Log in

Log in

A Response to Elias Neibart’s article “Taking Judaism Personally.”

20 Feb 2024 7:43 PM | Franklin Jester (Administrator)

By Henry Hollander

In December the online magazine Tablet published an article by Elias Neibart [link] that cast the spiritual seriousness of Converts to Judaism as a lesson, and perhaps a rebuke, to many of those who were born Jewish. My initial response to Neibart was one of general agreement. In my experience, Jews by Choice have always made up an out-sized presence in the classes that I have taught. Their probing curiosity is a delight. But I have heard people say, “Every Jew is a Jew by Choice nowadays.”  My friend Itzak Khodak, z”l, immigrated from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. The first thing that he did was find a synagogue and begin attending daily minyan twice a day, a practice that he held to past his hundredth year. Whenever we struggled or failed to make a minyan he would grumble, “I don’t understand. In America no one stops you. You are free to be a Jew…” Itzak suffered for being a Jew in Russia for most of his life. It was an identity that the Soviet rulers wouldn’t let him set aside and for which they never stopped punishing him. Here in America he had the freedom to walk away from the pain and the struggle of living life as a Jew and instead chose to live an active and joyful Jewish life – good to the last drop. 

Itzak and those who are officially “Jews by Choice,” may not have similar experiences of what it is to live a Jewish life, but there is a sweetness that I felt in Itzak’s presence that is often indistinguishable from my time spent with Jews by Choice. 

Neibart is among those who are alarmed by the rise in the number of Jews, particularly younger Jews, who don’t identify with with the Jewish religion, “instead viewing their Judaism as purely ethnic and cultural.” (He is looking at the Pew Study from 2020 found here) Viewing the Jewish people as an ethnicity is, to my mind, a sentimental nostalgia for a time when American Jews lived in “Jewish neighborhoods,” ate “Jewish foods,” and immigrated from older places of Jewish settlement. Nevertheless, that nostalgia, even in the absence of actual Jewish practice, shows that it is possible for a Jew to live an intensely Jewish life framed and experienced through culture. 

The child of a convert from Catholicism, Neibart regrets that his experience of Judaism lacks the transformative quality that his mother had in her conversion. He writes, “In many ways, the children of converts outsource their theological journey to their converted parents.” In the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel [link]   he finds a calling for each Jew to respond to their own personal experience of wonder – of the encounter with the ineffable (one of Heschel’s preferred English words for the Divine), “with the awareness of reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.” If we look at Abraham and Sarah, two characters in Jewish sacred history not born Jews, as converts, we Jews, all of us, are either converts or the children of converts. Neibart cites Heschel, “the ultimate question, when bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question, to be equally suspended between yes and no.” Neibart fails to mention that to Heschel religion, all religions, not just Judaism, comes not in the moment of wonder, but in response to that moment when the intensity of it has passed. We might want to live in that moment, in that peak experience, but that is beyond out human limitations.

In the 1950s and ‘60s Heschel’s office sat at one end of a hallway at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the office at the far end of the hallway was the office of Mordecai Kaplan [link], the father of the Reconstructionist movement. Kaplan believed in a conception of God that opposed the spiritual approach of Heschel. Rather than God as a kind of supernatural being, he believed that “God is the Power that makes for salvation” He viewed Judaism as a religious civilization, a civilization like ancient Greece or like modern day America, founded but not limited to purely religious impulses and embedded in the flow of history. For Kaplan, culture, rather than “religion,” is the broadest category of what it is to be Jewish. 

Both culture and religion are terms that did not exist in the Hebrew language until the modern era. They represent a slicing up of what Jewishness has meant to the Jewish people over time. The distress that some people feel when they hear that Jews choose not to define themselves by one of the terms that are external to a tradition Jewish self-understanding should be recognized as a problem of categories rather than of realities. 

It can be difficult in the United States to properly understand what it is to be Jewish. Unlike in  Christianity and Islam, belief is not what makes one a Jew. Making oneself one of the Jewish people, in all their variety, is what makes one a Jew and this is what is asked of those who choose to be Jews. While a turn towards Jewish expression following intense religious experience is a sign of Jewishness for some, it is not the easiest way to be a Jew and is probably too much to expect of most Jews. It is a blessing that Jews by Choice have this intense experience more easily accessible to them than those who are born Jews. Neither Jews by birth nor choice should take it upon themselves to judge how other Jews live or believe. That is a task best left to the Merciful One. 

Contact Us


Voice: 323-863-5486    

Mailing Address

8306 Wilshire Blvd #830

Beverly Hills, CA 90211

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software