a Jew, and while I don’t attend regular services, I do celebrate holidays with friends and family. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to the annual vegan, feminist Seder that a close friend and I hold every year next Friday!

So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.

I must admit that I often feel confused when I meet Jewish converts. I think this is because many Jews, especially most of the relatively secular American Jews I know, look on being Jewish as a cultural identity more than a religious identity. People would be confused (or rightly offended, as evidenced by cases like that of Rachel Dolezal) if someone tried to “convert” to a culture or ethnicity that they were not raised in. Many people who claim their identity as Jews, including myself, don’t keep kosher, don’t attend services regularly, and otherwise don’t conform to strict religious expectations of what Judaism is. Yet they can still see themselves as Jewish, because for them it’s primarily a cultural identity.