Rabbi Stern’s presentation of the issue of Jewish status as a question of genes vs. identity is right on the mark.
Judaism has been so hard to pin down for so many people because it’s not a religion–you can certainly be Jewish without believing in God or following any Jewish practices–nor is it a race or ethnic group, since you can’t convert into a race but you can become a Jew by choice.
More than 70 years ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan first attempted to address this difficulty by proposing a new definition–one I think we can still learn from today. Kaplan said that Judaism was first and foremost a civilization, meaning a cohesive group identity that included shared history, culture, rituals, values, literature and, of course, religion. The shared element that held all Jews together wasn’t genes or religious practice–it was peoplehood, meaning Jews are linked to one another by a common identity, a shared sense of belonging, that transcends any single criterion.
How does any of this relate to the question of how we as Jews welcome prospective converts? Since being Jewish is not primarily a religious identity, I don’t believe that people who convert to Judaism should be forced to jump through this or that particular religious hoop.
I think it’s reprehensible to check up on converts to see if they’re keeping kosher or keeping shabbat as some rabbis do, when these are in no way defining criteria for being Jewish. What I do believe is that those wishing to convert need to affirm and formalize their commitment to having a Jewish identity and being part of a Jewish community, the Jewish story, and the Jewish people.
Does that mean that someone could simply decide to become Jewish without conversion? My answer is no: One person can be born American and exercise all the rights of that identity automatically but another person who had citizenship in another country must go through a process of becoming an American citizen–formally claiming that identity through study and appropriate administrative procedures–before enjoying those same rights.
Becoming Jewish means claiming citizenship in the Jewish people–formally taking on a new identity, culture, and civilization. And I certainly hope that we can be welcoming to anyone who wishes to make a commitment to do that.