I have been part of a Jewish family for the past 25-plus years. I practice Judaism exclusively and I would call Judaism my spiritual home. Both my daughter and son have become bat and bar mitzvah as well as confirmed. I am very active in our Reform congregation and have acted as co-chairperson of our Social Action Committee for four years. However, I have not formally converted to Judaism and I do not believe that I would feel any differently if I converted. Having learned Hebrew over 20 years ago, and with the practice of repetition at services, I have learned many of the prayers and songs in the Shabbat and High Holiday liturgies. As a result, I have been able to, and have, participated fully and joyfully in services.
Recently our temple's religious practices committee has been grappling with the issue of the participation of non-Jews in ritual practices, specifically the issue of aliyot at b'nai mitzvah. The emotional debate surrounding this issue has created a personal crisis for me, even though my children are already past that b'nai mitzvah stage.
In our congregation's debate over the aliyot issue, some people have said "What would be the motivation to convert if non-Jews could do the same things as converts?" Conversely, some say, "if a non-Jew wants to perform certain rituals which are reserved for Jews, why don't they just convert?"
I do not believe that people convert to Judaism in order to be able to perform specific rituals. I view conversion as a highly complex psychological process that is tied closely to each person's very unique sense of identity. Each person brings his or her individual needs and motivations as well as personal circumstances to the process. In no way do I mean to diminish the meaning and value of conversion. However, I am interested in the relationship between identity and practice--between "being Jewish," and practicing Judaism, or involvement with Judaism as a faith-based religion.
I have always been fascinated by how the fact of being born Jewish seems to be so compelling. The recent book Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to his Jewish Family by Stephen J. Dubner vividly illustrates this point. Mr. Dubner was born to parents who both had converted to Roman Catholicism from Judaism prior to their marriage. They raised their eight children in a very devout Roman Catholic family. When in his twenties Mr. Dubner learns of his Jewish ancestry, he sets out to learn about Judaism and long-lost Jewish relatives. He considers himself Jewish and is considered Jewish despite the conversion of his parents prior to his birth. Consequently, he undertakes his exploration and full involvement in Judaism without needing to convert first. This supports my observation that many people just feel that they "are" Jewish. I have heard the bewilderment of non-Jews in interfaith relationships when their Jewish partners who ostensibly have had no involvement in Judaism insist that their children be raised as Jews. Even though they do not "practice" Judaism, they "are" Jewish and this is important to them.
Certainly, I realize that some people need the sense of "being Jewish" before they can involve themselves in a "practice of Judaism." For those people, conversion may be a necessary step to involvement in Judaism. For me, however, actions have always "spoken louder than words." I am also a psychotherapist. In my practice, I see many individuals in couple's counseling. I am continually amazed by the number of people who state that they persist in a relationship because they are in love with their partner but do not act in a loving manner toward him or her. I believe that action conveys meaning and credibility.
In the age of managed care for mental health professionals, we must translate the goals of therapy into behavioral terms. In other words, it is not acceptable to say that the goal of therapy is "to be happy." We have to prompt people to think about "what would you be doing if you were happy." What would happiness "look like?" Likewise, for me, it is not sufficient to just "be Jewish." I want to know what you are doing if you are Jewish--celebrating Shabbat , attending services, studying Torah, performing mitzvot, engaging in Tikkun Olam, etc. I can honestly say that I would not be doing anything differently if I were Jewish. For my own idiosyncratic reasons, I do not feel that the identity of Jewish-ness is attainable through conversion.
It seems to me that Judaism encompasses a broad spectrum of individuals from those who solely identify themselves as Jews, with no involvement in Judaism as a religion, to those whose involvement with Judaism infuses all aspects of their lives. I wonder whether there is room in Judaism for people like myself, who involve themselves in Judaism as their sole religion but do not possess the identity of "being Jewish." What do you think?