Cultural Jewish Conversion: A New Old Idea

Steven Cohen and Kerry Olitzky are two great advocates of Jewish inclusion. Now they have come up with an incredibly innovative idea that they’ve written about in the Forward. After noting that many, many people are already affiliating with Jewish communities and even calling themselves Jews without undergoing any kind of religious conversion, they offer this:

For those who would prefer not (yet?) to acquire a Jewish religious identity but still want a Jewish social/cultural identity, they could undergo what we tentatively called, “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.”

We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what, for them, would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition.

Wow! I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Of course, I have said it many, many times. And all of my fellow Humanistic rabbis have said it, too. And studied it. And written about it. And talked about it at symposiums.

Since Cohen and Olitzky have surely heard about Humanistic Judaism, it would have been nice to receive a little bit of credit for their innovation, given that we innovated it right here at my temple about fifty some-odd years ago.

No matter. It’s not about credit. It’s about a fantastic idea and I could not be more pleased that two incredibly well-respected Jewish communal activists and scholars are recognizing the wisdom in in.

As you might expect, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Andy Bachman would like to remind us that conversion is hardly a religious or theistic process at all. Why on earth would we ever need anything else? He writes in the Forward:

The idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that one can actually strip Judaism, Jews and Jewishness of religion. I mean, I guess you can if you want to. There may even be an app for it — who knows? But seriously, for the tiny sliver of non-Jews interested in binding their lives to a Jewish community, whether alone or with partners, there’s no need to imagine that faith would be a stumbling block to plain old conversion. I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.

While I applaud Bachman for his openness to non-believers, I’m incredibly weary of hearing him and others rabbisplaining to me why my way of being Jewish is based upon a “flawed notion.”

And is he really telling the whole story? If I were a betting man, I would gamble that Bachman’s openness ends where his ceremonial work begins.

Would he ever conduct a bar mitzvah ceremony for a non-believing family that didn’t praise, worship or otherwise center around God? Would he perform a wedding ceremony sans theistic blessings? Would he alter the Kaddish to meet the needs of nontheistic mourners?

I know one thing for sure, he won’t conduct a conversion without a circumcision, the ultimate sign of the covenant with God. He tells us that in the comment section. His openness has some pretty obvious limits.

But really, the inadequacy of Bachman’s supposed openness is encapsulated by something else that he writes even as he protests his tolerance for disbelief:

You don’t want to believe? So don’t believe. Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation….

I guess it wouldn’t do much good trying to explain to him that this idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that Abraham and Moses existed.

De Botton’s Religion For Atheists – A Review

Most humanists and other non-theists share a world view in most respects.  Overblown as it is, the main bone of contention in this community seems to be about how much respect – if any – should be shown for religion’s role in history and society.

Alain de Botton is one of those atheists who holds religious culture in high regard.  He has just written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion in which he suggests that non-believers have most of the same basic human needs as believers and should look to religion’s inventions for models of how to meet those needs.  It is a fascinating proposition and one to which I obviously subscribe. Continue reading

How Could God Have Allowed The Holocaust And Other Meaningless Questions

Back in September I wrote a response to Rabbi Alan Lurie’s HuffPost blog about how God is only hiding because we don’t know what to look for.  Lurie is a liberal “non-denominational” rabbi who is actually a very successful businessman and architect.  I am certain he applies sounder thinking to his business interests than to his teaching about God.

Last week he took up the topic of “How Could God Have Allowed the Holocaust?”  He began in the expected way: Continue reading

Why "Atheist Rabbi"?

In the wake of the attack on my blog, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about how and why I apply the term atheist to my blog and myself.  Atheism is a word that evokes so much emotion, yet carries only the kernel of one idea.  Since I have a few new readers, and no doubt some who are not atheists, I will do my best to explain myself and the reasons I started this blog. Continue reading

Richard Dawkins Interviews Humanistic Rabbi Tamara Kolton

Once again, thank you to all of you who sent me words of encouragement.  I’m happy that this blog is of interest to so many people.

Now back to business!

One of the things that I really benefit from as a member of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis is the collegiality of wonderful colleagues like Tamara Kolton, rabbi of the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit.  When Prof. Richard Dawkins was on his most recent book tour, he stopped there and, in addition to delivering his lecture, he found time to interview Rabbi Kolton. Continue reading