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