As I think I’ve mentioned before, my husband is an agnostic Jew. Just as Catholicism felt like a cultural identity to me, so does Judaism to him, but to a much, much greater degree. The degree to which Judaism shapes his identity was hard for me to understand at first because he so explicitly rejects the worship of a deity.
Christians* who stop believing in the God of the New Testament generally don’t still self-identify as Christians. Faith is so intertwined with the Christian identity that to call oneself a Christian without faith is actually sinful; it is to be a whited sepulchre.
This is not at all the case for my husband, I have found. My husband is Jewish in the same way that I am Polish; I could stop believing in Poland, but that wouldn’t make me Czech. There is, of course, a very sophisticated theology that goes along with a Jewish identity, with millennia of discourse and holy scriptures, but even those Jews who reject all of that can retain their Jewish identity.**
It took me a long time to get my mind around this. Jewishness as an identity means a lot to my husband even though Judaism as a belief system does not. I don’t want to speak for him so I won’t elaborate in detail exactly what that identity entails, but it definitely gives him a sense of belonging.
I met my husband as I was moving farther and farther from the Church in my mind. While we were dating we started making tentative steps towards a life together, and I worked very hard to understand and embrace Judaism. I did a lot of reading, I asked him a lot of questions, and I fell in love with many aspects of what I learned. (It didn’t hurt that I also fell in love with him.)
We started hosting Passover seders for our friends, and we even started having weekly Shabbos dinners. I learned to say the blessing over the candles in Hebrew and he dug out his Challah recipe. What was so new and enlightening for me was the realization that unlike Catholicism, which as I mentioned in Part 1 was full of ritual and which was done to you by a priest, so much of Jewish tradition and prayer takes place in the home. It is a religion that is inseparable from the people practicing it, and as such it can be practiced as a culture without necessarily including a belief in God. My atheist mother-in-law kept a kosher kitchen for the first six years of her marriage because of the importance of tradition and culture.
When we were engaged, and also when we were first married, I thought about converting. I wanted to make a unified family and I wanted there to be no question as to the Jewish status of my future children.*** But ultimately it would have been the wrong decision; at bottom I would have been running away from the Church and not to the Jewish faith. And while Jewishness is embedded in my husband’s cultural identity, religion is not. Converting “for him” would have been an empty exercise since faith is not important to him, and no conversion ceremony could change my culture of origin. I respect Judaism very much, and converting for the wrong reasons would not only have been the wrong decision for me, but it would have robbed Judaism of the respect it deserves.
*I’m defining “Christian” very broadly here; I don’t know of any self-identifying Christian sects that would disagree with what follows. If there are any, and if I’m misrepresenting their beliefs, I sincerely apologize.
**I’m talking specifically about my husband and his family, and based on other people we know and reading we have done, they are not atypical. Of course I can’t speak in absolutes; I respect everyone’s right to self-identify, and I don’t want to erase people who reject a cultural Jewish identity.
***As it turns out it looks like I didn’t need to worry about that so much.