Changing religious identity

A recent Pew study found that the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion continues to increase to slightly over 20% at present.

But in American religious history the cyclical rise and fall of religious affiliation and self proclaimed identity has frequently occurred. America is a free country and free people can choose their own religious identity.

A Pew study a few years ago found that 44% of Americans no longer belong to the religious tradition they were raised in; compared to 47% who still belong to their childhood religion.

Even more typical of religious freedom in America; 9% say they had changed religious identity at some point in the past, but have now returned to their original faith.

Should these people be thought of as double switchers or as only temporarily switchers.

Many of these people are the children of mixed religious marriages and were raised feeling half and half; marginally belonging to both while not feeling deeply connected to either. Like trying to sit on the space between two chairs.

On the other hand, some people have never felt at home in their family’s religion, and do feel totally at home in their new religion.

In Jewish tradition these converts are considered, in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, to be gilgulim, reincarnated Jewish souls from previous lives who were cut off from the Jewish people by dire circumstances of persecution or mixed marriage and baptism.

Through conversion to Judaism they are coming home.

Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos.

Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their children as faithful Jews.

An example of the later is recounted by Rabbi Barbara Borts: “One of the most touching conversions I ever did was a young girl of 11, brought to me by her mother, to discuss Judaism.

The mother was a widow, living back at home with her mother and her father, who was a minister.

This girl had done some research on Hanukkah for her school class, and in the process both loved what she learned and discovered that her late father’s grandfather was a German Jew.

I asked her mother why she would support her daughter’s conversion to Judaism. Her response was that her 2 daughters were no longer going to church and she was delighted that one had found a religious home.

She hoped her older daughter might also find that of interest.

When I said that I could not imagine doing what she was doing if the positions were reversed, she said, ”It’s different for Jews, after the Holocaust and all.”

So the girl started Hebrew school classes, and attending services. I moved a couple of years later, and bequeathed her to the next rabbi. Some years later, we met up again when she was in University.

She had converted, changed her name, and was an active member of her Hillel club. Bless the girl – she may even now be in rabbinical school.”

Other people who become Jewish do not know of a specific Jew who was an ancestor but come from a population that contains the descendants of past Jewish communities.

Millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century.

In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized.

The Church viewed these forced baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike the Jews of France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized.

Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms.

Of course, Jews forced to be Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice it and teach their children in secret.

The Church knew this but they thought that all the children and grandchildren of the Marranos (as the secret Jews were called) would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers.

This did not happen.

In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands would be tried/tortured, and imprisoned or executed.

In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled. Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to Portugal.

In 1497, they were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to freely choose baptism.

In later decades many of these secret Jews and their children came to the new world seeking freedom; so the Inquisition was established in Lima in 1570, and in Mexico City in 1571.

Secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth) .

Many of these people have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people. How would someone know if he or she could be one of them?

Signs of a Jewish soul.

1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it.

This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.

2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus.

You couldn’t believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.

3- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though their families were culturally different from your own family.

4- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your extended family.

5- When you started to learn about Judaism the ideas and values seemed reasonable and the traditions and heritage seemed attractive.

You felt more at home within your adopted people than you did to your birth people.

If you identify with the first four signs you most likely have a Jewish soul. If you identify with all five you surely have a Yiddisher Neshamah.

More information about reincarnation and becoming Jewish can be found in “God, Sex and Kabbalah” by Rabbi Allen S. Maller or at Rabbi Maller’s web site: Judaism is for Non-Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.