The idea that Jewish conversion might be unessential seems both provocative and counterintuitive. After all, within the dictates of Jewish law (halakha), conversion is the single path to Jewish belonging and recognition. And from Jewish perspectives (those of the Jewish state, Jewish communities, authorities, institutions, and families), conversion is often construed as an indispensable policy route. Yet, in this short essay I suggest that in contemporary Jewish life, formal conversion is in the process of losing its role as an exclusive or even dominant ticket to Jewish identity and inclusion. By juxtaposing two prime settings in which Jewish conversion is intensely debated and enacted, the Israeli and the American-Jewish, I hope to show how, under fading boundaries and shifting realities of Jewish belonging, formal conversion begins to lose its criticality. I choose to focus on these particular settings because of their centrality in Jewish politics, religion, and demography, as well as because of their remarkably different circumstances: The Israeli context of the nation-state, where religious conversion is embedded within state bureaucracy, and the American-Jewish context, the largest diasporic Jewish community, where Jewish conversion is linked with voluntarism.
To begin with, why does conversion matter or why is it considered essential? From the point of view of non-Jews or aspiring converts, the stakes attached to conversion are considerable. In Israel, the stakes are particularly high, as conversion involves state-endorsed bureaucratic and (Orthodoxly endorsed) rabbinic services. In both material and symbolic terms, the price that must be paid for being a non-Jew or a non-recognized Jew can be considerable. In the American-Jewish context, a much more pluralistic setting wherein Orthodoxy is only one among several religious legitimate streams, non-Jews might be excluded in ritual and communal capacities, depending on the particular congregation with which they affiliate and the degree to which this congregation adheres to Jewish law. These forms of exclusion might push non-Jews to conversion.
From the point of view of policymakers and rabbis in Israel, conversion is an object discussed with polemic intensity and a sense of urgency. This urgency is linked primarily to the immigration of large numbers of immigrants–cum–citizens (mostly from the former Soviet Union), who are not recognized as Jewish according to Jewish law but have integrated profoundly within the national fold. In the American-Jewish context, this sense of urgency is grounded in the growing rate of intermarriage, and the assertion that intermarried families—in comparison to Jewish families—display considerably lower rates of Jewish engagement. Within both of these contexts, the urgency of conversion is derived from the fact that boundaries—of the Jewish collective and of what it means to be a Jew—have been considerably shifted, if not outright crossed and shattered.
By definition, Jewish conversion (like any other religious conversion) is a process of boundary-setting. Whether informed by stringent or liberal inclinations, by missionary or exclusive agendas, it is a methodical, supervised rite of passage, one mediated and legitimated by the religious authorities and other gatekeepers who represent the Jewish belief, code of conduct, and collective. Conversion is a reminder for the aspiring convert that a barrier must be passed, and that permission to do so must first be granted. In the contemporary contexts mentioned above—in common with earlier historical moments, wherein rabbinic authorities dealt with porous and ambiguous communal boundaries—such a reminder and insistence on order-making becomes all the more pressing.
And yet, precisely because of the entrenchment of religious conversion in these contexts of blurred boundaries, conversion risks becoming disposable as a procedure for individuals joining the Jewish collective. There are indications that conversion’s role as a religious script and communal mechanism of inclusion is challenged from within. The urgent conversion discourses and enactments in contemporary Jewish life exist alongside, and as a response to, the diminished role and power of conversion as a setter of boundaries. Jewish conversion constitutes a rearguard battle, not only against the social processes that led to the blurring of Jewish boundaries in the first place, but also against the alternative, non-conversion-based routes to Jewish belonging that are emerging. These routes muddle religiously-based boundaries and shift the composition of Jewish communities, Jewish families, and Jewish Israeli society. I will now briefly discuss Jewish conversion as a decreasingly required means of inclusion in each of the contexts at hand.
The Israeli state invests unprecedented effort and resources in converting non-Jewish immigrants who have migrated to Israel under Israeli repatriation law. However, this pro-conversion policy, tellingly defined as a “national mission,” has been a resounding failure: it has failed to achieve its formative numerical goal of converting “as many as possible.” Many of the conversion agents I met during my ethnographic study of this institutional “mission” were painfully aware of and troubled by this failure. They knew most of the immigrants did not seek Orthodox conversion. While the reasons informing the immigrants’ choice to vote with their feet against state conversion are multivalent, it is worth noting the pervasive effects of their “sociological conversion“: their informal, mundane yet sturdy process of integration into Jewish Israeli society; their participation in civil and national obligations; and their social and romantic involvement with Israeli Jews. With their outsiderness relegated only to bureaucratic and rabbinic spheres—otherwise remaining invisible—these immigrants might not need conversion to gain membership to the Israeli Jewish fold. This is particularly true for males as well as for relatively older females; given the matrilineal principle governing Jewish identity in rabbinic law, their non-Jewishness bears no implications of incomplete belonging for their children. As other scholars have shown, non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) compensate for their non-Jewish status through social practices of national and symbolic fitting-in. The conversion candidates I met in my fieldwork represent a tiny minority of the non-Jewish immigrants-cum-citizens who do seek the legitimizing stamp of the state’s rabbinic establishment. In seeking conversion, they are the exception that proves the rule; they demonstrate the extent to which rabbinically-informed boundaries and conversion procedures do not resonate, sociologically, among FSU immigrants, nor in the Jewish-Israeli society more broadly.
The set of contexts within which Jewish conversion is given shape and meaning in the United States is remarkably different. American Jewry is constituted as a decentered, voluntary, and highly pluralistic community. Furthermore, in post WWII America, Jews have become a particularly welcomed and whitened religious minority, accelerating their incorporation and mobility within American society. Even if still targeted occasionally with anti-Semitic attacks and violent messages (an issue with heightened presence and public visibility in the Trump Era), Jews generally enjoy extraordinary integration as Americans. All these features—voluntarism, pluralism, and integration—bear on the challenges that American Jewry faces in terms of maintaining its identity, boundaries, and numbers, as well as on the kinds of regulative forces the matrix of Jewish organizations and congregations—the “Organized Jewish Community”—can, and seeks to, exercise with regard to conversion. Instead of being crafted under a centralized bureaucratic and rabbinic apparatus, Jewish conversion in the United States is construed and constructed locally and heterogeneously by each religious stream or congregation. I cannot do justice here to the heterogeneous nature of this community (across and within the religious streams), but I will flesh out some of the positions and dynamics surrounding conversion and its alternatives.
For Orthodox Jews, there is no alternative to conversion. With negligible to nonexistent rates of intermarriage, well-guarded communal boundaries, and a distinctive way of life marked by adherence to Jewish law and practice, Orthodox American Jews hardly need to confront conversion as a practical quandary. They are certainly preoccupied by the array of non-halakhic conversion procedures offered by other Jewish streams, and they worry about the implications of these for the cohesiveness of the Jewish people. While the more liberal edges of Orthodox Jews are not invulnerable to the pressures of more flexible boundaries (and even call to grant them greater flexibility), Orthodox Jews more generally do not question the absolute, sacred necessity of conversion; individuals who are not Jewish halachically are, as a matter of course, not members of their congregations.
For the non-Orthodox streams, wherein social boundaries are hazier, intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, and liberal agendas circumscribe the assertion of communal prescriptions, formal conversion (whether halachically-based or not) is not an exclusive route to Jewish belonging. It is definitely part of the communal agenda, advocated as a normative statement on longstanding Jewish standards or as a call to proactively open the gates, a means to recruit dedicated Jews in a time when many are drifting away from religion, and an opportunity to spread the beauty of Judaism, all at once. But proactive conversion policies have also been critiqued from the assumption that any pressure exercised to convert non-Jewish spouses of Jews is derogatory, disrespectful, and possibly alienating; as such, it is also unrealistic and unfavorable to the community’s goal of Jewish continuity.
The Reform Movement is generally known for its openness to intermarriage (rabbis are granted autonomy to decide whether or not to officiate interfaith weddings) and for its hospitality to non-Jews and patrilineal Jews. Although non-Jewish spouses who choose not to convert do experience awkwardness and encounter invisible but clear social boundaries, intermarried couples are generally welcomed in Reform congregations. Without masking the complexity at hand, it is safe to state that non-Jewish mothers sometimes choose to raise Jewish children, create Jewish households, and become active members in educational and communal organizations. Outreach organizations cultivate these spouses’ connectedness with Judaism, carving a comfortable, secured setting for them to choose a non-conversion path to Jewish engagement. In a sense, due to these emerging social formations and cultural scripts, non-Jewish spouses of Jews become what we might call “non-Jews by choice” (paraphrasing the well-known term for converts, “Jews by choice”). These Jewishly connected non-Jews are not counted as Jews in the National Jewish Population Surveys but, in the voluntary community in which they participate, their Jewish engagements matter and count.
Communal boundary crossing and setting are particularly compelling in the Conservative Movement, a liberal and pluralistic yet halachically committed stream currently enduring tectonic shifts in its formulated intermarriage policies. These shifts and reformulations include the passage of a resolution allowing Conservative congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews; and an announcement by rabbis at the influential B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan, that they will begin officiating intermarriage rituals for interfaith couples committed to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Another tone-setting leader, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, has also decided to start marrying interfaith couples as long as the non-Jewish spouse is willing to take part in Jewish learning and communal life. It is too early to detect the long-term impacts of these shifts, but it is clear they make exceptional room for greater inclusion and participation of non-Jews in Conservative congregations. And, by necessity, such policies implicate conversion as a less necessary path to Jewish belonging.