Mar 4, 2012

Pledging Jewish Allegiance: Part I

Not that long ago, @bethanyshondark hooked me up with someone who provided me with a review copy of a book that is more than right up my alley: Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa. I'm only halfway through the book, but I felt compelled to write about what I've already read. There are some definite positives and some very clear negatives to this book which were apparent from the get-go. The upside is that the collection of responsim in English translation is, in and of itself, invaluable. I'm able to overlook some very egregious "errors" because of this.

The authors of this volume are David Ellison and Daniel Gordis, the former is the president of Hebrew Union College (a Reform institution) and the latter is a popular speaker on Israel and is the president of the Shalem Foundation. The book was written over a period of a decade, according to the acknowledgements, and I imagine the push to get it printed now, at this very moment, was because of the increased intensity in the U.S. and Israel over the "Who is a Jew?" question regarding conversion.

The first thing that caught my eye in this book was the fact that the entire first chapter discusses the "geir" as meaning convert in the bible. I don't know how many times I have to say it, but there is absolutely zero proof that any use of the term in the bible meant anything other than stranger.
Jewish tradition permits the convert to join the Jewish people but often makes it difficult for him to do so. Even the Bible's word for "convert," geir, reflects this conflict, for geir means not only "convert" but "stranger" as well. The Bible refers to the convert as a geir even after he has joined the Jewish people. (14)
I can't express how distraught I was after reading this. The truth is that I really just wanted to put the book down at this point, because from an academic (and personal) standpoint, this is ignorant academics. In most of the instances in the Bible where this term is used, the understanding is that the individual being called a geir has simply tagged along with the Jewish people, he or she is a stranger among the Israelites. There is no formal layout for conversion at this point in the Israelite narrative, and the closest we truly get to someone in the bible converting is in the story of Ruth, who says that the Israelites will be her people and that their G-d will be her G-d. Other than that, the closest perhaps is Yitro (Moshe's father in law), but even there the rabbis and scholars struggle with whether he "converted" to become an Israelite as he joined the people and then subsequently left -- problematic when community is so important to the conversion narrative.

That being said, the meat of the book is interesting and informative about how we got from the Nineteenth Century to now and what exactly shaped modern-day rulings and concerns about motivation, acceptance of the mitzvoth (commandments) and what that means, and so on. Before I cut myself off (because I don't want to write five-million word long blog posts) I do want to share one thing that will set the stage for us that comes from Tractate Geirim, a minor tractate not formally part of the Mishnah (Oral Torah) and typically dated somewhat later.
Anyone who converts [in order to marry] a woman, for love or out of fear, is not a convert. Thus, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah used to say that all those who converted in the days of Mordecai and Esther are not [valid] converts, as it is written, "and many of the populace were converting to Judaism, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them." And anyone who does not convert lesheim shamayim [for the sake of heaven], is not a [legitimate] convert." (24)
The interesting thing about this particular passage is that it informs what the rabbis discuss in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries -- but not in a way that you might expect. Ultimately, this very specific dictum is brought into question amid a rise in intermarriage and the Enlightenment period.

So I'll leave this one at this for now. Stay tuned for a multi-series look at some of the responsim and exactly what they mean for us today.

Particularly! Look out for what Maimonides has to say on the whole thing. It might surprise and delight you!


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