Jewschool.com: Loving the Stranger, Even When He’s Estranged

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed some radical reconfiguring of my own views on inclusivity and exclusivity in Jewish community and Jewish tradition. I’ve become much more conscious of the ways we speak about Jews of multiple heritages, Jews born into other faiths, etc.

From the time I was a kid (I’m going to guess the seventh grade, when we spent a year of Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust), I have been very uncomfortable by any reference to Jews as a race. (“That’s how Hitler defined us!” I was trained to think.) But I never really thought about the concept of “Jewish Blood” as anything other than metaphor until BatyaD objected to the phrase in a comment on this blog.

Her comment got me thinking about the way we speak of converts. There’s a somewhat accepted, conventional (dare I say “traditional?”) narrative of the “Jewish soul” that many people use to conceptualize conversion into the Jewish faith. Somehow, the idea that converts were born Jewish but just didn’t know it yet is supposed to make someone feel more comfortable about including them in the Jewish people. This bothers me. If someone finds that the teachings of Judaism feel like the appropriate framework for her life, and wants to cast her lot in with the Jewish people, I don’t know what benefit there is to say “it was predestined.” Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway.

But there’s another problem with this creepy Jewish soul business. Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?) are those insisting that if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish no matter whether you renounce Judaism or take on some other religion or no religion or what have you. This, to me, feels hypocritical. I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path. Either souls can get born into the “wrong” religion or not. Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not.

I know I’m largely (but not entirely) preaching to the choir here, but I had to get this off my chest. I feel better already.

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