No, Really, Why Are So Many Christians In Colombia Converting To Orthodox Judaism?

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I enjoyed reading a recent Washington Post article, subtitled Why Are So Many Christians In [Colombia] Converting To Orthodox Judaism? It had good interviews and beautiful photos. The only thing it lacked was any explanation of why so many Christians in Colombia were converting to Orthodox Judaism, unless you count explanations like these:

“I wanted to find the truth,” Rivka Espinosa (formerly Loida Espinosa), who converted from evangelicalism, told me. “I began to study, more and more, and ask myself deep questions: What was my mission in this world? Why was I here? And what did I need to do?” She said her father was the pastor of an evangelical church where she was a member. He also converted.

“It was a calling of the soul,” Devorah Guilah Koren, who converted from Catholicism with her husband and two children, told me. “More than a religion, [Orthodox Judaism] was a way of thinking and conduct that satisfied all of our needs.”

This is all very nice, but it doesn't seem like an explanation. Why are more people converting in Colombia than, say, Greece or Thailand? Don't Greek people sometimes want to find the truth? Don't Thais ever feel callings of the soul?

Judaism itself has a very reasonable explanation for all this: when God made His covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, He also invited the souls of future Jews, so they could be bound by the covenant later on. But due to bureaucratic error, some of these souls get born in non-Jewish bodies by mistake, and have to convert. Why so many in Colombia in particular? I can only appeal to a theory from Jewish folklore: the angels who are supposed to distribute certain types of souls evenly across the Earth sometimes crash into a mountain and dump the whole bag in one spot, leading to excessive concentration of some particular soul type. Colombia is surrounded by the Andes Mountains, and probably presents a special challenge for soul-carrying angels.

Still, Maimonides teaches us to look for rational explanations for the workings of the Divine, so probably we should come up with some kind of sociological theory or something.

Before we start - are we sure this is happening to any significant degree? On the one hand, no it isn’t, the article mentions seven synagogues’ worth of converts, and gives us some other information we can use to estimate synagogues at a few hundred people, so probably only 2500 - 5000 Jewish converts total in a country of 50 million. But it does suggest the new converts equal or outnumber traditional (ie hereditary) Colombian Jews. And also, nobody ever converts to Orthodox Judaism! Or, like, one or two people will, here or there, but it’s deliberately really hard, and has few obvious attractions. I don’t want to claim this is some massive important trend, but it’s unusual and worth exploring.

The best information I can find comes from this article, which tells the story of a group of Colombian converts in more depth. A megachurch pastor visited Israel, met some Jews for Jesus, liked it, and incorporated Jews for Jesus ideas into his megachurch. But the more he learned about it, the more he realized Jews for Jesus was incoherent, and wanted the real thing. So after a while, he asked his church to convert to Judaism en masse; most of them said no, but a few hundred stuck around and became Orthodox Jews. You should really read the article, but here’s my favorite part:

On the night of April 28, 2002, as [pastor] Juan Carlos was returning to Bello from a spiritual retreat, the Marxist-Leninist ELN guerrillas, the Elenos, kidnapped him. After a month of being moved around the jungle, sleeping in the rain, and eating one serving of rice a day, he was released. He emerged emaciated and infected with leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that produces ugly skin ulcers.

His father had given the Elenos everything he had — $50,000. The payment depleted the family’s savings, but when questioned by journalists, Juan Carlos claimed, “Not a single peso was paid for my freedom.” Extortive kidnappings by guerrillas were a common feature of Colombian life — there had been 3,700 kidnappings in 2000 alone — and they were a sensitive political issue. The police had demanded that Juan Carlos not reveal that his father had paid ransom. Instead, he should say that he had converted his captors to Christianity, presenting them a Bible in exchange for his release.

Juan Carlos went along. “Sometimes when I was reading the Bible to myself, they would ask me to read aloud so that they could all hear,” he told journalists. The lie turned him into a celebrity. He had become the pastor who had converted the anti-religion Elenos. But as he toured churches telling the story of his release, he began to feel guilty. “People were being deceived, lied to, manipulated,” he says. He felt ashamed about what he had put his family through as well. By abandoning college and becoming a pastor, he had shattered his father’s dream of creating a small agricultural business together. Now he had cost his father every cent he had saved.

He was living off other people’s illusions. What was he doing in his own church? He became acutely aware of how Pentecostalism — how he — exploited the parishioners, passing off psychological and emotional manipulation as divine intervention. His faith was untouched, but he needed to find a new way of connecting with God.

His experience in Israel was all he could think about. What he had seen there felt closer to the truth. He slowly steered the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia toward Messianism, changing the title of pastor to rabbi, persuading men to wear kippot and tzitzit, emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus, the idea that Jesus had been a rabbi himself. The more he did this, though, the more he questioned the dogma of Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had been just a rabbi, then how could he be the son of God?

Maybe Juan Carlos was trying to put some distance between himself and Colombia, where he had been kidnapped and had destroyed his parents’ hopes, where most people are stuck with the few choices they are born into. Or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from his past, trying to become someone else.

In early 2004, Juan Carlos returned to Jerusalem with Puerta. They stood by the Wailing Wall and searched for Orthodox rabbis who spoke Spanish. When they found a few, the pastors pummeled them with questions. How do you explain the Jewish Messiah? Why did the Jews not accept Jesus? How do you interpret the Messianic prophecies? Was the Messiah God? Was he man?

Juan Carlos was impressed by these rabbis and their answers. They were nothing like the pastors he had known. They were intellectuals, who had imposing beards and were nearsighted from reading sacred texts. They were inheritors of an ancient tradition, members of a richer culture than the one he knew. This was what he had been looking for.

Juan Carlos went back to Bello a converted man. Puerta agreed: Messianism was a meaningless hybrid. They had to embrace Judaism. If the congregation would not accept such a radical course, Juan Carlos was ready to leave and start over.

Puerta tried to slow him down, but Juan Carlos felt that waiting was dishonest. In the first assembly upon their return, before 3,000 faithful, he took responsibility for what he’d done. He had lied. He had exploited their needs and hopes. He had failed as a pastor. And the ultimate lie was Jesus himself: He was not a god; he was not the Messiah. Juan Carlos did not believe in him anymore.

People screamed. Some shouted accusations of betrayal. But Juan Carlos did not back down. For the next two months, he went door to door, calling on all the congregants. He offered further explanations and gave everyone the opportunity to reproach him in person. He read the Old Testament with them, revisiting passages where he now found evidence to disprove the notion of Jesus as God.

For most, denying Jesus was soul ripping. A woman confided that she had spent the night crying, looking up at the starry sky, asking God if she could believe in the pastor’s new ideas. “What will I do without my Jesus?” she sobbed.

Puerta, who had also apologized to the flock, left for the United States without saying goodbye, never to return. It was the end of the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia. Most of its members left to find a new church or abandoned religion altogether. Yet, to Juan Carlos’s surprise, 600 parishioners declared that they trusted him and would follow him into Judaism.

Also:

There were still many prayers, songs, rituals, holidays, and rules the congregants knew nothing about or were not sure how to practice. Juan Carlos decided he had to get inside a synagogue and see firsthand how Jews did things. It could not be done in Medellín or in any other Colombian city, where synagogues have security guards and visitors are vetted. Juan Carlos had an uncle who lived in Miami, where synagogues are open; he could just walk in. Which is what he did, hiding a tape recorder in his shirt pocket.

I would say “probably this isn’t the typical Colombian convert’s experience”, but it kind of is - there are only seven Colombian convert synagogues, and this is one of them.

This story of a religious leader converting, followed by his flock, reminds me of the story of Eastern Orthodoxy among the Mayans of Guatemala. On two separate occasions, important Catholic religious figures in Guatemala converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and their followers followed - there are now about 400,000 Mayans in the Constantinopolitan subgroup and an undetermined number more in the Antiochan subgroup.

And if we’re going to include Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy, we might as well talk about the five million Mormons in Latin America, or the thing where almost a fifth of Latin Americans have converted to Protestantism in the past fifty years.

All of these describe Catholicism losing its religious monopoly in Latin America. This one in particular talks about ways the Catholic Church is failing the region, especially too few priests (one per 19,000 people!) But they’re not secularizing - whatever (economic? cultural?) factors keep places religious are still in full force. Instead, they converge to the American solution, where believers are informed consumers in a religious marketplace - and some of them end up in unexpected places.

Still, Orthodox Judaism? The articles linked above talk about why Mormonism and Pentecostalism are winning converts in Latin America. Both put lots of effort into missionary work (Judaism actively discourages conversion). Pentecostalism in particular is hip and willing to adapt itself to Latin American culture in a way that Catholicism isn’t - “The music that you hear in Pentecostal churches has the same rhythms that people enjoy outside of church” (Orthodox Judaism is about the least-hip and least Latin-American-culture-compatible religion imaginable). The number one reason cited by new Latin American converts to Protestantism is that they are “seeking a personal connection with God” (Orthodox Judaism almost aggressively avoids providing this). And converting to Orthodoxy is not a small step:

With the sole guidance of books, Juan Carlos introduced the most critical changes to the congregation: Shabbat, kashrut (dietary restrictions), and circumcision. Members stopped working on Saturdays, though for months they continued to play music, take photographs, and pursue a number of activities that were prohibited. Pork and shellfish were banned; meat and milk were no longer mixed. When ordering coffee at a café, members asked that it be served in a disposable cup to ensure that it hadn’t been polluted by pork […]

It took four years, until 2009, to complete a process that was as much “Christian detoxification,” in René’s words, as it was Judaization. Most found it impossible. Of the 600 original aspiring Jews, only 200 remained. Garrandes introduced them to Moshe Ohana, an Orthodox Moroccan rabbi and a kabbalist also based in Miami. He was willing to convert them. Ohana asked the community to pay his fee in dollars for each conversion as well as cover his expenses. The congregants raised the money once again and paid, as they had paid for everything else: airplane tickets and lodging for rabbis, books, the Sefer Torah, kosher food, circumcisions. It turned out that becoming Jewish was expensive. By some estimates, it took 10 million pesos, about $3,000, to make a new Jew in Colombia. This was the equivalent of a year’s earnings for most.

Members did not flinch. They welcomed Ohana and underwent two weeks of preparations. He helped them kosherize their pots and silverware and checked that they were knowledgeable about Judaism. Then he proceeded to convert them in a massive ceremony that lasted three days. Ohana had brought two rabbis from Miami to comply with the Jewish requirement of having a three-man tribunal test the sincerity of the candidates. Families were grouped together and asked questions about everything from preparing a home for Passover to identifying the prayer inscribed inside a mezuza. Ohana drew a drop of blood from the men’s circumcised penises to fulfill symbolically the Abrahamic covenant. He made sure everyone was immersed in water during the ritual bath in a pond in the mountains outside of Medellín. He remarried all the couples, because their previous unions were considered invalid.

On the final day, Ohana requested everyone’s birth dates. He picked their Hebrew names according to a calculation based on the number of letters in their Christian names and astrological considerations. René became Shlomo. Juan Carlos became Elad.

So why Judaism?

One answer that comes out again and again in interviews is that they used to be Christian, and Jesus was a Jew. On the one hand, “I really like that Jesus guy, maybe Judaism is the religion for me” is an . . . unusual . . . thought process. On the other, it does fit nicely with the evangelical tendency to “get back to fundamentals” - to be open to the idea that all the changes and traditions your religion accreted over thousands of years are bad and wrong, and it must return to the purity of the original teachings. The Christian Bible is 77% Old Testament by length. Read without preconceptions, it sounds a lot more Jewish than Christian. If you’re going to take the Bible really literally, and keep stripping off accreted traditions, then yeah, I guess ending up Jewish makes a lot of sense.

(of course, modern rabbinical Judaism is very different from Biblical Judaism, but those differences might be easy to miss for someone who isn’t so familiar with the religion).

Another answer, from the article on Mormons:

Sociologist Cesar Ceriani, who recently published a book on Mormon missionary work in Argentina, says Latin Americans see the Latter-day Saints as pure, reliable and economically powerful in a region often plagued by instability and corruption.

I think Jews are equally qualified to give off this impression.

And this reminds me of a friend’s review of The Reformation Of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion And Gender In Colombia. Its thesis: Colombian gender roles are terrible. The men are supposed to drink lots of alcohol and be macho and probably violent, the women are supposed to sit back and take it and do all the actual work. Nobody likes it much, but bowing out looks non-macho and is hard to do unilaterally. Some families solve this by converting to evangelical Christianity - the evangelicals have a goody-goody reputation, and if you avoid alcohol and violence out of pious Christian humility, that looks better than backing out because you’re not macho enough to handle it.

See for comparison this story about Brazilian narco-gangsters who convert to Christianity to escape retribution. If they just left their gangs, the gangs would view it as a betrayal and kill them; if they leave because they convert, that’s a known quantity and they’re okay. I’m not saying all the Latin Americans converting to weird religions are trying to get out of gangs, but some of them might be trying to get out of a society that’s gotten stuck in a bad equilibrium, and religion is an accepted way of doing that. The new Colombian Jews have already picked up the important Jewish skill of separating from the rest of their society:

Two days later, on a Friday night, I left the synagogue with a crowd of about 100. The men wore black suits, white shirts with tzitzit, and black knitted kippot or black fedoras. The women were dressed in long polyester skirts and bright head scarves. They were heading home after Shabbat services. They had been chanting and praising God, the men fervently kissing a Torah scroll, and were in a merry mood. I was walking between Elad and Shlomo. We chatted about the women who had stayed at home preparing the most important dinner of the week and the families who were hosting. We reached the corner of Bello’s main street and were about to scatter, wish­ing “Shabbat shalom to one another, when a crowd of Zorros, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Ebola nurses, witches, and princesses engulfed us. It was October 31, the night of Halloween.

A grown-up superhero asked in a loud voice, “What are these dressed up as?”

A trick-or-treater replied, “As fanatics.”

The Jews ignored the Halloweeners and parted in small groups toward their dinners. Elad turned left. I continued walking uphill with Shlomo, Baruj, and their half-dozen guests. Before we reached the next corner, a man approached Baruj, who, like his father, was dressed in a black suit, and gave him candy.

“Drop that,” Shlomo told him.

Baruj held on tight to the candy.

Shlomo pulled him gently to the side. I could not hear his words, but Baruj looked disappointed. He hesitated. Finally, he put the candy on the sidewalk. “We will wear costumes for Purim,” Shlomo promised. “This holiday is not ours.”

We’ve been talking here recently about charter cities in Latin America, where you escape a corrupt society by letting yourself be governed by the law code of a different polity. We’ve even talked about ZEDEs, the new and improved version, with a free-floating law code that binds non-continguous areas in a way only tangentially linked to the logic of space and territory. The idea seems as appropriate for Colombia as it is for Honduras. And the Jewish Diaspora was the world’s first ZEDE. It’s got all your favorite ZEDE features: complicated legal codes nobody voted on, frequently-reneged-upon guarantees of protection from local rulers, and newspaper articles complaining that they’re greedy rootless capitalists preying on their host country. Yet it works. Getting political independence is hard. But getting social independence is - well, hard but possible. It’s the secret secondary goal of every movement, religions do it better than most, and one religion in particular has had lots of practice.

The Post article concludes:

During my project I gained intimate daily access to those who have adopted this way of life. My work forced me to confront my own views on identity. I began to see Colombia’s emerging Jews as an example of the increasing freedom we all have to choose how we label ourselves — from gender to sexual orientation to religion.

Yes but no. This isn’t a story about atomized individuals choosing how they identify. It’s a story about a new community forming and insulating itself from the rest of society. It’s part of the grander story of an incipient market for societies, where you’re no more obligated to stay in your parents’ culture than you are to follow your parents’ career. May everyone find the strange schismatic community that suits them best!