Thousands of former Christians become Jews or Muslims each year in North America and the UK. Why do they do it?
I think many of the reasons Ex-Trinitarians find Islam and Judaism to be attractive are very similar; especially the Jewish and Muslim concepts of God’s unity; the warmth of Jewish and Muslim extended family life; and the importance of being part of a worldwide unitarian religious community.
I have taught Introduction to Judaism classes (Reform-Liberal) for more than thirty years in Los Angeles, California, and during that time I got to know hundreds of non-Jews who were interested in learning about the Jewish religion and culture.
Most of these people had been raised in Christian homes but had drifted away from the Church in their teens or 20’s. For years they considered themselves to be Christians only by tradition or culture.
Those raised as Catholics were alienated by the Church’s opposition to divorce, birth control and gay marriage. Those raised as Evangelical Protestants also objected to their churches anti-evolution and the ‘only Jesus saves’ anti-religious pluralism sermons of their preachers.
They still believed in God, but they did not believe that Jesus was the Divine Son of God. Indeed, some of them, even in their youth, while they were still attending church, prayed only to God, the father; and not to Jesus, the Son.
Most of them also still believed in the value and importance of religion for themselves and their future children. When they found themselves involved romantically with a Jewish person they decided to learn about Judaism as a good way to unify their marriage and their family.
Not everyone who took the Introduction to Judaism class decided to become Jewish. Some realized that they were not ready to actually join a religious minority, or that they were not willing to give up having a Christmas tree.
Others found that while they had not been actively Christian for years, they still believed in some aspects of Christian salvation.
Shayna Estulin, who wrote a master’s thesis on singles converting to Judaism, found that most Ex-Trinitarians did it because they felt Christianity didn’t give them the answers that Judaism did.
Others reverted to Judaism because a parent or relative was Jewish and they wanted to reconnect to their heritage; like one man she interviewed who converted to Judaism after he discovered he had an ancestor who had been a Jew who was forced to convert to Christianity many generations ago.
But each reason had the same underlying theme: All these people experienced a deep connection to Judaism and to Jews. As an example, Estulin writes about Kelly. “She told me that she had wanted to be Jewish since she was a little girl growing up in Canada.
“The homes of her Jewish friends seemed like warm, loving places, where everyone got along, and holidays were always being celebrated.
“Her home was very different. The house felt cold, her parents distant. That feeling of coldness followed her into the neighborhood church that the family attended occasionally.
“I was always freaked out by Jesus on the cross. Aesthetically it’s just dark and scary, worshiping a dead man on a cross,’ Kelly said.
Muslims will find many similarities to Muslim converts in this account. But there are also some practical differences that need to be understood.
The majority of non-Jews who marry Jews do not convert to Judaism, so in the case of almost all converts to Judaism; marriage is the occasion but not the cause of their conversion.
Those who did decide to become Jewish usually felt they were coming home (reverting). Their own beliefs already were closer to Reform Liberal Jewish values than traditional Christian values.
All they needed to do was to add a love of Torah study and debate and the many Jewish Holiday celebrations and traditions to their life; and push their way into the Jewish community.
I say to push their way in because unlike the Muslim community, which since its inception has eagerly welcomed outsiders into the Muslim Ummah, some Jews are ambivalent about converts to Judaism.
This is because more than sixteen centuries ago, when the Church became strong enough to influence the Roman government, it got the government to outlaw conversion to Judaism.
For many centuries prior to Christian rule, the Jewish community welcomed large numbers of converts into the Jewish People. Recent genetic studies have provided strong evidence of this major influx of Mediterranean peoples from North Africa to the Middle East, into the Jewish People.
All this changed in the generations after Constantine. By the fifth and sixth centuries, converts to Judaism faced death, as did those who helped them become Jewish. These laws remained in effect in Europe until the end of the eighteenth century.
For example, Count Valentine Potocki, a young Polish nobleman went to Paris to finish his education, There he found a Jewish teacher to teach him Hebrew so he could study the Bible in its original language. After some time Potocki decided to become Jewish. He went to Amsterdam, where it was safer to convert to Judaism, and then went to the Land of Israel, where he lived for several years.
Eventually, Count Potoki became homesick and took the dangerous step of returning to Poland. He settled near Vilna, posing as a born Jew, and spent all his time studying Torah. When the police learned he was a convert, he was arrested. In 1749, Count Potocki was burned alive in the center of Vilna.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are still wedded to Medieval ways of thought, prefer to avoid non-Jews in general and potential converts in particular. Reform and Liberal Jews who are wedded to Modern ways of thinking are much more open to welcoming, and some even encourage converts.
In addition to being more welcoming to Non-Jews who want to become Jewish, Reform and Liberal Judaism are not as hard to observe as Orthodox Judaism is, although becoming circumcised does discourage some men.
Jesus and Muhammad are not officially called prophets in the Jewish tradition, but one can see them both as prophets of Reform Judaism.
As a Reform Rabbi, I believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai.
Although the Torah of Moses prohibits adding to the commandments (Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1) over the centuries Orthodox Rabbis added many restrictions to the laws of prohibited activities under the theory of building a protective fence around the Torah’s laws.
Also, whenever Orthodox Rabbis were in doubt if an animal had been slaughtered correctly according to Jewish law, or if one could eat a new species of bird, it was ruled prohibited. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis still believe that stricter is always better.
They do not follow the example of Muhammad as narrated by his wife ‘Aisha: Whenever Allah’s Apostle was given the choice of one of two matters, he would choose the easier of the two, as long as it was not sinful to do so, but if it was sinful to do so, he would not approach it.
‘Aisha also said: “Whenever Allah’s Apostle ordered the Muslims to do something, he used to order them to do deeds which were easy for them to do.”
I believe that Muhammad was a prophet of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day; although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time.
The same was true for Jesus, 2,000 years ago, who said plainly: “Do not think that I came to abolish Torah Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from Torah Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17)
For those people who believe in God but cannot fit into a Trinitarian church, and for those people who do not need, or want, statues and pictures of God; the Mosque and the Synagogue are the right place to worship.
Islam offers its believers: a worldwide, multinational monotheistic community, yet all praying in one language and facing the same place.
Judaism offers those who belong to it: a monotheistic community with a very long tradition of overcoming national adversity and adjusting to international cultural change, yet all praying in one language and facing the same place.
But in one special way converts to Judaism are very different from most Muslim converts. Hundreds of converts to Judaism are non-Jews with Jewish genes. DNA tests to uncover Jewish origins have been offered for decades. They have shown, for example, that many Hispanic Americans likely descended from Jews forced to convert or hide their religion more than 500 years ago in Spain and Portugal.
According to Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of Family Tree DNA, many people who learn of Semitic ancestry through DNA often end up converting to Judaism.
Elliot Dorff, a conservative rabbi at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, welcomes these conversions. “We really want to encourage such people to rediscover their Jewish roots,”. Rabbi Dorff noted that many people in this situation already feel a deep-seated connection to the Jewish religion.
One spiritual meaning when non-Jews discover that they have Jewish ancestry is that some of them eventually realize they also have a Jewish soul. According to a Kabbalah teaching, a non-Jew who is drawn to Jewish culture and Jewish people usually has a reincarnated soul from an ancestor who was cut off from the Jewish people several generations in the past.
This reincarnated soul (gilgul) recycles into a later generation and is sooner or later drawn to return to Judaism and the Jewish People. Other people who descend from the same Jewish individual, and who find no “spiritual meaning” in this knowledge, do not have a ‘Jewish soul’.