Conversion Requires Identity Transformation

Conversion means life change, but the path to Jewish identity varies widely.

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The need for a new language to discuss the process and act of becoming a Jew is compelling. We shall discuss conversion as transformation. An individual does not convert from one state to another; identity transforms through both experience and understanding. The transformed identity leads to inclusion, a sense of belonging. Ruth did not convert; she became a Jew. The concept of becoming is vital, especially since the process begins prior to formal declarations and continues afterward. 

Identity transformation and becoming must take place in two realms. The first is promoting religious conversion. This is the process where individuals become part of Judaism as a religion by understanding its laws, its forms of worship, its ritual observance, and so on.

Communal conversion takes place through the adoptions and values and norms of the Jewish people, their customs in terms of language, history, mythology, self-views, and institutional participation.

id cardSometimes a Jew helps create another Jew. The process also works in reverse. A Jew with a marginal Jewish identity, but one that he or she is unwilling to abandon completely, may marry someone who has deep religious and spiritual convictions and who is willing to transfer those convictions to Judaism. If given venues for expression and encouragement, the non-Jewish spouse's interest in Judaism may become more involved and more passionate than that of the Jewish spouse. The "new Jew" can bring the Jewish partner and the children along, facilitating the process of identity transformation for born-Jews as well as for himself or herself.

One of the most powerful paths to identity transformation is through a passionate and committed Jewish spouse. Jews who believe deeply and understand their religious beliefs and practices can teach their non-Jewish spouses through their own practice.

The act of becoming a Jew is really a process with final actions that include ritual ceremonies declaring that an individual has become part of the Jewish people. The process of actually becoming a Jew involves a wide range of activities leading to identity transformation. Identity transformation is adoption of one identity and abandonment of another.

Becoming part of the Jewish people means accepting, to one degree or another, the Jewish experience as one's own, as well as cultural attitudes and norms, religious practices, and membership in a community's groups and institutions. It involves adopting a Jewish perspective, from a myriad of options, in debates or disagreements. Identity transformation means thinking and feeling like a Jew and feeling bound to the community of Jews, for better or worse.

The process of identity transformation can take place in a number of ways. One path is through study, learning, and education, a cognitive approach that involves absorbing knowledge and sets of ideas. Acquiring this knowledge comes through formal and informal channels, studying texts and secondary sources, and also through lectures, conversation, and various media.

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Gary A. Tobin

Gary A. Tobin, Ph.D. (1949-2009) was President of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He was also Director of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.