From the beginning of my study of religion 30 years ago, Judaism has been attractive to me. For scholars who convert, especially those of us in the humanities, the attraction seems to be the egalitarian moral system at the heart of Judaism. For me, the sociality of the ritual life is a significant attraction as well. Judaism, if nothing else, is an organized system of caring for one another, wrapped around some interesting, pleasing, and ancient rituals. I feel deeply connected to this morality — to humanity — in the presence of those rituals, and also to love and perseverance.
I did not know much about Judaism until I was in graduate school studying it. I had Mormon grandparents and a mother who was looking around. In college, I made friends with people who grew up Jewish but weren’t active, including the woman who is now my wife. I began to spend time at Hillel and had a job as the “Shabbos goy” for a Conservative synagogue in town. At the time, I was what I call a “fundamentalist atheist.” But what I learned is that even though religion can be destructive, it is actually vital to human society.
Time went by. As talk of marriage progressed, my future wife and I both felt it was time to get personal with Judaism. We found a Reconstructionist Mesader Kiddushin (wedding master of ceremonies) and procured all the accessories to have a Jewish wedding. In 2000, we married on a beach in Malibu, and a year later, in Seattle, we began exploring services.
Progress was slow as we did not seem to relate to any of the big synagogues. Chance intervened, though, when my wife met a young rabbi in 2004 while they were both walking babies around the park. Rabbi Michael Latz had recently helped found Kol HaNeshamah, a small Reform community in West Seattle. We joined, and over time I started talking about formally converting, inconveniently just before the rabbi left for a bigger temple that needed him. With help from an interim rabbi, Anson Laytner, and then a new permanent rabbi, Zari Weiss, I finally converted in late 2012, took my Hebrew name in early 2013, and had my bar mitzvah in 2016. My Hebrew name, Yehuda ben Gershom v’ Yehudit, is to honor the great scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem and the important feminist theologian Judith Plaskow.
As an atheist, figuring out my relationship to a religion that still sees itself as theistic was complicated. My current research involves developing the idea of nontheistic religion, the next step for theology (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic). The conversion worked in the end because Judaism is not a dogmatic religion. God never made sense to me, but religion does. In my view, there is no formal belief requirement, just belief conversations and ritual, behavioral expectations. What really matters is ethics and community. As it should be.
Richard Curtis, PhD, is a scholar of religion who teaches philosophy and is writing a book on systematic Jewish theology from a Reform perspective. He lives in West Seattle with his wife, daughter, and a menagerie of pets.