Secular Conversions?

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The topic of conversion has been in the news a lot recently. Jerusalem street sceneWe at JOI believe that conversion should be an option for everyone who’s interested, by lowering the barriers that impede accessibility. But there is another voice pushing for accessibility to conversions, and it comes from an unexpected source: secular Israeli Jews.

Interfaith couples sometimes approach me to discuss conversion. And often, the biggest challenge is not that one partner is Jewish and the other Christian, but that one is interested in religion and the other is not. In this context, it almost doesn’t matter in what religion or which partner. As a rabbi, I have only one conversion option to offer—a religious one—with the understanding that the various movements do have different religious requirements.

In Israel, there is a call for something else: secular conversions. If indeed the majority of Jews are not religious, should a non-religious conversion option be made available? Humanistic Judaism (non-theistic) considers people Jewish if they self-identify as Jewish, regardless of their heritage or beliefs; the idea of a secular conversion was also brought to the forefront some time ago by Yossi Beilin, a leader of the Meretz-Yachad party in Israel. Part of the push in Israel stems from frustration with the (Orthodox) religious authority in matters of conversion, marriage, and divorce, but the idea of a secular conversion is not irrelevant for the Jewish community here in North America. There is certainly a tension between the fact that a person can be Jewish and entirely secular, but one cannot become Jewish except through religious conversion. What do people think about this idea of a secular conversion?

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