QUESTION: I grew up in a Muslim home but do not practise Islam. Over the last couple of years I have been learning as much as I can about Judaism and am now thinking of converting. But although my parents respect Judaism, they would struggle with acceptance of that. What should I do?
Rabbi Brawer: I am torn between my head and my heart. I understand you, but I feel for your parents.
I know that if an individual makes an informed and deliberate decision to convert to Judaism, that decision should be respected. Faith is essentially a matter of the heart and if one is drawn to Judaism and they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become part of the Jewish people, then that is where they belong.
However, it is understandable that your parents will not see it this way. From their perspective you are rejecting their deepest held values and sense of identity. It must be extraordinarily painful for them.
It is facile to expect them to take comfort in the notion that Judaism and Islam both point to the same transcendent God. The fact is that the two religions have very different way of conceiving and worshiping this God and to those who are committed to their faith, these differences are significant. Additionally, there is a cultural dimension that comes with belonging to a faith community and converting means uprooting oneself from these cultural ties. Breaking with a culture as old as Judaism or Islam can be highly traumatic.
Jewish parents would be no less traumatised should their child choose to convert to another faith. It might seem strange, but Jewish parents are far less concerned if their child embraces atheism.
I think this is because it is possible for one to maintain their Jewish culture and sense of belonging even if one can no longer believe in God. Converting to another religion, while preserving belief in God, cuts one off from their heritage and the pain that brings is felt by Jewish parents far more keenly.
I imagine it is no different among Muslim parents.
So my advice to you would be the same advice I would give a Jew contemplating conversion to another faith. Before you reject your own heritage and path to God for a Jewish one, take the time to explore your own. Start practising Islamic rituals, study Islamic sacred text and try to situate yourself within your own rich religious traditions.
If after all that you still find yourself irresistibly drawn towards Judaism, it is your right to follow that path. Just try to understand your parents’ likely reaction and make every effort to treat them with the utmost respect.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Romain:Several different issues are intertwined here, each of which need tackling separately. For a start, if you are on a religious search, then the place to begin is within your own faith.
Very often people only know what their parents pass on to them (which can be half-baked), or what they learnt at religion school (which is child-oriented and often stops before they reach maturity), so they never see the depth and insights that are available in their own tradition.
This applies just as much to Jews, many of whom have a spotty teenager’s view of Judaism. So, in your case, try to explore what Islam has to offer.
If Islam still does not appeal to you, then by all means look elsewhere. Judaism is not a missionary religion — we believe there are many paths to God and, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it back in the fifth century, “the righteous of all people have a place in the world to come.”
If you do wish to convert to Judaism, that is certainly possible. It is not just a matter of belief, but also of following a particular way of life, be it personal rituals or communal calendar. The course of study usually takes a minimum of a year in Reform and Liberal synagogues, and more in Orthodox ones.
It is also important that becoming Jewish is not at the expense of your own family ties and losing contact with your parents. You need to find out the real reason as to why they are opposed and then address those particular concerns.
It could be they are hurt that you have rejected their upbringing; or that they feel guilty at not passing their tradition on to you properly; or that they are embarrassed to tell their friends or imam. Or it could be that other relatives are giving them a hard time; or that they have problems over Israel; or that they fear they will lose you and not be able to relate to any children you have.
You need to reassure them that turning to Judaism does not mean turning away from them. Perhaps take them to a service and to meet the rabbi, both so that they see the reality of Jewish life (not their fantasy of it) and so they can understand what attracts you to it. Sensitivity and patience will be your best allies.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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