Judaism, Racism, and Converts

Image: Person immersing in water. (free-photos / pixabay)

Currently on Twitter there is an argument raging as to whether Jews are a “race.” Leaving aside the fact that race is a social construct to begin with, I am increasingly angry at arguments that insist that DNA determines Jewishness and that Judaism is a race.

Converts to Judaism are legitimate Jews, no matter their skin color or ancestry. Stop erasing us by insisting that Jews are a race. Jews are a people, and that is not the same thing.

Read the paragraph above a few times, please. Let it sink in. The gerei hatzedek, the people for whom we ask a reward in the Tzadikim section of the weekday Amidah, are real Jews, not “Jews Lite” or “Jews Sorta:”

May your compassion, O God our God, be aroused over the righteous and over the godly; over the leaders of your people, the house of Israel and over the remnant of their sages; over the true proselytes and over us. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name, and place our lot among them; may we never come to shame, for in you we trust. Blessed are you, O God, you who are the stay and trust of the righteous.

– from the Amidah in Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, pp 88-90 with adjustments for modern English. Emphasis mine.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process. We have learned, by the time we get to the mikveh, that some Jews will refuse to accept us as genuine. We embrace Torah anyway.

We have been told about anti-Semitism, and in many cases, we encounter it from old friends or even from relatives – we know what we are signing up for. We embrace Torah anyway.

We know that if we are blessed with children, we have signed those children up for the hatred of anti-Semites and the skepticism of racist Jews, and we embrace Torah anyway.

As no less an authority as Maimonides asserted in a letter to the ger Obadiah in the 12th century:

since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and usDo not consider your origin as inferior. 

Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky.  Behrman House, 1972

We are here. We are genuine. Stop erasing us with foolish racist arguments.

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Ask the Rabbi: “I’m studying for conversion, and the rise in anti-Semitism scares me.”

Image: My Jewish congregational family, gathered in the shelter of a chuppah for a blessing. (Photo: Temple Sinai website.)

“Dear Rabbi Adar, I’ve been studying for conversion for the past several months, and the rise in anti-Semitism really scares me.”

The questions usually arrive without question marks. It’s not hard to see the question in there: “What am I getting myself into?” or even “Why would any sane person sign up to be part of a people who are so hated?”

When I get these notes, I try to answer honestly: Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s getting worse. No, I don’t know what will happen in the future.

The other thing I emphasize is that this is not a test. It is OK to be scared. It is OK to say, this is too scary and it’s not for me. It is also OK to say, yes, it’s scary but I choose to continue on the path to Judaism.

One of the things my rabbi said to me when I was a candidate back in the 1990’s has stuck with me ever since: “You don’t have to become a Jew for us to think you are a good person. You are already a good person, without conversion.” What pushed me forward was my own desire, my own need to become part of the Jewish family.

I have never regretted becoming a Jew. I give thanks every morning that God has made me a Jew, and the Jewish people were willing to have me. At the same time, I won’t lie: we are living through a frightening time in history. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are a part of American life at the moment.

The last thing I say to people who send me these notes is: Go talk to your rabbi. Tell them about your feelings and confusion. You will not flunk Judaism for saying that you are uncertain. It is in confronting those fears that we sort out who we want to be, what we want for our children, what we want for our descendants. There is no single right answer, only the answer deep in your own heart.

Go sit with the Jews, when you feel shaky. It may seem counterintuitive, but as a people, we draw strength from one another. When bad things happen, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my mishpakhah, with my Jewish family. Whether that’s in my synagogue, or someone else’s synagogue, or at teh Jewish Film Festival, I feel better when I am surrounded by my people – and that’s how I know for sure that they are, indeed, my people.

What is a Jew?

Image: A person holding a question mark in front of their face. (anemone123/pixabay)

What is a Jew? Today I assisted with the rituals associated with conversion to Judaism (beit din and mikveh). It set me to thinking about the process and these are some admittedly disjointed thoughts that I’ve been juggling. I thought writing might help, which is has, somewhat.

The usual question is “Who is a Jew?” which has come to be the standard opener for a discussion about qualifications for Jewishness. People often say, “Oh that’s simple!” and say “Jewish mother, or converted” but it isn’t that simple. There are differences among various denominations of Jews, plus arguments about what constitutes a valid conversion, and then you add in all the 21st century options for childbearing and we’re off to the races.

And anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about right now. What is a Jew?

We could look at the process of conversion as magic: someone is not-a-Jew then splish-splash in the mikveh and whoo! She’s a Jew! Presto-change-o! Except that it doesn’t work that way at all.

It isn’t magic. It’s a slow process that ideally takes time, because an adult identity has to make some significant shifts to move from “not-a-Jew” to “Jew.” The halakhic ritual markers are part of that, but by themselves they do not transform someone from one state to another.

So I repeat: What is a Jew?

A Jew stands in relationship with all the other Jews on earth. We stand together in something I will call the Jewish circle, meaning that everyone inside of it is a Jew and everyone outside isn’t a Jew. That circle also includes three to four thousand years of ancestors, depending upon whom you ask. Sometimes it feels crowded.

A Jew has some awareness of being a Jew. The person who suddenly discovers Jewish ancestry is not necessarily a Jew: first of all, that ancestry may not qualify them under the “Who’s a Jew” discussion, but secondly they may already feel connected elsewhere. A person who understands themself to be in relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Jew.

A Jew feels connected to other Jews. That may be a warm fuzzy feeling but it may also be a feeling of intense irritation, or of a terrifying threat. Jews notice other Jews in the news. Some Jews scour everything Jew-ish out of their lives, because being associated with Jews is anything from a nuisance to a source of terror.

A Jew is not described by belief. Some Jews have very definite ideas about God, which differ from other Jews with equally definite ideas about God. Other Jews are not so sure, and prefer to “do Jewish” than to spend time speculating on theology. Still other Jews are atheists or agnostics. All are Jews.

As a rabbi, I have learned definite criteria for “Who is a Jew?” I have also encountered people who are quite sure they are Jews, and who do not meet the criteria I learned. After watching them and listening to them for a while, I am inclined to agree with them, but I confess I would be more comfortable if they availed themselves of the ritual process of gerut (conversion.) Rabbis are trained to be uncomfortable with fuzzy boundaries. That is partly because many Jews don’t like fuzzy boundaries, either, especially when it comes to questions like, “Is this person a Jew or not?”

A Jew is a person apart. We are not alone, because we are with other Jews in the Jewish circle. But the perception of both the world and the Jews is that Jews are different, apart. Words such as “chosen” or “special” are sometimes used to denote that quality, but most of us learn to be wary of those words, because they are loaded.

When I first became a Jew, a quarter-century ago, a wise friend said to me, “Mazal tov! The good news is, you will never be alone again. The bad news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the family.” That may be the best answer I will ever find to my question, “What’s a Jew?”

Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

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!

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.