Our Interfaith Family

Image: Aaron, Linda, Ruth, and Jim, at the Alameda County Courthouse for our civil wedding on July 19, 2013. Photo by random stranger.

My family is an interfaith family.

I became a Jew 20 years ago this summer. At the time I had two middle school age sons who already had a sense of who they were, and they were not interested in becoming Jewish. I put my rabbi’s business card up on the refrigerator and told the boys that they were welcome to contact Rabbi Chester if they had any complaints about me.

They were charmed. Middle schoolers love to have options, especially for complaining about their parents.

Both guys became knowledgeable about Judaism. They visited Israel with me. Jim picked up a little Hebrew. Aaron asked thoughtful questions about Israeli life.

When I decided to apply for rabbinical school, they were supportive. “Go for it, Mom!” Part of my attraction to the rabbinate was that I loved learning ways to make our home both authentically Jewish and authentically their home, too. The creativity of good rabbinic work appealed to me, still does.

I moved to Jerusalem in 2002, just as the younger son, Jim, started college. The second intifada was at its height. Someone asked Jim what he would do “if your mother gets blown up.” I was horrified by the question. He coolly said, “I’d call our rabbi, of course.”

OUR rabbi. I have to admit, I loved hearing him say that.

Periodically one or the other will call me and say, “Mom, I have a rabbi question.” Usually it’s a question that a Jewish friend has asked them. (Ironies abound.) Occasionally, they are curious about how something looks through a Jewish lens. They keep me on my toes.

They aren’t Jews. They aren’t interested in becoming Jews. That’s fine. They are part of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that left Egypt with the Jews, traveled with the Jews, has always been part of the Jewish community.

Neither one is particularly comfortable with ritual or formal religion. They don’t come over for Shabbat dinner, and they don’t celebrate Jewish holidays with us. As a family, we celebrate birthdays, and national holidays, and fun things like Pi Day.

When I was ordained they came to the service. When I stepped out from under the chuppah and Rabbi Levy announced me as Rabbi Ruth Adar, Aaron hollered from the back of the sanctuary, “WAY TO GO, MOM!”

When Linda and I were married under the chuppah at Temple Sinai, nine years ago this month, they were both there. They could not witness our ketubah (since they aren’t Jews) but they celebrated with us. When the State of California finally decided to let us get married in a civil ceremony, they were our witnesses.

Next month Jim is getting married to his sweet bride in a civil ceremony. There will be Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and assorted Christians and agnostics – and that’s just the family.

Our interfaith family.

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

Image: A young man putting on a tallit. Photo by 777jew at pixabay.com.

I have been a big fan of the “Wrestling with God” blog for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way. (Yes – leave a comment and I’ll check out your blog. But leave a token comment, e.g. “Cool blog!” and I’ll just delete it. SAY something, please.)

What I love about Adam’s blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”? Adam just keeps posting what’s on his mind – and what’s on his mind is often the sort of thing on the minds of many new Jews.

In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

Wrestling With God

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning…

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The Yolk of Heaven

Image: a soft-boiled egg in a cup, the top removed. By TanteTati.

A good editor is worth her weight in pearls.

I regularly write divrei Torah for a quarterly newsletter.  I love working with this particular editor, because (1) she makes my writing better and (2) she keeps me from making a fool of myself.

This week, I sent in a d’var Torah in which I mentioned the concept Ohl HaShamayim. It means “the yoke of Heaven” and refers to the burden of Jewishness. According to Jewish teaching, before I was Jewish, I was only responsible for being a decent human being. In becoming a Jew, I took on additional responsibilities. Things that before had been “good deeds” were now requirements. I had a responsibility to wrestle with those requirements and (as a Reform Jew) to figure out how I was going to observe them.

For instance, there are responsibilities regarding the food I put in my mouth. Some Jews take the traditional approach and keep kosher by the standards that have been in place for hundreds of years. Others meet those requirements by keeping a vegan or vegetarian diet, or by asking a lot of questions about the sources of food, the treatment of animals and people in its production, and the ecological “footprint” of that food. Others observe food restrictions on Yom Kippur and during Passover. But all Jews have a responsibility to engage with the commandments concerning food.

In writing about the Ohl HaShamayim, I made a silly error: I wrote “yolk of Heaven” instead of “yoke of Heaven.” Fortunately, my editor caught the mistake and fixed it, so now I do not have egg on my face (or my shoulders.)

egg-951588_640
… The Yolk of Heaven?

But I can’t get that image out of my head: The Yolk of Heaven.

Did you know that an egg itself is a giant cell, and the yolk is its nucleus?  It’s the part with the potential for life.

The yolk of the egg is the soft, creamy center, the part that is rich with fat and runny with flavor. It’s sticky and decadent and downright yummy. It’s also incredibly nutritious.

Overcooked, the yolk grows rather chalky and gray, less appetizing. A properly cooked egg is a matter of art and individual taste: a runny center within a firm white nimbus.

With a little olive oil, an egg yolk may be whipped into mayonnaise (real mayo, not the bottled stuff.) With butter, lemon juice, cream and heat, it may be teased into hollandaise sauce. With cream, sugar, and vanilla, a yolk becomes créme anglaise.

Now think about Torah, the Yolk of Heaven, Chelmon HaShamayim. It is the nucleus of the Jewish cell, the center of our existence, containing the DNA of our way of life. It is sweet but complex, rich and sticky, incredibly nutritious. Overcook it, pick it to pieces, and it will lose its flavor, but treat it with respect and it will enrich all other aspects of life.

So what do you think? Mistake or metaphor?

Take a bite and see.

 

Meeting a Rabbi About Conversion

A reader wrote to me and asked: “Tomorrow I’m going to meet with a rabbi to ask about conversion. How should I prepare for that meeting?”

First of all, you’re on the right track! Meeting with a rabbi is the first step on a path to conversion. You may have been reading and studying, you may even have been going to services, but until you meet with a rabbi, it’s all academic.

As for “preparing” – Just go and be yourself. If you can speak the words, “I’m interested in conversion to Judaism,” that’s good enough. The rabbi can help you from there.

Some things to know:

  1. There is a very old tradition in which rabbis send a person who inquires about conversion away three times before actually having the conversation. While I don’t know of any Reform rabbis who currently follow that tradition, you may encounter a rabbi who does. On the other hand, if the rabbi says, “I don’t do conversions” then ask for a referral – or just go find another rabbi yourself.
  2. If you get what seems like a lukewarm welcome, understand that this, too, is part of the tradition. Jews don’t proselytize, and we have been on the receiving end of many efforts to convert us. Therefore we tend to hang back and not get too excited when someone says, “Hi! I want to be a Jew!” You aren’t unwanted. We just want to make sure it’s what you really want. Persist.
  3. No rabbi is going to rush to sign you up for conversion. It’s a very serious step. This first meeting is just that – a first meeting. Even if you choose to work with this rabbi, you have at least a year of studying and living Jewishly before an actual conversion.
  4. You do not have to convert with the first rabbi you meet. If you are comfortable with that rabbi, great. If you aren’t comfortable, then maybe this rabbi isn’t the right rabbi. Try another one. We’re all different.
  5. Questions are OK. Questions are encouraged.

I wish you the very best with your first meeting, and with your journey, wherever it takes you!

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.

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

Online Conversion? Online Classes?

This morning I had a comment from a reader that he deleted before I could reply to it. The gist, as I recall: Why shouldn’t a person take online classes as part of preparation for conversion? Reading it on my smartphone, I realized that I’d communicated something poorly. I flagged the question to answer when I got to my laptop – but then it was gone. I am grateful that this person’s question has prompted me to clear up some confusion.

I’ve come out pretty strongly against online conversion to Judaism in two separate blog posts: Can I Convert to Judaism Online? and Online Conversion, Revisited. The very short version of my reasoning is that conversion to Judaism isn’t a private matter; a candidate needs to have a local community of Jews with whom to live Jewishly. Ideally, that community will have a rabbi with whom a candidate can work towards conversion.

The process of conversion normally includes at least a  year of living Jewishly, an Introduction to Judaism class, pastoral counseling and study with a rabbi, and significant Jewish involvement before one moves to the mohel, the mikveh, and the beit din to fulfill the requirements for conversion. The reason it takes so long is that once a person becomes Jewish, they and the Jews are stuck with one another. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: All Israel is responsible, one for another. This is a very big deal, not to be entered upon lightly.

Anyone is welcome to take an Introduction to Judaism class online or offline. Taking the class is not conversion; it’s a step towards conversion, no more. I strongly recommend that anyone who wants the class to “count” towards conversion find the rabbi first and get their approval on it, lest you wind up having to take yet another Intro class, spending more time and tuition.

I will confess to having a stake in this, since I teach an Introduction to Judaism class that is available online. The next starting point for that class will be in the spring, on April 3, 2016. It is a 24 session course, offered in three parts, and costs $270 for the complete series.

I have had students who work with Reform, Conservative, and Renewal rabbis take my classes. If your rabbi would like to talk with me to consider whether the class is suitable for their process, I am happy to do that.

However, I don’t sponsor candidates for conversion, on- or off-line. I’m not a congregational rabbi, and I firmly believe that it is best to convert into a Jewish community, not just “to Judaism.” If you are seeking a rabbi with whom to convert, be sure and check out their credentials. The acceptability of your conversion in various Jewish communities will depend on your rabbi’s credentials. There is no “ultimate” conversion: even if you go through an Orthodox conversion there will be some communities that do not recognize it. However, what you want is a rabbi whose credentials will qualify you for the Jewish community with whom you want to live. An ethical rabbi will explain to you the realities of conversion with that rabbi.

So that’s the story. I teach Intro (I love teaching Intro!) and I do teach it online. I don’t sponsor people for conversion. My class is suitable for people studying for conversion provided their rabbi approves it, and it is also suitable for anyone looking for a basic Jewish education. If there is a synagogue in your area, check with them about Basic Judaism or Intro classes – they may offer live classes, and you’ll get to know the rabbi into the bargain.

I hope this clears things up. And I do hope that the mystery commenter returns to read it, because it was a very good question!