Commentary Magazine


The Nature of Conversion, by Albert I. Gordon

Change of Faith

The Nature of Conversion: A Study of Forty-Five Men and Women who Changed Their Religion.
by Albert I. Gordon.
Beacon. 329 pp. $5.95.

Among psychologists of religion, it is a well-known precept that conversion (inner) is an adolescent phenomenon. But what emerges from this new study of interfaith conversion—as well as from others—is that conversion (ecclesiastical) is a nuptial phenomenon. Indeed, according to the educated guesses of various denominational bureaucracies, no less than 90 per cent of all conversions are a prelude to, or product of, interfaith marriages.

In this respect, Gordon’s sample of forty-five converts might be considered unrepresentative, for it produced a somewhat lower proportion of marriage-related changes of religion: only 75 per cent of the “cases” he studied converted prior to marriage, with a few others doing so some years later. But this discrepancy may be accidental. Gordon studied converts who were referred to him by ministers, priests, and rabbis; and this may have led to a bias in the direction of more “successful” conversions—presumably those effected for reasons other than marriage. Gordon’s sample is also unrepresentative in another respect: fully thirty of his forty-five subjects converted to Judaism, and six converted away from it. Gordon justifies his selection on several grounds. Conversion to and from Judaism, he maintains, represents the most radical change of religion in American society; secondly, as a rabbi, he had greater access to the histories of converts to Judaism; and, finally, interfaith conversion is in any event “a process that varies only in minor details, whether the convert be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or of any other religion.”

Gordon is only marginally concerned with the more profound psychological dimensions of the conversion process, perhaps because so few of the subjects he studied can be said to have experienced what William James called an “inner conversion,” or what Jung and Robert Thoulless referred to as the surfacing of a “repressed complex.” He divides his converts into three ideal types: pro forma, marginal, and authentic. Authentic converts are defined as those who change their religion not for “ulterior” motives, “negative” purposes, or reasons of “personal insecurity,” but because of a religious search which has culminated for them in the finding of the “true religion.”

When one reads Gordon’s account of some examples of “authentic” changes of religion, one cannot but agree that the individuals so described are authentic converts. On the whole, however, Gordon’s division of converts into three types is somewhat confusing. The category of “marginal” is especially peculiar. It seems to include all those individuals who tried to take their religion seriously but for some reason could not make the necessary adjustment. In other words, it seems to refer to a state of affairs that can exist only after conversion has already occurred. Presumably one changes one’s religion either for authentic or inauthentic reasons; it can therefore be argued that there are only two kinds of converts, the authentic and the pro forma. In Gordon’s book the typical member of the latter category is someone who has converted in order to please his or her spouse or new relatives; indifferent to his old religion prior to marriage, such a convert is equally indifferent to the new one. But the author never makes it quite clear who belongs in which category. At one point we are told that 31.1 per cent of the converts he studied must be classified as “authentic”; a little further on, however, all but 15 per cent are seen as “pro forma.” Why this unaccountable shift? Gordon’s statistics are somewhat less than illuminating.

Nevertheless, this is a useful book because it supplies information about converts to Judaism, who constitute two-thirds of the people studied by Gordon, and because it raises some important issues. For one thing, the book forces us to consider afresh the Jewish stance toward marriage-connected conversion. Orthodox Judaism tends simply to dismiss such conversion as inauthentic; Conservative and Reform groups are more amenable to it both in theory and in practice, but they too entertain strong reservations about the phenomenon. (It was not always thus. Interestingly enough, as late as the Crusades, the rabbis of Germany and France urged that conversion to Judaism be permitted even for such extrinsic reasons as the desire to marry a Jew—as long as the Jewish Court felt that the convert was likely to become an authentic Jew some time in the future.) The present Jewish attitude contrasts sharply to that of most Christian churches, which accept marriage-related conversion at least as the antechamber to a true inner conversion. Many a Christian convert to Judaism must therefore find it disconcerting when the supervising rabbi shows himself to be suspicious of the whole procedure. From the point of view of the rabbi, however, such suspicion is well-founded, for he knows that few converts subsequently have a genuine religious commitment.

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Nuptial conversion inevitably poses severe theological problems for Judaism, which has never validated a conversion formula with the power of sacrament; indeed, none of its ceremonials has this power. To be sure, ritual immersion and circumcision are halachic requirements, but one does not be come Jewish by submitting to them in the way that one becomes a Christian by submitting to baptism. (A Jewish male is Jewish by birth and not by virtue of undergoing circumcision.) Thus, a rabbi can do little more than offer the prospective convert some lectures on Judaism, and these, as is generally admitted, are not particularly effective. The conversion rite at which the rabbi officiates differs from baptism in that it has no “saving power”; Judaism cannot even offer the rabbi the illusion that he has in fact accomplished something when he converts a Gentile marriage candidate.

Quite the contrary. The process of conversion is likely to drive home to the rabbi how little authentic Judaism exists in his own congregation. The Jewish ethnos is based on a religious covenant which created both the people and their faith at the same time. (Biblical and later sources emphasize that the Jewish people emerged from a veritable grab-bag of racial and national strains.) At the present juncture, however, the specifically ethnic component of this peculiarly constituted group works against a clear-cut religious identification. Hence the phenomenon of the secular Jew whose comfort—or burden—is that he will be a Jew regardless of what he does or believes. But this means that the Jewish collectivity which the convert enters is likely to consist of little more than certain habits of thought and behavior which are the distillation of millennia of minority survival. Until Jews accept, or believe in, the meta-sociological nature of their nation, it seems idle to hope that remedial measures like rabbinical follow-up—proposed by Gordon—will have any effect in changing pro forma converts into authentic ores.

It is, of course, true that authentic converts once posed problems for the Jewish community that need no longer trouble it today. For instance, it seems that in the post-Maccabean era converts were prone to an excessive zeal in halachic elaboration! During the Mishnaic era, they and their sons were well-represented among the officers of the Sanhedrin and among the leading scholars. Thus Rabbi Meir, the “light of the Sages,” was of convert origin. A pupil of Rabbi Akiba—also rumored to be descended from converts—Meir was famous for his ability to adduce 150 reasons for declaring an object clean, and another 150 reasons for declaring it unclean. Rabbi Abraham Ha-Ger, a famous Hungarian proselyte scholar of the 12th century, may therefore have had a point when he interpreted the traditional dictum that converts are a pain in the neck to mean that they knew the law too well and thus put other Jews to shame.

In our time, however, it is the pro forma converts who pose the problem. So far, the main reaction of the Jewish religious establishments to this situation has been to fight a continuous rear-guard action against intermarriage. In line with this traditional stance, Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits of the United Kingdom has recently been reported as urging moral sanctions against intermarriage so that honor be withheld from what had previously brought “public dishonor and disgrace.” Notwithstanding such gestures, it seems probable that intermarriage will continue, and that in an increasing proportion the non-Jewish partner will convert to Judaism. To be Jewish, after all, has become an “in thing,” and it is possible that intermarriage may cease to be a source of considerable loss, at least in the numerical sense, to the Jewish community. According to an estimate in the Toronto Globe & Mail, 80 per cent of Jewish intermarriages result in the conversion of the non-Jewish partner to Judaism.

The fact that non-Jews are converting to Judaism in greater numbers poses difficulties for Judaism which it has not confronted since the Middle Ages, and which it so far has shown no sign of facing realistically. The main problem is this: if Judaism is to continue to present a message of universal significance, then its religious ethnos must become again what it once was—a religious ethnos. Until that happens, Judaism will not only be at a loss in dealing with marriage-related conversions; it will also be unable to muster anything but embarrassment in the face of such self-constituting Jewish groups as the Black Jews, whether of Harlem or South Africa, the Yellow Jews of Japan, and the Italian-Jewish peasants of San Nicandro. The historical reasons are abundantly clear for the Jewish abandonment of the old rabbinic view that Israel was to bring the world to God. What is not clear is how that view may be recovered.

A reading of Gordon’s book is of little help in this respect, but it would be foolish to blame Gordon for that. He conducted his interviews with obvious empathy, and the record of them—many appear to be presented at full length—makes for absorbing reading. In addition, he has gone as far in the interpretation of the interview material as that material permits. But the “nature of conversion” can no more be defined by these autobiographical sketches than, say, the “nature of revolution” can be discovered by reading the life-histories of revolutionaries.

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