Jul 21, 2010

Who is a Jew?

I wrote about the conversion bill in the Knesset in Israel not that long ago, and with the bill stalled in the Knesset (to the cheers of those opposed), The Jewish Daily Forward has posted an interesting editorial on the bill and its stall.

I'm not going to go into any great details about the bill or the stall or the Forward's editorial, other than to say that the perception that there was across-the-board outcry and discussion about this bill rubs me as odd. I don't know a single person who brought the issue up with me, outside of my circle of friends who have converted or are in the process. Do Jews with no connection to conversion even care about the bill? Or conversion for that matter?

In my time as a convert, I've discovered that -- at least the Orthodox world -- is largely blind to what constitutes a conversion, who converts, the politics involved, the pain involved, or the repercussions that come post-conversion. I do my best to educate folks, and I've enlightened plenty in my time, I think.

The biggest problem, orbiting widely around conversion period, is education. We shelter ourselves unnecessarily, because Judaism tells us "once you convert, you're Jewish," and converts for ages have been encouraged to hide their conversion because, well, who wants to marry the child of a convert or the grandchild of a convert? There's a lot of fear out there about the halachos of converts in the community, and that derives from a lack of education.

So, I ask, what can we do to curb the fear of converts in the Conservadox, Orthodox, and, more importantly, ultra Orthodox communities?


Jon said...

I'll just leave to the side the fact that you decided that your Reform conversion wasn't good enough.

But, let's leave denominational labels to the side for one minute. What is the (ostensible) halakhic basis for the rejection of converts from non-charedi streams? In your case, it couldn't be that there was no tevilah, right? It's that [1] the beit din is void because its judges don't qualify because they are reform/conservative/modern orthodox heretics and [2] that there was no kabbalat mitzvot.

#1 says to 85% of American Jews that your rabbis are heretics and aren't Jewish enough. What do you think that says about their congregations?

#2 is a fabricated "reform" or innovation. The real, traditional halakha is that you would have the ger do one mitzvah after the tevilah and that would seal it. That was the rule for centuries, and still is if you're not politicizing conversion. Now, if someone gets caught not doing something picayune 15 years later that may or may not be a mitzvah according to anyone other than the charedim, their conversion can be rescinded.

#1 is a slap in the face to the institutions of the RCA (even though they cower in fear about this) the RA and the CCAR and their associated movements. That's why it gets a response if you want to be cynical.

Or maybe they just care that #2 is a chillul hashem and can destroy the lives of people.

As for people not caring, they're out there.

Lily said...

Unfortunately, experience dictates that even the Torah-observant crowd are not aware of or try to ignore the mitzvah to love the entirety of Jewry, and then the additional mitzvah on top of that to love the convert.

I am not a convert, but I know quite a few converts. I am often mistaken for a convert by friends who didn't bother asking one way or the other, because I do have a large number of friends who converted(or are in the process). The common theme within the Modern Orthodox communities I have been around has been that conversion only really happens for marriage. After all, why would someone choose to burden themselves with changing their entire lives to willingly be an Orthodox Jew?! Even after learning that I am not a convert, just a baal teshuva, very few frum from birth people can begin to understand what would compel me to become religious. It seems that, like I said, they feel that this sort of a lifestyle is a burden for someone who wasn't born into it.

How do we fix this problem? I have no idea, and I wish I did. Although, education and awareness can't hurt...

Jack Steiner said...

Charedim can say whatever they want, it doesn't mean that is accurate or true.

Too many people treat minhagim as if they are halacha. Too many people spend far too much time trying to out frum the other.

I could care less whether some yid calls me Jewish or not Jewish. I am not Shomer Mitzvot, don't keep Shabbos and enjoy a good treif meal.

But I can go sit down at virtually any Shabbos table and be comfortable because I have a good education.

I made my choices and am comfortable with them. I may change my mind again in the future, but for now...

People have to learn how to shut up and or grow thicker skins. We do so much unnecessary damage to each other.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Jon I never, not once, in the history of this blog, said that my Reform conversion "wasn't good enough." Never. That is all I have to say to you.

D said...

As someone who is not converting to Orthodoxy, I feel that there will always be someone who looks down on me as not enough. Someone will always be able to question what I did and why I did it. Then, most liekly, they will question why I did not go the full way. At times I feel I will spend the rest of my life explaining this. There will always be more mitzvot that I could observe or more Torah that I could memorize.

There will always be someone more observant than I. It reminds me of something my father told me when I was a child, no matter how hard I tried, there would always be someone better than me, and that if I ever did become 'the best' at something, such fame would be short lived. I know that this might be the wrong place for such a comparison, but...well I think that the similarities do show through? I just pray that Hashem will understand that I do the best I can. That doesn't prevent me from feeling that my best is not enough though.

Karen Zampa Katz said...

I believe it is important to separate out the individual from institutional. In my conservative shull I am accepted and have recently been elected to the board. This does not mean that every individual in the place is going to accept me. I know that to be true based on comments made…..this goes for larger institutions as well, if you consider the rhetoric put out by different orthodox/modern orthodox organizations it is no wonder there are problems….and ass to that the shanda of what has been going on in Israel.
Unfortunately some of this education falls on those of us who are converts and those who are empathetic. Our voices and actions must be seen…and not in a fearful way….this is not about hiding on the contrary I believe it is the opposite. Those of you in orthodox communities it is by your being proud of your choices your actions and talking etc that small change in individuals are made. The larger institutional changes mean aspiring to get into positions to change them too….I am on the board…I can help change some problematic things where I am……as far as the extreme sects, unfortunately I do not think there is much hope for acceptance there…..
I believe it is through open dialog and education that this could change….not sure it will but it could.

Anonymous said...

Nothing I can say can ever help get (many) on the Orthodox spectrum comfortable with my conversion because, as far as they are concerned, I'm not a proper Jew. I've even had members of my own Progressive community decide that it is appropriate to call into question my sincerity/validity/ability to contribute to my shul's life. So if I'm struggling with them, what hope can I have in the more traditional Jewish community?

I am so down about this at the moment, I could devote a post to it, but I just don't have the energy.


David Tzohar said...

There have always been ambivalent attitudes to converts. Although I believe that the Torah says 12 times (or is it 16) veahavta et ha ger ( love the convert), in the Gemarra there is the statement that gerim are like a sappachat ( a disease.) In the Shulchan Aruch Even Ha Ezer the halacha is clear that converts cannot marry Kohanim, neither can the children of two converts marry cohanim. If we say in Yiddish "schver tzu zein a Yid" (it is hard to be a Jew) then "ZEHR schver tzu zein a ger! ( it is VERY hard to be a ger) We reject non-Orthodox conversions simply because we reject any form of Judaism that does not accept the concept of divinely revealed oral law and the authority of the chain of tradition from Sinai until today.We also reject their kashrut and all of their rulings on Jewish law and custom.Anyone getting a non Orthodox conversion should be made fully aware that they will never be accepted as Jews by much of the Jewish People and in the case of women neither will their children.

Anonymous said...

I, unfortunately, have heard friends of mine who aren't aware that I am a convert make hurtful comments about converts, particularly those who convert only for marriage--I completely agree that there is often a perception, even in my Conservadox community, that people only convert for marriage and that therefore their motives are and always will be suspect. I, sadly, have met people who fit this description and I think it does all of us a huge disservice! I have found that when I mention the fact that I am a convert, people's perceptions change rapidly and I hope that I have helped to educate people regarding conversion and regarding those who convert with no ulterior motives. I agree that the burden of education falls on us as converts but it also falls on our communities. At the same time, there are many times when I just want to blend in and not bring it up. I realize, however in saying that that that is a luxury few converts have. I eagerly await the day when converts aren't always feeling like they must prove themselves and their Jewishness. Since I know very few Reform converts, I've often wondered if the attitude towards conversion and converts is much more welcoming?

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@David Don't forget: GER in the Tanakh doesn't mean "convert," it means stranger. It never means convert. There is no prescription in the Tanakh for converts or how to convert people or what it means to be a convert. That notion, I think, would be largely foreign to people of that time.

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