The Problem: Token Conversions for Interfaithless Marriages

Assimilation has created a profound disconnect between Jews and their religion that deeply disturbs the author and impels him to experiment with new solutions.

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But I've had experience with other Kathys before. I ask Jeff to leave us alone in the study. In pursuing the conversation with her it is evident that there is more to Kathy than she presents. Jeff, of course, has never talked to her about the possibility of conversion to Judaism. In this he is a dedicated libertarian. He would not coerce her. Nor would I. But in the course of our conversation it is evident that Kathy is a searching spiritual person who has done a good deal of investigation of other religions from New Age religions to Zen Buddhism, but curiously not of Judaism itself. She is attracted to Jews and to Judaism and is aware of the warmth of the Jewish home, the absence of dogma, the emphasis on family and on education. Has she thought of conversion to Judaism?

She has been convinced that Judaism is not for outsiders. She knows this because she has been told by many Jews, secular and religious, that you have to be born into Judaism, and that conversion is not the traditional way to Judaism. She echoes what I have heard from Jews and non-Jews alike and in fairly vulgar terms. She repeats the joke she was told by one of Jeff's friends. "What is the difference between a virgin and a shiksa [a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman]? The answer: a shiksa remains a shiksa." The point is that a shiksa is incontrovertibly unconvertible. Being Jewish comes with the chicken soup. You cannot become a Jew by immersing yourself in a mikveh [ritual bath]. "Blood is thicker than water." I am embarrassed by this racism but no longer surprised.

When we speak further about Jewish values, Kathy is seriously taken with the possibilities of conversion. But when Jeff returns to the study, he is strangely upset with me. He had sought only a rabbinic presence, my ecclesiastical cloth to cover the embarrassment of his parents. He had certainly not expected talk about a series of classes of conversion, lectures, a beit din [Jewish court] tribunal, and a mikveh immersion, which would complicate their schedule. In all of this Kathy remained compliant and silent. After all, Jeff is the born-Jew.

When they left I felt disturbed. It was not only that I felt myself being used by Jeff and his parents, but that I was caught in a web of symptoms. Was I treating the symptoms as if they were causes? The wrong questions were being asked and the wrong answers were given. The conversion was an afterthought. The ceremony was wagging the faith; the rite overwhelmed the passage.

Moreover, the problem was with Jeff, not with Kathy. Who was the cause and who was the symptom? It was a mis-meeting. Jeff had to be spoken to differently and Jeff's parents, too. There are buried questions that had to be raised. Why is my token presence so important? What has Judaism, the covenant to do with this contact? And how have I dealt with Kathy and how did she feel? Was she a commodity, an "it" used to pacify his parents' need for Jewish respectability? Did I regard Kathy as a surrogate for the holocaustal hemorrhaging of my people, a replacement for our low fertility rates?

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.