Lately, around these parts, there’s been a lot of talk about reserving the right to define ourselves by whichever terms we choose, and that a problem for Jews in modern-day Western society is non-Jews occasionally taking it upon themselves to define what a Jew is, and which terms are acceptable. However, there’s been very little discussion about how this is done within Judaism, and I’m not referring to the whole Haredim vs. Modern Orthodox vs. Everyone Else debate of halakhic observance; that’s too big a topic.
To start, I’ll just come right out and say it: I absolutely am not a fan of the term “Jew-by-choice”. I think the use of this term helps perpetuate, whether consciously or not, the idea that there is an intrinsic difference between those who came into the religion later, and those born into it. Now, I’ll grant that there can be, and often is, a difference. Jews born into the religion, if they were raised in an observant household, have an advantage of being culturally conversant in ways that Jews like me aren’t, and have to spend a lot of time playing catch-up. This isn’t a complaint, mind you; I knew this going into it, and I personally don’t consider it demoralizing the way some might.
However, I take my commitment to Judaism very seriously. The use of these terms, as I said, merely differentiates “Jew” from “Jew-by-choice” and, frankly, there’s nothing in the sources that I’ve seen which makes such a distinction valid. I know Orthodoxy prefers to discourage conversion (which, you know, has its merits – it takes a lot for some people to integrate into that world), but the use of this term, even by well-meaning Reform Jews and the like, can serve to discourage such an act because, to the potential convert, they won’t be, in the minds of others, just “Jew”. Even in contradiction to the Book of Ruth which is read at every Reform conversion ceremony, and the writings of Maimonides, where a Jew from any origin is just a Jew. Which is what I prefer.
If other people have no problem with being referred to as a Jew-by-choice, that’s fine, that’s not really my concern; I don’t like the term, and don’t like its alienating potential.
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