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The Honesty of the Convert

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

Joseph Telushkin
September 15, 2010

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.

Joseph Telushkin is the co-author with Dennis Prager of Why the Jews: The Reason for Antisemitism, the Most Accurate Predictor of Evil.