A child and decision to convert (4)
October 29, 2012 | Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
In reviewing the case of this 10-year-old Jewish girl who wanted to convert to Christianity, it was not the conclusion of the court but rather the reason for this decision – reflecting the sad presentation of Jewishness offered by the petitioning mother – which ultimately distressed me. The mother may have had a strong emotional sense of some passive association with Jewishness, however, she never actualized this feeling in her family life into some positive expression of this identity. Her daughter may have been told that she was Jewish, yet, it would seem, she was never given any idea of what that meant, let alone why she should feel pride in being Jewish. We often find people sleepwalking through their lives, taking their Jewish identity for granted, assuming that it will naturally pass on to their children in the same manner and with the same intensity they experience. In this case, we find the mother, and, it would seem, her parents and former in-laws, woken from such a sleepwalk with the resultant tragedy that they really did not know how to respond to this challenge of conversion.
Perhaps the greatest indication of this sleepwalk is the failure to recognize the very complexity of Jewish identity. To actively call oneself a Jew demands some contemplation of what this term means. In what we may term a safe Jewish environment, this contemplation may not be so intense but in an environment that is much more piercing and questioning, this investigation must be considerate. This was the situation in which this mother found herself and the lack of self-introspection was painfully apparent. From the weak assistance she received from those who wished to support her, though, we see that this lack of thorough contemplation on the nature of Jewish identity was not her weakness alone. In safe Jewish environments, we sadly live with weak perceptions of our identity because there would seem to be no need to challenge ourselves. However, truthfully there is always a need to challenge ourselves in this regard so that we fully understand who we are. In situations such as the one in which this mother found herself, this need just became more obvious.
The difficult complexity of Jewish identity essentially emerges from its inherent union of religion and nationality/ethnicity. In Jewish identity, the two disparate groupings merge. In answer to my religion, I am a Jew; in answer to my ethnicity/nationality, I am a Jew. How do the two combine when they reflect such different concepts? Religion reflects one’s beliefs; nationality reflects one’s peoplehood. However, in the case of Jews and Judaism, the two are intertwined. This is additionally complicated because at the core of Judaism is a belief in the universal One G-d, yet this universal truth is coupled with a particularistic distinguishing of one nation. Such a combination of the universal and the particular has always demanded explanation. That need for explanation is no less in our times.
In response, I could present a halachic answer to this question. From a broader perspective, I could add that during the past few centuries, other groupings within the Jewish world have presented their own understandings to this age-old question. What is of foremost importance, though, is to recognize that throughout history this issue was constantly raised within the community and there was an important struggle to understand it. Some weighed more to the religious side; some weighed more to the nationalistic side; all, though, knew that the question was a dilemma and its reconciliation, reaching deep into the core of Jewish identity, was necessary.
Above all, if there was a common thread in these diverse attempts at reconciliation it could perhaps be found in the word ‘ideal.’ Jewish particularism was not just particular – as, let us say, every nation is particular; through the Jewish belief in the one G-d, Judaism always connected as well to the universal. It could be said that there was particularism to reach for a universal ideal. Who we were was not secluded. If we were different, it was to effect positive change beyond our nation. In whatever manifestation of Jewishness one accepted, there was something unique about it in so far as it stood out as a particularism that somehow connected to the universal.
This idea, of course, demands more explanation. A short article of this size simply cannot be a satisfying vehicle for a full presentation on the nature of the complexity of our identity. My hope is that it will serve to open the door for further contemplation. There is a unique consciousness that flows from the identity of Jewishness. We are a grouping that thinks differently. From the dialectic clash of the particular and the universal a unique creativity has emerged. People always seem to remark on how many Jews there are that stand out in numerous fields; the numbers are not proportional to our size. It would seem that this complex identity, to which we ascribe, has developed a unique, inherent, creative essence in our being. For this essence to continue to manifest – especially to continue to manifest in this manner – it is important that we again begin to understand our nature. It is important that any Jewish mother can stand in an open court and explain to all why the attendance at baptism classes by her Jewish daughter would be an affront to this identity.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.