Question for My Readers: Conversion

I am working on a project about the experience of conversion to Judaism, and there’s a question I’d like to ask of my readers who converted to Judaism. If you choose to participate, please answer via the Comments on this post.

Please only answer this if you became a Jew after your birth, and you have completed that process – you are officially Jewish.

At what point in the process of conversion or after did you feel unequivocably Jewish?  Was it at some point in the year of living Jewishly, or during your study, or after brit milah, or after the beit din, or after the mikveh, or at some event later? Be as specific as you can – I’m looking for a particular moment at which you were clear that you were definitely Jewish and not anything else.

There are no wrong answers to this question, and I ask readers not to comment on the answers anyone leaves here. I promise to delete any comments upon comments for this one.

I also certainly understand if you prefer not to answer.

Thank you to all who participate!

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A Course in Basic Judaism!

Image: My first “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class, in 2009. Photo by Scott Wexelberg.

Right after the High Holy Days, I start my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” series over again.

Intro to the Jewish Experience is a course in Basic Judaism offered by Lehrhaus Judaica and taught by Rabbi Ruth Adar – me.
Who takes this class? People who for whatever reason never got a basic Jewish education and want one. They may be born-Jewish, they may be considering conversion, they may be marrying into a Jewish family, or maybe they’ve taken a job at a Jewish institution. This class will give a good foundation in the basics, and also some insights about how Jewish communities actually work.
My goal is to equip all my students for whatever Jewish connections they want in their lives.
Class in the San Francisco East Bay:
Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
Online Class:
If Wednesday evenings are not convenient, we offer the same course online on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
The course takes place in three terms, which may be taken in any order:
  • In the Fall (Oct – Dec) Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle Events.
  • In Winter (Jan – March)  Israel & Texts. (History of Judaism and Jewish Texts)
  • In Spring, (April – May) we learn about the the diversity in world Judaism and the similarities that hold us together, in a class we call Traditions of Judaism.

Information about the class is available at the class website, Jewish Experience Online.

 

Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes

Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2

Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work.  And as we will soon see,  mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.

It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”

There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.

He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.

Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.

Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.

Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!

He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.

There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.

Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?

Joining the Jewish Family

Conversion to Judaism is rather like a two-sided adoption: a person approaches the Jewish people, through a rabbi, and says, “I think I’d like to be a Jew.” The Jewish People, through the rabbi, say, “Let’s study.”

The study that ensues is partly intellectual, partly spiritual, and partly emotional.

The intellectual is for most the easiest part: we learn the Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle events, and we learn the prayers. We learn what Jews believe and what Jews do. It looks like a lot to learn, but it is really just a beginning. While even the sage Hillel did not expect candidates for conversion to master everything in order to become part of the Jewish People, it is necessary to learn enough to function as a Jew and to communicate with other Jews. Most Jews, converts or not, continue learning for their entire lives. There are many ways to live out this learning: some study Talmud, some engage in Jewish humor,  some learn how to keep their synagogue afloat, some learn how to nurture their Jewish grandchildren. Learning is part of who we are, and the sea of Jewish knowledge and Jewish wisdom is far too vast to be completely mapped in a single lifetime.

The spiritual part can be tricky. A person may feel attracted to Judaism, and then find that some aspect of Judaism was their fantasy, not the reality. Reality sometimes doesn’t measure up to a romantic or heroic view of Jews. One truly spiritual moment is that in which a person grapples with the discrepancy between their fantasy about Judaism and the real people who make up Am Yisrael (the Jewish People.)

There are also many choices to be made: what parts of the tradition are important to me? Do I love the sound of Hebrew so much that I will learn it? How far am I willing to alter my life to become a Jew? How will I handle it, when I am faced with anti-Semitism? How will I handle it, when another Jew says I’m not really Jewish? Until those moments arrive, we don’t really know how either will feel or how we will handle them.

Emotionally, there is a lot of work to do. Becoming Jewish isn’t just swapping one set of beliefs for another. If a person has any significant connections to another tradition, those need to be evaluated and decisions made. For instance, I grew up as a Catholic in the South. Pork was a comfort food. Halloween was a family tradition. Whenever I heard a siren, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for the people in trouble. I ultimately chose to (1) give up pork chops (2) not observe Halloween beyond offering treats to trick-or-treaters and (3) clenched my hands every time I heard a siren for years, because the habit of crossing myself was ground in so deep it took years to eradicate.

Some things, like making a cross for sirens, were annoying but not difficult. It had gone from being a spiritual practice I learned as a child to being a habit. Even though it took time and effort to quit flapping my right hand around every time an ambulance went by, it was something I wanted to lose.

Other things were harder to change, because I felt a loss. I really loved the taste of pork. It was a comfort food, something from childhood that I was loathe to give up. I still sometimes struggle with that decision, because the connections are so deep. It isn’t just about liking a taste: it is about going home to childhood nourishment. However, I think about all the Jews who went hungry rather than eat it, I think about all the meanness done to Jews on account of it, and I remember that I have thrown in my lot with the Jews.  Also, there is the question: will I allow a craving to dictate to me? Can I not say “no” to this old friend? This is how a Jew eats, I think, and I pass up the pork. (sigh)

Halloween was another hard one. I LOVED the holiday: choosing a costume, making the costume, and later, making costumes and treats for my children. My children did not become Jews when I did, so I kept Halloween going for a while. I didn’t want to take it away from them. Once they were grown, I stopped. I still feel the urge to decorate and wear costumes, but I save it for Purim. (If you are curious about my thinking about Halloween, read the article Halloween Hospitality.)

Processing the changes and losses is work that every convert must do. It’s more pleasant to focus on the gains – after all, that’s why we’re going to all this trouble! – but coming to terms with the hard stuff is part of the process.

These three challenges, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, are what takes up the time between the first conversation and the trip to the beit din and the mikveh. Some material must be mastered, if the person is going to live a Jewish life. A rabbi and a candidate have to explore that person’s attraction to Judaism, and find out how well Judaism fits the attraction. And finally, the emotional work must be well begun, if the conversion is to be a happy one.

It is also important to acknowledge that this process can lead a person to somewhere other than Judaism. One of the reasons we take time with it is that sometimes the introspection of the process reveals that conversion to Judaism isn’t a person’s destination. Maybe they would not be happy as a Jew, or that something about the Jewish community isn’t going to work out for them. Perhaps they are going to be part of Judaism’s extended family of “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) or be a member of some other faith community who happens to be well-educated about Judaism.

A part of me that was restless found a home in Judaism 23 years ago. Torah is still a challenge because it calls me to be the best person I can become. If this is a path that appeals to you, I invite you to find a local rabbi and give it a try.

 

Truly a Child of Abraham and Sarah

Image: Head and shoulders of the Maimonides Memorial in Córdoba, by Amadeo Ruiz Olmos. (Photo Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons)

A convert named Obadiah wrote with questions for the great rabbi Moses Maimonides. The rabbi’s reply has come down to us:

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” – these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).  – from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky.  Behrman House, 1972

Obadiah takes words seriously. He worries that it is presumptuous for him to to include himself in the pronouns “us” and “we” in Jewish prayer, since his biological ancestors were not Jews.  It is a good question.

Maimonides answers him gently but clearly: parenthood is not limited to biology:

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Abraham was not born a Jew, nor was Sarah. Genesis 12 tells us that Abraham chose to say, “Hineni” [Here I am] to God, and to follow God westward.  The story continues:

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had made in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. – Genesis 12:5

What does this mean, “making” souls? [וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן]  Rashi explains to us:

אשר עשו בחרן [THE SOULS] THAT THEY HAD GOTTEN (literally, made) IN HARAN — The souls which he had brought beneath the sheltering wings of the Shechinah. Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women and Scripture accounts it unto them as if they had made them – Rashi on Genesis 12:5

It is from this verb, “asu” or “they made” that we get the teaching that all converts to Judaism are the adopted children of Abraham and Sarah.

In his letter to Obadiah, Maimonides is clear: Obadiah is as truly a son of Abraham as Ishmael or Isaac. He hammers it home, repeating:

There is no difference whatever between you and us.

Whatever tensions there may be among the children of Abraham and Sarah, Maimonides’ words are unequivocal.  No Jew is “more Jewish” than any other.

The Cooking Gene – Book Review

The Cooking Gene is about food and about so much more than food. It is about history, and identity, and memory. It is about the complexity of the American present, about the hidden away memories in plain sight. Michael Twitty’s poetic prose is mesmerizing; my copy arrived one day and I sat down with it, intending to skim. The cream of the text slowed me down and forced me to read one delicious paragraph after another. Hours later I had devoured the whole thing.

In chapter 4, Mr. Twitty addresses the simplicities and complexities of Jewish identity and food. I have never seen such a wonderful description of the links among ethnicity, identity, and gastronomy. He also describes the phenomenon of the longing which brings many of us to Judaism via conversion. I look forward to recommending the book to my students.

As a Southerner, I felt this book returning a part of my soul to me. I grew up with certain erasures and with many things that must never be said. I did not realize what a weight they put on the heart until I began learning from Mr. Twitty and learning to appreciate the unsaid, the uncredited, and the secret aspects of Southern identity.

This book is about holy healing work; it is about the memory in the kitchen. I recommend it without reservation.