by James M. Branum
Judaism is a complicated tradition in many ways, but especially on the topic of identity, so much so that that Wikipedia actually has an article entitled “Who is a Jew”.
For people considering being adopted into Judaism through the Humanistic movement, the question of acceptance as Jewish in other Jewish communities is often a pressing issue, so this short essay will explore in more detail the policies of the different Jewish movements as they relate to the acceptance of humanistic converts1 as being Jewish in the context of their movements.
Before continuing, I should mention that local minhag (custom) varies widely from place to place and within the same movement. But I hope that exploring official denominational responsa/resolutions/policies will make it easier for Humanistic Jews to advocate for their inclusion in other Jewish spaces.
The Reform Movement
The URJ (Union of Reform Judaism) has had a long, complicated relationship with Humanistic Jews.While many individuals Humanistic Jews have been welcomed warmly into Reform shuls, this is not always the case. And at the institutional level, the URJ has drawn a line in the sand by stating that while individual Jews can be non-theistic, they expect their congregations to affirm some degree of monotheism (and have rejected congregations that do not).2
With regards to the acceptance of Humanistic converts in the Reform movement, the primary responsa on point is: NYP NO. 5759.3 – CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE – Who Is a Rabbi?
Here are some relevant parts of this responsa (with emphasis added):
Let us be clear: we are under no obligation to recognize the validity of any “conversion” merely because a ritual bearing that name was performed by a group of three persons claiming to be a beit din. We are entitled to withhold our recognition of the conversion, for example, when we have serious doubts as to the legitimacy of the “court” or the fitness of its members to serve as “judges.” Yet such objections do not apply here. Although we have our religious differences with Humanistic Judaism, we have no reason to doubt the Jewishness or the Judaic sincerity of those who practice it. Similarly, we have every reason to believe that the individuals who have converted with this person demonstrate a genuine desire to live a Jewish life as it is understood by their community. They have made a carefully considered and public decision to take their place in the covenant of Israel, joining their fate to that of the Jewish people. For our part, we do not want to erect barriers to their entry. On the contrary: as Reform Jews, whose movement has distinguished itself by its encouragement of those who wish to choose Judaism, we ought to welcome them actively into our midst.
Thus, our advice is two-fold. We urge you to advocate in your community that conversions to Judaism be supervised and guided solely by ordained rabbis. Such a standard reflects honor to the Torah and the seriousness with which we take the conversion procedure. It will also forestall difficulties by helping to ensure that the validity of conversions is accepted by most of the Jewish population. Yet to reject the individuals already converted by this person would serve no purpose save to embarrass them, sowing the seeds of bitterness and divisiveness within the community. Out of concern for Jewish unity and communal peace, and in recognition of their evident sincerity, you should rather accept them as full-fledged members of the Jewish people.
Based on this responsa, those who convert to Judaism through the Humanistic movement should be accepted as Jewish in a Reform context in the United States.
Note: I have heard reports that Reform congregations in the UK and other parts of the world often do not welcome Humanistic converts. I hope to someday explore this issue further in an updated version of this essay.
Given the emphasis on “Jewish civilization” in the Reconstructionist movement (first articulated by the movement’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan), it should be surprising that Humanistic Jews often feel at home in Reconstructionist synagogues.
As to official policies, the most comprehensive one I found was Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Resolution – Guidelines on conversion (1979).
Here is the relevant excerpt:
In the spirit of K’lal Yisrael, the Reconstructionist Movement recognizes conversions performed under the sponsorship of bona fide rabbis or movements within the Jewish community, whether or not similar conditions as those upheld by the Reconstructionist rabbi or Movement were required.
Based on this definition, Humanistic Jewish converts should expect to be welcomed in Reconstructionist congregations.
The Conservative/Masorti Movement of Judaism
The Conservative movement3 has long served as a middle position in the Jewish spectrum, still holding to the ideal of halacha, but reinterpreting it in today’s modern context (but still through a halachic lens). Hence, the issues at stake for Conservative recognition of conversions outside of their movement hinge on halachic considerations.
The relevant text for consideration is: “The Status of Non-Halakhic Conversions” by Rabbi David Novak (from the Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 1980-1985) (emphasis added by me)
I find no cogent basis in halakhah for accepting, even ex post facto, converts who did not undergo specific tevilah for the sake of conversion, unless it can be shown that they are strictly observant Jews, particularly scrupulous in the use of a mikvah. The fact that they may have been taken to be Jews by themselves or by others does not change the need for tevilah for the sake of conversion. The fact that most of these conversions have been conducted under Reform auspices makes the matter especially difficult because of the cordial relationships which exist between Conservative and Reform rabbis and lay people. Nevertheless, this halakhic requirement is not meant as a public rebuff to the Reform movement. If a Reform rabbi conducts giyyur kehalakhah, I accept his converts as bona fide Jews. I might also add that I do not accept the converts of non-Reform rabbis if the conversion was not conducted according to objective halakhic criteria. These objective halakhic criteria, which alone protect the purity of Jewish identity, should not be compromised in the interests of an ultimately
meaningless Jewish unity. 19 However, rabbinical experience has taught me that a Conservative rabbi can exercise compassionate tact in urging proper tevilah in these cases. I do not tell such converts that their conversions are invalid, but rather, that they were incomplete, for even the most liberal conversion involves study, thus minimally fulfilling hoda’at mitzvot. I tell them that they inadvertently overlooked an important specific. At the tevilah I ask them to reconfirm their kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim and kabbalat ol shel mitzvot. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the converts have thanked me for helping them to legally assure their unambiguous Jewish identity.
One of the most famous converts in Jewish history was the king of the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. along with his whole nation. At the very beginning of R. Judah HaLevi’s theological masterwork, Kuzari, where the king is one of the two main characters in the dialogue, the initial motivation for his ultimate conversion to Judaism is seen as his response to a troubling dream. In the dream an angel tells him, “Your intention is acceptable to the Creator, but your action is not.” When the king learns about Judaism and its practices from a rabbi he seeks out, he is able to remove this contradiction in his life by conversion. Along the lines of HaLevi’s dramatization, I would say that anyone who refuses to rectify his or her halakhically invalid conversion has thereby shown that he or she never intended to accept the Torah anyway. Conversely, a true ger tzedek should welcome the opportunity to consummate once and for all what was his or her true intention from the beginning, to make both intention and practice truly consistent.
In reviewing this passage, two issues become clear: (1) the Conservative movement believes that there are “objective halakhic criteria” that must be satisfied for a conversion to be valid, and (2) that if a sincere prospective convert has been converted through another movement, that they should be told that they have an “incomplete” conversion and be invited to fulfill the remaining halakhic criteria to be unambiguously accepted into the Jewish community in a Conservative context.
Based upon this reading, it would appear that a Humanistic Jewish convert who wants to be accepted as Jewish in a Conservative shul may have to perform certain ritual actions such as mikveh immersion, appearing before a bet din, and (for men) having a circumcision/hatafat dam brit, but should not be required to engage in additional study course, etc.
Orthodoxy: Given the movement’s hostility to all non-Orthodox conversions, it is assumed that Humanistic conversions would also not be accepted.
Renewal: I have yet to find any information about the policies of the Renewal movement as it relates to the acceptance of Humanistic converts. I hope to update this essay later if I encounter these policies.
I wrote this essay because it reflected my fears when I was adopted into Judaism through the Humanistic movement (nine years ago) while living in a locale without any organized Humanistic Jewish congregation. Thankfully, I was graciously welcomed into membership a few years later into a Reform temple in my city, where I learned about the Reform responsa (discussed above) that clarified that I was a Jew in the eyes of the Reform movement.
I am glad that I could become a part of Judaism, humanistically, but I’m also glad that my path into Judaism has been affirmed (mostly) by other progressive Jewish movements in North America.
Being a part of this community is a very good thing.
- The Society for Humanistic Judaism prefers the term “adoption” to “conversion,” but since this article is exploring the concept in relationship to other movements, I will mostly be using the word conversion in this essay.
- See CCAR Responsa TFN No. 5751.4 9-15 “Humanistic Congregation”, also see Niebuhr, Gustav “Humanist synagogue tests Reform Judaism” Washington Post (June 30, 1994)
- I think they need a name change. Moderate Judaism would be much better descripter in this time in history.