Their Own Private Judaism

I used to work for a major Jewish organization, and part of my job was to answer questions that came in over the telephone. (Nowadays they use websites for that.) One of the strangest calls I ever received was from a woman who said:

“I’ve talked to three rabbis and I am very frustrated. You see, I was Jewish in a previous life. But these rabbis insist that I can’t be Jewish unless I convert! They don’t get it: I don’t need to convert!”

I could tell that she was 100% serious. She found it hugely insulting that those rabbis hadn’t taken her at her word. By the end of our conversation, she had decided that I was a horrible person too, because I would not point her to a rabbi who would agree with her that she was born Jewish.

She has stuck in my mind for fifteen years. What seemed perfectly reasonable to her was simply not going to fly with any rabbi I knew, then or now.

The reason is, no one gets to make up their own private Judaism. There are many different expressions of Judaism: Secular, Haredi, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and a thousand different shades of each of those. What there isn’t is private Judaism. A person can say something like “I was born Jewish in a previous life so I’m Jewish” but that will not persuade other Jews that they should agree.

Granted, the Jewish world is full of disagreements: we thrive on them. One group says one thing, another disagrees. We’ve been doing that as far back as Jacob’s children, and on every subject imaginable.

Once a person is a congregation of one, though, it’s another matter. A Jew all alone, insisting that something is “the true way” is in a bad place. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a learned and holy rabbi, who ruled differently from all the other rabbis about an oven. He insisted that he was right and all of them were wrong. Then he called nature and God to witness, and both affirmed that the law always went his way. The rabbis retorted that they’d outvoted him, and that “After the majority must one incline.” (Exodus 23:2.) Then a Heavenly Voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” Rabbi Eliezer is so upset by this, and by his isolation, that he brings disaster upon himself and upon the whole community. (Bava Metzia 59b)

It would have been better for the rabbis not to break Rabbi Eliezer’s heart. But it also would have been better had he not separated himself from the community. That separation – his insistence that he was right and all of them were wrong – was the impulse that set a tragedy in motion.

This is a teaching that is very uncomfortable for many of us American Jews, because we, like other Americans, are admirers of rugged individualism. In American mythology, there is nobility in being the lone voice whom everyone later realizes was right.

But that’s just not how Judaism works. We figure things out by comparing notes. We preserve minority opinions with care, but we are wary of lone opinions until and unless they stand the test of time. (Example:. Spinoza.)

Not every “private Judaism” question I get is as extreme as the “Jewish in a previous life” lady’s question. But it is always worth pondering, if a person asks  rabbi after rabbi and gets “no” for an answer, if perhaps what they want isn’t Jewish at all.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

31 thoughts on “Their Own Private Judaism”

  1. Interesting, as always, Rabbi Ruth, and eloquently said(I can’t help wondering if the woman had some emotional or mental troubles, or problems, which needed help…..that’s a path I know only too well…) ….you made me think, and wonder, and ask – three good things, for me 🙂 – in the UK( where today is a General Election, the most interesting, IMHO, for many years….I have already done my fiscal duty: I have a postal vote, which was several weeks ago, and which has meant I can sit back and relax and just watch, and take it all in…..) we have a Reform Judaism, but…I think it’s different to yours; could you clarify for me?

    Here, there is Orthodox, Reform, and Progressive/Liberal(to the best of my knowledge) …..I *think* that Orthodox is the same, our Reform is akin to your Conservative, and our Liberal/Progressive to your Reform. I think 🙂

    As for the election, I think that “we live in interesting times” sums it up quite well…..


    1. Liberal and Progressive Judaism share the German roots of our American Reform Judaism. Each is distinctive, and neither is like American Reform in every respect.

      Congratulations on voting! I hope that the result is good for the people of the UK.

      1. Ah, that’s interesting! I have an old siddur, from early 20th century, and wondered why there were references to German in it; it’s good to expand my knowledge. Thanks again

  2. Another thought just came to me(Im a veritable thought factory today)…..”Their own private Judaism” made me think of the song “Your Own Personal Jesus”….. Which made me think of “Jews for Jesus”… of whom I am not fond…..

    And another thought( good grief, as Snoopy would say)….when Christians use the word “Lrd”, do they mean Jesus, or Gd?

    And at that I’ll go back to what I was doing….listening to Leonard a Cohen, watching Stargate Atlantis with the sound muted(helps, just a little, take my mind off the upcoming first yahrzeit of my husband)and listening to Spock and Data play chases….hey keep me going….


    1. “Jews for Jesus” began as a scheme for proselytization by the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States. Someone hit on the idea that Jews would find Christianity more attractive if it did not involve giving up the incidentals of Jewish tradition. As one of my teachers said, “‘Jews for Jesus’ makes about as much sense as ‘Vegetarians for Meat;’ it is a contradiction in terms.”

      Since Christians believe that Jesus is God, “Lord” carries the connotation of Jesus for them. That’s one reason that I and some other Jews avoid translating the various Hebrew names for God as “Lord.”

      1. Rabbi Ruth,
        Thank you….that’s the best explanation for each of these things I’ve read. Much appreciated.

  3. I think when Christians use the word “L-rd,” they are meaning Jesus. They pray to “The L-rd Jesus Christ”, right?

    Anyway, another great reading today from Rabbi Adar. Thank you!

  4. Her reference to this life before the one she has now may be possible to reflect on. I don’t know and cannot insist either she can or she can’t with certainty. We ARE here now and for this blessing we are life long learners. There is much to learn. Tad Williams a fantastic writer wrote….
    The Qanuc-Folk of The Snow-Mantled Trollfells….”He who is certain he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man. For he has put a knife in the heart of wonder.”

    1. I didn’t then nor do I now make any judgment about whether she had a previous life or what she professed in it. However, even for those Jews who believe in gilgulim (previous lives) they do not serve as valid for membership in the covenant in the current life.

  5. Point well taken, but I’m left wondering about your final statement. One could ask rabbi after rabbi, if they were all Orthodox, whether it is permitted to do such and such a thing that is commonly done by Reform Jews, and the answer would probably universally be “no,” and they would be only too happy to tell us that the reason is that what we’re talking about isn’t Jewish after all, as they see/define “Jewish.”

    1. Patti,
      Not always, though I have experienced that a few times; I have a couple of very good – I would call them close… I can ( and do)share some very personal things with them, and not once have I been judged or told I was wrong, or “no”….in fact, quite the opposite – Orthodox friends, one a Rabbis wife, the other a deeply religious woman, and they are not like that at all, with me. I have had nothing but help, encouragement, and support, and have been asked for my own thoughts and advice on some matters which I have personal experience of. So, everything is relative, ?I guess, whatever that means. Or maybe Im just fortunate 🙂

      1. I was talking more about asking a rabbi what would probably come under the heading of a halachic question. For example, the American Reform movement regards the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, without need for conversion, provided the child is being raised Jewish. Or doing activities on Shabbat that are halachically classified as melacha, even though the individual does so as a way of making the day more meaningful and elevating it to a different status from the rest of the week, like gardening or writing letters to friends. I think one would have a very difficult time finding an Orthodox rabbi who wouldn’t say that things such as this constitute “making up one’s own Judaism.”

    2. Actually, there are also things that might be acceptable in some forms of Orthodoxy but which would not be acceptable to most Reform rabbis. I’m assuming that someone who was diligently shopping for alternate answers would consult rabbis of various movements. If the questioner knows so little that they are unaware of various movements, surely that is all the more reason to take direction from a rabbi.

  6. Oh wow, love that story. A friend of a friend has something similar going on, she believe that she was Jewish inmate in the camps during Shoah in her past live and for some reason that seems to be enough for her to consider herself a Jew. Given many opportunities to learn by my adopted sister who is also a rabbi, she hasn’t shown much of an interest. I guess she is satisfied with that version of her Judaism.

    1. Well, and if it is working for her, that’s fine. If she’s looking for Jewish community, it could be very lonesome.

      One of the things that I personally find rather sad and puzzling about the whole thing is that my own experience of the “regular” process of conversion is a memory I treasure.

  7. Patti, thanks for what you said.


    Well, you might be pleasantly surprised how accepting and understanding some – by no means all, or perhaps even many, but I can only speak from my own experience – really strongly Orthodox folks can be. It may depend, too, on how much they know about you/me/the individual concerned. I’ve spoken about my own situation quite often here, and out of courtesy to Rabbi Ruth won’t go over it again, but the women( and a male Orthodox rabbi) have been understanding, supportive, kind, and helped me tremendously, even in areas such as you mention.

    For example, I do not(yet) keep kosher. I don’t know if I ever will( and regardless of what anyone, even the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, would say, I would *always* choose free range eggs and free range chicken over kosher(I don’t eat a lot of meat, but health means I have to try to eat in a way that takes into account certain diseases)

    And Shabbat: I do what I can, for now…… (And that isn’t a lot….in fact, it’s a little less in some ways, and Im back to battery tealights instead of candles. My circumstances have changed yet again)…..And I try to build on that. I use my computer, watch tv, and other things that Orthodox Judaism does not allow.( I do, however, respect those who do, and I do not email them on Shabbat, which may sound a small thing, but on such small foundations bigger things can be built)

    My friends know this….and the only responses I have had are encouragement, support, and recognition that I am extremely limited, in many ways, regarding what I am and am not able to do.

    And the best bit of all is knowing that G-d understands and accepts me exactly as I am.

    Rabbi Ruth, apologies for this lengthy post, but I really did want to try to explain a little, for the sake of letting it be known that there are some lovely, understanding Orthodox folks who have gone out of their way to help me in whatever way they can, including halachic matters.

    I’m not good at brevity, but you’ll likely have gathered that by now 🙂


    1. Hi again, Alex. I’m so delighted that you have such supportive friends. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that Orthodox folks are judgmental in interpersonal relations. But the institutional Orthodox attitude toward liberal Judaism and its practices, for example the seating of men and women together in shul, or the recognition of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jewish without need for conversion, is, I think, absolutely accurately characterized as “you’re making up your own Judaism.”

      My intention is not to nit-pick, but to try to figure out how and where we on the liberal end of the spectrum draw that line, given that some on the traditional end of the spectrum would place our entire movement, and most of what we do and how we do it, in that category. Rabbi Ruth, what say you?

      1. I draw that line by saying, “Is there a congregation of Jews anywhere in the world who believe as this person does?” If there is, then they should be with those Jews and identify as such. However, if there is no such congregation, then they’re off on a little trip of their own, and that’s dangerous ground.

        Liberal Judaism has at this point been around for a while, in fact it has been around in a continuous fashion ever since the historical phenomenon that gave rise to it (modernity and the emancipation of the Jews of Europe.) When someone tells me that the only Judaism is “Orthodox Judaism,” I ask them what they mean by that, because Orthodoxy is a very big tent, and not all Orthodox rabbis recognize one another.

        If someone came to me and professed messianic beliefs like those of the Lubavich Hasidim, I’d point them to the local Chabad. If they want to be staunchly atheist and find it onerous to pray with God-language, then I would direct them to Humanistic Judaism. If I think Modern Orthodoxy is going to be a fit for them, I direct them there. Most of the Modern Orthodox rabbis I have worked with will generally make room for any Jew who wants to be in their congregation, but if that person starts insisting that kashrut is optional, or that halakhah isn’t binding, then the M.O. rabbi will gently point them to a local Reform or Conservative congregation and suggest they may be more comfortable there.

        As a Reform convert, known to the local Orthodox rabbis as a Reform convert, I have never been made unwelcome. However, I also honor their boundaries in their space: I don’t complain that they “should” let me handle the Torah, or insist on sitting with the men at prayer. They don’t come to Reform synagogues and tell us that we’re doing things all wrong, either.

        Trash-talking about other Jews happens, I know, but no rabbi I respect does it.

      2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Rabbi Ruth. Not to belabor the point, but at the beginnings of what became the Reform movement, there was no existing congregation that believed as they did, because they were the initiators of it. Yet they knew that this was what they needed in order to stay connected to Judaism. So between that time, and the time that the Reform movement became firmly established and institutionalized, they were exactly lone voices insisting that they were right, without institutional backing. And I suppose that the same could be said for the Conservative movement, or Renewal, or Humanist, etc., namely that they all started out as lone voices at first.

        So if we use your criteria to draw those lines, aren’t we saying that all the possible varieties of Judaism already exist and that further variations are impossible or invalid? And if so, what made the breakaway of the Reform movement valid, but a future branching off not so?

        1. There was no existing congregation, but there was a group of Jews who were all thinking together about these questions along lines that would become German Reform – they came out of Haskalah thinking. The mystics of Sefat were also learned rabbis who studied together – none of their work was done in a vacuum, either. The Conservative movement came from a group of rabbis and lay people who had been part of the liberal Jewish community in the US and who felt that the American Reform people were going too far. Reconstructionism emerged from the students and followers of Mordechai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Humanistic Judaism gradually separated from the Reform Movement via the work of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a Hebrew Union College graduate, but again, it was a group of Jews thinking together, not a lone wolf.

          I think the closest to a lone wolf might be the Baal Shem Tov, but followers quickly found him; he had struck a chord in Jewish life. Nor was he ignorant of Jewish tradition, he was rebelling against the mitnagdim.

          These are very different situations than someone without any education in Judaism, saying, “I think it ought to be like this, because this is what I want.”

  8. We get our shares of the … unreasonable people at the synagogue. From mentally unstable people who refuse to recognize the rabbi as the rabbi, to random Mormons who defy their authority in insisting that G-d has told them “it’s time to bring the ‘Former Day Saints’ into the Latter-Day Saints fold”… We got stories living in what the Mormons call “Zion” (Utah)

    I’m not much of a believer in the Zohar. But let’s play the devil’s advocate, that she WAS Jewish in a past life – the irony would be the sages agreed that such a person who was Jewish would convert and know it’s the right thing to do. I digress…

    Judaism stands out more so than any other as a communal religion. It isn’t like any creedal religion (Christianity, Islam, or perhaps even Buddhism) where as when one agrees with the doctrine, one is a member automatically; and by doctrine, one can say it is no one’s place to judge whether this person is a member of not but the Divinity. These faiths CAN be private, precisely because they’re creedal – once you agree you’re a member for all intends and purpose, you can go at it alone and you need not anyone else’s approval or agreement.

    Judaism isn’t creedal by nature, we can argue it is tribal (though I wonder would Classical Reform agree with my definition) Conversion therefore isn’t a private event, it is the induction of the individual to the tribe, with the tribe adopting this individual as one of their own. From Exodus to present, the Torah always emphasize the plural, not individual even in terminology – B’nai Yakov/Israel, Daughters of Zion, Am Yisrael so on so forth … the terms are never a singular Jew who goes at it alone and need no one’s approval but G-d and his own.

    Each denomination has their own definition of the tribe, hence the idea of conversion is a hotly debated subject. But no denomination from Humanistic to Haredi would EVER say without a formal adoption to the tribe by the community would one be considered as Jewish simply because they thought so. That very concept is antithesis to everything Jewish!

    Despite of the disagreement over conversion on the part of the Orthodox, but unless one is Haredi minded, most have recognize that de facto most converts even to progressive Judaism are sincere. Rabbi Telushkin in pragmatic fashion said that progressive Rabbis are leaders of the Jewish people (though he won’t call them Rabbis on principle). It is precisely that Jewish thinking recognize the validity of majority acceptance. Therefore no Rabbi, or any Jews that I know, including atheist ones would ever agree “just because you think you’re Jewish, therefore you are one.”

  9. I’m thinking I’ve been “hoist by my own petard” re what I said about support and understanding: a woman – not one of the friends I mentioned – questioned what I wrote about lighting my Shabbat candles early yesterday( and that’s something I almost always do….I keep very odd hours sleeping, and especially now that the nights are drawing out, the daylight is around long after I go to bed. I honestly believe that G-d does not mind, and understands: and I use battery tealights, which aren’t the proper thing either, but that too I believe G-d understands. The woman is very strictly Orthodox, and I did feel slightly judged. The thing that always comes to mind for me, regarding lighting candles early( which for me is better than not doing it at all) is the memory of the a Rabbis wife, after he was murdered, several years ago, along with children, if memory is correct: she said she would be lighting her Shabbat candles early to bring the peace of the Shabbat Queen into the house sooner. Not her exact words but similar. And that’s good enough for me.

    1. As long as you light them before sundown on Friday, lighting them early shouldn’t be a problem. It’s lighting after sundown that presents a halakhic problem. It may be a custom in that person’s community or family not to light early, but I am not aware of any halakhic impediment.

      As for the electric lights, home safety is an important mitzvah (Deuteronomy 22:8.) Maimonides takes the original commandment (parapet around the roof of a house) and expands it considerably to include all things that may cause harm. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 11) I have seen electric lights used as Shabbat candles in several very traditionally observant environments when an open flame might be unsafe. Given your family history, it is completely understandable that you prefer electric tea lights to candles.

      1. Rabbi Ruth, thank you…..that made me feel better. I don’t think she meant to be unkind: her comment was to the effect that if .i had candles which were big enough still to be burning when Shabbat came : I think she forgot I use the battery ones. It was just that she commented at all….she doesn’t usually. Her husband is a rabbi. I’m pretty sure she meant well. I Quite often say “Shabbat shalom ” on my FB page, and have never had anything that in any way questioned the way I do things. Most of my friends aren’t Jewish….I have a pretty small but very supportive group of friends there and we “hold one mother up” in many ways….it’s lovely.
        My other reason for using battery tealights is memory loss from the stroke – Im quite forgetful these days and it is very definitely better. And again, thanks for what you said re. my family history: I really appreciated it and you helped me a lot( as you so often do, and Im so thankful to you for that)

  10. Just a tiny add-on about reincarnation — I have heard Jewish beliefs on reincarnation taught at both the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial and in my local Orthodox synagogue by their rabbi. The URJ workshop was my first exposure many years ago & I was surprised. But since then I’ve heard it referred to a number of times.

    I was at a shabbaton given by a local Reform synagogue that brought in Rabbi Rachel Cowan as their scholar in residence. One of Rabbi Cowan’s teachings was on conversion. During that discussion one of the participants said that she had felt drawn to Judaism as long as she could remember and that someone had told her that sometimes Jewish souls are born in non-Jewish bodies and yearn to go home. Rabbi Cowan said that one of the beliefs after the Shoah was that there were not enough Jewish bodies for all the Jewish souls that needed to be born so the Jewish souls were born in non-Jewish bodies and came home through conversion. It was such a beautiful teaching and many of the participants said that they too had felt a driving need to become Jewish. I have shared Rabbi Cowan’s words with Seekers at times because many people can’t explain their yearning. This teaching moves them.

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