A few months ago, the actions of an old friend and now-former fellow Jew had me asking myself, “How do you become a Jew by accident?” Some Jews-by-birth ask converts why they wanted to be Jewish at all. It’s such a silly question. My answer always is, “Don’t you?” But the question I’m asking today is whether it’s possible to become a Jew by accident.
I’d like to say with all my insides and outsides, “Of course not.” The volition and effort required to respond to the inkling to consider a religion that isn’t your own, if you even consider yourself as having a religion now, forcefully enough to follow up and research the idea can be mind-blowing for some. It’s such a gigantic thing to even muse about.
Different religions traditions have their own unique processes for vetting, training, and welcoming new adherents. The bar to be surmounted for converts into the religious tradition of my birth, Roman Catholicism, is by no means low. But when you’re in the process of converting to Judaism, your required study includes not just issues of liturgy, ritual, and observance, but ancient history, religious civilization, and peoplehood, too. Soul searching is just the starting point. Faith is almost beside the point. Your relationship with God is left between you and God. Your ethical relationships with other humans, your understanding of the depth and diversity of Jewish culture, and the considered and consistent fulfillment of your religious values throughout your lifetime take precedence. It is overwhelming. It can take years.
It comes with a reading list. The books are not short ones.
Before you’re allowed to go before your beit din to be scrutinized by a small court of clergy, the clergy have to be sure you’ve already well scrutinized yourself and arrived at an honest answer that from inside to outside, you are on a Jewish journey of your own free will and desire. And that you love that journey, too. That part is important, because as far as Jewish law is concerned, once you emerge naked from immersing three times in the waters of the mikvah, you are officially—and more to the point, forever—Jewish.
Of course, being Jewish—like life, itself—is fluid. The way we start out our Jewish lives after mikvah often isn’t the way we choose to lead them a few years later. Or a few years after that. A Jewish life is nothing if not a life that embraces the thoughtful struggle to find your way. Some of us deepen our observance style. Some of us change denominations. Some of us choose Sabbaths and holidays observed at home instead of in synagogues. Some of us lay our religious load down in favor of peoplehood alone and move forward as “cultural” Jews.
But every now and then, rarely but it happens, you hear about someone who makes it all the way through the emotionally strenuous journey of conversion from not-Jew to Jew-by-choice, begins a Jewish life, becomes happily entrenched in Jewish community, stays in that holding pattern for years…and then suddenly walks away.
A few months ago, that was what happened with a convert friend from a conservative city in a cobservation state who had moved to Chicago, converted, and for years defined herself very publicly in Jewish terms, and then decided to move back home. It took a month before she professed on Facebook that she had converted to Judaism accidentally, couldn’t have understood it fully, couldn’t have been in her right mind when she went through with it.
A few years earlier, I encountered a similar thing with the webmaster of what was formerly the largest Jew-by-choice online discussion community on the planet. One day, he and the discussion board disappeared. He eventually explained on another discussion board that he had simply decided he wasn’t a Jew anymore. Like Samantha Stephens twitching her nose, or Jeannie crossing her arms and nodding her head. Abracadabra! Poof! Look mom! No Judaism!
Like I said, Judaism and life are fluid. I get it. We’re all allowed to find our own way. My problem isn’t so much with someone announcing that they suddenly reject traditions they spent years studying and years more living out. My problem is what is says about you if you do that. Because understanding the scope—and you might even say severity—of the process to become Jewish, there is no way at all even to approach that process by accident, much less go through it without knowing exactly what you’re doing.
I never learned why that webmaster blinked out of his Jewish existence. The reasons my old friend walked away were much clearer. Christian friends in her hometown proselytized to no end on her Facebook page, criticizing Judaism and begging her to “come back to Jesus.” I’ll put a fine point on that. Disrespecting someone else’s religion because it doesn’t mach your own is about as ungodly as it gets, and if you think saying the word “Jesus” magically makes it alright, it just makes you an even bigger bigot.
Jews have given into down-talking like that—often under pain of death—for millennia. My old friend giving in and going back on her promise before her Jewish community and God to live and love Judaism, itself, is a sad but ancient forced-error of a Jewish choice. Then again, in 2016 America, no one is threatening you with burning, drowning, or stoning for celebrating Shabbat, either.
This is clearly not my most PC post ever, and it’s not meant to be. In this post and my months of thought about all this, I’ve tried hard to find where empathy, understanding, and holding back on judgment come into play for me. I’m still trying to figure that out. Part of me understands. Part of my sympathizes. Part of me feels the pain of not knowing who you are or who you want to be.
Yet, being a Jewish convert myself, bring intimately familiar with the conversion process and the fluidity of living a Jewish life after mikvah, another part of me is not so charitably disposed. And really, kind of disgusted, because denigrating several years of your life because they were associated with Judaism is to denigrate all the Jews you shared that life with, too.
At some point in life we need to take a stand for who and what we are. Choose our values. Choose our ways forward. And most importantly, take responsibility for those decisions. We are not meant to be perfect, but we are not meant to live our adult lives like children, either. We eventually have to stop walking away from our lives, stop being afraid of our own identities. Stop blaming other people for our own choices.
God, how many years it took me to finally hold my own seat in those regards.
The question isn’t really can a person accidentally convert to Judaism, or to any other religion for that matter. The real question is how many times can you run away from yourself before you learn to love who you are. The answer can be a lifetime of times, if you let it.
Whatever you do, don’t let it.