The Way Into The Varieties of Jewishness

Dr. Fishman writes a nice introductory text to those lacking insight into the evolution of Judaism’s many modern flavors.  If you’ve read another introduction, however,  I don’t know how much additional insight this book could provide.  I mean, it is only 225 pages long.  You can’t throw in the whole megillah.

That said, I found one section in particular that particularly interested me.  Entitled Three Types of Converts, one section in the eighth chapter details a tripartite model of Jews by Choice.  I wrote to the author asking for more information about how this model was developed, because it is so unlike anything other book on conversion I’ve read.

It basically says there are three “types” of JBCs: activists (30%), accommodating (40%), and ambivalent (30%).

Activists “start on the road to conversion before they meet the Jew to whom they will become engaged or married,” “disproportionately” join Conservative and Orthodox congregations, are overwhelmingly women, and become intensely involved in Jewish life by taking on leadership roles in organizations.

Accommodating converts do not think about conversion until asked by their spouse/partner. follow the observance level modeled by said partner, and grounds their Jewish life in the home instead of leadership positions in Jewish organizations.

Ambivalent converts don’t “care” about organized religion and therefore tend to convert for the sake of the children.  They have warm feelings toward Jewish social and intellectual endeavors, but don’t want their homes to become “too ritual-oriented”.  They disapprove of the “Chosen” status and feel “passively” Jewish.

I don’t know what to think of this model.  What beit din worth its salt would approve the conversion of an ambivalent convert? They clearly have deep reservations to becoming Jewish, and I think it does them a great disservice to have them take the plunge.

I clearly identify with the activist label (to be honest, it fits me almost perfectly), but I would really like to see the studies that say they overwhelmingly join Conservative and Orthodox affiliated synagogues.  I’ve known plenty of committed Reform Jews for whom Reform ideology best fits their worldview and the form of Judaism that brings the most amount of meaning to their lives.

I also have to wonder why most converts are women.  I know men have the additional hurdle of circumcision to overcome, but the vast majority of American men are still circumcised at birth (I think it’s around 60% today?), with even higher levels in the past.  While I would not be eager by any means to stick a needle into the analogous portion of my body, I don’t think a prick is as daunting as the entire procedure.

Do men search for meaning and encounter the holy in significantly different ways than women?  Are these ways not typically Jewish?  Are they not in the synagogue, but out in society or in the home? Is there a way Judaism could better serve the needs of men, Jewish or those considering Judaism?

I hope Dr. Fishman writes me back.  This section leaves me with more questions than answers. I really would like to learn more about us gerim from an academic POV.

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2 thoughts on “The Way Into The Varieties of Jewishness

  1. Thanks for sharing Dr. Fishman’s categorization of JBCs. I find it interesting, but incomplete.

    I can’t, for example, confidently place myself in any one of his three categories. I suppose that, like you, I most closely identify with the Activist description, but it would be dishonest of me to ignore the role, passive though it may be, that my JBB girlfriend has played in my path to Judaism. While I feel strongly that my principal reasons for converting are emotional-mystical and intellectual, I can’t ignore the fact that prior to my falling in love with a Jewish woman, I’d thought of myself as Jewish only in passing (and with bemusement), and had never explored paths to conversion (I didn’t even know it was possible!). Moreover, my observation and commitment to Jewish dialogue (religious and socio-political) and peoplehood is not modeled on my partner’s. In fact, it appears as though my path is necessarily making my partner more ritually observant and thoughtful about a Jewish identity that she largely took for granted. I don’t believe this is an uncommon dynamic when a serious-minded convert is in a relationship with a JBB. It seems, therefore, that Dr. Fishman missed a category or two.

    As for the additional hurdles faced by male conversion candidates, I assume they do put off some individuals who might have otherwise converted, but, as someone who will undergo “the entire procedure” and as someone who knows of other converts who have also done so, I don’t see the brit milah requirements as a deal-breaker, excepting perhaps for those would-be converts in Dr. Fishman’s Ambivalent camp (and maybe for some in the Accommodating camp, too).

    As for why there are more female converts, I think there may be some truth to the claim that women are stronger spiritual seekers, but I also think that socio-cultural factors may play the more significant role (i.e., the importance of matrilineal inheritance in rabbinic Judaism).

    Great blog, by the way!

  2. I guess for me, I don’t fit into any of the three. I am married but my husband is a non-Jew. I didn’t have Jewish friends or any Jewish examples. I chose this totally on my own. How did I get here? I sometimes ask myself but I’m sure glad I did!

    I would agree the important of the importance of matrilineal descent probably plays a big role in why more women convert to Judaism. Also, on a whole it does seems that women are often more interested in Religion and Spirituality.

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