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  • Bracketing Belief:Giyyur for the Godless
  • Shai Cherry (bio)

God forbid, the Talmud tells us, that we should mouth platitudes about God that are contrary to our understanding. Since God’s seal is truth, and we are created in the divine image, we must remain true to our own experience.1 And that experience, for a significant percentage of American Jews, is that God is absent.2 According to the 2013 Pew survey, of those who identified as Jewish, only a third (34%) claim “absolute certainty” in their belief in God or a universal spirit.3 Nearly a quarter (23%) do not believe in God or a universal spirit.4

Statistics are slippery things.5 The discussion in this paper assumes that more than one quarter of the Americans who identify in some way as Jewish [End Page 83] are either agnostics or atheists. Since most of my discussion concerns policy rather than philosophy, I’ll be grouping the agnostics and atheists together under the label of “the godless.” It is also my assumption that such “godless” Jews suffer no discrimination or sanctions from the various bodies within the Jewish community.6 The question of this paper, then, concerns the propriety and wisdom of reaching out to the non-Jewish godless population to invite them under the wings of the Shekhinah.

The question itself can so easily be reduced to the absurd.7 How could and why would the godless convert to any religion? Where is the motivation or authenticity in such a decision? The problem in asking that question in regard to Judaism is precisely that Judaism is not reducible to its religious beliefs. What we must avoid reducing then is not the question of godless conversion, but the very understanding of Jewishness itself.

As of 2012, roughly 1/3 of Americans under 30 years old do not identify with a religion. Although these “nones” claim no religious affiliation, the majority still considers themselves religious or spiritual!8 Some of those [End Page 84] young people are marrying Jews, who may themselves identify as godless Jews, thus vitiating the religious distance between the two partners. When a godless Jew marries a godless gentile, is that an intermarriage? It may be intercultural, but it is not exactly interfaith. Rabbi Harold M. Schulweiss calls these unions interfaithless!9

Another assumption: most Americans place Judaism in the same category as Christianity, and Christianity is a religion. Since neither the the godless nor the “nones” are in the market for religion, Judaism is not likely to be a live option.10 Thus, if the Conservative Movement is amenable to converting the godless, the onus is on us to invite the godless to consider seriously the process of giyyur (conversion). In many cases, godless gentiles will be introduced into the Jewish world through a romantic relationship with a Jew. I will argue that it is in the best interest of this couple, their future children, the Jewish people, and the whole world (!) to actively engage the godless in giyyur.

Although I will be citing many rabbis in this paper, I am contextualizing their words in a novel way, and in many cases I suspect these rabbis would disagree with my conclusion. Yet, the process of recontextualization is quintessentially Jewish; it is the process of midrash.11 I, like my rabbinic ancestors, am placing their words into my context. This exercise in midrash halakhah will be successful to the degree that it allows others to hear how our tradition might respond to the unprecedented challenges before us.

Classical Jewishness

Shaye Cohen, in his book The Beginnings of Jewishness, contends that Judaism becomes something more akin to what we call a religion only in [End Page 85] the Hasmonean/Hellenistic period.12 Prior to that time, religious elements of Jewishness were inextricably bound with other elements of Israelite, and then Judean, culture. When one discusses conversion, it is significant to note that there is no evidence of such a thing prior to the Hasmonean conquest of the Idumeans in 128 b.c.e.13 Moreover, the process of conversion, as attested to at that time, did not explicitly involve a change in belief.14 As we...


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