Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl

I am delighted to be able to host another guest religion post by Noah Smith.

Don’t miss Noah’s other religion posts on

  1. God and SuperGod
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire

The point of this one is that it would great if more people in the world were Jewish. Let’s give people a chance to become Jewish by letting them now how easy it is to join Reform Judaism. (Note that you don’t have to be Jewish yourself to give people this useful bit of information.)

To me, Reform Judaism in particular is an important religion because it is one of the rare religions that fully welcomes non-supernaturalists.

Scott Aaronson has a wonderful blog about math and computer science, called “Shtetl-Optimized”. I’m not sure why it’s called that, since the name has nothing to do with the blog (which you should check out if you are a hardcore nerd). But anyway, this post is about the name, not the blog, since the phrase “shtetl-optimized” got me thinking about Judaism.

I was raised Jewish, but gently set it aside when I grew up and lost my taste for life rules for which I couldn’t see a point (e.g. “Don’t mix milk and meat!”). But I still think there is a lot to be valued in Judaism - as there is in most major religions - and I am mildly frustrated by the failure of these good things to diffuse out into the wider world. You see, the Jewish religion is still shtetl-optimized.

A shtetl was a Jewish ghetto in Central or Eastern Europe, similar to the town featured in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Modern Judaism developed much of its current mix of ideas and culture in those little ghetto towns. These are precisely the elements that I think much of the world would embrace: 1) a love of knowledge, education, and friendly argument, and 2) a concept of personal morality based on healthy living and positive personal relationships.

Of course, these things have naturally diffused into modern culture to some extent, through American academia and Hollywood (two institutions in which Jews have a large presence). But I think people in many countries would enjoy being able to have a religion that emphasized these things on a daily basis, and provided the kind of cultural community that religions are good at providing. In other words, I think a lot of people in a lot of countries would enjoy being Jewish.

Unfortunately, they don’t get the chance. Most people don’t realize that it is very easy to convert to Reform Judaism (the less strict flavor, which doesn’t make you wear a funny hat). They don’t realize that because Jews consciously avoid making them aware of this fact. Jews, you see, have a cultural taboo against proselytizing. When I suggested to my (more religiously inclined) cousins that Jews should accept more converts, they were horrified.

Making people aware of the ease of conversion is actually not the same as “proselytizing”. “Proselytizing” means trying to convince people to convert. But my bet is that in the Old Country of Europe, the Christians who surrounded Jews failed to see that fine distinction. My guess is that if there was any rumor that the local Christians were converting to Judaism, then some Jewish people’s houses were going to get burned. 

So my guess is that Jews learned their insularity on the shtetl. The cultural taboo against informing people in China, or Brazil, or Indonesia that they can be Jews if they want is an anachronism. If Judaism is to survive, much less bring the benefit of its unique perspective to those who would enjoy it, it’s going to have to learn to inform the goyish (non-Jewish) world that they, too, can be Red Sea Pedestrians.

(Of course, there are a few Jews who are insular for a quite different reason - they want to preserve the purity of the Ashkenazic race - an ethnic group that is mostly Jewish. I myself belong to that group, but to me, preserving the purity of the Ashkenazic race sounds about as desirable a goal as giving myself a vasectomy with a Dremel.)

Anyway, the upshot is this: Jews, time to get off the shtetl! There are lots of people in China and Brazil and Indonesia who would love to join your religion. Why not let them know they can?