As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.
Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.
Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to ”preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.
In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.
As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.
In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.
For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.
In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).
It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.
As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.
This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.
Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.
And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.
edited for clarity