In my ward (congregation) there is a man who has come to church every Sunday for years with his wife and adult children. He and his family regularly invite missionaries and church members to his home to enjoy food from his native country, he attends church social events, and he is a wonderful father and grandfather to his children and grandchildren, all of whom are active Mormons.
However, until a few months ago, he was not a member of the church.
No matter how much he attended church, no matter how many members and missionaries he invited over for dinner, no matter how many children he and his wife raised to believe in the teachings of the LDS Church, and no matter how much he internalized the teachings of the church by being a good parent and grandparent, he was not a Mormon until he was baptized and confirmed by a church elder. He was as much of a “dry Mormon” (i.e., an unbaptized person who by all appearances is a member of the church) as you could get before this year, but he realized that if he really wanted to be a Mormon, he had to publicly accept the LDS faith.
I had my friend in mind as I read Dr. Steven Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s highly original proposal to establish “Jewish Cultural Affirmation,” a “cultural pathway” to joining the Jewish people that would represent a non-religious alternative to tradition religious conversions performed by rabbis. Basically, non-Jews would enroll in an online, self-guided course of “study and experiences” that would focus not only on reading, but also on experiences of “lived Jewishness.” With the help of mentors, the students would sample many areas of Jewish history and culture. At the end of this intellectual journey, if they so desire, the students would be presented with a “certificate of membership in the Jewish people” in a public, non-religious ceremony.
I’ve heard a lot of proposals in my years of observing and participating in the Jewish community, but can’t remember one made by serious Jews whose aim is to devalue Judaism as a religion. Although the authors were smart enough to put in a disclaimer about not wanting to “obviate” traditional conversions, that is exactly what their proposed program would do. After all, why would most prospective non-Orthodox converts spend months immersing themselves in the study of Jewish law, tradition and religious practices with a rabbi and then immersing themselves in a mikveh, when they could read about Judaism online, meet a few times with a mentor, and get a membership certificate at the end?
I know from personal experience that simply liking Jews, speaking on behalf of Jews and Israel, and working in the Jewish community don’t qualify you for membership in the tribe: You have to really want to be Jewish and to assume their accompanying burdens and responsibilities. While I have always considered myself a Philo-Semite, I have never considered myself to be Jewish. Moreover, I have too much respect for Judaism to believe that secular induction ceremonies can ever take the place of traditional religious conversions. If it's important for a potential convert to be Jewish, then it's also important for him to accept Judaism as his faith. After all, without Judaism, there would be no Jews today. Watering down Judaism -- or worse, declaring that it is irrelevant to one's Jewish identity -- helps no one.
While I’m sure that Jewish Cultural Affirmation is a serious proposal, it should definitely not be adopted.