For the North American Jewish community, religion can sometimes be a taboo subject. Many American Jews describe themselves as culturally Jewish, thinking Judaism as a religion doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. Moreover, discussing God or practicing ritual with meaning can be seen as a social snafu. In many corners of the American Jewish population, the “opiate-for-the-masses” attitude regarding religion prevails. This rather condescending mindset stands on the opinion that anyone with religious beliefs is not a thinker. How this attitude affects the more spiritually-inclined, especially those seeking to convert or recent Jews-by-choice, is one that Jews by birth should be aware of and take into consideration. A few weeks ago, Lindsy Van Gelder, a Jew-by-choice, explained her experience of telling her friends about her decision to convert to Judaism in the Jewish Daily Forward article, “A Fraught Journey to Judaism”:
Several friends whose lives seemed to be no less screwed up than mine expressed alarm when they heard my plans, their premise being that no intelligent person would turn to religion except to salve a deep existential wound; hence, things with me must be far more horrendous than they had realized…This holding up of a secular cross against the vampire of religions was true of recovering Christians and lifelong atheists, but among the most adamant were the pastrami Jews who hadn’t been in a synagogue for decades.
That her conversations with fellow Jews proved to be so “fraught” begs a number of questions. Are we becoming intolerant of theism and new believers? Is Jewish skepticism of God and religion imposing on others’ experiences of Judaism? It is true that there are many active participants of the Jewish community who do not feel that belief in God or the meaning in Jewish ritual are important to their Jewish identities; however, some downplay these aspects of Judaism even to newcomers, unaware that for some, these rituals and beliefs represent the core of their Jewish selves. Certainly the relative lack of God-speak in modern Jewish dialogue (beyond prayer) does not help the situation. However, the paucity should not lead to intolerance, nor preclude us from welcoming conversations about God and belief without disparagement. In fact, we have the obligation to welcome all newcomers who looking for ways to find meaning in Jewish life; an obligation that comes right from the Torah.
Lindsy Van Gelder’s experience is hopefully not one shared by theists or recent Jews-by-choice. The thoughtful decisions we make regarding religion and belief should be appreciated and valued as part of the diversity of the American Jewish experience. While there is no right or wrong way to participate in Judaism, there is a right way to be an ambassador for it. We all must ensure that we shed the intolerance toward belief and welcome those with a newfound spirituality. Thus, let’s begin conversations about the Divine and mystical aspects of life. Let’s respect theists’ opinions and welcome Jews-by-choice with warmth rather than skepticism. Let’s at the very least provide opportunities to explore our visions of Judaism and end this inquisition of religion.