Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adventures in Semantics: Jew-by-Choice v. Convert

Am I the only one who thinks “Jews-by-Choice” is an unnecessary term? What’s so wrong with being a “convert”? For some reason, I like it, despite not really having another religion to convert "from." At a minimum, I don’t see what’s wrong with the term convert or why some people are so opposed to it, so I’m fine using it as a label for myself. In general, I find there is less confusion from Jews and non-Jews alike if I just say "convert" or "conversion candidate." Non-Jews, unless they have a lot of Jewish exposure, have generally never heard the term "Jew-by-Choice" before.

On a practical level, it seems that "Jew by Choice" has become slightly less common in internet coverage/conversations (since that is my primary conversion resource) for the last 3 or 4 years. The acrimony surrounding the terminology debate has lessened exponentially since I began my Jewish journey. However, I suspect that there is a split between orthodox and liberal conversion conversations, judging from my own discussions with other converts and conversion candidates.

As a principle, I buy into the idea that ALL Jews, observant or not, are Jews-by-Choice today. If you wanted to fully assimilate to throw away “being Jewish,” you can in modern America.
If you choose to have any association with the Jewish people, even ethnically, you are "choosing" to be a part of that people when you're not required to.

In my opinion, limiting "the choice" to converts downplays the choosing by the rest of the modern Jewish people. Having been trained as a linguist (my original career goal in college), one of the biggest ideas in the psychology of language is that the words a language (or a society/group/individual) uses have a subconscious effect on how those people think about those ideas. That is the principle behind the feminist arguments for "inclusive" language such as "he or she should..." instead of the traditionally correct use of "he" when the subject is unknown. I'm generally skeptical of many of these psychological arguments, but I acknowledge that I'm a severe minority in the linguistic world.

In summary, what do you converts and conversion candidates like being called?

UPDATE: In some conversations this morning, we've decided that the term Jew by Choice is trying to get rid of the stigma of being a convert, but that the problem is that the stigma isn't the WORD, it's BEING a convert. And by using a different term, you're still subjecting yourself to a stigma (assuming there even is one today, which is a whole other post that is coming sometime soon). I also hypothesize that the word choice might be a way for converts to distance themselves from ever having been part of another religion, since "convert" presumes that you "converted" from something else. That's my main beef with the word since I didn't really "convert" from something else.

1 comment:

  1. I don't mind being called a convert. Jew by Choice seems too PC for me :)