The Jew-by-choice conundrum

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.


7 Responses

  1. Personally I love the term “Jew by Choice”. To me it generally indicates that a person who is educated in another religion has looked dutifully into Judaism, and found that it provides a much stronger link to their minds and hearts.

    Historically, more religious clergy have converted into Judaism, than to any other religion.

    I do not see born Jews, as opposed to choice Jews as different. I just value their choice to become part of Judaism.


  2. Wow, I’ve never heard that (as a Jew by birth), and I think it’s offensive, too. I was always taught that converts were simply Jews, just as much as the raised-on-matzoh-ball-soup-from-the-cradle crowd. Using “Jew By Choice” seems to conflate Judaism with ethnic group. There are lots of ethnic groups in Judaism, but everyone is still a simply a Jew.

  3. For me, a Jew is a Jew, whether they were born one, or whether they chose to be a Jew.

    The term “Jews by choice” can sound defeating to some, and as though one is less of a Jew than the person born a Jew.

    My mother wasn’t Jewish, my father was, but I have always felt entirely Jewish, in heart, soul and mind. But, I had to convert in order to be defined a Jew.

    But, on the other hand, I am a Jew, and chose to go through the process of becoming one, and realize that I am a Jew by choice, and not birth.

    But, for me, it is a state of mind. I am a Jew, period, the end. And, Jewish blood runs through my veins, not only from my paternal side, but also back to the days of Moses standing at the Mount, receiving the Ten Commandments…

  4. i am so glad i haven’t encountered this. in fact, i’ve been incredibly warmly welcomed into my fiance’s jewish family. this past passover i attended seder with his family for the first time, and after i took my turn reading from the haggadah, dan’s mother joked that i had read the words better than the people at the seder who had been reading them since birth, to which dan’s 93 year old grandfather stated he was certain i was meant to have been born jewish. i never felt so in my element before, and i think it would have felt like a slap to be told i wasnt just a jew, but rather a “jew by choice”.

    i am a jew becos it feels like home to my heart, the only choice i made was to listen to my hearts truth.

  5. when i first started hearing the term “jew-by-choice” it was in place of teh term “convert” and seemed to be about using a label that defined them first and foremost as jews.
    i think it’s incredibly important to not make distinctions between jews and jews-by-choice. (i have never heard it used this way, and mostly have heard jew-by-choice as a self-identification)
    however,there are many ways in which my friends who chose to be jewish had different experiences and journeys than my friends born jewish (not that either category is homegenous) and havign respectful language for each type of experience is useful. also,

  6. I am a convert to Judaism; when I was taking conversion classes I was told that the sages caution against making a difference or calling attention to converts because it might hurt their feelings to be treated differently.

    I think that’s the best way to approach the subject; to call someone a Jew but then qualify it is lashon harah. We are one tribe, not two.

  7. To add to my annoyance, my rabbi finally impressed upon me successfully the need for a synagogue membership. There was a question on this for religious affiliation. For Jews, there were two options: Born Jewish, or Jewish by choice.

    Needless to say, I was not impressed.

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