Respecting Judaism, But Choosing Not to Convert

By David Jeffrey


I was brought up in Scotland, a place where the number of Jews was so small that I saw them as ancient and exotic, not as a living people. What little I knew about them came from the Bible, Shakespeare, and a growing awareness of the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust. As I traveled to other places, however, I gradually formed a fuller, more detailed picture of the Jewish People. I became aware of the number who have made major contributions to science and culture, a disproportionately large gift to humanity for such a small community. I finally moved to California, and my personal journey of discovery reached its climax with my choice of a Jew as life partner five years ago.

Rose is a very committed Jew. She was a founding member of her Conservative shul (synagogue) and still plays an active part in it. She keeps our kitchen kosher. As for myself, as a child I had been exposed to the Church of Scotland’s very puritan brand of Christianity, but as soon as my parents permitted me to “opt out,” I did so. Since then I have had no connection to, or interest in, religion. In fact, I took a definite stance against organized religion, on the grounds of its intolerance, involvement in, and even responsibility for, many horrifying episodes in history. However, Rose felt that for me to understand her more fully, it was important that I understood more about Judaism. So, under the auspices of her synagogue, she brought into being a study group on the topic of “Judaism Revealed.” For the last four years we have been studying with a group of intermarried couples. I feel I now know more about Judaism than I ever expected to know of any religion.

Amongst the things I learned early on is that being an observant Jew means living by Jewish law, one of whose major prohibitions is against marrying a non-Jew, like me. I learned that there are certain activities, particularly in shul, which are closed to non-Jews. I also learned that even for someone like myself, conversion was possible, and that I had a strong reason to consider conversion: by doing so I would restore Rose’s position in the community (quite apart from any personal benefits).

So why don’t I convert? Here is my personal reply. There are two basic reasons, connected with the dual nature of what being Jewish means: the religious, Judaic component, and the peoplehood, or tribal, component. While I am aware that Jews prefer to minimize this distinction, I believe it exists.

Taking the Judaic component first: in spite of all I have learned about Judaism, I remain an atheist. My rational mind has problems with the notion that there is some kind of Supreme Being, let alone one who has time to listen (and respond) to individual prayer. Interestingly, it has become clear to me that this view is shared by many religious people, including Rose, who nevertheless continue their religious observance. Belief brings something very important to their lives, even though rational thought is often at variance with spiritual attitudes. (“Living with contradiction,” I understand, is very Jewish!)

I use the word “spiritual” here with some trepidation, as it is very loaded: it is my way of referring to the drive to religious activity or belief. This is a drive I personally don’t feel. It has been said of me by friends that I lack the “religious bone.” If I have this drive in me it must take some other form of which I am unaware. During religious discussion I feel a bit like a blind man having color described to him: at some fundamental level I “don’t get” religion, including Judaism. What being with Rose has changed for me is that I now (late in life) have a better appreciation of how complex religion is, and how important it can be to people. I now see the positive side of what I had previously dismissed. But for me to convert, without a proper understanding of what it means, is a thing I can’t do: it would make me feel like a hypocrite. I would not be treating Judaism with respect.

Secondly, the tribal component. I now have the privilege of knowing many Jews, religious and non-religious, and have become aware of their common characteristics, distinctive characteristics I find attractive (for the most part), but characteristics very different from mine. It is interesting that Rose can meet someone and know whether they are Jewish within a very few minutes: many American Jews tend to have a shared set of values, worldviews and cultural backgrounds which shapes who they are. The expression (which I’m afraid I have often heard describing a convert), “You can hardly tell he wasn’t born a Jew,” strengthens the view that the only way to be really Jewish is to be born a Jew.

My background is hugely different, and the idea that I could become “Jewish” without a lifetime’s effort seems ludicrous. And, to me, this is perfectly fine. I think one of the great richnesses of the world we inhabit is the variety of cultures, customs, and peoples. My French friends don’t expect me to become “French”: if pressed, I’m sure they would say they consider it impossible. That’s how I feel about becoming “Jewish.”

It is for these reasons that I am not presently considering conversion. I hope that a Jew reading this will appreciate my respect for Judaism. The temptation to convert simply to make life easier is there, and I know people who have done it. To my mind, however, it doesn’t make them Jews in any real sense, and I can’t see that Judaism gets anything other than a statistical boost from such conversions.

Finally, a plea: The history of the last (and previous) centuries certainly justifies Jewish feelings of paranoia, but the idea that “who is not one of us is against us” is an oversimplification. Not all non-Jews are anti-Semitic. I know several other people like me, non-Jews as respectful of Jewish culture and tradition as many Jews, who for their own reasons don’t undergo conversion. Yet this seems to be the only act open to us that would gain Jewish trust. I would like there to be some other, less extreme, mechanism that would be accepted as proof of our goodwill to the Jewish people, and would (ideally) render us acceptable mates to our Jewish partners.


About David Jeffrey

David Jeffrey was born in Scotland but has spent the last 18 years in the USA. As a child he was briefly exposed to Scottish Protestantism, but on reaching the age or responsibility he rejected any religious involvement, a position he has maintained ever since. He works as an engineer in California