We are all Jews by Choice

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
April 5, 2013
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It has always fascinated me that a people who make up but a mere .02% of the world have a litany of words to identify the other 99.8% of people.  Over the generations, our language to describe “the other” has changed, varying in its degree of offensiveness to modern sensibilities.  I know myself, and I have heard countless others, explain that goy is not actually offensive unless its used pejoratively.  As a rabbi, I have found myself explaining that the idolaters described in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature don’t actually exist any more or that the concept of being “the chosen people” isn’t actually what it sounds like…  Deep in my heart I know it’s mostly just window dressing.

It is inevitable that an identity constructed on the notion of belonging – to a family, to a tribe, to a people, to a culture, to a God – will come to objectify “the other.”  Add in our historical experiences and traumas to boot, and, well, forget about it.  Yet we have striven, generation after generation, to recognize that some (many? most?) of these perspectives need to be revisited and re-understood for the circumstances in which we find ourselves living.  We have, like much of modern society, attempted to alter our language to find a more suitable choice of words to describe what is, at the end of the day, still “the other.”

Recently, a friend of mine queried to the world of Facebook: is it more exclusionary to use the term ‘non-Jew’ or ‘gentile’?  In other words, is there any way to refer to the 98.8% without labeling them as “the other”?  I immediately began thinking of the ways which we refer to those members of the Jewish people who were not born to Jewish mothers and identify in any number of ways with the Jewish people and our religious and cultural traditions.

Something just feels strange and archaic about the word “convert.”  Putting it into Hebrew, for me, is even worse – especially considering the word has so often been translated as “stranger,” the word ger carries similar connotations for me, or worse.  While it still denotes some sense of a lack of total belonging to some, I think the correct term for us today is “Jew by Choice,” because, at the end of the day it describes every one of us, even those who might call themselves “Jews by Birth.”

Some like to imagine a romanticized era where Jews did Jewish because it’s what we are supposed to do, and everyone did it, everyone did it correctly, and everyone knew what to do.  But slowly, slowly, modernity crept in, goyim crept in, assimilation crept in, and it’s all but lost.  Now Jews only pick and choose, except for the mighty and pious amongst us.

The fact is that this is nourishkeit, it wasn’t true in the Biblical era, it wasn’t true in the Mishnaic or Talmudic eras, it wasn’t true in the Medieval era, it wasn’t true in the modern era, and it isn’t true today.

We have always faced the tensions and realities which we face today – external enemies, internal enemies, being influenced from the outside, being changed from the inside, adding, shedding, re-imagining; this has always been the Jewish reality.  And despite all these perceived challenges and anxieties, we choose, generation after generation, to be Jewish.

Today, I think it seems that these things are more in our face because of the way which we share information, but when you really look into our history and it becomes evident that while contexts may have changed over time, the pressures have been quite similar.

In our world, even the most stringently observant wake up each morning and make a choice, even if not a conscious choice, to be a Jew and live a Jewish life.  Each community, and even each individual, has their own construction of what that identity looks like, and they, too, are choosing each day to be Jewish.  Yet, despite this, some who were not born into Jewish families and have joined Jewish communities still feel a sense of separation at times, and understandably so.  While our communities across the globe would be well served to make strides to bridge that separation, it seems to me that proper baby steps in the right direction would be to investigate, once again, our labels and descriptions we use not only to describe “the other,” but even to describe ourselves.

At the end of the day, I’m not really clear why we need to make distinctions between those who have chosen to be Jewish, in the sense of conversion or self-identity, and those who happen to have been born Jewish and also choose to be Jewish.  Making internal distinctions along these lines does not serve us, it certainly does not help to make every individual feel welcomed and imbued with a sense of belonging.  So why do we hold on to these labels so steadfastly?

I am not discussing changing definitions.  I do not, for example, expect Orthodox communities to necessarily accept Reform conversions because, well, we’re all Jews by Choice, right?

But, nonetheless, I do think it important for us to be aware of the implicit message behind these labels and likewise important for us to reevaluation their true meaning and resonance.  So out of all the labels that I can think of that people have come up with to describe those who have joined the Jewish people, Jews by Choice is my favorite descriptor because it not only includes “them,” it includes me.  Someone else might want to call me a “Jew by Birth,” but I am also a Jew by Choice and proud of it.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

2 Comments

  1. Dear Justin,

    Love the article, love the ruach and the kavanah, but I hate the title :-) It’s not your fault. The “everyone is a Jew By Choice” is the hip, PC thing to say. It’s meant out of love. Appreciate that.

    But Justin, if you’re a Jew By Choice, then answer a few questions for me:

    -How many years did you have to study before a rabbi felt you were Jewish enough to go in front of a bet din?
    -How much money did you spend on those classes?
    -What’s it like to have a “goyish” name like Goldstein? Do people ever come up to you and say, “wow, Goldstein. Doesn’t seem Jewish. What nice Jewish boy has a name like Goldstein?”
    -How did it feel to have someone shove a needle into your foreskin so that you could give a drop of blood for the Temple Priesthood?
    -Did your family reject you when you converted to Judaism, Justin? What’s it like to no longer celebrate Christmas or Easter?
    -Is it hard to explain to people why all of a sudden you’re not working on Friday nights and stopped eating shellfish? Do your friends look at you funny for becoming a part of a religious they heard you can’t even join?
    -As a rabbi, I’m sure people give you funny looks. I mean, Rabbi Goldstein…doesn’t sound Jewish at all. Hmm, you MUST be a Jew By Choice. Have you had anyone say, “gee, I dunno if I can trust him as a rabbi. I mean, with a name like Goldstein, how much CAN he know about Judaism?”
    -Have you had a romantic partner who questioned whether or not her mother would like you, because come on, you’re not REALLY Jewish…you just kinda decided you were one day.

    Saying we’re all Jews By Choice is kinda like telling your black friend, “well, aren’t we ALL African American in some way?”

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  2. Hi Patrick,
    Thank you for your comment, and while I know it may sound disingenuous, especially through the filter of a blog comment field, I feel you. That’s really the point of my post. I’m not trying to say that “Jews by Birth” experience the same experience as “Jews by Choice,” but I believe that we can take those baby steps towards mitigating the experiences that you mentioned by recognizing that the community has a lot of work to do until those who joined Jewish community who were not born into Jewish families feel accepted, and we should do that work. But just to dis-spell some of your preconceived notions about me because I’m a “Rabbi Goldstein,” i.e., ‘Professional Jew with a Jewy name’

    -How many years did you have to study before a rabbi felt you were Jewish enough to go in front of a bet din? about 13, and I’m not talking before Bar Mitzvah, I’m talking about ages 13-26.
    -How much money did you spend on those classes? I am over $150k in debt
    -What’s it like to have a “goyish” name like Goldstein? Do people ever come up to you and say, “wow, Goldstein. Doesn’t seem Jewish. What nice Jewish boy has a name like Goldstein?” But I heard loads of, “You should act more Jewish with a name like Goldstein,” because I wasn’t Jewish enough to people. Also, consider that I have absolutely no German ancestry despite having a German-Jewish name; names mean very little.
    -How did it feel to have someone shove a needle into your foreskin so that you could give a drop of blood for the Temple Priesthood? This is a sensitive issue, and since my parents had me circumcised in a hospital at birth, well, I just might quite literally feel your pain…
    -Did your family reject you when you converted to Judaism, Justin? What’s it like to no longer celebrate Christmas or Easter? Actually, some of my family rejected me when I decided to celebrate Hannukah or Passover because my becoming observant was not much different to them than had I converted to a new religion.
    -Is it hard to explain to people why all of a sudden you’re not working on Friday nights and stopped eating shellfish? Do your friends look at you funny for becoming a part of a religious they heard you can’t even join? I literally lost friends because of the lifestyle choices I made when I chose to be Jewish.
    -As a rabbi, I’m sure people give you funny looks. I mean, Rabbi Goldstein…doesn’t sound Jewish at all. Hmm, you MUST be a Jew By Choice. Have you had anyone say, “gee, I dunno if I can trust him as a rabbi. I mean, with a name like Goldstein, how much CAN he know about Judaism?” “Gee, Rabbi, I never imagined you grew up secular and came to Jewish life as an adult, with a name like Goldstein how little could you have known about Judaism? Can I trust you even though you’re a rabbi now? I mean, before, who knows!?”
    -Have you had a romantic partner who questioned whether or not her mother would like you, because come on, you’re not REALLY Jewish…you just kinda decided you were one day. No, but maybe I’ve had to question whether or not my mother in law would really like because I REALLY am that Jewish. And I had to question if my family would accept my wife as REALLY Jewish.

    Making assumptions is a dangerous game, and that’s the very point of this blog post. The fact is that we all have journeys that bring us to who we are. And maybe it’s not that I’m trying to be PC, but maybe I really truly wake up every day and feel like a Jew by Choice, because I do, in fact, have the experience of one who has chosen and continues to choose to be who I am. My email is easy to find. I’m happy to continue this conversation offline if you’d like.

    All best, and truly, thank you for your honesty and contribution to the discussion
    -Justin

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