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Jewish Identity with An Accent: Reflections of a Convert

Alan Rutkowski
July 20, 2017

by Alan Rutkowski

WHEN I CONVERTED to Judaism, the Conservative rabbi with whom I studied told me he considered me a “Jewish soul lost among the Gentiles.” I am sure he meant to make me feel fully accepted, but at the time I found the conceit vaguely repugnant. As I learned later, his remark reflects a particularistic current in Judaism, especially strong in some mystical texts, which considers Jewish souls to be qualitatively different from, and superior to, the souls of Gentiles. The implication is that true “conversion” is not really possible and that a convert to Judaism is necessarily one who was essentially Jewish to begin with.

Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate and the founder of the flagship religious-Zionist yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav, expressed this school of thought as follows:

“The difference between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing, and the soul of all the Gentiles, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality.”

In contrast to Kook’s extreme particularism, Maimonides, the influential 12th-Century Torah scholar, had made no distinction between Jewish and Gentile souls.

I imagine that most conversions are motivated by marriage, which in no way makes them less sincere. But I have heard many stories about converts who were convinced that they had some Jewish connection in their long-ago, ancestral past. I even know one convert personally who believes she is the reincarnated soul of a Jew who perished in the Holocaust. Such a belief seems like an unhealthy desire to identify with victimhood, but in this case might have more to do with so-called New Age spirituality than with any Jewish mystical tradition.

Of course, 99 percent of Jews are Jewish simply because their parents were Jewish. It isn’t as though they sat down, compared various religions, and picked Judaism. Converts, on the other hand, consciously choose their religion. I have had Jews react to my conversion with surprise. One, a Holocaust survivor, declared that only a crazy person would choose to be Jewish.

CONVERTING to any religion, it seems to me, is similar to learning a foreign language. I suspect (though I lack the data to support my suspicion) that most converts have a facility for learning foreign languages, a facility correlated with a low sense of cognitive-emotive dissonance -- that feeling of being a phony when doing something unfamiliar. Trying to speak a foreign language can be very uncomfortable. One can have a good grasp of grammar and a decent memory for vocabulary, but a strong feeling of cognitive-emotive dissonance can make it nearly impossible to get the words out. Converting to another religion, like learning a foreign language, requires a capacity to feel comfortable when assuming a new identity.

Converting to Judaism, compared to that process with other religions, is especially complicated because Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. I understand why many secular ethnic Jews do not consider me Jewish at all. For ethnic Jews, I have not had the experience of growing up Jewish. Few of even the most secular Jews share my childhood memories of Easter hams. Even those secular Jews who didn’t have Shabbat dinners still grew up with all sorts of cultural markers that reinforced their sense of being Jewish. Surely any expression of Jewish ethnicity on my part would be an affectation and could justifiably be denounced as cultural appropriation.

Many Orthodox Jews don’t accept my Jewishness either -- but for other reasons: My conversion by a Conservative rabbi did not, in the view of the Orthodox, fulfill the halachic (Jewish-legal) requirements, so Orthodox Jews don’t consider me a Jew in any sense.

I have sometimes thought that because Jews make up both an ethnicity and a religion, “Jewish” may the wrong descriptor for those who have embraced Judaism. “Judaic” perhaps? But the tradition certainly considers converts full Jews, although with some disabilities: in the Orthodox world, a female convert cannot marry a Kohen (a member of the priestly class), for example. The term “Jew by choice” has become a popular way of referring to converts, although it would seem that these days even a born Jew who continues to have a commitment to Judaism is in some sense a “Jew by choice,” at least religiously speaking.

BEING A CONVERT also has important implications in terms of Israel: For one thing, there is something profoundly wrong with the fact that, as a Conservative convert to Judaism with no ancestral connection to the Jewish people at all, I have the right to move to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship, while a Palestinian whose family lived for generations in Jerusalem does not.

The modern Hebrew word for convert also comes into play in the efforts of right-wing religious Jewish settlers to evade the Biblical injunction against oppression. Exodus 23:9 states clearly: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment, which appears repeatedly in the Torah, suggests that that those who were once oppressed ought to feel empathy toward those who are oppressed now. In making the prohibition on oppressing the stranger a commandment, the Torah seems to recognize that such empathy is not necessarily natural, and the oppressed can easily become the oppressors.

But, to circumvent this commandment, the religious Jewish settlers in the West Bank who uproot Palestinian olive trees and otherwise oppress their Palestinian neighbors claim that the Hebrew word ger, which translates in Exodus as “stranger” (or “resident alien” in modern parlance), actually refers to a convert. While it is true that ger later came to mean “convert,” in the Biblical text in question it clearly does not. While Jewish fundamentalists are just as narrow-minded and obscurantist as the fundamentalists of other religions, they cannot always be accused of literalism!

Converting to Judaism hasn’t made me any more or less an Israel supporter since one needn’t be Jewish in any sense to support Israel. (What “supporting Israel” means, of course, is open to debate.) There are plenty of Christian Zionists who fervently “support Israel” for what seem to me rather unsavoury theological reasons. When all Jews, most of whom are destined for Hell because they have not accepted Jesus, return to the Holy Land, such Christian Zionists believe, it will hasten the Rapture of true Christians into Paradise. Some Christian Zionists, of course, sincerely love Israel, while others are motivated by a racist disdain for Arabs.

WHEN I converted to Judaism, I had a sense of assuming a new identity but without entirely losing my old, Catholic identity -- my “mother tongue,” as it were. But as my sense of Judaism evolved, I acquired new ways of identifying as Jewish, some cultural and increasingly secular. Recently, I came to the conclusion that I am, in fact, an atheist. But what role does believing in God really play in Judaism? No one in the Conservative synagogue I attend would dream of not counting me in the minyan because of my atheism. And no matter how fervently I might profess a belief in God, I would never be counted in an Orthodox minyan.

I consider myself Jewish, and I am considered Jewish by my community, but I will probably always “speak” Judaism with a slight accent. I once jokingly confessed to my rabbi that sometimes when the Torah scroll is raised, I have an urge to genuflect. He assured me he doesn’t do confessions.

Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group. He appeared here recently with “Reflections On Conversion and a Trip To Israel” and “My Path to Atheism.”