Should there be a secular conversion process?

February 1, 2014

Question: My son is going out with a nice non-Jewish girl who is interested in Jewish culture but won’t consider conversion as she is not religious. I read a proposal somewhere that there ought to be a “secular” way of joining the Jewish people. Do you think this is a good idea?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

While I can see the appeal from the perspective of your son’s girlfriend, I do not think it is a good idea from the perspective of Judaism, and for that matter, such a conversion is just not possible.

Jewish law stipulates that a prospective convert accept three indispensable elements of Judaism; a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, belief in God and a commitment to observing the mitzvoth. While it is conceivable that a secular conversion might address the first element, it would in essence undermine the other two and, as such, it would make a mockery of the institution of conversion.

The reason the Jewish people have endured for countless generations in the face of intense persecution is because they stubbornly remained committed to the Torah of Israel and the God of Israel. It is highly improbable that Judaism would have endured this long if the only demands it made on its members were cultural ones. This is apparent when one witnesses the extraordinarily high assimilation rate amongst secular Jews and their inability to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation.

The Judaism that has come down through the ages has been tempered by sacrifice and burnished by faith. It is not easily replicated and it is this realisation that undergirds the whole conversion process. I am not suggesting the conversion process need be anywhere as stringent, difficult and uncomfortable as it’s made increasingly to be by certain Orthodox Batei Din. But I do believe that culture alone is not enough to transform a non-Jew into a Jew.

Is it fair that born Jews may retain their Jewish identity despite rejecting religious practice yet non Jews must embrace religious practice in order to be admitted to the faith? It is no less fair than the fact that as an American citizen I can pass the privilege of citizenship on to my British-born children who may never choose to live in America, while numerous immigrants living and working in America are not able to obtain citizenship.

While the analogy is far from perfect, it demonstrates that whether we like it or not, we are very much a product of those who came before us and that we sub-consciously internalise this identity even when we consciously reject it. It is precisely because Jewishness is so potent a force that a prospective convert must be willing to embrace it in its entirety..

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Your question shows what an enormous change has overtaken British Jewry. If you had posed it in the 1980s, it would have been to bewail the fact that your son had a non-Jewish girlfriend and ask what could be done about it.

Now there is a recognition that – whatever one thinks about intermarriage, a disaster or an opportunity to expand our numbers — it is a reality, is here to stay and not only applies to large numbers, but affects all sections of the community.

It is equally telling that she will not consider conversion as she is not religious. Not so long ago, it would have been because she was Christian, whereas now many non-Jewish partners are totally secular. This does not necessarily make matters easier, as some of those who are religiously “nothing” are staunchly so and can object to the home having any ritual life (eg a mezuzah) or the children being “indoctrinated” in any religion.

A Christian, by contrast, may have their own faith, but can at least appreciate the value of another person’s beliefs and work towards compromise. Thus there can be Chanucah candles and a Christmas tree, providing children with both traditions and the knowledge to make choices of their own later.

Still, it is worth admitting that many Jews are secular themselves, as well as agnostic or even atheist, but they are still Jewish. They may definitely not believe in God, or have doubts about the nature of God, or the God portrayed in the prayerbook, but still identify with Jewish history, maintain Jewish practices, value Jewish ethics and consider themselves fully Jewish.

It is significant that Jewish status is largely determined by birth, not belief. That is why we are often described as a way of life rather than a faith, and why secular Jews fit in so well. There is no official way of a non-Jew becoming a secular Jew, although many Progressive synagogues would welcome your son’s girlfriend if she participated in communal activities with him.

However, if your concern is more about any children, then you will be pleased to know that Reform synagogues have a procedure whereby children with a Jewish father and who receive a Jewish upbringing, can acquire Jewish status in their own right, while they will also be recognised by Liberals if they have one Jewish parent and a Jewish education.

Last updated: 3:54pm, February 27 2014