Talking About Converts

Image: Several people gossip about distressed woman. (Andrey Popov/shutterstock)

I am open about the fact that I was not born Jewish. That is a deliberate choice on my part. I have made the decision to be open about my background because I find it helpful to my work.

I worry that my openness may mislead readers into thinking that it’s OK to talk about converts. You can talk about conversion all you want. You can talk about yourself all you want. But if you talk about someone else’s conversion, you are violating an important tradition.

Jewish tradition is very clear that we are NOT to talk about other people in general. We are especially not supposed to mention the fact that a person is a convert to them or to anyone else. They can talk about their history, if they choose, but we must not mention it without their permission. We should get their permission each time we talk about them to someone else.

We are also commanded not to listen to anyone else who breaks this rule: no listening to gossip about who’s a convert. No speculating, either.

We can’t ask about how a person became Jewish, no matter how curious we are, or how friendly we feel. Our intention doesn’t matter – our behavior does.

Why this tradition? As with many commandments, it’s there because our inclination as human beings is to be curious and gossipy. It is human to notice differences and exclude people on account of them. Torah calls us to do better, and it gives us rules (commandments, mitzvot) that help us be better people that we’d otherwise be.

Beside the obvious, walking up to someone and asking, “Are you a convert?” there are subtler things we should avoid.

  • Don’t assume that a person with browner skin than yours is a convert to Judaism. They might be a descendant of Maimonides or Solomon.
  • Don’t assume that the person walking down the hall at synagogue with Asian features is a convert.
  • Don’t assume that someone with ben Avraham v’Sarah after his Hebrew name is a convert. Guys named Abraham have been known to marry a Sarah and have kids.
  • Don’t assume that Jim O’Malley is a convert to Judaism. His Hebrew name might be Nachum ben Moshe v’Shirah.
  • Don’t assume that if someone has a funny accent, they must be a convert.
  • Don’t assume that if someone is a convert, they did it to “marry in.” Some of us become Jewish because it is our heart’s desire.
  • Don’t assume that if someone converted in connection with a marriage, that it was insincere. Falling in love with a Jew might have been the first step towards falling in love with Judaism.
  • Don’t assume that if a woman is a convert, she did it to find a Jewish husband.
  • Don’t assume that a convert is any more or less observant than you are.
  • Don’t assume that a convert likes telling their story again and again.

Whether you became Jewish in the waters of your mother’s womb or in the waters of the mikveh it is painful to be separated from the Jewish People, especially if a fellow Jew is doing the separating.

Don’t gossip about someone’s Jewish history; it is hurtful.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn. – Hillel the Elder, Shabbat 31a

 

Advertisements

Published by

rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

8 thoughts on “Talking About Converts”

  1. I found this posting on the same day as your posting about Converts.

    As though the two of you planned one posting after another.

    FYI

    Jonathan Minsberg

    Minneapolis Minnesota

    ________________________________

    Like

  2. Exactly! I’m suuuuuuuper obviously not the typical Jewish “look” and am open about being a convert. I’m generally not touchy about it, because I find the incredulity of born Jews pretty funny, if sad. But I do get annoyed when people look at my “Jewish-looking” husband and then simper at me in an obvious assumption that I converted for him. (Actually, I did that on my own like a big girl, and anyway he’s Christian, but supporting our Jewish home.)

    I have never understood why Judaism says on the one hand that a convert is a Jew, full-stop, don’t ask or gossip… but then calls us “ger” — foreigner/alien. I hate the term ger. It’s so othering.

    Like

    1. In Jewish legal discussion there needs to be a word. In Biblical Hebrew “ger” refers only to resident aliens. In Rabbinic Hebrew it means convert, not resident alien. The rabbis were making the point that Jews should accept other Jews, despite arrival methods.

      The othering preceded the term, but without the term, we’d lack the commandment.

      Like

  3. Wonderful post, thank you. I would add: don’t think that you are very clever and the person you are questioning has NO idea what you’re digging at. They do know and they are at best annoyed.

    I alerted my born Jewish niece that when she, a black woman, married a white man people would assume that he was “the Jew.” I would love for people to just assume that we all belong here, in Jewish spaces, so no need to verify how any of us got there.

    Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham was having a discussion with his congregation a few years ago about the diversity of the community. As some adults struggled with accepting appearance, he turned to his then 10 year old son and asked him, “what do you think when you see someone who looks Black or Asian in the shul?” His son replied, “They must be Jewish; why else would they be here.”

    I’d like for us to go with the 10 year old perspective, if you’re in the synagogue you must belong here… you’re probably Jewish.

    Thank you, I look forward to sharing this post!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments or Questions? Speak up!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s