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The Honesty of the Convert

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.(Random House)

As we approach Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin—author of Nextbook Press’s Hillel: If Not Now, When?—answers questions submitted by Tablet Magazine readers.

I converted to Judaism over twenty years ago under the auspices of a Conservative rabbi. I’ve been at different levels of observance over the years and consider myself moderately observant now. I am a member of a synagogue but sometimes attend services at others. My question is whether or not I have an obligation to tell people when I attend an Orthodox synagogue that I am a Conservative convert, especially if I’m the tenth for a minyan or when I’ve been given an aliyah (and, on occasion, chanted Torah). Personally, I believe that it’s none of their business and, furthermore, would put them in the uncomfortable position of having to either relax their halachic standards for me as a person or to reject me as a fellow Jew.

The answer to your question is, to my mind, clear, but also very sad. Indeed, for reasons I will soon explain, your letter made me sad. And I apologize in advance if anything in my reasoning causes you pain.

But first, the answer. I believe you are morally obligated to make your status as a non-Orthodox convert known in those instances in which your status has legal implications. Thus, if you are one of a hundred men in attendance at a prayer service at an Orthodox synagogue, there would be no reason for you to go around announcing that you are a Conservative Jew-by-choice. However, in instances in which your status has legal ramifications, such as being one of only ten men constituting a minyan, I believe you are morally obligated to inform others of your status. Since Jewish law dictates that only a Jew can be counted in a minyan, these people will feel misled if a person whom they—although not the rest of the Jewish community—regard as a non-Jew represents himself as being one.

And why does your letter make me sad? Because, as I explain in my book, I believe that the Jewish community is in desperate need of working out an agreement among the movements through which all conversions can be mutually recognized. This would involve all conversions being done according to the rituals of Jewish law (involving use of a mikvah and the circumcision of males—in the U.S., where most men are circumcised all that is a required is a drop of blood from the area of the male organ), as well as a somewhat more liberal understanding of what constitutes acceptance of “the yoke of the commandments.”

I admire your ethical sensitivity in raising this issue, and I pray that this whole issue can be resolved.

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As someone in the same situation as your letter writer, I would have to disagree. I converted with some Rabbis 3 decades ago. I suppose they were “Conservative” but was it my responsibility to check their tzitzit? How should I know the authority of their smicha? They were known to me as Shabbat observing Jews, who conducted an halachicly valid conversion process.

I converted, they did not convert me. Yes, they constituted the beit din, but who today will go back and prove that they weren’t Shabbat observing Jews? It’s an almost unanswerable question, and even if we could figure out who they were across the misty reaches of time and that there was some flaw in their level of piety or in the chain of smicha upon which they based their learning, would that be the right thing to do?

That conversion was then followed by, oh about 30 years of living as a sometimes observant, sometimes not observant, ordinary American Jew. I am more than comfortable with who I am as a Jew, and seldom give the matter any thought. Am I supposed to worry other people about a maybe / possibly / who knows problem that is ultimately based on a schismatic and exclusivist approach to halacha? Nah. I own my life and my Jewish identity, and I’d go so far as to say that if, as a Jew who happens to have converted with a beit din that included Conservative rabbis, you believe that they had the authority to perform that conversion then you should honor those people by not calling what they did, or the life that you have led since then, into question.

If you believe in the people who welcomed you into the Jewish people and their vision of Torah and halacha, then honor them by assuming and acting on the basis of their legitimacy. If you yourself question whether their authority was valid, or whether you are a Jew, well that is another matter. But you have no obligation to delegitimize yourself before others, or to cooperate in their fears.

So it seems to me.

This is the kind of debate that kills the spirit. It’s People of the Book, not People of the Blood. By denying conversions, the heart of Judaism is abdicated to the Inquisitors.

This is very sad. I agree with the first commenter, that it is not the obligation of the convert to determine whether their conversion meets other people’s criteria. How could you possibly know? Aren’t their Halachic prohibitions about questioning gerim in this regard – i.e. wouldn’t it be prohibited for the other 9 Jews in the minyan to interrogate the gerim about the facts of their conversion?

I certainly agree with the Rabbi that a single, consolidated conversion process should be put into place, along the lines he described. A high level of required Jewish scholarship, with a reasonable expectation of observance. Mikvah and Brit Milah required.

I’d like to know what halachic principle the Rabbi thinks requires a ger who sincerely believes that he is a Jew to publicly question his own status as a Jew.

I recall some old responsa addressed how you would know if a stranger who came to town was a Jew or not. The answer boiled down to “if he behaves like a Jew, you assume he is a Jew.” based on “does he observe mitzvot, keep the Shabbat, etc?” The question called from a doorway “are you Jewish? can you help us make a minyan?” is an old one. It never in my experience included a discussion of birth mothers or conversion by an approved beit din!

But we’ve all been inspected at a strange synagogue: “what’s your name, where are you from, what schule?” and other Jewish geography questions. I am aware of no halachic justification for this kind of social vetting.

A ger has no obligation to proclaim that he/she is a ger, in most circumstances (with a few rare exceptions, like marriage to a Cohen, duly noted). Asking the ger to both proclaim him/herself and to call into question his/her own status takes that humiliation to a whole other level.

In the rabbi’s view the “feelings of being misled” of nine men carry greater weight than the humliation of a ger tzedek who may have lived for 20 years as a Jew. What I think he’s really saying to the letter writer is that he doesn’t believe that the writer is Jewish, because if he did believe that he would recognize the imperative of not humiliating the ger.

The whole question of minyan, notwithstanding the Shulkan Aruch’s machmeer approach, is in any case historically more fluid. A boy holding a Torah can count in an emergency, said Rabenu Tam, for example, but the Rabbi doesn’t want to risk counting a sincere convert of 20 years as the tenth on the basis of what is truly a safek that could go either way concerning the Jewish status of the individual. He would risk his humiliation for the comfort of 9.

Interesting choice.

I agree with Rabbi Telushkin’s suggestion that all streams of Judaism recognize all conversions which meet the basic halakhic requirements. People who choose Judaism will gravitate toward those communities in which they feel comfortable, whether it is Reform or Haredi, so nobody is going to be forced to hang out in a community inundated with converts with very different observance. There is not nearly enough attention paid to the seriousness with which converts of all stripes make the decision to become Jews, and how much many of them leave behind in order to become part of our people. For whatever reason there is a widespread assumption that non-Orthodox converts got “quickie” conversions and even those for nefarious purposes. But the reality is the vast majority of non-Orthodox converts study for a year or more with a rabbi prior to conversion, and once converted they live Jewish lives and are deeply involved in their Jewish communities. They need to be embraced as Jews, and for this to happen all groups may need to be willing to compromise a little; the unity that would result couldn’t hurt.

When asked, an answer that has worked well for me is,
“G-d both see’s and accepts me as a Jew!”
” Anyone has any further questions on the subject, ask him!”

I for one (as a twice converted Jew by choice) agree with Telushkin 100%. I think he’s spot on regarding the ethical considerations that I (and I would argue others ) must face as a non-Orthodox convert. I stand by the notion (at least with things as they are currently) that each community has the right to set its own standards for observance and with regard to who is or is not a Jew. I also stand by the notion (again based on how things are currently) no group of Jews have the right to monopolize status outside of their own communities. Until I decide to become an Orthodox Jew I have no right to expect to be counted as part of a minion inside an Orthodox shul. That being said, outside of their shul on neutral territory, I have every right to (and I will) defend my status as a legitimate Jew. Also, should an individual who would deny my status inside their own community, find themselves at my shul. Their inability to recognize me as legitimate would be their problem not mine and I would have no problem telling them that flat out.

When it boils down to it my motto is “find the community you want to belong to and then do what you need to do so that they can embrace you with open arms but don’t assume it’s going to be accepted outside of the community you’ve chosen”. Be happy where you are. If at some point things change and one finds that they can no longer be happy with their community then they need to find a new one where they can be. If that includes re-converting, so be it.

invisible_hand says:

i think this is a horrible thing. this is essentially asking who has the right to deem persons jewish or not.
could a parallel case could be instructed if an orthodox convert attends minyan at a conservative shul?
this sort of outsourcing of jewish authenticity to one segment of the population is utterly unfair and unjust not only to those individuals who have sought to become members of this eternal nation, but also to the entire people.

though i sympathize and appreciate your sensitivities, rabbi telushkin, i must say that your advice essentially denies the categorical legitimacy of this gentleman’s conversion. that is what is at stake here: not the particular acceptance by any one community (in contraversion to avi m.) but the essential legitimacy of jewish status. if one’s jewishness can be questioned by any one group, then it is never safe. it is always possible for another, more extreme, group to arise and delegitimize that person’s jewish status.

This is a tragic and difficult situation. Reform and Conservative Rabbis conducting conversion have the moral obligation to inform the convert that their conversions are not recognized in the majority of Jewish communities in the world. Most synagogues, in particular outside the US are Orthodox. They need to be honest and tell them the reason. “We have set up new standards of belief and observance outside the historical mainstream of Judaism.”.

On the flip side rabbis who follow traditional Halachic norms in the Orthodox community need to sensitive to this unique situation. Many non orthodox converts has motives that are noble. They seek a connection to Judaism. They need to be treated with compassion and care.

I heard an Orthodox rabbi told a Conservative leader some years ago when asked about a joint conversion program as suggested by Telushkin. “How can we conduct joint conversions when the leader of the largest Conservative congregation in LA does not believe in the first line of the Ten Commandments” relating to the statements of Rabbi David Wolpe that questioned the truth of the Exodus.

Liberal Rabbis can do as they choose. But it it nothing more than theological imperialism for them to demand that all accept their unilateral changes to Jewish belief and observance. Its time for them to be honest,(its almost consumer fraud), and tell converts “Jews in most communities belong to synagogues that follow Halacha, you will not be considered a Jew since I do not follow Halacha nor believe in Judaism as they do”

Instead they create a false issue about “religious liberty and rights” when really its their unilateral acts of changing Jewish standards that are creating this crisis. The shame in many well intentioned converts are caught in the middle.

Excuse me Reauvain but there is no halachic concept of a “Reform” or a “Conservative” Rabbi, particularly in regards to conversion. What there are are beiti din comprised of Shabbat observant Jews who, as such, are fully authorized by halacha to attest to immersion, circumcision and kabalat ol malkut shamaim.

The assertion that it can be known, long after the fact, that a particular beit din was not comprised of Shabbat observing Jews who can accept a convert is the problem here. The fact that the original rabbis were “Conservative” tells you nothing about their actual standards of practice and personal piety, and therefore nothing about whether they constituted a legitimate beit din, and therefore nothing about whether the person is or is not a convert in an halachic sense.

The willingness to assume that the beit din was not legitimate, in absence of any evidence other than the claim that the Rabbis were “Conservative” is what is purely political here.

The willingness to stick to that assumption to the point of saying that a ger should embarrass himself and delegitimize himself is what shows you how out of touch with some core Jewish ideas some people allow themselves to become.

Oh, and that’s an interesting standard: “must ‘believe in” the first line of the Ten Commandments.” Last time I checked that was Christianity that required doctrinal beliefs for conversion. Kabalat ol malkut shamaim is by no means the same thing as asserting a particular set of beliefs. Thinking of another religion maybe?

Daniel says:

I am a Jew-by-choice (I loathe that phrase) who converted under a Conservative beit din, complete with mikveh and hatafat dam brit, while under the tutelage/sponsorship of a Reform rabbi.

The question asked of Rabbi Telushkin is, in my opinion, a good question. I am fully aware that the Orthodox will not let me play in their games. That’s OK with me. I don’t agree with them and they don’t agree with me. But does the questioner have an obligation to disclose his eligibility for an Orthodox minyan? To me, the answer is an emphatic OF COURSE! It’s the Orthodoxy’s playground and you should respect their house rules. Whether or not the respect you’re showing them is (or will ever be) reciprocated is not your problem.

When I was a Christian (Protestant) I wouldn’t think of taking communion at a Roman Catholic Church. I was not allowed to under their rules. I thought communion to be an important ritual act, so what did I do? I went to the Episcopal Church where I was allowed to participate. Admittedly it bothered me less then than it does now with Judaism as I never felt fully Christian, but I think the example is still legitimate.

For the questioner, all I would say in that situation is that “I am not eligible for a minyan according to your ossified interpretation of halakha.”

Upon second thought, you had better leave the “ossified” part out. ;-)

L’Shalom.
Dan

Rivka Yehudit says:

I agree with the Rabbi 100%. Sounds to me like the questioner is looking to prove a point somehow. He needs to realize that the Orthodox take their rules (halacha) very seriously and for a non-orthodox convert to disregard those rules, it is very disrespectful. The questioner doesn’t have to be explicit in his reasons against taking an aliyah. All he has to do is decline the invitation; people will assume what they will. As for an orthodox convert davening (praying) at a conservative or reform shul, orthodox conversions are accepted in all branches of Judaism; therefore, it’s not an issue.

Daniel says:

Rivka, you are correct in emphasizing the inclusiveness of the Reform and Conservative movements. It is a shame that North American neo-Orthodox rabbis sometimes don’t even accept each other’s conversions.

And you, Rivka, are more than welcome to daven as part of a minyan anywhere – except in an Orthodox shul, of course.

Many, many Jews are questioning circumcision from many perspectives including religious, ethical, and spiritual as well as men, women, and parents.

Jews Against Circumcision
http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org

Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective
http://www.jewishcircumcision.org

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Palemo says:

A conversion is halachically valid unless proven otherwise. The question is why appeal to narrow definitions.
Haredi definitions of conversions is like tribal warlord politics. Either or, they’re narrow. Because according to their standards, if a convert doesn’t follow their rigid standards 101% of the time, either the conversion becomes invalidated by the Haredi rabbi, who performed it, or if not, then it’s one standard for them and another standard for Conservative rabbis. Because then, if Haredi converts have ulterior motives, it’s still valid. But if Conservative converts have ulterior motives, it’s not and it’s then “proof” that all Conservative conversions are invalid. Seriously, Haredi definitions of valid conversions are soo stupid beyond belief. If ultra-Orthodox synagogues don’t like that Jews who don’t fit their narrow definitions, pray with them, then that’s just tough luck on them and their narrow definitions.

Palemo says:

Btw, disregard my last message, which I’m trying to get deleted.

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The Honesty of the Convert

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

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