Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson serves as the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is the author of The Bedside Torah.
Dear Rabbi: Conversion and Non-Jewish Family
I am the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. As a young child, this caused a lot of identity problems and unanswered questions, which to some extent persist for me today.
My mother is the daughter of immigrants and was raised in a very religious household. Due to this, she wanted to raise her children in the Catholic faith. Because my father respected her wishes, and even went to the extent of taking classes on Catholicism in order to marry my mother, he never celebrated Jewish holidays or went to synagogue. I was always very curious about Judaism due to this and had to find most of my information from books and websites and Jewish friends, since my father never really wanted to discuss it.
During my time in college, I found myself taking various classes on Judaism, everything from historical seminars to modern issues. I love the simple and beautiful teachings of Judaism and am thinking seriously of taking the major step of converting. (I was baptized Catholic and was never given a choice regarding what I believed.) However, I am unsure of how to broach this topic with my mother, since I believe that she will be very disappointed with me. How can I discuss my feelings with her without offending her? My grandmother has also said that she would disown me if I convert and I love her very much, but I still feel like this is the right choice for me. Is there some way that I can discuss this with my family that can somehow bridge the gap between what I want for myself and what they would like me to do? I am sure that there are other children of interfaith families who face similar issues, so this might be helpful for others as well. Thank you very much for any advice you could give me.
Thank you for writing to me. I am impressed by your desire to honor your mother (itself a biblical commandment), to respect your grandmother, and to find a pathway to God that reflects your own beliefs and integrity.
I need to say at the outset that Catholicism is a fine and sacred path to God. Judaism does not teach (nor do I believe) that you would be closer to or more beloved by God if you convert to Judaism. God loves all people, and can be served in many ways.
That having been said, you do not owe your mother or grandmother blind obedience, and you retain the right to live your life according to the dictates of your own conscience. Your mother was able to make choices about the direction of her own life and family, and your soul also should be untrammeled to do as it feels best.
There is only one reason to convert to Judaism: a longing to relate to God through the brit, the covenant, that God made with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, that is expressed through Torah and a life of mitzvoth, following the commandments. If you feel that longing, then you should indeed find a rabbi with whom you can study Judaism and start on the road toward Jewish observance. You (and the rabbi) will know when the time for conversion is right, and it will be when you are already living a Jewish life, when the new label will fit the already-existing reality of who you are.
I believe that you owe your mother and grandmother honesty, respect, and love. That means that you should not convert behind their back, nor study without telling them. However painful that conversation will be, you need to tell them that you're having the conversation as a mark of respect and honor. Additionally, I think you need to explain that your conversion is not a rejection of them, nor even a rejection of their core values (as Catholics, they share our love of the Bible and of biblical values, even though we may differ on how we understand some of those values).
By patiently demonstrating that your love and respect continues, you might help them to see why you are doing what you are doing. But you have a religious and moral right to walk down the path that your soul desires, and your mother's job as a parent is to honor your choice even if she disagrees with it.
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