Where to start learning more about practical Judaism?
December 19, 2005 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I was brought up in a non-religious family with a vague Protestant background. I'm currently considering converting to Judaism (not because of a relationship with someone who's Jewish, simply for my own reasons.) I know next to nothing about the organised aspects of the religion - I've never even set foot in a synagogue - but I'm interested in learning more. I'm not really ready to approach a rabbi yet to discuss things, I think I need to explore the whole religion a bit more before I consider starting on any possible path that might later lead to conversion. Where should I start?
posted by different to Religion & Philosophy (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you attend some services at a synagogue? Try going somewhere big enough that you can sneak in the back and observe.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:37 AM on December 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

You should start by getting your hands on a copy of the Old Testament and see if that's *really* what you want to be devoting your life to.
posted by jaded at 7:41 AM on December 19, 2005

You might enjoy this thread for some of its explications of the differences between Protestantism and Judaism. As someone who was born into a vaguely Jewish family, let me tell you that the steps you have to go through to convert to Judaism are going to be a lot more work than just being born into it. As a result, you may know or may meet many Jews who don't really know that much about the Jewish faith per se, but a lot about Jewish culture.

If you like reading things on the Internet, the Conversion to Judaism home page has a lot of questions for new converts. If you like weird romantic comedies, I'd suggest seeing God is Great and I'm Not in which Audrey Tautou converts to Judaism for the man she loves (funny, not serious). If you like to read, you might enjoy A Chosen Few The Resurrection of European Jewry [my review] by Mark Kurlansky which discusses what European Jews did after the Holocaust and gives a lot of great backstory to jewish culture in general but the roots of modern Jewish culture in specific.

Mostly I'd just suggest hanging out with Jewish people and getting to know the differing ways Jews deal with issues of faith. Get yourself a Jewish calendar and read up on the Jewish holidays and see if you can find people to celebrate/observe them with.

Jaded, that's not a real helpful answer.
posted by jessamyn at 7:53 AM on December 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Try contacting some Lubavitchers, they are more oriented towards outreach to non-jews than most.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:57 AM on December 19, 2005

Organised Judaism is extremely fractured. There are three or four main categories of practice: Orthodox (very observant), Conservative (observant), and Reform (less observant, traditionally-speaking). It's a spectrum, really -- you'll still have Reform jews who attend synagogue every Saturday, and Conservative jews who do so once a year. Really "observance" in this case means observance of old-fashioned orthodox practice: orthodox practice is less of an 'updated' Judaism, reform is rather more.

There is therefore an enormous variance in the way that different Jews, and different Synagogues, practice the faith. I recommend against jaded's "read the Old Testament! it's ca-ray-zee!" advice: most Judaism's not like traditional Protestantism, relying a lot on individual reading of the bible (or literal interpretation). Most Jewish practice stems from rabbinic interpretation.

The Big Daddies of interpretation are the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Talmud. (According to the official line, their debates are a transcription of the "Oral Torah" that was passed down, by word-of-mouth, from the time of Moses. Talmudic Rabbis are the ones who figured out that "don't bathe a kid in its mother's milk" means "don't eat dairy and meat products together". Orthodox jews will hold strictly to Talmudic interpretation, Reform jews much less so. (They tend to believe that interpretation ought to be updated for the times.)

In other words... Do some reading. When you have an idea which stream of Judaism appeals, visit a synagogue of that variety. Maybe even visit a few (they differ quite a lot), if there are several of that sort. The "Orthodox"/"Conservative" and "Reform" labels are official ones (although there are subcategories like Hasidic, Lubavitch, Reconstruction, etc), so you can explicitly ask.
posted by Marquis at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2005

I second what Marquis said. Figure out which sect you would most likely feel comfortable in, first.

Also, Judaism not being a missionizing religion, it is often a tradition to actually discourage potential converts at first, to sort of test their resolve to become Jewish. (except for with the Lubavitchers, as StickyCarpet explained.

I know that even at my reform (read:pretty lax) temple, the conversion process still took a long time and involved a lot of study and dedication. Furthermore, there is the possibility that you would be required to take a mikvah (ritual bath) and (if you are male) get a circumcision, or if you are already circumcized, sometime become pricked to simulate a circumcision.

Good Luck, whatever decision you come to!
posted by piratebowling at 8:28 AM on December 19, 2005

Also worth being aware of: Orthodox rabbis don't recognize Reform or Conservative conversions.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:55 AM on December 19, 2005

What marquis said. It might not hurt to check out some official websites, just to see what the party lines of the various strands are: I've left out the Orthodox website, simply because there's no official body that represents all of Orthodoxy (and because as a former Orthodox Jew, I would recommend against joining them, but that's your choice, of course).

As mentioned above, the Lubavitchers, who are Orthodox, do cater to converts a bit more so than other groups, but they're considered a bit...flaky...by most of mainstream Orthodoxy. There are tons of Orthodox organizations that try to get non-Orthodox Jews to become Orthodox, the biggies being Aish HaTorah and Ohr Samayach. They'll probably have a lot of info about Orthodox life.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions, too.
posted by greatgefilte at 8:56 AM on December 19, 2005

Herman Wouk wrote an excellent book on Jewish faith and practice. This I Believe. Your local library would be a good place to do some research, and I suspect most rabbis would be willing to meet with you to give you some guidance.
posted by theora55 at 9:00 AM on December 19, 2005

Rabbi's do get the "Jew Curious" question alot, and they shouldn't have much of a problem meeting with you outside of prayer hours to chat about the faith.

greatgefilte mentions Reconstructionist Judaism, which is a very modern, but also very historic stream of Jewish thought and practice. Here's the Wikipedia page on Reconstructionist Judaism. From a very cursory spin, it seems like a good place to get started. There is a book by the founder of Reconstructionism, a really cool guy who's daughter had the first Bat Mitzvah ever (Boys have Bar Mitzvahs and Girls have Bat Mitzvahs -- it's a gender pronoun thing).

I guess it's a question of how you want to get started. By reading history? By reading philosophy? By visiting Israel? By talking to a rabbi? By chatting with Jews in some lower key way?

One of the ways to get involved with a Synagogue without getting into the meat of a prayer service, which, for the novice, might totally go over your head (less the case in reform Judaism because much of the service would be in english, but if you walked into a Orthodox Jewish Saturday Morning service, you'd probably leave quite confused), is to attend a dinner or celebration of some "social" Jewish holidays. All Jewish holidays are inherently social, and all revolve around food. But some are particularly open to just hanging around: Sukkot (in the fall), Simchat Torah (also in the fall), Hannukah (coming up!), Purim and Passover/Pesach (both are in the spring). For each of these holidays, many Synogagues hold a "dinner" or some such thing. There will be ritual stuff, but also probably traditional food and lots of kids and lots of just hanging around.

I say all of this as a quasi-non-practicing Jew who's a Zionist. My spiritual life is very intellectual and not very, well, spiritual. So I can't give too much advice on that front...
posted by zpousman at 9:18 AM on December 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Some books to check out might be: Choosing a Jewish Life (Anita Diamant); Living a Jewish Life (also Diamant); and Essential Judaism (George Robinson). Also Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg is an oldie but a goodie.
posted by ph00dz at 10:21 AM on December 19, 2005

I have a book on my shelf called Essential Judaism - George Robinson. It has been unbelievably helpful.
posted by arimathea at 10:23 AM on December 19, 2005

I'd also recommend talking with a rabbi. I'm Jewish, by birth if not practice, but on at least one occasion I've approached a rabbi who was a complete stranger to me and he was only too happy to answer my questions and give me a few phone numbers of people who could help me further.

And add my flame to those directed at jaded. I don't think Jews really consider it the *Old Testament* so much as, well, simply put, the Bible. It's partly a fascinating read, partly a perfect cure for insomnia. Of course, it's the original source for the religion but it's possible that it would not effect your daily life as a newly converted Jew. I mean, if I'm not mistaken, the Passover seder isn't mentioned in there anywhere. Nor is the notion of sabbath - I mean, of course it is mentioned that God rested on the seventh day, but the whole tradition of shomer shabbat comes from later texts.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:27 AM on December 19, 2005

Second the advice to check out the Reconstructionists. IANAJ, but I've been to various services as a guest. It's hard to imagine a more welcoming environment than Reconstructionism for an intellectually curious prospective convert.
posted by tangerine at 10:39 AM on December 19, 2005

And just remember, as all the linked to stuff on converting says, if you do decide to convert the rabbi will try to disuade you three times. And they're good at it.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:45 AM on December 19, 2005

I'm surprised that no one's yet mentioned taking a class—if you're near a seminary or a major university, there may be a chance that you can take a religious studies class about Judaism. If you're not normally enrolled at the university, there may be a way to do it through a continuing education program or something similar. Religious studies classes aren't always the best way to get a feel for a religion—you have to choose carefully to make sure you don't just get a course "deconstructing" religion—but if you want to learn more about the background of the religion you're interested in, a class can be invaluable.

(Note: I did this very exact thing by taking classes about Christianity and Judaism during my time here at university. I was engaged to a Christian at one point, and wanted to get some background on the religion (I was raised agnostic/atheist). I didn't necessarily have time to go to church regularly or do Bible study, but I did want to know more about the religion I'd be getting into. Now I'm graduating with a religious studies minor. Of course, I'm also at a university that's about 40 percent Jewish, which has a thriving religious studies department, esp. in the area of Judaism. Your mileage may vary.)
posted by limeonaire at 10:56 AM on December 19, 2005

Ooh, that made me think of another option—again, if you're near a college campus, you might want to talk to a campus rabbi. There's a lot less pressure to be sure of yourself or be prepared beforehand when you're talking to a rabbi who works with college students, I feel like, because they see all manner of students with questions and concerns that are similar to yours. It seems like the rabbis who take positions on or near college campuses are often very open-minded and experienced with answering questions like yours.

Just another thought!
posted by limeonaire at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2005

Blu Greenberg-- On Women & Judaism, How to Run a Traditional Jewish household-- is an Orthodox Feminist Jew.

It's okay to go to Friday night or Saturday morning services even if there is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

I was raised Reform and checked out a reconstructionist temple in NYC. I liked that both the Rabbi and Cantor were women, and found it interesting that Reconstructionists don't say chosen people, but all the prayers were sung and I prefer a mix of sung and spoken. Now, every so often I go to a Reform temple with a female Rabbi. YMMV. I recommend checking out several synagogues and see where you feel comfortable.

Judaism is pronounced joo-dah-ism, not joo-dy-ism.
posted by brujita at 11:04 AM on December 19, 2005

You need to figure out what matters to you - is it the community aspects (in which case attending services will be a great indicator) or the history (a class, as suggested above) or the theology (books, etc) or some combination thereof (talking to friends, rabbi, visiting a JCC, etc). There are so many good books out there, but it's hard to capture the vibrancy and life of a community in books. Presuming that you don't know much Hebrew, you might be most comfortable starting in a non-Orthodox setting. Good luck! Feel free to email if you want more individual advice!
posted by judith at 11:06 AM on December 19, 2005

I may be completely wrong, but being Jewish is foremostly a bloodline, unless you can somehow convince a Rabbi you're serious (from my experience, they're not exactly "hey come join us and be a Jew" but that may just be the few I know). I researched it a while back, and it's not just something to go sign up for as far as I can tell.

And read up on what circumcision is. You'll probably have to be if you're not yet, and it's not an elegant procedure (!).
posted by vanoakenfold at 11:12 AM on December 19, 2005

You've gotten a lot of good advice here, but the answer depends on why you are interested in becoming a Jew and what exactly is it about Judaism that attracts you. Without getting into any specific personal stuff, you might want to give everyone a vague idea of what you are looking for and why you are looking for it. That might help narrow the suggestions.
posted by spira at 11:15 AM on December 19, 2005

My wife and I were considering converting to Judaism a couple years ago. Neither of us have the right bloodlines to simply claim Judaism, the closest relative being a Russian Orthodox grandmother on my wife's side. We both attended a class run in concert by all the non-Orthodox sects here in Portland. It was very very good, providing an introduction to all the various sects and giving us an opportunity to interact with different Rabbis of very different traditions.

I heartily recommend you try that approach, if available in your area. In the end, we have not chosen to convert. The services themselves are simply too boring and arbitrary-feeling for us to feel anything but an obligation. We don't want religion to feel like that, so we are not converting. However, we retain Jewish friends made in the six months of classes, and are very "Jew friendly". As a bonus, we now know more about Judaism's history and traditions than many born-Jews, or so several of them have told me.
posted by Invoke at 11:25 AM on December 19, 2005

Invoke, have you looked at Shir-Tikvah? The rabbi there, who is fantastic, converted to Judaism as a teenager. You might find those services less boring and arbitrary...
posted by judith at 12:36 PM on December 19, 2005

I second the idea of figuring out what kinds of Judaism most interest you first, mostly because these different flavors also have very different procedures and standards of conversion. If you are not interested in being an Orthodox Jew, for example, there would be no reason go through an Orthodox conversion, as it ends with a vow to uphold all of the traditional kashrut. On the other hand, if you think you might want to live an Orthodox life or have children that can marry Orthodox Jews, then it makes no sense to have a Reform conversion, as it won't be acknowledged or accepted. So before you do anything else, read up on what the various movements have to say about themselves. Then go and visit a wide variety of synagogues and Jewish organizations during holiday events or shabbat, to get a feel for what they are like. Try talking to a few different Rabbis. Some might not like the idea that you are "shopping around", but others may be favorably impressed that you are so serious about your choices. Don't expect to be able to convert over night. It took my mother several years of exploration before she found a Rabbi she felt would be her best guide, and after that, it still involved six months of seminar-like weekly classes.

Also, a word to the wise, it can be difficult to live as a convert in any Jewish community, no matter what flavor. People assume they know the reasons for a conversion (husband, kids), some people give special treatment those who "look too different" (too blond, too asian, whatever...), and some people may not always see your children as being "real Jews". Just things to be aware of... My mother converted to Reform Judaism out of conviction in her mid thirties and says that in many ways, the process has never ended. It's been continuously evolving for the past twenty years. She is always in some sense choosing to be Jewish and there is no magical moment when suddenly everyone becomes accepting.
posted by jann at 12:43 PM on December 19, 2005

lots of great suggestions here. Anita Diamant's book is the goto book for those who are contemplating conversion, and the convert.org site is excellent too.

try to figure out if you're willing to become a Conservative or Reform Jew. if you choose Reform, your conversion -- an easier path -- will be nonetheless considered invalid by many Conservatives.

you'll have to study Hebrew, unless you're ready to accept the fact you'll be mostly unable to pray with your congregation when you go to Shul. also, you'll have to cram for your moment in front of the bet din, the men who'll judge if you're ready to become a Jew.

if you're not circumcised, well, brit milah is a serious thing. and if you are already but you choose Conservative, well, you'll need to do hatafat dam brit, the reenactement of the ritual. a mohel will draw blood from your penis, just one drop, in front of three witnesses. not unbearable, but not painless either.

also, keep in mind that if you become a Jew, for you the Shoah won't be anymore "simply" the most horrible, cruelest moment in human history -- for the Goyim, it is something unthinkable that happened to somebody else

instead, when you finally are a Jew, it will become your nightmare.

Judaism is a beautiful spiritual tradition. just make sure you do it for the right reasons.
posted by matteo at 4:33 PM on December 19, 2005

oh, and as others have said, get a good English translation of the Torah. Robert Alter's is highly regarded.

Oxford University Press published a very good Tanakh -- "Jewish Study Bible". Richard E. Friedman's commentary on the Torah is very interesting, also (and it gives you the original Hebrew text).
posted by matteo at 4:37 PM on December 19, 2005

I don't think starting with the Torah is the most efficient of ideas. I like the Wouk book idea. Also, also, This Book by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, who redacts the thoughts of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (ignore what you know, or might know about the Lubavitchers; "black hat" Judaism, etc, and just read it; it's great stuff!) Also, Rabbi Jacobson's own web site is quite valuable for understanding a Jewish approach to things.

You might check out services at a fairly progressive Conservative shul, or a fairly traditional Reconstructionst one. But to be honest, the essence of Judaism, in my opinion is an approach to life and God (Jews usually write G-d). Judaism "happens" above all, in the real world; not during services, and not on a set of holidays.

Good luck!
posted by ParisParamus at 7:50 PM on December 19, 2005

(The Torah is not an accessible, transparent means to be introduc ed to Judaism. I wouldn't start there)
posted by ParisParamus at 7:51 PM on December 19, 2005

Growing up, I went to Hebrew school three times a week, I've been bar-mitzvahed, and been on a pilgrimage to Israel. I am not religious (in fact, I'm agnostic) and I'm no expert, but I do know more about Judaism than most other Jews. All this just to lend whatever credibility you care to assign it when I say:

If you would have elaborated even a tiny bit on what 'your own reasons' actually are, I would have been motivated to suggest something or other. As it is, it sounds like you don't even have the foggiest idea what Judaism is to begin with. Are you sure it's not just a game of cards, or a merit badge, or a keyring?
posted by bingo at 7:59 PM on December 19, 2005

Well, actually, if, hypothetically, you were Christian, but had/developed issues with the teachings and/or divinity and/or necessity of Christ, what you would be left with would not be that far away from Judaism.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:19 PM on December 19, 2005

...assuming that, unlike most Christians, you knew the 'Old Testament' very well, your 'issues' somehow did not affect your belief in the divinity of the Old Testament god, your feelings about neither religion were rooted in anything other than the core text themselves, and that you were retarded, that's basically true.
posted by bingo at 8:26 PM on December 19, 2005

posted by ParisParamus at 8:30 PM on December 19, 2005

You don't need to know the Old Testament well to be or act Jewish. Of course, you may become familiar with it along the way, but it's not essential: knowing the origin of various principles is not necessary to knowing the principles i know more prinicipals than I know origins.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:35 PM on December 19, 2005

Also, the Torah is not to be taken literally. So reading the five books is not the place to start.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:56 PM on December 19, 2005

bingo, that's easy to disprove.

serious doubts about, say, the Nicene Creed, don't change the fact that one can still believe in what you call the "divinity of the Old Testament god".

what happens is, you simply discard the notion of that other God, Jesus Christ (whose relationship with the historical Yeshua, or even with the Jesus of the synoptics, is very complicated to begin with). you end up discarding the notion of that strange other God, the Holy Spirit. and of course, if you're Catholic, you lose the Virgin Mary, that bizarre literary creation of Matthew and Luke so far away, again, from the historical Miriam.

so if you discard -- because they sound untenable to you -- Jesus Christ and the Nicene Creed, you may very well be left with, well, HaShem.

of course it's way more complicated than this, but Paris has a point.

and, "retarded"? wtf?
posted by matteo at 11:56 PM on December 19, 2005

There are some great suggestions here, thanks everybody.

For those who asked: The reason I didn't go deeper into my reasons is because I didn't really want to post information on the Internet that could potentially identify me (I'm not scared of you lot, just of the permanent record nature of the beast - I like to keep a little of my privacy.) But basically, over a four-year study of the effects of the Shoah on a local Jewish community, I've become more and more interested in Jewish spirituality, culture and beliefs. I finally decided that it was time to start a more formal study and see what comes out of it.

I've looked around a bit and Reform Judaism seems the best fit for me.

Oh, and I'm female, so no circumcision worries there. However I have to say that when one's considering a religious conversion, something like that is hardly a deal-breaker, surely? Likewise with a long conversion process. If (and it's a big if) I did eventually decide to convert, I don't just expect to add water and, hey presto, instant Jew!

Sorry for being flip, I just wanted to stress that I am not expecting to put on a religion like a new dress and see if it fits. I want to do some more investigating first and if it takes ten years (or whatever), well hey, I've got time.

Thanks again for the wonderful ideas here.
posted by different at 4:08 AM on December 20, 2005

Different, I would check out a progressive conservative shul. Having been raised with Reform Judaism, my impression is that it's a weigh station between honoring one's parents, and being, basically, secular.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:43 AM on December 20, 2005

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