Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

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Al Cheyt, Regarding Ivanka

Image: Ivanka Trump at the Holocaust Memorial. (Public Domain)

I just saw some chatter on Jewish Twitter about Ivanka Trump. Doesn’t matter who was writing, or what they said; it was the same stuff as usual, and I started to do what I’ve been doing for years and let it pass. Then I realized that I need to make teshuvah, because my silence has been a sin.

So I confess it, Al cheyt, Concerning the sin of listening in silence to lashon hara (literally “evil tongue,” spreading lies) I am guilty. I have let people say cruel and untrue things about Ivanka Trump and I have said not a word.

Ivanka Trump is giyoret, a convert to Judaism like myself. She converted to a different branch of Judaism, and she has made a lot of choices that I don’t like, but that doesn’t change the fact that her conversion was legitimate. Like it or not, she’s one of us.

It has become fashionable in some circles to speak ill of her Jewish practice, to cast aspersions on her legitimacy as a Jew, and to use the word shiksa (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman, but literally “filth”) to refer to her. I’ve listened to people say such things, and I was silent.

Her conversion is legitimate. Her observance may not be perfect, but whose is?

She is a public figure, involved in the U.S. government. It’s fair game to disagree with her politics and her fitness for her job. It’s fair game to question her business practices. I don’t even have to like her.

It is not OK, it is downright wrong, for me to stand by while people throw words like shiksa at a convert. And from now on, I shall behave differently: I will change the subject, I will send the conversation elsewhere, or I will confront the person saying these things privately.

For the sin of evil speech, spoken or accepted, which we have committed before you, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

– Adapted from Al Cheyt prayer in the Yom Kippur service

Do Not Believe These Lies

Image: Person w/ name tag, “Mr. Know-It-All.” (Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

I just had a conversation online with a very nice gentleman. He had been given a bunch of misinformation by a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer (SAJM.)

The question in this case was, “Can a person convert to Judaism?” The SAJM answered, “No, a person has to be born Jewish.”

It happens that I had that same conversation many years ago, with another SAJM. There was no reason to doubt this person, so instead of converting early in my twenties, I converted at age 40, after a better-informed Jew told me that the previous answer was bunk. I lost almost 20 years of Jewish living to that Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer.

SAJM’s do a lot of damage to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel.) They spread all kinds of misinformation, for instance:

NOTE: ALL OF THE STATEMENTS IN THE LIST ABOVE ARE UNTRUE! If you want to learn more about them, click the link for each UNtrue statement.

Sometimes misinformation (or even information, poorly delivered) can be cruel. For a real-life example, read “my teacher said im not jewish.”

How not to be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer:

  • Refer questions of Jewish identity or status to a rabbi. If you want to show off, offer the questioner names and contacts of several rabbis.
  • If you thought you learned it somewhere but you can’t remember where or from whom, at least look it up before you reply.
  • Remember that there is great diversity in Judaism. Not everyone is from your shul, your movement, your particular Jewish heritage. Even for rabbis, not all answers apply to all Jews!
  • Remember that humility is a virtue, and teaching error is a sin.

Don’t be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer! By making appropriate referrals, looking things up, and remembering the vast variety in Judaism, you can contribute to the Jewish world.

May We Be Renewed

Image: People running joyfully into the ocean. (Pexels / Pixabay)

I had the honor, this week, of serving on several batei din (plural of beit din, rabbinical court,) examining and talking with candidates for conversion. In each case, after a good conversation and agreement among the members of the beit din, we proceeded to the mikveh for tevilah, immersion. These are the age-old rituals at the close of the process of gerut, conversion, and I am always moved when I am a participant.

The adults I heard this week have spent months and years in study, living Jewish lives, learning about mitzvot. What may have become routine to me is still precious to them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see Judaism again through beginners’ eyes. They remind me of my own path to Judaism (indeed, I became a Jew 23 years ago in that same mikveh) and they sharpen my appreciation for the joys of a life of Torah.

I notice what is different, too. In 1996, there was a presidential election, with Senator Robert Dole running against incumbent President Bill Clinton. In 1996 the Oslo Accords were in effect, and expectations for peace in Israel were very high. In 1996 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were upsetting but infrequent. In 1996, if a Jew made reference to “Pittsburgh” I assumed they were speaking of the Pittsburgh Platform, the first official statement of belief and practice from the Reform Movement. In 1996, no one was questioning either my loyalty to the United States or my relationship to Israel. We live in a different world now.

What I know for sure is that Torah itself doesn’t change. Hillel’s lesson, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person – Go and study!” still holds. I am still commanded to love God and to love the stranger. I have spent much of the past 25 years studying Torah, and I still have much to learn. The “sea of Talmud” – really, “sea of Jewish learning” – is wide and deep.

The Jewish People have endured for thousands of years and we’ve seen it all: war, revolt, defeat, destruction, persecution, and even genocide. As a community, we have survived all that, although the individual losses are each excruciating and do not become easier over time. As I listened to the splashing of the mikveh water, as candidate after candidate became a new Jew, I reflected that this, too continues over thousands of years. We are renewed: renewed by each new baby emerging from the womb, and by each new Jew stepping up out of the ritual bath. We are renewed as rabbis lead the ancient blessings. We are renewed with each returning Shabbat.

That’s what I shall pray for, this Shabbat: let us be renewed. Let us pray, as our ancestor prayed in a much worse year, after the destruction of Jerusalem:

Help us turn to You, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old!

Lamentations 5:21

Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor

Image: Photo of the community mikveh at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA. This is the mikveh where I became a Jew. (Ruth Adar, 2006)

In Mikveh Part 1: What is it? I described the mikveh in prosaic terms: what it is and when we use it. In this part, I will introduce the important matter of the meaning of the mikveh.

For every ritual, there is an exterior reason and an interior experience. The exterior reason for many things in Jewish life is halakhah: “this is the Jewish WAY of doing things” or “this is what we understand ourselves to have been commanded to do.” We hang a mezuzah on the doorpost a particular way. We circumcise our sons at eight days of age. As I said in the earlier post, we use the mikveh for conversion, as part of the rituals surrounding sex and bodily emissions, for the purification of new cooking vessels, and for spiritual practices connected with holidays and significant life events.

The meaning of the mikveh, as with any other ritual experience, goes far beyond “what” and “why.” It extends into the interior experiences of the participants and the sense they make of those experiences. Some of those experiences are intellectual, but many of them are sensory. Many may be difficult to put into words. Some shape themselves into metaphor.

I’m going to limit myself to talking about mikveh for conversion in this article, but with the note that all its uses are interconnected and inform each other.

Strangeness: Candidates prepare for immersion by showering off, combing their hair, and removing anything that might get between them and the water. This usually happens in a room adjacent to the mikveh. The immediate impression is of going into the restroom at the synagogue, but then abruptly deviates from the norm. We do not normally walk into the restroom at shul and strip. There is not usually a grooming “to do” list on the wall. We have entered liminal space: there is nothing normal about this. Depending on the preparation the candidate has had for this ritual, the strangeness may engender anything from a feeling of being slightly off balance to a mild panic.

Nakedness: We go naked to the mikveh. This calls up the metaphor of birth, but it also speaks to the vulnerability of the convert. Even more than on Yom Kippur, we have to shed all masks to enter the mikveh: no clothing, no eye glasses, no hearing aids, no wedding ring, no jewelry, no fingernail polish, no “extras” that can reasonably be removed. Hair is washed and combed out beforehand. We enter the mikveh completely unadorned. I recall being acutely aware that the beit din (rabbi/witnesses) outside the door were all fully clothed.

Modesty: In order to deal with nakedness while remaining modest, everyone’s behavior alters. The candidate usually gets into the water before the witness enters, then calls out “ready!” The witness enters, looking at the ceiling, or a book, and will only look directly at the candidate when they are fully immersed, to certify that the immersion is total. This, too, may feel awkward to the candidate, whether they are embarrassed to be naked or not. Again, we are reminded that we are in liminal space, the space between Jewish and not-Jewish, born and not-yet-born.

Steps: The mikveh has steps going down into the water. It may look, to some eyes, like a stairway to nowhere. The candidate has been on a journey for a long time, a journey to this place, this moment. It is a stairway to a place we cannot see but for which the heart longs. As we walk down the steps, we gradually experience the feeling of the water.

Buoyancy: Our experience of gravity is altered by the mikveh because water is buoyant. This may be an exhilarating feeling, or a relief; it may be unnerving or even frightening. It puts some candidates off balance, heightening the sense of vulnerability. Buoyancy also may make total immersion tricky – in a natural body of water with salt water, total immersion may even require effort.

Temperature: In a modern indoor mikveh, the water is usually heated and may feel quite spa-like. Some candidates describe this feeling as womb-like, comforting, relaxing. If it is a natural body of water, or there is no heat, then the water may be bracingly cold, even uncomfortable. A cold mikveh reminds us that this water is not our natural element, and may introduce a feeling of danger.

Death: Water is not the natural element of human beings, no matter how well they swim. If we breathe water, we will die. The candidate for conversion is making a change of identity, which is like a little death and a rebirth. The candidate is required to be completely immersed, every hair, every fingertip: it is a statement of total commitment and nothing less. They must be “all in” for this transformation. For some candidates, for whom water is a frightening element, this aspect of the experience is all too real.

Rebirth: The waters of the mikveh, mayyim hayyim, “living water,” is often likened to the amniotic fluid in the womb. When a candidate for conversion immerses in the mikveh, it is as if they are returning to the womb, and when they emerge, it is a new birth into a new Jewish identity. Certainly, there are elements of the old self – the whole body! – but a new Jew is born.

Emergence: From the moment the new Jew ascends the stairs of the mikveh, they are part of Am Yisrael forever. Just as we make aliyah (“go up”) when we immigrate to the Land of Israel, and when we go up to chant Torah or its blessings, the candidate ascends to their Jewish life, a life full of the joys and the responsibilities of Torah.

Mikveh, Part 1: What is it?

Image: Mikveh sign at the Congregation of Georgian Jews, a Georgian-Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City. (By Bohemian Baltimore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The purpose of the mikveh is not physical cleanliness, although a properly maintained mikveh is always clean. The purpose is twofold: a ritual purification, and the physical experience of immersion in water as part of a ritual. For more about Jewish ritual purification, or taharah, see Clean and Unclean: A Primer. Taharah is an ancient concept that often feels awkward in modern life, especially since much of it is theoretical, since without a standing Temple in Jerusalem, true ritual purity is an impossibility.

A mikveh is a pool of water used for several different ritual purposes in Jewish life. Immersion (tevilah) in the mikveh is employed:

  • For conversion
  • For niddah, also called the laws of family purity
  • For the purification of new cooking vessels
  • As a spiritual practice before holidays (e.g., Shabbat or Yom Kippur)
  • As a spiritual practice marking major life transitions

Without a mikveh, halakhic conversions cannot take place, adoptions are held up, Jews who observe the laws of niddah cannot have sex, new cooking pots cannot be used, and many of the spiritual needs of a Jewish community cannot be met. Mikva’ot (the plural) are essential to Jewish living, even though many less observant Jews go through their entire lives without ever visiting one.

For a more poetic, mystical view of the mikveh, see the next post: Mikveh Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor.

Mikva’ot are complex and expensive to build and to maintain. Roughly speaking, a mikveh must contain enough water to allow immersion (tevilah) of an adult human being. A specific portion of that water must be mayyim hayyim (“living water”) meaning that it meets traditional standards for having come from a natural source such as rainwater or a natural body of water. (For specifics, the website mikveh.org offers lot of detailed information on mikveh construction.)

A natural body of water can also serve as a mikveh. An ocean or a lake can serve as a mikveh; a stream can serve as a kosher mikveh provided some technical standards are met. There are challenges to using a natural body of water for a mikveh including modesty, safety and comfort. Therefore Jewish communities worldwide have put a priority on constructing indoor mikva’ot that meet the ritual standards.

The mikveh below is an ancient natural spring water mikveh in Israel known as the Mikveh of Shemaya and Avtalyon, two sages of the 1st century BCE. According to the tradition Shemaya used to immerse in this mikveh. For more about Shemaya and Avtalyon, see Advice from our Uncles elsewhere on this blog.

Can I Convert to Judaism and Still Believe in Jesus?

Image: The image of Christ the Redeemer that stands above Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Fabio Wanderley / Pixabay)

In a word, no. I get this question from time to time, and I always feel sad having to give news that often people do not want to hear.

If what you mean by “believe in Jesus” is believe that he is God, or that he rose from the dead, or died for your sins, no. Jews do not believe those things. Jews are strict monotheists – no Trinity – and we do not have any belief in what Christians call “original sin.”

If Jesus is important to you as the Son of God or as your Savior, you aren’t Jewish. That’s OK – we are happy for you to be a good Christian, and we hope you find a branch of Christianity that works for you. Judaism doesn’t have an opinion on a “one true religion,” unlike Christianity and Islam; we believe that there are many different ways to be in relationship with the Holy One. This way is our way, and it does not involve a belief in Jesus as anything but an ordinary guy who died a long time ago. To learn more about what Jews believe about the man from Nazareth, read What Do Jews Believe about Jesus?

If you find that you are attracted to Judaism, but still believe that Jesus is the Christ (the Anointed One) then you are welcome to be a friend to the Jewish community. If you have Jewish ancestors, but Jesus is your Savior, that’s fine – but you aren’t “Jewish,” you are a Christian with a Jewish heritage. That’s wonderful! And we are happy to have that relationship with you.

Someone’s going to jump in here and talk about Messianic Judaism, so I’m going to repeat my policy on that. Messianic Judaism is not Rabbinic Judaism. It’s a form of Christianity in which Jesus is the savior of mankind. What I’m teaching here is Rabbinic Judaism.

See My Policy Regarding Messianism.

For why I dislike terms like “Judeo-Christian:” read The Interfaith Potluck.