Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at email@example.com.
I am overwhelmed and angered by the misinformation being supplied by your readers. Many of them are leaving out vital information. Only if you are baptized can you be disfellowshipped. Baptism is not a requirement in the church nor is it a choice one can frivolously make.
I am not baptized, but both my parents were; my mother is baptized but inactive, and my father was disfellowshipped. I was raised in the Kingdom Hall [the JW term for church building] until I was a young teen, and then allowed to choose my own path. At 28, I still hold many of the beliefs (I abstain from holidays and attend the observance of [Nisan 14], also known as The Memorial of Christ’s death), but I am not baptized and do not plan on becoming baptized because I know I could not follow all the rules. I have been told that the path to baptism takes around two years. One must be old enough to choose for themselves (16+ usually), have intense Bible study, and then pass a rigorous test administered by the elders on Bible knowledge.
For one to act as though they were shocked by their disfellowshipping and the subsequent behavior of baptized family and friends is like one being surprised that their spouse has divorced them and doesn’t wish to communicate after cheating. They chose to make a lifelong vow and broke it, fully aware of the potential consequences. No one forced them to be baptized; it was their own free will and choice. Again, without that choice, they would not have been in a position to be disfellowshipped in the first place.
I asked the reader a few followup questions, such as the rough percentage of JW church-goers who are baptized and some key distinctions between members of different commitment levels:
I am no longer an active member of a congregation (admittedly, I now only darken the door for the Memorial). I would guess if you walked into a Kingdom Hall on a Sunday morning the majority of attendees (minus children) will be baptized or preparing for baptism. I think generally people who make the effort and commitment to go to church regularly are more likely to commit in other ways, such as baptism, whereas those who are not serious about baptism probably drop off and rarely attend because it is not required of them. There is no term for an unbaptized believer, but I cannot call myself “one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” as an unbaptized adult; I can only say that I was raised as one.
There are three ways for baptized members to leave the church (but they will forever be considered baptized): disfellowshipment, disassociation, and becoming inactive.
Let me interrupt real quick to illustrate the difference between disfellowshipment and disassociation, explained here by a different reader (the first of two readers excerpted in our previous note) in a followup email:
Just to clarify, my wife and I weren’t disfellowshipped. We disassociated ourselves, which is a technicality of sorts, but also very different. We committed no wrong and left because we no longer wanted to carry the label of Jehovah’s Witnesses, since we disagreed with their position on many things. People are disfellowshipped for moral failings. We disassociated because of their failings. Our leaving was voluntary.
Back to our dissenting reader:
An inactive member is someone who does not maintain steady attendance at the Hall nor keeps up with going out in service. Very rarely would someone who’s inactive be disfellowshipped, as the whole point of disfellowshipping is to keep the church “clean,” and if someone isn’t attending, then they can’t quite taint it.
However, the only grounds for divorce in the church is adultery. If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarrying another Witness is not possible.
My father was inactive when my parents divorced and my mother wanted to remarry a Witness, so she brought my father’s actions before the elders. It was a long process—interviews with family members, opportunities given to him to repent, etc. He could try to be reinstated now, like most disfellowshipped people, probably by attending all meetings for a year, asking for Bible study, showing repentance and writing a letter to the elders to ask for consideration.
I really appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to try and shed more light on this issue. Please don’t help spread misinformation or fan flames of intolerance. I was bullied horribly in school due to my beliefs, all the way through college (mostly by the administration at my state school—I was also an employee). The amount of discrimination Witnesses face is pretty incredible sometimes; people lose their minds over others not celebrating holidays, for instance. Say you are/were a Witness and you risk others being convinced you want to proselytize them.
I understand the religion has some issues—all do—but what can be expected from organizations led by imperfect men?
“No one chose this imprisonment.” That’s our latest reader pushing back on the previous one, both of whom were raised by JWs but developed very different attitudes toward the church and its practice of disfellowshipping—the complete shunning of an apostate JW by both congregants and family members. Here’s her story:
I’d like to offer a reply to the reader who split hairs on the free preconditions of baptism and disfellowshipping. She presumes that the commitment to baptism is a free one, and that the consequences of breaking the commitment are thus chosen. Perhaps this is the case for adults who have life experience with which they can actually make an measured decision about what it means to “be no part of the world.”
What if you’ve never been in the world? Or what if your experience of the world is completely filtered through Watchtower-shaped lenses?
I am an on-the-books Witness, having taken the plunge at 14. I was pressured by my family, congregation, and friends to “get baptized” and was obsessed by the fear of being “worldly”—as in, under the influence of Satan the Devil, not a sophisticated, smart, and cosmopolitan person (When I realized that that was what “worldly” meant to everyone else, I had to laugh. I really had no idea).
Many people “raised in the Truth” (what Witnesses call their faith) are encouraged to get baptized in their teens. If they don’t, they are looked at a bit askance. My best friend and I used to fervently discuss whether we would be kept out of the Paradise for swearing, listening to Nirvana, or checking out skater boys. If we got baptized, we reasoned, we’d be protected.
This is not an uncommon belief, and it is utterly reasonable for a religion of myriad behavioral restrictions. After baptism, we would stop even wanting to be “worldly” because we wouldn’t be anymore! And when she did get baptized, she seemed so righteous. So I did it, too. I was terrified of being shunned or otherwise left ungirded in a world that had been described since childhood as a place where Satan walked around invisibly, just waiting to eat you up.
Witnesses strive to limit their members’ social world to only “the friends” (what they are, and what everyone else isn’t). I wanted to fit in, please my parents, and do what I thought would save me. I was bright, highly adept at acting as though I believed everything I ought to—so adept that I fooled not only the elders and my parents, but myself.
I’ve been “inactive” for over a decade, and the reason I’m not disfellowshipped is because I refuse to subject myself to the “judicial” procedures your reader describes. If I were to become disfellowshipped, I know that my parents and brother would probably stop talking to me, and my mother has said as much. So, I remain in a limbo, which I don’t mind at all, considering that I think the entire process is abused and abusive.
Your reader’s mother, according to her own description, used the disfellowshipping process as a method of skewering her father (she doesn’t say what “actions” the father did) so that she could be free to marry someone else. She went through all that process rather than questioning the rule.
I’ve seen this play out painfully. I watched our neighbor get into her car from my driveway as a small child as my mother told me: “You can’t talk to Anna anymore.” Anna (I’m using pseudonyms, to ensure privacy) was a woman I knew since birth, who cared for me as a baby, whose yard I played in and whose snacks I ate and whose dog bit me. I found out later than Anna got disfellowshipped “on purpose": She had had sex with another guy, Bill, in the congregation, so they could both leave their spouses, knowing they’d get disfellowshipped.
Anna and Bill did marry, but that was not the primary purpose for the adultery. Anna’s husband, Mark, was gay (a fact I also found out later; I don’t know why Bill needed out of his marriage nor should I need to know). Mark's second wife Nancy, who was an anointed Witness (one of those few chosen to serve in heaven), left him too (for a woman).
Anna and Nancy probably did not realize that they were marrying a gay man. Not only were they forbidden from having any sexual intimacy before marriage, Mark was forbidden from admitting his sexuality. Everyone lost.
No one chose this imprisonment. The strictures of the religion are so numerous and invasive that the way they end up playing out in the real world are absurd and incredibly sad. My own parents told me that they had considered divorcing and were at the point of deciding who would do the cheating-disfellowshipping combo to free them.
Disfellowshipping, as your reader mentions, is the way the religion keeps itself “clean.” From what, exactly? Mustachioed gay men who love musical theater and porkpie hats? (That was Mark, to a T.)
If a religion’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that it depends on painful and complicated measures of shunning to make sure it’s “clean,” it qualifies for criticism. Doing so isn’t “misinformation or intolerance,” as your reader puts it.
Update from one more anonymous reader, who complicates our JW discussion even further:
I was mostly raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized at 13. I attended and graduated from an Ivy League university while still an active member. I stopped attending meetings when I was in my mid-20s. I had done nothing that would warrant my disfellowshipping, though I am sure at this point I have.
Though I am no longer an active member, my mother is. We maintain a close relationship. She is, objectively, a lovely human being. We just don’t see eye to eye about some things. I think we are at peace with that, though I can’t pretend it wasn’t difficult at first.
These facts would seem to make me an anomaly among the voices that have so far been published. I know that I am not. I know many people in similar situations who made the choice to leave the religion, or simply drifted away, and were not shunned by their families.
Some occasionally participate, some never do. I know many, many “complicated” Jehovah's Witnesses family—married couples where one is a Jehovah’s Witness and one is an active member of another church, and where people move in and out of levels of active involvement, disassociate themselves, become disfellowshipped, become reinstated.
Of course, as in any group, there is great social pressure to conform. I don’t find this to be an exclusively JW phenomenon. If I had not been more or less raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (although my father was not a member, and in fact most of my family members are not), I would not have gotten baptized. Then again, social pressure or not, I chose it at the time. Many in my peer group were baptized years after I was, or not at all.
Some churches baptize infants. That baptism may become essentially meaningless to that individual, as mine eventually became to me. It just happened at different times.
I also attended Catholic elementary/middle school, which did not at all jeopardize my baptism or standing in the church. I was excused from Mass, as were the Muslim students in the school. I had Jehovah;s Witness friends who attended the same college as me. When I return home to visit my mother, I am not ignored on the street by Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew growing up.
I suppose my point is that while it is a much smaller, and therefore much less well understood religious group, it is no more or less constricting than other religious experiences. Some people believe fervently, some barely at all but just go with it to keep the peace at home.
I don’t agree with all of the Jehovah's Witness belief system, and that is why I left. I am against organized religion entirely. However, I believe that religion at its best provides a support community to its adherents, especially during difficult times, and if that’s what anyone gets out of religious observance, more power to them.
Update from yet another former JW, Rachel:
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, although I was very skeptical of the teachings. By the time I was 16, my social life was severely impacted by my hesitation to get baptized. Since I wasn’t allowed any friendships with non-JWs, I got baptized to solve the problem. My sister was baptized at the same time, although she was only 12.
I tried my best to fit into the religion, but gradually fell away from the homophobia, gossip, and informal shunning. I still believed, but I had no desire for an eternal life with my fellow congregants under any circumstances.
A few years later, my sister got married. I had a panic attack in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall, terrified of the shunning I was about to face, even though I wasn’t disfellowshipped. After this experience, something felt so wrong that I had to resolve it. I started researching online, finding information on the origins of the religion and the corruption and indifference of it’s leadership. I kept quiet about all of this, never discussing it with my still-in family.
A few years later, my then-fiance became embroiled in a drama within his family that led to his father being disfellowshipped. I was not involved, but since he was on their radar, so was I. I received a series of certified letters, which I never picked up.
Then, one Saturday, as I came in from my run, I saw two elders on my porch. There was no where to hide. They told me I had been disfellowshipped in absentia. I hadn’t been to a meeting in over eight years at that point, did not consider myself a Jehovah’s Witness, and never spoke about the religion with anyone.
My sister only speaks to me at funerals. My mother is more lenient. My father and brothers have left the religion. But it is as if a bomb went off in my family. We are never in the same room together. We are distant, and rarely have contact. Years have been lost between us.
I’ve moved to another state, where no JW knows me. Sometimes I pass by a Kingdom Hall, and I feel so badly for them.
We previously heard from a reader who found religion by reading philosophy, namely the works of Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but the reader eventually turned back to agnosticism. The following reader, Ryan, seems on more solid religious ground after his reason-based conversion:
I’m 30 years old. I grew up in the South in a nominally Christian household. We went to a non-denominational church some when I was growing up, but I didn’t really stick with it. In middle school, I decided religion didn’t make much sense, and I associated it with ignorance of science and history. My mom knew I was agnostic but didn’t care as long as I didn’t say to her “There is no God.” I had a lot of questions about belief in the modern world that my parents lacked the theological know-how to answer.
For awhile, I found hope and optimism in a humanistic view of the world. I thought technology, the right politics, and time would eventually bring about a humanistic utopia.
However, by the time I was out of college, I had adopted an angry, nihilistic view of the Universe and a dim view of humanity. I wasn’t depressed, but I would go through weeks where I would have panic attacks over God not existing and the world being a terrible place. The atheist answer that a godless Universe was an exciting place waiting to be explored and understood didn’t resonate with me. Technology (particularly the Internet) often seemed to allow humanity to commit the same errors of judgement on a larger scale.
The turning point was when I met my wife and her family.
Her parents were Catholic. My wife and her three siblings had left the Catholic Church over its views on homosexuality, abortion, and women’s role in the Church. Her parents didn’t hold their children’s self-imposed exile against them, nor were they dogmatic about the issues that had turned their children away from the Church. Her parents also saw no conflict between science and religion.
As I was around her parents and saw what great people they were, I decided they knew something I didn’t. I realized that all the best people I had ever known throughout my life were Christians and that I agreed with the basic tenants of Christianity and its model of humility and kindness towards others. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles, I decided I could rationally believe in God if I wanted to.
After a few weeks of agonizing, I eventually worked up the courage to ask my wife if she would go to church with me. When we went, I was too nervous to focus much on believing in God. I didn’t feel a belief in God, but I figured that if I kept going to church and prayed, perhaps the mask of faith could become real faith.
My wife and I are currently attending an Episcopal Church together. She’s still trying to figure out if she is a Christian. For me, it’s the only religion I feel like I have a chance of believing in. I find the weekly experience of liturgy a comforting and powerful reminder of Christ’s message. While attending a Maundy Thursday service I had the thought, “I’m not sure how someone couldn’t believe in this” and realized that I had become a Christian. I am hoping to be baptized within the next year and praying each day for hope.
Embedded above is the most popular installment on YouTube of C.S. Lewis’s BBC broadcast of Mere Christianity, discussing the role of “moral law” in human behavior. The book actually followed the broadcasts, which aired between 1942 and 1944.
That’s how this reader describes her biggest test of faith:
I’m happy to see your series on religious choices. It’s something that I struggled with in college and am still examining, as a 25-year-old woman. I was raised in an evangelical “mega-church,” and at one point, I wanted to be a pastor. Neither of these things still hold true. I still consider myself a Christian, and I believe in God, but I haven’t regularly attended a church in years. And I have a lot of inner conflicts over the state of Christianity and the church as a whole.
A lot of episodes in my life have added up to my current stage of religious ambiguity. But this was the most noteworthy: When I was a freshman in college, I was in an abusive relationship with a fellow student I met through a campus Christian group.
He was mostly emotionally and psychologically abusive—a lot of telling me where to go, isolating me, gaslighting, etc.—with a few instances of physical abuse toward the end of our relationship. He based a lot of his decisions on “signs” from God and would say things like “God is telling me this about you” or “If you believed in God, then you would...” He used religion frequently to correct or belittle me and to justify how he treated me.
It shattered me that a “Christian man” would treat me this way and that he used The Bible to defend so many of his actions. The lack of support I received from that campus Christian group and from my church back home made me take a hard look at what I believed in. I especially had to examine how I was treated as a woman in the church and how I’d felt like a lesser person for a while.
When I got engaged at age 23, I joined a more liberal denomination of Christianity, which is the same church I got married in. But I still couldn’t fully reconcile my faith with my reality. My husband and I eventually stopped attending, but we often think about finding a new place of worship. I still haven’t made it happen.
I think that church and Christianity and religion in general can be incredible and powerful. But when people let their egos and their self-righteousness get in the way, that’s when we see religion crumble.
If you’ve had any similar experiences and want to share, drop us an email. Update from a helpful reader:
I have a post on my blog that is specifically aimed at helping people find a new church that is more satisfying and not abusive. You are more than welcome to share this link with your readers if you like. It could probably help many of them.
Here’s another reader with a history of abuse and a lack of support from her Christian peers:
I grew up as stereotypically evangelical as you can imagine: Midwestern, homeschooled, worked at Chick-fil-a, went on missions trips, believed in creationism, wholeheartedly believed that men were “leaders” and women were “helpers” and keepers of the home, etc.
A series of events led me to where I am today, but the biggest catalyst was likely due to a series of abuse when I was 15. A guy I had grown up with my entire life became infatuated with me and began emotionally and physically abusing me. This continued for a year-and-a-half, until he finally went to college.
The worst part was, my friends and church community didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. In fact, they blamed me for leading him on. They thought I should enter into a courtship with him and were upset that I kept refusing him. This guy hit me in the face—hard enough to leave a mark—right in front of my entire youth group. No one said a word.
It took until my senior year of high school to finally realize that none of this was ok. I became a closeted “liberal Christian,” which basically means I was okay with gay marriage and thought that women didn’t have to be the main caretakers of children. During this time, I made the mistake of telling a few of my friends that I came to believe in evolution. I lost all but one of my friends because of that, and soon after I left my faith entirely.
I’ve been secretly agnostic for a year and three days. I’m 18 now and about to finish my first year at a selective East Coast liberal arts school, which has been the best thing to ever happen to me. But I’ve yet to make my biggest religious decision: when I go home next month, do I tell my family the truth about my lack of faith?
No one back home knows, and I don’t want to keep lying to them. I don’t think I even can anymore. But I know if I do, I’ll either be disowned or pulled out of my college and kept at home. I don’t have good options. But I don’t regret losing my faith at all. The only regret that I have is that I’m too scared to try to help my younger brother, who’s in the same place I was religiously when I was 16.
Religion is supposed to give you peace. That’s what I always was taught, that we should have peace because we have certainty and trust in God. That was never true for me. When I was religious, I lived in constant, internal turmoil. Ever since I embraced agnosticism and welcomed uncertainty, I’ve been more at peace with myself than I’ve ever been.
Two military veterans share their experiences. This first reader, Tony from Boise, was deployed to the Middle East three times, once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq:
I was raised in a very Catholic, Midwestern town in North Dakota. Church wasn’t just something you did on Sundays; it was a way of life. During lent you went to church every morning at 7 am, and you absolutely did not eat meat on Fridays during lent for fear of eternal hell fire.
The first thing that ever made me think twice about it, was the fact that after church every Sunday we would go to my grandmas, and all of the adults would sit and talk crap about everyone who was at church—who was there, who wasn’t there, who looked hungover, who sucked at singing … the list goes on and on.
After high school, I joined the Army. The turning point in my life and my view on religion is when I met a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who had lost her arm from an RPG.
It was intended for an American convoy but hit her house instead. I remember thinking, “What did she do to deserve this? If there is a guy up there, how can he justify this?”
I spent a lot of time soul-searching over that deployment and came to terms with the fact that religion isn’t for me. If anyone can justify that, and plenty of people could, it just isn’t for me. In a world where you can justify the loss of an arm of a 12-year-old girl, where does it stop? Genocides for your religion, killing yourself or others for what you believe in, has to stop.
I get along with Muslims really well now that I am in college. I connect with them, and I have nothing against them. They are people, the same as you and I. When Christians want to talk about how violent they are, I always end the conversation with “Remember the crusades?”
This next Army vet, on the other hand, stuck with his religious faith through the horrors of war. Here’s Patrick Stallings’s story:
My experience with religion has been deep and has kept me moored through the many different phases of my life. Growing up, my mom was Catholic, dad was Methodist, brothers never really went to church, and I ended up going with my granddad to a Presbyterian church.
I saw my church as full of thoughtful, introspective, and kind people. When I tagged along with my other family members, I saw much of the same. The church members weren’t outspoken about the kinds of volunteer work they did, but they were there. I remember couples fostering children, groups working in soup kitchens, and others raising money for projects across the city. It was far from perfect (my home church has split twice over LGBTQ inclusion questions), but it very much seemed a net good.
I left town and joined the Army. My first deployment (Northern Iraq 2006-2007) was brutally violent. I saw the worst of humanity, but in that darkness I also saw the best of humanity. As I worked with my platoon to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and ultimately reconcile people who had murdered each other across sectarian lines, I worked with village leaders and imams and I saw the powerful way which religion framed that reconciliation. Not only was it the part of their identity that was catalyzed to start the fighting, it was the frame of reference they used to reconcile their hatred, and ultimately forgive the “other.”
My faith was challenged, and I spent years of my spare time reading philosophy and theology, as well as reflecting as I struggled to make sense of it. Eventually, I came to feel a sense of peace as I accepted knowledge that some questions are unanswerable. Through that process I abandoned my faith and found it again. I realized that so much religious strife was due to the conflation of core tenants and theological questions, most prevalently by those with little understanding of theology or even intentionally by those who seek to weaken or co-opt religious institutions.
I continue to reflect, but in the years since I have realized how my understanding of my own faith has increased my capacity to understand and work with those who have a religious perspective that differs from my own, and how so much of the dogma that people fight over matters so little.
This is very boring, but the biggest religious choice I’ve had to make is simply that of staying put. I was very fortunate in the tradition that I grew up in. While I am far from incurious, I found that my own tradition, with its demands and expectations of belief and behavior, held up pretty well under scrutiny. So I stayed.
Doing so has reinforced to me the value of rootedness and the flimsiness of whim, volition, and passing fancy. Doubts come and go, but I seem to inhabit a different zone from most modern Americans—not of certainty, but of inevitability. It’s true whether or not I believe it.
From a teenage Mormon reader, Madison Shumway:
A religious choice I suppose I’m still in the process of making is the one to stay in my religion rather than leave it. And while that’s not an unusual decision for many religious people to encounter at least once in their journeys in faith, I'm struggling with it a lot.
I’m 17 and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and for a few years I was dead-set on leaving the church as soon as I left my home, even if it meant cutting off my family and community entirely. That started changing a few months ago, when I decided I would try to find faith again.
That decision didn’t immediately transform my experience, as I hoped it would. Even though I had decided I wanted to stay, and wanted to believe in this huge and grand and intangible thing that made people I knew so happy, it wasn't as easy as one choice. Faith is elusive, and I learned that even when one devotes their lives to it, belief can be hard to cultivate.
At first my big issue with the Church, and staying involved in it, was its culture—the sometimes judgmental and exclusive and downright mean behavior of some of its members. After a while I realized that the culture I hated so much was something created by its members, who are all fallible humans, rather than doctrine or a divine being. I thought that epiphany would make my faith flourish, that it would no longer be so difficult to believe in the gospel in which I so desperately wanted to believe.
But it didn’t, and my journey got harder. Reconciling personal beliefs with religious ones is hard. Overcoming the effects un-Christlike Christians can have on one’s testimony is hard.
But what is so painfully and exhaustingly tough is aching to find belief when that belief just won’t come; when all your prayer and scripture study and church attendance and commandment-following doesn’t translate into faith, like you were always taught it would; when persevering only leads to more persevering, with no easily observable effects but frustration and an increasing feeling of hopelessness.
It takes up such a huge part of my life now, all the trying and worrying and crying and discussing and begging. It affects my mental and emotional health as well as my personal relationships.
Why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. I guess I see something in my religion, something bigger and further away than the promised blessings righteousness is supposed to bring—I guess I see some bright and immeasurable joy, somewhere off in the horizon. And so, every day, I make the choice to keep trying.
This email from another young Mormon woman might be able to help:
You could say I’m writing this in defense of organized religion, since I'm sharing the story of how I re-found my faith. I think your reader series is really perfectly timed, since the world’s focus on religion is so negative at the moment.
I’m 25. I’m a single Mormon girl living in Salt Lake City. I grew up Mormon, but finding my current faith has been a long process. I realize that my opinion may be extremely unpopular, and it’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the pieces you’ve published. But I feel really strongly about my faith, and want to champion it.
I want to share with you part of a talk I wrote last February. The Mormon church doesn’t have just one preacher or pastor; members of the congregation are invited to prepare talks and speak in the general meeting every Sunday instead. I’ve updated it a bit, but essentially, this is what I wrote:
A few months ago, one of the Humans of New York posts caught my eye. It said: “Going through life without God is like being an astronaut tumbling out of control in outer space....you've got to stay close. You can't cut your umbilical cord.” I just love that. For me, at least life without God really is like that, directionless and terrifying.
2013, the year I left the church, was the worst year of my life. I don't say that lightly, either—I mean it. I was in a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship for most of that year, and it, along with some leftover teenage rebellion, caused me to walk away from the church. I turned my back on all of it, including my family, for a year.
I grew up in the church, and was baptized at 8, went to church every week with my parents and younger sisters, attended all the youth meetings, etc., but it was much too easy for me to turn away. Even though I was going to church and doing all the right things, I was not applying the principles and doctrines I was learning to my life. I was just there.
One of the biggest influences on my returning to church was a book I read in 2013, called Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, by Kathleen Norris. It was her definition of sin that caught my eye: sin as “any impulse that leads us away from paying full attention to who [we are] and what we’re doing; any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor.” I remember reading that and thinking, wow, that’s a much better definition of sin than “doing arbitrary wrong things” or “breaking the rules.”
It was this definition that got under my skin and eventually helped me go back to church. I realized that all the principles and doctrines I’d learned growing up were still rattling around in my brain, and I realized that the very restrictions I was straining against would help me, if I followed them, to lead the kind of life I wanted to live—cleanly, soberly, and with a clear conscience. I realized I desperately wanted to stop lying to my family about, well, everything. I realized I needed something to believe in, because believing in nothing and making my own rules was such a hopeless endeavor—without the guidance of a loving God, the world did not make sense to me. I needed to believe that everything will work out in the end, even if everything looks hopeless right now, because God is in charge and He loves us, no matter what.
I’ve attached the whole talk [PDF], as it was when I gave it, if you’re at all interested in reading the whole thing. I believe that religion is an intensely personal thing, and I’m so glad for all the perspectives shared already. The fight regarding religious freedom is going to get worse before it gets better, I think.
That’s what religion is to this Millennial reader, Angelle:
I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but you have to understand that it’s impossible to describe in few words what God has done for me.
The biggest religious choice I’ve made is to follow God above all things.
I was born in a Christian, Evangelical home. Before I even knew how to speak my heart believed in God. But it’s not my upbringing that allowed me to maintain in faith, but rather an ongoing set of events that kept proving me again and again that God exits, listens, and acts upon us.
God met me when my father’s stage 4, rapidly-growing cancer suddenly stopped 2cms away from destroying his brain. And when he had maxillofacial surgery to remove the cancer, the doctor couldn’t reconnect the optic nerve to his brain, but when he opened his eyes, he had perfect vision.
God met me in college, when recession had just hit, and my parents could no longer afford my education. Freshman year: I received a scholarship I never applied to. Sophomore year: I received a large donation from a stranger. Junior year: I was due to be expelled from university because of lack of payment, but instead I was given an extension until my senior year. And senior year: I was the only student in the history of a long established institution to attend graduation with a due balance.
God met me after college, when a series of life events lead me to depression, and when I consciously chose to give my life to Him. And when I asked Him to remove the pain, the suffering, the unwillingness to continue this life, He did. Beyond all comprehension or logic or tactic I could pinpoint as a proven method, He simply did.
It was only after all these events that I understood, at 25 years old, why I believe: not because I was taught to, but because life pushed me to a place where the only answer was God.
He pushed me to a feeling beyond this physical world.
He pushed me to a hope beyond rational understanding.
He pushed me to a state of indescribable peace.
He pushed me to a faith that makes a fool of what makes sense.
He met me where logic ends.
People keep looking for facts that God exists, and these facts are everywhere; most importantly within you. People just don’t know how to look, and sadly, don’t want to learn either.
That’s the metaphor used by this reader in describing the biggest religious decision of her life:
I’m 35 and was raised in a very extreme, conservative Christian environment. My parents homeschooled me all the way through high school, mostly so that they could control what I learned about the world and about religion. This means that I spent all of my life until the age of 18 or so being not only intensively indoctrinated, but also incredibly isolated from the outside world.
Virtually everyone I interacted with believed in “scientific creationism,” as we called it, and in my history books I learned about Manifest Destiny and God’s glorious plan for America. I also learned, both at home and at church, that as a woman I needed to submit to the men in my life, and that God’s best for me was to stay at home and raise a large family.
Undoing the brainwashing took a long time. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I made my biggest religious choice: atheism!
It was a decision for freedom, but still, leaving my religion (and acknowledging that I’d grown up in something closer to a tiny cult than a loving family) plunged me into a crisis. The loss of so many long-held beliefs and ways of looking at the world was so devastating that for a time, I needed therapy three times a week.
I know that many people practice a more liberal form of religion. But that’s not an option for me, at least not at this point. The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice. Attending a (liberal) Christmas Eve service with my new boyfriend’s Catholic family brought on PTSD-like symptoms.
Sometimes I still look back wistfully to the days when I could cling to the knowledge that God had a plan and knew better than I did, no matter what happened. The world felt like a more secure place when I saw it in black-and-white terms and believed myself to be a child of the Creator.
But I don’t get too wistful, because I know that the security blanket of Christianity was actually smothering me. I am much happier now, in my secular life as a humanist. For the first time, I can breathe freely and think honestly. I no longer see myself as a worm with no worth apart from what Christ has given me. I no longer have to repent of each tiny mistake I make. I no longer live in fear of hell. I no longer need to twist my mind to accept things that are in fact illogical and unproven.
Unfortunately, I do still struggle with anger and bitterness and confusion and grief at the way I was raised. I don’t understand the choices my parents made.
That reader’s story reminds me of a similar one published in Patheos by Libby Anne, who was raised by conservative evangelical parents who homeschooled her in a kind of social separation from society increasingly known as “The Benedict Option,” a term popularized by the Orthodox Christian blogger Rod Dreher. The Benedict Option, formed mostly in response to the mainstream acceptance and full legalization of same-sex marriage, harkens back to the 5th century Saint Benedict of Nursia, who retreated from the decadence of Rome and formed an isolated group of monastic communities that sought to preserve Christianity through the Dark Ages. Today’s Ben Oppers are basically retreating from the culture wars, in contrast to the Moral Majority and other conservative religious groups seeking to shape national politics. (Laura Turner wrote a great piece for us last year on “what happens when the ‘moral majority’ becomes a minority.”)
For Libby Anne, her isolation from secular society had the opposite effect of what her parents intended; it led to her to abandon Christianity altogether, as well as a belief in any god. She explains:
The Christian homeschooling movement purports to raise strong, upstanding Christians who will, upon adulthood, be ready to communicate the truth of Christianity and the value of the Christian way of life to the world. The Benedict Option purports the same thing. But how is this supposed to happen if these same Christians grow up so shielded from the world that they have no idea how to interact with it? [...]
There’s another problem, too. Growing up within Christian community, I only ever heard the other side’s arguments through a sort of filter. For example, I studied evolution out of creationist textbooks which explained evolution in an incomplete way and was full of straw men of evolutionary scientists’ positions. The same was true with basically everything. I didn’t hear the other side’s argument from the horse’s mouth, as it were, until I was in [a secular] college, and when I did I was surprised, because what the other side actually said didn’t line up with what I’d been taught it said. This created a crisis of faith, because I no longer felt I could trust what my parents had taught me.
Because what I call the Christian bubble filter is so common across congregations and communities, raising children under a more separate Benedict Option could potentially mean that all of their information about the world outside the bubble would be filtered and thus distorted. This is a problem because when they eventually hear something from someone outside of the bubble, unfiltered—the moment they meet an ordinary gay couple happily raising children, or learn that using entropy to argue against evolution fails on the most basic level—-it won’t line up with what they’d been told inside the bubble. And frankly, postponing this moment until adulthood spells trouble.
Trouble in the sense of rejecting religion altogether, rather than adopting a less rigid form of Christianity, one that’s integrated with mainstream society—bending rather than breaking, in other words. Or, as our reader put it, “The extremist religion I was raised in did so much harm that I now feel allergic to any and all religious practice.”
That’s the perception that Abby Seitz, a 19-year-old journalism student, is struggling with:
I converted to Judaism through the Conservative Movement at the end of my freshman year of college. I was first drawn to Judaism as a 13-year-old girl at Sports Broadcasting Camp. About 60 percent of the campers were Jewish. There had only been one Jewish student in my elementary and middle school in Virginia. I was fascinated by my new friends and their talk of bar mitzvahs and BBYO.
As I learned more about Judaism through the Internet, I began to feel like my angsty teenage existential crisis of anxiety and questions had been answered. I was raised Catholic and did not feel comfortable questioning how one man could encompass both a god and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t understand why the Church took such staunch political positions—especially ones that I morally could not comprehend.
The first time I stepped foot in a synagogue was a few weeks before the High Holidays in 2012, when I was a sophomore in high school. The rabbi at the small reform congregation an hour from my house would not let me begin the conversion process until I was 18.
In the meantime, I read as much as I could and looked at colleges that had a Hillel. I stopped eating out because the food wasn’t kosher-certified.
I wasn’t able to fully live a Jewish life until I moved to Chicago for school in the fall of 2014. While I watched my peers battle homesickness and the difficulty of learning to cook and clean and take care of themselves, I was trying to navigate Jewish social norms. I was shocked when I would go out with my Jewish friends and they would mix meat and milk, or skip services on Yom Kippur.
My freshman year was easily the most eventful: being told by Chabad rabbis I would never be a Jew, being broken up with because my mother isn’t Jewish, the constant personal inquires of, “Oh, you’re a convert? Why did you do that? How do your parents feel about that?”
The biggest religious choice was not standing before a beit din, a court of three rabbis, and declaring my belief in the 613 mitzvot of Judaism, or denouncing my belief in Jesus. It wasn’t giving up Goldfish because they aren’t kosher-certified or spending most of my free time in September trying to make up homework for classes that fall on the High Holidays. The biggest religious choice I ever made was joining a people who, at every turn, did not seem to want me.
Update from a Jewish reader, Alex, who articulates the complexity of how ethnicity, history, and citizenship all relate to being Jewish and practicing Judaism—in all its varied “streams”:
Your reader raises interesting points, but it makes it look like Jews and Judaism as a whole are exclusionary and rejects convert, which is only a half-truth. The reality is much more complex because there are substantial differences between traditional and liberal Judaism.
It is true that Judaism traditionally does not seek converts. While during antiquity Judaism was open to converts, Roman and later Christian prosecutions of Jews and severe state sanctions for conversions led Rabbinic authorities to discourage conversions as well. In fact, if someone wants to convert, the rabbis traditionally need to discourage the person at least three times, to make sure that only those most committed to Judaism and most diligent in seeking to convert join the Jewish people.
Another issue is that Judaism (like some other religions) is based on descent—in the Jewish case, on matrilineal descent—and that, traditionally, we, the Jewish people, regarded ourselves as being descended from our ancestors who stood at Sinai 3,000 years ago when we were granted the Torah upon the Exodus from Egypt. So, in a way, our religion is tribal-based.
Throughout human history, it’s been generally unusual, but not impossible to join another human nation or tribe. (For instance, I could not become Korean or Chinese if I wanted to, although of course, in modern nation states it’s possibly to acquire citizenship). Unlike some other descent-based religions which do not accept conversions—like the Zoroastrians and the Druze—Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.
Although there are many intermarried couples (including my own), conversion to Judaism is still relatively rare, particularly for the Orthodox stream of Judaism. The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open. I believe that your reader’s problem is that she is drawn to traditional Judaism (which is much more restrictive) rather than liberal Judaism (which is more welcoming). So, if she wants to feel more welcome, she should look for more liberal synagogues and date more liberal Jews for whom her conversion status isn’t a problem.
As the personal questions people ask (“why did you convert?” and “how do your parents feel about it?”), she should not take it personally. Such questions typically reflect inquisitiveness rather than standoffishness or hostility. Most people usually stay within the confines of the faith there were born in, so a person who does something atypical obviously elicits curiosity. Once she provides a reasoned reply, most Jews I know would accept the answer (and her as a fellow Jew) and move on.
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.
Two more Jewish readers continue to debate that question—raised by Abby, the young Catholic-turned-Jew, and then complicated by Lekha, the young Southerner with a Jewish father and Hindu mother. First up is Esther, an Orthodox Jew who is “very normal, but you’d describe me as ‘ultra’ because of the way I look and because I don’t have a TV”:
Jews are Jews by way of being born to a Jewish mother or by converting and following the Torah.
I think some of the people who are writing in and saying they “converted” to Judaism are saying they are Jewish, but at the same time, their lifestyle and practices reject the most important parts of Judaism, so I’m not quite sure why they would expect others to embrace them as fellow Jews. Someone who converts to Judaism but by word and deed refuses to embrace real Jewish practices (eating kosher, belief in God, belief in the Messiah’s anticipated arrival, fasting on fast days, learning Torah on a regular basis, saying blessings before eating, and on and on—there are hundreds of commandments!) is naturally going to be viewed as an inauthentic outsider.
To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion—only the members of the Jewish family do.
And here’s Evan Kominsky, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis:
I was raised in a Jewish household and went to a Conservative synagogue. If you asked me how I would label myself today, I would reluctantly say Orthodox. I say reluctantly because I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. All of these other divisions are extremely harmful to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.
One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people “identify.”
At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence “I identify as Jewish” is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying “I identify as Korean,” regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays.
It pains me to hear about those in the Jewish community who feel excluded. And this is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But the tension described by readers Abby and Lekha between their Jewish identity and their beliefs is an outgrowth of this philosophy, which, when taken to the extreme, falls closer to the antithetical side.
In Jewish practice, there is a balance between the rights and experience of the individual and the obligations that the individual has towards the community. When you swing too heavily to one side or the other, problems start to arise. If you view the “strict religious expectations of what Judaism is” as rules that are meant solely to help the individual connect to God, it’s no wonder they are left by the wayside when they don’t jive 100 percent with how you relate to God.
But there is another aspect. Take for example the commandments surrounding the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). They are given no explanation in the Torah. Later commentators have explained them in context, adding depth and breadth to their significance, but at their core, they are not meant to be understood by human logic. Were each person to say, “I don’t relate to these laws, so I am not going to follow all of them,” the concept of community would be destroyed. No one would be able to eat at each other’s houses.
Another example is Shabbat observance. Jewish law prohibits driving on Shabbat (due to the prohibition of lighting a fire). The collective observance of this law ensures that all members of the Jewish community live within walking distance of the synagogue, and thereby each other. Setting aside the philosophical reasons for this law for the moment (there is a lot of rich material here), the moment people began to privilege their personal feelings to whether or not they relate to a law over the needs of the public, the communal structure of living next to the people you pray with and go to school with and socialize with collapses.
There is a lot to be said here, but the main point I want to get across is that when experiencing a tension between what you believe and what “traditional” Judaism mandates, instead of automatically criticizing what to you seems restrictive, perhaps it would be beneficial to turn a critical eye to the individualistic tendency that idolizes personal preference as the supreme value.
Update from another reader, Jon:
There is so much more nuance to Jewish identity than the strawmen and facile explanations of Jewish law that some of your readers are offering. By one version, you can stick a Post-It on your head that says “I’m Jewish” and you are; by another, unless a certain select set of rabbis signs off on your conversion or your ancestors, you aren’t.
The latter is only the case if you accept one interpretation of Judaism as the only one and assume that the people who have interpreted them have made no mistakes. Under this interpretation, people who have fulfilled the requirements for conversion even under the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in Israel can have their conversions annulled decades later, even if most of their ancestry is Jewish—something which simply is not in the rabbinic sources regarding conversion rites and amounts to as much of an innovation as anything else. Also under this version, people whose ancestry may be unclear due to war or other tragedy may have to convert—in some cases even from communities that have been Jewish from time immemorial, simply because they aren’t on the right lists.
Under the former version, the Post-It one, people are expecting to have everyone accept them as Jewish no matter how little of the various traditions he accepts. In a different way, this too is asking your liberal interpretation of Judaism to be accepted by all. And while I agree that this seems to mesh with people feeling at liberty to pick their identities regardless of actual facts and expect everyone to agree, the difference here is that conscience or beliefs are at least part of being Jewish—and those can change, even if who your parents are cannot. We ought to make that distinction.
Finally, while you can cite important central distinguishing rituals like kashrut, shabbat, and circumcision, anyone who thinks that these are the only obligations of a “traditional” Jew is being just as selective as any reformer. There are responsibilities to the community and to the “stranger” as well. And being a “traditional” Jew alone does not give you a carte blanche to all walks of Jewish life. Indeed, the majority of the population of the State of Israel is secular. One could argue service in the IDF and an Israeli passport is just as much a symbol of Jewish peoplehood as anything any rabbi could issue. Do these secular Jews who eat non-kosher food and turn lights on and off on Saturday not count? If they do, why doesn’t a convert who is more observant? Who’s to say?
The answer is: each different group will have its own standards for acceptance. Failing to recognize all of these different Judaisms, all of these different ways of being Jewish, are problems both the recent converts who think they’ve checked all the boxes and the haredim who think they alone hold the spiritual keys to Jewish peoplehood share.
All in all, however, this is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions, so we should probably all give each other a break. It’s one thing to build a fence around the Torah to protect it from false change, another altogether to build a fence to keep genuine believers away.
Here’s one more Jewish reader, Steve, with “yet another perspective on the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question”:
I had a good laugh when I read “As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying 'I identify as Korean,' regardless of one’s actual heritage”—since I am an Orthodox Jew, as is my Korean-born wife, an Orthodox Convert completely accepted by my “ultra-Orthodox” cousins with absolutely no thought that she doesn’t “look Jewish.” You’d get a blank look from them if you mention “cultural appropriation.”
My wife is still very much a Korean-American, but now she is also 100% Jewish—as Jewish as Golda Meir. Indeed, I kid her that she should have taken the name Golda when she converted, as my Jewish name is Tovye and we have five daughters between us …
You’re probably realizing at this point that this conversation is a perpetual motion machine. I think it’s so fascinating because this is one of those places where the Western Liberal Tradition meets Torah and neither one is backing down.
That question is addressed in the following video alongside the question, “What makes someone Black?”—and it’s a really great complement to our reader thread:
Here’s an overview of that documentary, Little White Lie, which our video team featured last summer:
Lacey Schwartz was raised in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity. Others often remarked on her dark skin, but her family always said that her looks were inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. “I would tell myself, my dad gets really tan in the summertime or my mom’s hair is really curly just like mine,” Schwartz says in this excerpt [embedded above] from her documentary Little White Lie. It wasn’t until Georgetown University admitted her as a black student—based off a picture—that Schwartz started to question the identity that her parents gave her.
The nine-minute video ends on a big cliffhanger, and you can buy the full documentary on iTunes or Amazon, but I discovered it’s also streaming on Netflix. I jumped into the stream and heard the following quote from Schwartz (the irony of her name is just too perfect), remembering a moment at her bat mitzvah when a member of her synagogue told her, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence.” That made me think of an email that just arrived from Alex, the first reader who responded to the story from Abby that started this whole discussion on Jewish identity and conversion. Here’s Alex:
It was good to correspond with you a few days ago. I found a recent Times of Israel article about members of the African Selwi tribe in Ghana converting to Judaism. You can also look up additional information from Kulanu, an organization which helps isolated communities (African and Asian tribes, etc.) to reconnect with Judaism. Also try B’Chol LaShon, with a similar mission: reaching out to people who want to become Jews by Choice.
There’s a small post I did several years ago on the “Lost Jews” of Zimbabwe that also might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the more complex areas of Jewish identity in Africa.
Abby also emailed a followup:
Thanks again for this opportunity. It’s been enlightening and interesting to follow along with the responses you guys have been posting to my submission. My friends and I have also been laughing all day about how many angry emails you must have received from Jews obsessed over what makes someone a Jew.
Actually there haven’t been any angry emails at all. (Perhaps there’s anger over on Twitter, but I wouldn’t know.) It’s been remarkable how gracious but candid readers have been over this topic. Our latest email comes from Aaron, who doesn’t introduce an especially new angle to the discussion but does an eloquent job of highlighting the best parts:
I want to address a few things that came up in other readers’ responses. First, Alex draws the line on openness to conversion between traditional and liberal forms of Judaism: “The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open.” I don’t disagree with that, but I think it has to be majorly qualified with another line, one that Lekha alludes to: “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.” This is the line—presumably only present in the liberal forms of Judaism—between religious Judaism and purely secular Judaism.
I’m a Jew who spent his childhood attending High Holy Day services at a Reform temple, and although as a college student I still attend these services sometimes, it’s never been a matter of spirituality. I have no connection whatsoever to the religious side of Judaism; the reason I still attend services, and the reason I consider myself a Jew, is entirely a matter of culture and heritage.
This is true for most of my family, as well. For us, to be Jewish is to connect with a familial history of having been Jewish, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say we draw on Jewish cultural values in a big way; if we have “Jewish values,” they’re the values inherited from, say, American secular Jewish culture rather than from a millennia-long religious culture.
So, that someone like Evan would find the sentence “I identify as Jewish” bizarre is, to me, extremely bizarre, at least for anybody who recognizes that there is a substantial chunk of the Jewish population whose connection to Judaism is rooted only in heritage. I do firmly believe that it’s not meaningful for someone to identify secularly as a Jew if they don’t have that heritage, in the same way that someone cannot identify racially with a heritage they don’t have; but it’s important to recognize that some of us call ourselves Jewish not by virtue of adherence to religious practice, but rather solely by virtue of identification with cultural heritage.
In fact, I take the significance of this identification to be something externally imposed more than anything else: As Jon wrote, “[having standards for acceptance] is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions.”
My identification as Jewish is most deeply rooted in the fact that throughout most of history I would have been labelled as Jewish no matter what I said; that I would have been sent to a concentration camp if I had lived in Nazi Germany in spite of my secularity; that even today I would fear being beaten for talking about my Jewish heritage if I had grown up in Malmö rather than in a major city in the U.S. For me, and for many of the secular Jews I know, identifying as Jewish is tantamount to publicly recognizing that this past is still very much with us, and to standing up to that past, to saying “There is no accepting us as people without accepting as people with this heritage, with this culture—without accepting us as Jewish people.”
As an aside, I want to address something that’s come up in a few of the more religious Jewish readers’ responses: namely, that one is a Jew only by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or converting. I have no problem with this as a doctrine for religious Jews, but I’m extremely wary of applying it to secular Jews. My mother happens to be my Jewish parent, so it’s never been an issue for me, but I hate seeing this kind of exclusion among other secular Jews. The fact of the matter is that, as I wrote above, secular identification with Judaism is largely the result of external labelling, and since a lot of the people doing the external labelling didn’t care at all which parent was Jewish, neither should we.
To identify as a secular Jew is to have Jewish blood and to choose to embrace the label for yourself as a sign of resistance—and nothing more.
One more story, from Maia:
I was adopted as a baby into a Jewish family and was “converted” at two months old by a Conservative rabbi. We did the mikveh and the baby naming and all that. Same with my older brother.
I am now basically a reform/secular Jew, in that I enjoy all the rituals/holidays but I’m not particularly drawn to the theology or keeping kosher etc. My brother is more observant, but when studying with ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he was told that he was not Jewish because his conversion wasn’t done by an Orthodox rabbi. Very upsetting, to say the least.
Even though I am not an observant Jew, when I got married (to a lapsed Catholic), we had a Jewish wedding ceremony and agreed to raise our kids Jewish. His family understands this generally, but I have struggled to explain why I’m uncomfortable celebrating Easter or Christmas with them. Basically, their question is, if I’m not actually concerned about the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, why do I care if we celebrate Christian holidays as well?
The best explanation I can come up with is that it’s helpful to view Jews as you would various Native American groups—that is, as members of a particular tribe. This means that there is both an ethnic/nationalist component to the identity as well as a religious/cultural component.
Now imagine that this tribe is expelled from its homeland and scattered throughout the world. What remains? As the group fractures, the rituals and religion are kept alive but because the tribe is scattered throughout numerous countries, the ethnic identity is muddled (except, of course, when it is used as a point of discrimination).
This means you end up today with ethnic Jews who don’t practice any of the traditions, religious converts who have entered into the “tribe” by agreeing to adopt the belief and ritual system, and everything in between.
For me, it’s fair to say that I don’t adhere to all the laws and rituals of the Jewish tribe, but they are still the framework within which I learned about Judaism and eventually chose how to express myself as a Jew. For me this means that I don't want to celebrate Easter—not because it’s Christian per se, but rather because it is notJewish and, thus not part of my identity, ethnically, religiously, or culturally.
Finally, I agree that it’s terrible that Jews of any stripe would be unwelcoming to converts, but every religion and ethnic group has their own internal strife about who is “authentic” and who isn’t. The truth is, these discussions don’t have a “real” answer; they just serve to highlight what is important to a particular person about his or her own religious identity.
That’s a good note to end on with this Jewish discussion, unless someone has an exceptionally new experience or angle to share. We’ll post more of your stories on other religious choices soon.
The subscription service is Amazon’s greatest—and most terrifying—invention.
Today is Prime Day. Imagine trying to explain that to an alien or to a time traveler from the 20th century. “Amazon turned 20 and on the eve of its birthday, the company introduced Prime Day, a global shopping event,” reads Amazon’s formal telling of the ritual’s 2015 origins. “Our only goal? Offer a volume of deals greater than Black Friday, exclusively for Prime members.” The holiday was invented by a corporation in honor of itself, to enrich itself. It has existed for six years and is observed by tens of millions people worldwide. I hope you are spending it with your loved ones.
Prime Day is a singular and strange artifact, but then again, so is Prime, Amazon’s $119-a-year membership service, which buys subscribers free one-day shipping, plus access to streaming media, discounts at the Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods, and a host of other perks. Prime is Amazon’s greatest and most terrifying invention: a product whose value proposition is to help you buy more products. With 200 million subscribers worldwide, it is the second-most-popular subscription service on Earth, poised to overtake Netflix in the not-so-distant future.
Reducing hours without reducing pay would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.
The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that last year, when the pandemic obliterated countless workers’ work-life balance and mental health, Buffer responded in a way that few other companies did: It gave employees an extra day off each week, without reducing pay—an experiment that’s still running a year later. “It has been such a godsend,” Essence Muhammad, a customer-support agent at Buffer, told me.
The postracial idea is the most sophisticated racist idea ever produced.
The signposts of racism are staring back at us in big, bold racial inequities. But some Americans are ignoring the signposts, walking on by racial inequity, riding on by the evidence, and proclaiming their belief with religious fervor. “America is not a racist country,” Senator Tim Scott said in April.
Black babies die at twice the rate of white babies. Roughly a fifth of Native Americans and Latino Americans are medically uninsured, almost triple the rate of white Americans and Asian Americans (7.8 and 7.2 percent, respectively). Native people (24.2 percent) are nearly three times as likely as white people (9 percent) to be impoverished. The life expectancy of Black Americans (74.5 years) is much lower than that of white Americans (78.6 years). White Americans account for 77 percent of the voting members of the 117th Congress, even though they represent 60 percent of the U.S. population.
Divorce is so expensive and complicated that it leaves many poor people trapped in bad marriages.
Sara met her future husband when she was 18. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, but Sara thought marriage would change him for the better. It didn’t. Sara gave birth to two kids before the age of 25, and she says her husband grew controlling and abusive. A few weeks ago, he got drunk and punched her in the face repeatedly, she says, and she realized they had to divorce.
Sara’s divorce is one of the most difficult kinds—a contested divorce in which she and her husband don’t agree on child-custody and financial matters. She initially had trouble getting a lawyer to represent her. “I have reached out to every lawyer that I can to see if they’ll represent me, but because I have no money, nobody will,” she told me recently. (The Atlantic is withholding Sara’s last name for her protection.)
But journalism requires drama, which means that over the past few months Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been the subject of extensive coverage. The problem with this coverage is not that Manchin is unimportant; as the most moderate Democrat in a 50-person caucus, he is crucial. It’s that there is no mystery to him.
Trying to figure out who Manchin is and what he wants, or how he’s changed—the natural and reasonable defaults of political-profile writing—assumes there’s something more than meets the eye. Really, though, Manchin is who he’s always been: a middle-of-the-road guy with good electoral instincts, decent intentions, and bad ideas.
When a flagrantly unreliable narrator narrated his own story, people across the media spectrum responded as if he could be trusted. Why?
In November 2018, The Washington Post published a disturbing headline: “‘They Were Threatening Me and My Family’: Tucker Carlson’s Home Targeted by Protesters.”
The Post story quoted the prime-time Fox News host at length. “Someone started throwing himself against the front door and actually cracked the front door,” Carlson claimed. “It wasn’t a protest. It was a threat … They weren’t protesting anything specific that I had said. They weren’t asking me to change anything. They weren’t protesting a policy or advocating for legislation … They were threatening me and my family and telling me to leave my own neighborhood in the city that I grew up in.”
Even more alarming, according to the Post, “A woman was also overheard in one of the deleted videos saying she wanted to ‘bring a pipe bomb’ to his house, [Carlson] said.”
More Americans are telling their boss to shove it. Is the workplace undergoing a revolution—or just a post-pandemic spasm?
Quitting your job is hot this summer. More Americans quit in May than any other month on record going back to the beginning of the century, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For every 100 workers in hotels, restaurants, bars, and retailers, about five of them quit last month.
Low-wage workers aren’t the only ones eyeing the door. In May, more than 700,000 workers in the bureau’s mostly white-collar category of “professional and business services” left their job—the highest monthly number ever. Across all sectors and occupations, four in 10 employees now say they’ve considered peacing out of their current place of work.
Why the sudden burst of quitting? One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work. Up and down the income ladder, workers have new reasons to tell their boss to shove it. Lower-wage workers who benefited from enhanced unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic may have returned to the job and realized they’re not being paid enough. Now they’re putting their foot down, forcing restaurants and clothing stores to fork over a higher wage to keep people on staff.
Brewers are scrambling to keep up with the country’s newly packed bars.
In the spring of 2020, as a brand-new disease spread rapidly across the United States, millions of Americans arrived at the same conclusion: They wanted a beer.
This was, to be fair, the same conclusion that many of us were coming to before the pandemic began, but the ways we could satisfy that thirst had changed dramatically. As beer spoiled in kegs inside idle bars and restaurants, Americans set out in search of six-packs. Liquor stores and grocery stores, which were both categorized as “essential businesses” and allowed to operate during even the tightest local lockdowns, saw their alcohol sales spike. Booze-delivery services such as Drizly more than tripled their sales. As with things like paper towels and flour, beer producers and distributors scrambled to divert their product into the right packaging and onto the right shelves.
They claim that democracy is under threat, but they lack the collective will to save it.
Democrats have cast in dire terms their push to protect and expand voting rights before the next national elections. “Failure is not an option,” Senate Majority Chuck Schumer has repeatedly declared, making the oft-broken vow that leaders in both parties assign to their tippy-top priorities. This afternoon, Schumer brought up his party’s broad election-reform bill for an initial procedural vote, and it failed.
That the legislation, known as the For the People Act, would fall to a GOP filibuster has been clear for months. Democrats, of course, have vowed to press forward and try again. Yet they approached today’s doomed vote without any apparent fallback.
“There better be a Plan B. I just don’t know what it is,” Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told me last week in the Capitol. When I asked the Senate’s second-most-powerful Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, what the party’s next step would be, he was similarly stumped. “That’s a good question,” Durbin replied. “I don’t know,” conceded both Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and, separately, Chris Coons of Delaware, President Joe Biden’s closest Senate ally. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, after first suggesting that Democrats might narrow the bill if it couldn’t pass in its current form, soon acknowledged the obvious. “There’s a top-secret plan in place that I can’t share with you that will eventually get [the bill] passed in totality,” he said with a chuckle.
A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.
When ProPublica published its report last week on the tax profiles of 25 of the richest Americans, jaws dropped across the United States. How was it possible that plutocrats such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett could pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government? What sneaky sleights of pen, what subterfuge, what acts of turpitude could have led to this result?
The shock stems, in part, from a disturbing reality: Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal.