Jeremy Burton

Can we retire the concept of ‘conversion’ to Judaism?

Judaism as a religion has come to be weaponized by those who seek to deny our legitimacy as a nation with the right to a state of our own
Detail of "Ruth and Boaz," 1628, by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert (PD via Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of "Ruth and Boaz," 1628, by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert (PD via Wikimedia Commons)

My mother was raised Catholic. She became Jewish while in university, going through a process — guided by her rabbi and supervised by a rabbinical court in San Francisco — of wide-ranging study covering Jewish practice, history and culture. I was born Jewish a few years later. Growing up, at our shabbat table in New York, we regularly hosted men and women who were becoming — or had recently become — Jewish through our synagogue. These individuals, some of whom became part of our own extended family, came to us through our rabbi, who knew that they would need a mentor and guide with a shared experience of becoming Jewish — a responsibility that my mother readily embraced.

I tell you this so that you understand where I am coming from when I say that we need to stop using the term “conversion” — denoting a process specifically of changing one’s religious faith — when talking about the journey to becoming Jewish.

The very concept of Judaism as principally a religion is quite recent. Dr. Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University, in her excellent work How Judaism Became a Religion, writes that it is only “from the eighteenth century onward (that) modern Jewish thinkers have become concerned with the question of whether or not Judaism can fit into a modern, Protestant category of religion.” This came as a reaction to Enlightenment era Protestant thinkers in Germany who conceptualized the public sphere of citizenship in a nation-state, as separate and distinct from the private sphere of the religion which one practiced. If it was possible to fit Judaism into this concept of religion, then we too could become fully equal citizens of the European nation-state — or so we hoped. Prior to that time, Judaism was an all-encompassing idea of self and community, with laws governing all aspects of life and identity; it was, quite simply a civilization to which we belonged, albeit one with distinct concepts of the Divine, and rituals related to that concept.

While the denominational structure that emerged through thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn and Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Germany — and was then imported to America — formed around this concept of religion, there are within contemporary American Jewish life those who remain deeply commitment to our pre-Enlightenment concept of self. Examples include Hasidic communities that embrace a Judaism that encompasses all aspects of life, and the secular Yiddishists who built a deep Jewish community of culture without requiring a belief in God.

Throughout our history, to become Jewish was to join our civilization in all its facets.

The first journey we tell of someone becoming Jewish is, of course, the story of Ruth. At the side of the road she declares to her mother-in-law: “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God…” For Ruth, and for everyone who followed her on this path, becoming Jewish is more than faith alone. It is where she will live and die, and who she will be as a citizen of our people and the mother of our kings.

To make this journey is termed in Hebrew as gerut. The one who makes this transition, a ger, begins the journey with the status of a stranger, the Other. It is a Hebrew root used in reference to those who are not Jewish, and also as well in our Bible for those who are excluded in other ways by our laws — whether that be the daughters of Zelophahad denied their inheritance in the land, or the funeral workers denied participation in the Passover meal for their ritual impurity.

In the Hebrew conceptualization, the path Ruth takes is a transition from a status of “Other” to a status of being “Of Us.”

For nearly 2,000 years in Diaspora, Jews have been unique among the nations of the world in that one could become a citizen of the Jewish people even without a state of our own. This process took place through rabbinical courts that historically had far more jurisdiction than on matters strictly of religion. In the self-governing shtetl, these courts oversaw both criminal and civil matters, in addition to adjudicating matters of a religious nature. Today, the State of Israel is unique among nation-states in that anywhere in the world, one can embark on this journey from Other to Jewish through a rabbinical court (or at least through one that is recognized by Israel’s government) and then become automatically eligible for citizenship in the state, under “the right of return.”

So why is it so important that we retire the term “conversion” as our poor translation of the concept of gerut?

First, because the reformulation of Judaism as religion failed to achieve our liberation in Europe. One cannot know what Mendelssohn and Hirsch might think of the world that came after them. We do know that in the century that followed, Political Zionism emerged from the sober lessons of the Dreyfus Affair; that even an “enlightened” France that would continue to see the Jew as Other. And, the devastation of the Holocaust made clear that we would always be vulnerable unless we had a nation-state of our own.

And, this very formulation, of Judaism as a religion, has come to be weaponized by those who seek to deny our legitimacy as a nation with the right to a state of our own. It is ironic to hear the voices of the “enlightened” descendants of the very same anti-Semitic philosophers of Europe to whom we reacted in the 18th century, now arguing that a religion should not have a country and that, therefore, Israel as a state is not legitimate.

Finally, and foremost, we should lose the term “conversion” for our own sake and for our understanding of who we are as a people. The term, in English, reinforces an ahistorical self-perception. It continues to ascribe to an idea of Judaism that was formed in response to external forces. To move beyond the Jewish condition as a reaction to our experiences in Europe and to embrace our authentic identity as a people will require greater precision in our language.

It is time to retire the poorly translated term of “conversion.” Rather, I propose that, in English, we commit ourselves to language that more properly conveys the concept of this journey from Other to Judaism both precisely and expansively. As with those who choose to become citizens of a new nation, like the United States, through a process known as “naturalization,” so to, gerut can be better understood as the process of becoming a naturalized citizen of the Jewish people, with all the rights and responsibilities inherent therein.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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