Comebacks for Converts

Image: Two faces with speech balloons. (Artwork by nchlsft/shutterstock.)

Last week I posted an entry that seemed to hit a nerve: Talking About Converts.  I thought it might be good to follow up with a post about ways to deal with nosy questions, etc. What follows is a question or comment (in italics) and some possible responses.

“Are you a convert?”

  • Yes. So were Abraham, Sarah and King David’s great-grandmother.
  • Did you know that halakhah forbids that question?
  • Why do you ask?

“Did you convert to get married?”

  • Did you?
  • Why do you ask?

“So, Plonit* tells me that you are a convert!”

  • Surely you and Plonit* are not gossiping about me!
  • Why is this your concern?

“You do realize that you’ll never really be Jewish, right?”

  • Why don’t you ask the rabbi about that?
  • Why would you say such a hurtful thing to me?
  • Well, then I guess Abraham and Sarah weren’t really Jewish, either.
  • Why does my conversion bother you so much? Maybe you should talk to the rabbi.
  • I didn’t realize you are an expert on halakhah.

“I love hearing conversion stories! Tell me yours!”

  • No.
  • That’s private.
  • I’m too busy being Jewish to think about ancient history!

“I think Plony is a convert. What do you think?”

  • I think it isn’t my business.
  • I’d rather talk about something else.
  • Plony is Jewish. That’s good enough for me.
  • Why are you asking me?

When all else fails, sports can come to the rescue. Just change the subject as if the subject had never come up:

  • How about those [insert sports team name here]?

Personally, my favorite replies are “Why do you ask?” or the ever-popular “Oh?” with a puzzled look. Just put the ball in their court.

If you aren’t sure what might be comfortable for you, try different answers out, either with a mirror or better yet with a friend.

I hope that readers will chime in with their own ways of responding to intrusive or hurtful questions and comments. What do you do when someone says something inappropriate?

*Plony and Plonit are the Jewish equivalents of John and Jane Doe.

Updated on 7/23/17 to add a bit more of the benefit of the doubt to questioners.

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Talking About Converts

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

 

Enough With the Diagnoses!

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“Donald Trump is a sociopath / has narcissistic personality disorder / has ADHD / has Alzheimers / has XYZ.” I see it over and over on social media from people with medical credentials (who should know better) and people with no medical credentials (who need to learn better.)

It does not serve any useful purpose to diagnose another person from afar, and for professionals, it is a serious breach of ethics.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what the American Psychiatric Association has to say on the subject.

Now you may say, oh, that only applies to medical professionals!

Judaism also has something to say about this kind of talk, for all Jews. For this we have to use a couple of texts. First:

When a man has in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. – Leviticus 13:2

The Torah is very cautious about illness. On the rare occasion it speaks of it, it demands that an expert make a diagnosis. We in the 21st century don’t regard kohanim (priests) to be experts on disease, but in Biblical Israel they were trained to recognize tzara’at (the skin disease often mistranslated as “leprosy”) and to recognize many internal problems in animals. In this case, people are actually forbidden to diagnose themselves or others; they are commanded to go to the expert.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly upon the blood of your neighbor: I am Adonai. – Leviticus 19:16

This is the famous prohibition against rechilut [gossip]: Even when our words are true, we are not permitted to talk idly about other people. How much the moreso when we talk about a judgment we are not qualified to make? How much the moreso when it is about a judgment that a qualified expert would not make because it would be unethical for them to do so?

Now you may be saying, “But rabbi! It’s obvious that Mr. Trump has XYZ! Here is the evidence in his tweet or his behavior!” That which is obvious is not necessarily true. An example: An elderly woman becomes forgetful. She gets lost on a walk. Her children are distressed and say, “Oh, it is obvious that Mom is getting Alzheimers!” But when mom falls at home and is taken to the hospital, the diagnosis she receives isn’t Alzheimer’s. It turns out that her medications have been the culprit all along. After her meds are adjusted, she returns to her old self. It may have obvious to her children that she had Alzheimer’s, but their amateur diagnosis was false.

A second problem: Most people who talk about Mr. Trump having “XYZ” disagree with his politics and/or his behavior. We have a habit in our society of using words like “crazy” or “insane” when people behave in ways we don’t like. Sometimes it is an attempt at a benign explanation or excuse (“The shooter must have been mentally disturbed!”) The trouble with these words is that they also reinforce the inverse: they suggest that someone who is mentally ill is likely to be a criminal. In fact, most people with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be dangerous to others. The meme of the “dangerous psycho” perpetuates discrimination against these largely harmless people.

So when I call someone I don’t like, or whose behavior I don’t like, a “mental case,” I am not doing anything about that person’s behavior, I’m just perpetuating a damaging stereotype. That’s not OK.

In the case of a public figure whose words and actions are certainly our business, it’s better to focus on the words or actions themselves.  For instance, it’s perfectly fine – in fact, a civic good! – to point out a lie by citing evidence. It’s constructive to condemn a hurtful or criminal behavior.

Amateur diagnoses of any public official are a waste of time and a waste of valuable public energy. Only a qualified professional who has actually examined a person can make a real diagnosis. A bunch of people on Twitter can go on about how “crazy” someone is or how “he is obviously an example of RPD” but they are just running their keyboards and wasting our time. They are also slandering the vast number of people with illnesses and disorders who mind their own business and hurt no one.

If we are genuinely worried about the incoming administration, we will do better to stick to ethical behavior and actions that will produce results. Some former congressional staffers have put together a very impressive guide to effective action and they have made it available online. That way we can accomplish good and avoid the sin of rechilut.

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ

It has been told to you, O human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.

 

“Miracles” in the News

Image: B&W image of words relating to social media and the news. (geralt/pixabay)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there was a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of stories like this a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah?

The story is all over the news at the time, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too – Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: sensational stories are much more mezmerizing than Afghanistan or an economic matter. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we do need to know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.