A recent Pew study found that the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion continues to increase to over 25% at present.
But in American religious history the cyclical rise and fall of religious affiliation and self proclaimed identity has frequently occurred. America is a free country and free people can and do choose their own religious identity.
A Pew study a few years ago found that 44% of Americans no longer belong to the religious tradition they were raised in; compared to 47% who still belong to their childhood religion.
Of course, the largest number of Americans who have switched religions, have simply moved from one denomination of Protestantism to another.
Hispanics who were culturally Roman Catholics when young; and have now become religiously evangelical Protestants, are another large group.
Even more typical of religious freedom in America are the 9% who say they had switched religious identity at some point in the past, but have now returned to their original faith.
Should these people be counted twice as double switchers; or as only once in a separate category of temporary switchers?
Many of these people are the children of mixed religious marriages and were raised feeling half and half; marginally belonging to both while not feeling deeply connected to either. Like trying to sit on the space between two chairs.
On the other hand, some people have never felt at home in their family’s religion, and do feel at home in their new religion. In Jewish tradition most of these converts are considered to be gilgulim—reincarnated Jewish souls from previous lives who were cut off from the Jewish people by dire circumstances.
Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species.
According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self conscious moral creatures like human beings reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not fulfilled the purpose of their creation.
Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, most Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes.
A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more. The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into dozens of sparks that can reincarnate several times.
The tragic souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or forced conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own no longer Jewish descendants.
These descendant Jewish souls will, after many generations or even centuries, seek to return to the Jewish people by marriage or by conversion.
A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors.
Thus, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations that were cut off from the Jewish people.
Through conversion to Judaism they are coming home
Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos in Spain. Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their children as self identifying faithful Jews.
Other people who become Jewish do not know of a specific Jew who was an ancestor but come from a population that contains the descendants of past Jewish communities.
Millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century. In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized.
The Roman Catholic Church viewed these forced baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike the Jews of France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized.
Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms.
Of course, Jews forced to become Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice Judaism and teach their children in secret. The Church knew this but thought that all the children and grandchildren of the Marranos (as the secret Jews were called) would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers. This did not happen.
In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands would be tried/tortured, and imprisoned or executed.
In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled. Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to nearby Portugal.
In 1497, they again were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to freely choose baptism.
In later decades many of these secret Jews and their children came to the new world seeking freedom so the Inquisition was established in Lima in 1570 and in Mexico City in 1571.
Secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth) . Most of these people have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people.
In Recife Brazil, at least 400 people with Sephardic Jewish ancestry have undergone Orthodox conversions to Judaism. “Twenty years ago, the return to Judaism was a dream. Now it’s simply our reality,” said Jefferson Martins dos Santos, president of Recife’s Aboab de Fonseca synagogue, one of the two new congregations. Over the past decade, more than a dozen congregations like it have been established across Brazil’s north.
Members of these new communities call themselves “bnei anusim” —”children of the forcibly converted” from Judaism to Christianity. TheBrazilian state of Pernambuco for a while had been a haven for many Portuguese and Spanish Jews because it was controlled by the relatively tolerant Dutch from 1630 to 1654.
But when the Dutch left, their colony was taken over by Portugal, which enforced the Inquisition. Many Sephardic Jews fled with the Dutch to the Netherlands, and one shipload landed in New Amsterdam.
While many Jews left by 1655, many others stayed and continued to practice Judaism in secret, becoming crypto-Jews. But their families became Catholic as the centuries passed. Still, in villages in northern Brazil, some Jewish customs prevailed, including covering mirrors at a deceased person’s home.
Decades later many secret Jews, or their children, found freedom in the new world. When the Inquisition was established in Lima (1570) and in Mexico City (1571) secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape.
Other secret Jews in Spain, Portugal, Holland and France became importers of Asian spices and other goods; and married Asian women whose grandchildren and great grandchildren were absorbed into the local Asian populations. These descendants are also now returning home by becoming Jewish.