Conversion and Jewish Identity

The conversion ritual bears the basic questions of Jewish existence and, crucially, the questions of Jewish identification and identity.

Conversion is a ritual-halakhic procedure through which a Gentile becomes a Jew. Ostensibly, the conversion discourse is exclusively halakhic because the ritual, its meaning, and its elements are part of the halakhic legacy and language. On closer scrutiny, however, the conversion ritual is revealed as bearing the basic questions of Jewish existence and, crucially, the questions of Jewish identification and identity.

Halakhic literature throughout history and the conversion discourse of contemporary halakhists show that the conversion ritual presents the meaning of Jewish identity to the Gentile seeking to become part of the Jewish collective. This ritual tableau is translated into an orderly series of norms with which the convert is required to comply, turning converts into “actors” in a drama that embodies the meaning of Jewish identity.

This drama is also the central location for a transparent expression of Jewish identity. Social and cultural history points to the border between “inside” and “outside” as the central location for an explicit discourse about the society’s identity and for determining membership in the collective. In day-to-day life, thinking and talking about the identity of the individual and the society is not reflective. Individuals and societies experience their identity in concrete ways—in the obvious customs, speech, orientation, ethos, and myth that guide their conduct—and do not tend to report to themselves in detail about the nature, the borders, and the contents of this identity.

Routine, ordinary life is regulated through a set of beliefs and norms perceived as self-evident—they are the glasses through which we see the world but do not talk much about. The inner discourse about identity is usually conducted at times of crisis, when what had been self-evident ceases to be so. The discourse then shifts to the border, to the entrance to the identity field. The border between inside and outside is thus a key location for reflective discourse.

As sociologists have noted, the border is also the place where people reconstitute their identity, examine it, and retrace its meaning, the space where identity is regimented and presented to others. The border, then, is not only the place where people think about their identity as it is and as they experience it in their lives but rather the setting of a confrontation, the place where identity is reorganized and reconsidered.

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