Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew?

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once. We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. – Yevamot 47a

Some snapshots from my own experience as a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism:

– A conversation I had with a non-Jewish relative about a week after my conversion. She said to me, “But you aren’t racially Jewish.”

– A conversation with a leader in my congregation, who said, “You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger,” pointing to our new assistant rabbi.

– A conversation with a fellow congregant at Temple Sinai, who learned that I was applying to rabbinical school: “Are you going to upgrade to an Orthodox conversion?”

– A conversation with a woman who worked for El Al in a security position, right before she allowed me on a flight to Tel Aviv after a 36 hour delay because my story didn’t make sense to secular Israelis: “Why would anyone want to be Jewish if they didn’t have to?”

– A conversation with a supervisor at a chaplaincy internship. After grilling me and finding out that the rabbi who sponsored my conversion was Reform, he said, “I don’t recognize Reform conversions. OK… well, we’ll start with you on the floor with the dementia patients, you can’t do much damage there.”

– A conversation with a woman at a Sisterhood meeting in the San Fernando Valley: “Rabbi, I need to ask you something: [pause for a deep breath] Where did you get your nose done?”

– A conversation with a woman who insisted that she had been Jewish in a previous life, so she didn’t need to convert.

– A letter from an attorney, a week after I got home from my father’s funeral: Seems that a while back Dad had decided I wasn’t his daughter. He disowned me.

– My rabbi, looking me straight in the eye just before my ordination, saying, “This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish people.”

– An email conversation with a guy who told me that he felt Jewish, and that he was the judge of what that meant for him.

– Last year my brother called me and asked me to officiate at his wedding. I did so with pleasure, a simple civil wedding. It meant the world to me that he wanted me to do it, that he still sees me as his sister.

Face it, authenticity and legitimacy are issues when we talk about “becoming Jewish.” Who is really Jewish and what makes them so?

Here’s what I think: Judaism is a family, a big, messy family. There is disagreement about who belongs and who does not, who is “real” and who is not, who is legitimate and who is not. And in my family of origin, as in many families, there is disagreement about who is family and who is not.

A person cannot wish themselves into a family; it’s a relationship that requires participation from both sides. There are many ways that people become part of an extended family: people are born in, or get informally adopted. But there is a point at which membership becomes formal and there is no going back, when one makes a commitment that cannot be easily dissolved. That’s official membership: when there is a commitment on both sides, and any break is a terrible rupture, like divorce. In a regular family, the moment of formality is adoption or marriage. With the Jewish People, it’s conversion: brit milah, tevilah, and a beit din. [Circumcision for men, Immersion in a mikveh, and a rabbinical court.]

When I sit as a member of a beit din, a panel of three rabbis that makes the decision on behalf of the Jewish people to go ahead with the conversion/adoption, questions weigh upon me. Does this person understand what they are getting into? Are they doing it with a whole heart? Are they equipped to participate? Will they be there with us when times are bad, when it’s really hard to be a Jew? Do they mean it, when they say they’ll raise their children as Jews?

There are no guarantees. At some point in the future, this person may disown us. Some other part of the Jewish family will try to disown them, for sure. Whether that works will be up to the individual Jew: some of us learn to say, “I’m sticking around anyway.”

Whatever happens, it will be messy, but it might be destiny, too.

This post first appeared two weeks ago, in a slightly different form.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

17 thoughts on “Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew?”

  1. Bravo! Excellent, thank you! Sometimes your destiny is messy… maybe most of the time it is. But what’s the alternative? Avoiding life? I love this post!

  2. I love your blog, but very frustrated that I am unable to comment. I’ve tried logging into WordPress and Facebook and still unsuccessful.Any suggestions?pamela 

    Pamela FenderAuthorBeside Myself:Recovery From My Family Betrayal and Estrangement – A Memoirhttp://amzn.to/1HsHsywWebsite: http://bit.ly/1cYkO5O“Like” my book on Facebook:http://on.fb.me/1FcWvfz

    From: Coffee Shop Rabbi To: pdfender@yahoo.com Sent: Tuesday, June 30, 2015 10:33 AM Subject: [New post] Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew? #yiv1076582120 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1076582120 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1076582120 a.yiv1076582120primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1076582120 a.yiv1076582120primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1076582120 a.yiv1076582120primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1076582120 a.yiv1076582120primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1076582120 WordPress.com | rabbiadar posted: “The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I [feel” | |

    1. Pamela, I’ve loosened up my settings for moderation, and we’ll see if that fixes it. My best guess is that it’s the hyperlinks in your signature. I’ve increased the number of hyperlinks for automatic approval to 3, and I hope that will do the job.

      The reason wordpress encourages moderation for multiple hyperlinks is that often that’s a sign of spam. Do you have trouble with any other wordpress blogs? I am sorry that you keep being thrown into moderation.

  3. Perhaps some of the folks who spoke disrespectfully to you need to be reminded of the laws of Loshon Hora. Courtesy never goes out of style. You chose to be Jewish (as did my husband, and several of my friends); I celebrate your choice. In fact, you should be commended and welcomed. (In fairness, it’s not just in the Jewish world that I see the kind of judgmental behavior you wrote about– some of the Christians I know seem to have a similar litmus test for who is a “real Christian,” as opposed to someone who they believe is not sufficiently religious.) Sad that too many people are so busy deciding who is and is not up to their standards. One might ask what right they have to judge anyone– isn’t there a verse in the Tanakh that only G-d is the true judge?

    1. You are absolutely right, and you and one other commenter mention, this happens in many contexts. However, I think sometimes it helps some gerei tzedek to know that they are not the only ones to whom such things have been said. And also, it is the case with many human institutions that unkindness gets more of a “pass” than it should. Thank you for your comment – I absolutely agree that only the Holy One is the true Judge!

  4. I wish that there were more rabbis reminding folks about the mitzvah of welcoming (rather than judging) the stranger. In fact, it’s a good lesson for clergy of all religions to speak about. It seems there is far too little courtesy and far too much “I’m more religious than you” or “I’m in the right denomination and you’re not.” Nothing wrong with being proud of one’s faith or one’s religious heritage, but using it as a way to demean someone else, or using it as a way to feel superior, is just wrong. I do hope that in your travels, you have also met people who were happy to know you and enthusiastic about your choice. There are certainly people in the online world who welcome your writings and respect your teachings, so I’d like to believe you meet those people in your daily life as well!

    1. Most of my encounters with Jews have been perfectly fine. I highlighted these because I remember, when I was younger, this sort of thing caused me deep shame. It did that because I did not realize it happens all the time. I also did not understand that others, very legitimate Jews, had the same thing done to them. None of that makes it right, of course! But at least anyone who encounters this piece will get it that they are not the only one.

  5. I had no idea you were also a giyores! That makes me feel even more affection for you!

    I think it is indeed important for other gerim to know that their experiences with hurtful experiences isn’t unique, unfortunately. I’ve also had overwhelmingly positive experiences within the Jewish community, but the negative ones do stand out, and they do hurt. I’ve had an unusual phenomenon happen to me where, because I “blend” so well, people will say things about gerim to me, as if I’m not part of that group! It’s a little strange.

    Sometimes people do need to be reminded about not oppressing the ger, and about how there’s quite a few mitzvos dedicated to how gerim are supposed to be treated with great consideration and sensitivity. It’s no small thing to join this big messy family. 🙂

    1. All the things you mention are reasons that I’ve chosen, as a rabbi, to be open about the fact that I am a giyoret (convert to Judaism). My good experiences far, far outweigh the bad ones, but I think it is important to be honest about the fact that some people behave very badly. They rarely do it in the presence of a rabbi, so many rabbis are unaware and do not prepare candidates sufficiently for it.

      It’s a big messy family, and I love it with all my heart.

  6. Wow… those things mentioned in the article are pretty mean, biased and/or hurtful words for a person to say to another. I guess that they are a part of life in a world with multiple sects, each with their own points of view.

  7. Wow. And I thought some of the comments hurled at me were painful. I made the simple decision that weather I ever converted or not, I would always accept someone’s authentic conversion as valid. If I don’t then I have no right to expect anyone to accept mine.

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