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.email print