Jun 15, 2008

It's Like a Big Pink Kugle in the Room.

I got an e-mail earlier today, right as I was arriving back in Chicago from a delightful mini-roadtrip to a (crappy) drive-in in Nowheresville, Indiana, and I spent the entire day mulling over the text trying to find the appropriate way to say what I was feeling about the words.

Bat Ayin is not for conversion candidates. It is for Jewish women but they also accept conversion candidates.
Bat Ayin was what the woman at Aish suggested for me, as a "conversion candidate." In this very simple couple of sentences, this woman is saying "You are not a Jew." As soon as I got in front of the computer earlier today, I wrote ferociously and quickly. It was angry, it was volatile. It was a big "take off your hater pants" fest directed at this woman, at Aish, at Orthodoxy. And I couldn't center my thoughts. I couldn't put exactly what was so frustrating into words.

So tonight, while bawling my eyes out in the shower because I feel like I'm in a vacuum -- things pulling me every which way, tugging my heart strings and prodding my delicate brain about love and religion and belief and faith and the future and the things we cannot effect or change -- it came to me. I finally can say what it is about such people that makes me want to tear my clothes and scream and weep and completely fall apart.

The thing of it is, I had a conversion. I went into the mikvah (twice, actually), I sat before a beth din, I stood in front of a congregation of Jews and (some) family and friends and vowed to take on the plight of the Jew, to raise a Jewish family, to have one G-d, to be a connected member of the Jewish community, of Israel, and I was pronounced Chaviva bat Avraham v'Sarah. It happened. There are witnesses and there is documented proof and pictures to prove I was there. There was a synagogue, a beautiful building, and a mikvah and there was even sushi afterward.

You cannot tell me that I did not step in a mikvah or that I did not stand before those people and proclaim, I am a Jew.

But yes, I understand that to many this was not a "Torah true" conversion. It was a conversion, just not that which some Conservative and all Orthodox parties recognize as legit. But it did happen. Even if it is some rickity-rack conversion that has no meaning, it happened. You can't tell me I didn't feel the mikvah waters over my skin or that I did not say the blessing over the Torah.

It might not be right to you, but something *did* happen. It isn't a tree-falls-in-the-forest situation.

It's like if you order a coffee with two sugars and the waitress brings it to you and you swear up and down that she didn't sweeten it, yet her coworkers saw her, it doesn't mean the sugar isn't there, it just means it isn't sweet enough for you. But the sugar is still there. It isn't as if nothing happened. Something, something is there.

Am I making sense? I guess what I'm saying is that you can't ignore my situation. You can't pretend like I'm some shmuck starting from scratch. I know more halakah and Jewish thought than probably some pretty observant folk. I am aware and I am proud. So don't tell me that nothing happened. Don't pretend like I am some random no one who has not spent at least five years moving backwards and forwards and every which way wrapping her heart and mind around Torah and Judaism and G-d. Acknowledge. ACKNOWLEDGE that something happened. I just want you to say "okay, it is there, now let us move on."

ACKNOWLEDGE that something, even a small something, did happen. I don't expect you to say it's right or it's true or it's legitimate. I just want you to say that something happened.


alto artist said...

I can't begin to imagine how frustrating this is. I'm so sorry.

But the odds of these people acknowledging your experience in this lifetime--slim. Your knocking on the door DOES make a difference, however--they can try to ignore you, but they can't forget you were there.

I'm reminded of about 4 years ago when I really, really wanted to talk about chanting Torah, and found a Yahoo group all about this. Hurrah, I thought, and sent an introductory post. I got a polite response from the moderator: Thank you for your interest but, well, women don't chant Torah. You're welcome to stay on the list and discuss things like grammar, however.

Hello? You may not like it, but I do it. (And so I went off and started my own blog.) I think that describes the current state of Judaism: many people not liking what others are doing, and trying to ignore their existence. But those other people are in great measure the ones who keep Judaism alive and vital, as you are. If anything will do us in as a Jewish people, it's these kind of divisions. I wish I knew something about Birthright to assure you that you will find the right group out there--but I know you will, just the same.


NafNaf said...

I missed your response to my past reply on this subject, but this time I'll try to be more clear. You are right, you have achieved something and you shouldn't let anyone take that away from you... And I apologise that it sounded like I was adding to the voices that you feel have negated your journey thus far. But the process that you did before was, sadly, not a halachic conversion. There are a whole host of technical issues that prevent conversions being done through the reform movement from being "real", but that doesn't mean that you are left with gornischt (nothing)! Just from what little that I've read on your blog you have already jumped over the hardest hurdles, belief in G-d, the transmission of torah, and a relationship w/ the Jewish people. And while that doesn't mean that you should already be accepted as a full convert, if we began celebrating the yovel again you'd (in my opinion) be accepted as a giores toshav. As Rambam says:
'Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these Seven Mitzvot and is precise in their observance is considered one of the Pious among the Gentiles (Chasidei Umot HaOlam - מֵחֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם) and will merit a share in the World to Come. This applies only when he accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moses, our teacher, that even previously, Noah's descendants were commanded to fulfill them. However, if he fulfills them out of intellectual conviction, he is not a resident alien, nor of the Pious among the Gentiles, but rather, of their wise men.'
Before I jumped in “all the way” this is what I was told to consider myself. Is it what I wanted? No. Most people aren’t even noachides, and there is a certain level of commitment to that way of life… But that was obviously not what I wanted, because I ultimately was meant to be a Jew. You also seem to be reaching for more than the reform Judaism that you started with, the next madreiga on the ladder of unification with the Jewish people is an acceptance of the mission, purpose and core of the Jewish people, the Torah/613 mitzvos. As a matter of definition, the reform movement doesn’t include observance in their definition of “Jewishness” so those who join the Jewish people on the terms of the reform world have not yet joined the Jewish people. But that doesn’t mean that reform converts have done nothing; you are a dweller among the Jewish people, and that’s nothing to sniff at (for most of history this was unthinkable). It’s unfortunate that the frum world hasn’t yet worked out how to respond to the crisis of conservative and reform gerim, but with the help of those who have “come in” and increasing commonality hopefully there will be more attention and resolution on the subject.
I’m in no way encouraging you to convert, it’s a long difficult struggle; but if you decide to I wish you the best of luck. Judahlicious said what I was trying to say last time, “And to convert Orthodox… you would be pushed away at least three times.” If you are serious about becoming Chaviva bas Avraham, halachically, this is only the first of many tests on the path to becoming a giores. And I hope that those tests don’t leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth towards any of our people.

Z said...

I really believe our conversions are questioned only when we allow them to be. I never mention I converted or that my son converted. As far as I am concerned we are "natural" Jews. I don't even allow these people to use their bigotry to hurt me. I think I am a Jew therefore I am! Embrace it Chavi!

alto artist said...

Naf Naf,

If I may ask you a question even though I'm not the one you're addressing: Do you maintain that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jewish? I agree that they (I) interpret halacha differently than Orthodox Jews, and I accept that one movement has the right not to include the others in their programs. But there are many ways to interpret halacha, and I disagree with this statement:

"But the process that you did before was, sadly, not a halachic conversion. There are a whole host of technical issues that prevent conversions being done through the reform movement from being "real"..."

There is not just one kind of Jewish, and I don't believe we exist on a scale. A Reform Jew is not a "lesser" Jew--many Reform Jews attend services more often and pray with as deep kavannah, believe in God as honestly, and perform as much tikkun olam as "other kinds" of Jews. (I myself am unaffiliated--I think so many of these labels break us apart as a people.)


chaviva said...

I have things to say to all the responses, but specifically, right now, Z ...

I do embrace that I am a Jew. I don't question that at all, believe me. The problem comes when you're answering a questionnaire that says "Was your mother born Jewish? Explain" and "Was your father born Jewish? Explain" and then "Were your grandparents born Jewish? Explain." You can't *not* say anything. Yes, people have told me to lie. I could lie, of course. But I don't want to end up marrying a Cohen all on a lie, saying my entire family is dead or something and then have it annulled.

Life is such that it cannot be ignored. I embrace that I am a convert, and I embrace that I am a Jew. But the reality is that I cannot ignore it, not as a Reform convert.

Judahlicious said...

I think NafNaf (and NafNaf, pardon me in advance for speaking for you) is saying that Chaviva needs to understand that in order to be a part of Orthodox-sponsored activities such as the Aish birthright trip and Jewel, etc., she will need to realize that she was converted under non-Halakhic auspices in the Reform Movement. I don't think he's necessarily doubting her commitment to Judaism, but letting her know she will need to convert again if she wants to participate in the abovementioned programs.

I converted Conservadox--hatafat dam, mikvah, kashrut, mitzvot, wear tallit katan--and was still told long before that my conversion would not be accepted among most Orthodox. If I weren't fine with that to begin with, I would have gone through an Orthodox channel. Although I've never received any negativity for the Conservadox conversion, it's also true that I don't put myself into situations where I would be called out.

NafNaf, you've written an eloquent response, and thanks for the taking the time to do so. It gave me a lot to think about myself.

chaviva said...

Actually, Judah ... Birthright is definitely not an Orthodox setup. In fact, it is very Reform geared. There are many birthright groups, and yes they have the choice of completely rejecting me, but they're not supposed to. In fact, I contacted Birthright about being discriminated against by Aish because I was a Reform convert and they swore up and down that none of their member sponsors can outright discriminate or deny a trip because someone is not Orthodox.

But what it came down to was that they didn't completely ignored me ... they just ignored me up until the point that they had two trips left and didn't leave me time to switch to a more welcoming organization.

NafNaf said...

Judahlicious already said most of what I was going to reply but I had another point. Your reply demonstrates how differently the Orthodox world thinks about the issues of conversion and “Jewishness” from the Reform and Conservative positions; and I hope that what I write now will shed some light on what many Reform and Conservative Jews seem to think orthodox people are processing subconsciously.
I was careful not to use words like better or worse in my reply and put “real” in quotes hoping that when I used that word it would be understood in the most trivial way that one could in such a serious discussion. A point that you (an frum Jews as a whole) agree on is that Reform Jews born of Jewish mothers, whether observant or not, are Jews whose worth is no less than the most scrupulously observant Orthodox Jew. The fact that reform (and to a lesser degree Conservative) Jews are not observant of the mitzvos, according to the methods of interpretation that stem directly from the mesorah in the same manner that it has for thousands of years, doesn’t make you “less than” in any way. But within the Orthodox world there are rules about how one interprets halacha, and to go outside of those methods is to go outside of the Orthodox world. The issue of Jew’s purpose in this world is framed so differently in the Reform world vis-à-vis the Orthodox one that there is no objective standpoint on which one can make comparisons that will result in “better Jew” or “worse Jew” judgments.
So the issue of the acceptance of a Reform or Conservative conversion in Torah Judaism (the way that many Orthodox people prefer to refer to themselves) is not a question of emotional judgments; it is rather a question of legal tradition and fulfillment of certain steps on the way of becoming a ger. I didn’t say she didn’t go through a conversion process, just that she didn’t go through a Halachik conversion process… And for a frum Jew, that’s the only question concerning a Jew who wasn’t born that way.
Chaviva’s problem was a problem for me too: how does one learn about becoming observant if the places where one goes to learn about such things are closed to you? The answer was “proving” my commitment to people in the frum community and finding a local Rav, attending local shiurim, finding local mentors, and finding local chavrusas. The process of starting with a small close-knit community also helped me integrate with the frum world, which even as a “pre-convert” will welcome “guests” if you are visibly committed to the same mission.

It seems like they just screwed you... I'm surprised Aish even signed somewhere that they'd take non-orthodox converts, they should have been upfront with you if in the end they were going to do that.

Elizabeth said...

I saw you on Carah's blog, so I stopped by! So you've converted?

Anonymous said...

"methods of interpretation that stem directly from the mesorah in the same manner that it has for thousands of years"

Sigh. This one just isn't true.

Anonymous said...

Re my previous comment: see, for instance:


NafNaf said...

I'd previously read the article that "anon" linked, so I only skimmed it for the sections that I wanted to emphasize, but I don't think that R. H. Soloveitchik is disagreeing with me. The difference between what liberal Judaism has done with the mesorah and how the interpretation of the mesorah in the orthodox world has evolved over the centuries can be is like the difference between the evolution of jurisprudence of the Supreme court of the US and the "destroy and rebuild" it philosophy of the French revolution. I wasn't trying to say that Moses marched up Mt. Sinai with a capote and a streimal... rather that just like the supreme court the Orthodox manner of interpretation has relied on foundation texts and precedence that were studied by experts and exported to the community.

For well over a millennium all literary activity had centered on commenting and applying those texts and every several centuries, or so, a code would be composed that stated the upshot of these ongoing commentarial discussions. Self-contained presentations of a topic, works that would introduce the reader to a subject and then explain it in full in the language of laymen, did not exist. There were few, if any, serious works that could be read independently, without reference to another text which it glossed.

The fact that the emphasis of halachic decision has moved away from the hearth and the synagogue and in the the rarified air of the yeshiva doesn't mean that there have been the same radical shifts in accepted law that result in liberal Jews hardly keeping shabbos, kashrus and taharas mishpacha in any form that would be recognizable to the Jews of old. The death of the more supersticious and less academic Judaism is the death of the unconcious religiousity practised in the shtetl, not the death of practise and understanding of Judaism that always ran underneath that "Orach Chaim" and has only grown in emphasis (and stricture) in the last decades.

These societies were traditional, taking their values and code of conduct as a given, acting unselfconsciously, unaware that life could be lived differently. This is best epitomized in the title of one of the four units of the Shulhan Arukh. The one treating religious law is called Orah Hayyim—The Way of Life. And aptly so. In the enclaves of Eastern Europe, going to shul in the morning, putting on a tallis katan and wearing pe'os were for centuries the way of life of the Jew. These acts were done with the same naturalness and sense of inevitability as we experience in putting on those two strange Western garments, socks and ties. Clothes are a second skin.

s(b.) said...

There are always going to be people who will say what you're doing or how you did/do it isn't good enough. Even if you are born Jewish, there are people who will say that to you. You can't depend on anyone else for your spiritual cookies in this world. I feel for you. OJ, for better and for worse, is what it is. You can let it bother you or not. In your shoes, I know it would bother me, so I'd probably jump ortho hoops just so I could say gfy (in a very nice way) to anyone who tried to tell me I wasn't Jewish. But that's me and that's based on my own life experiences. I wish the best for you. Don't let anybody get you down. Your heart will reveal your truth.

Rivkah said...

Chavi, I'm just getting a chance to catch up on my blog-reading. I'm so sorry that the Jewel opportunity ended up in the same way as the Aish situation. I think you expressed the pain and frustration of non-Orthodox converts dealing with OJ very well.

I'm looking forward to hearing more on your "faith" post and responses...this is something I've wondered about, as well.

Schvach said...

In a recent blog, Jonathan Mark of 'The NY Jewish Week' wrote about a man who had received 'several private rabbinic ordinations', including one from R' Shlomo Carlebach. So, he's a rabbi - period!
Get it?

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