2. What was your religious upbringing?
was brought up Episcopalian (some people are more familiar with
Episcopalianism as Anglicanism or the Church of England, depending on
where you’re from). Episcopalianism is a mainline, Protestant
denomination that was established as the Church of England by Henry VIII
after he had a bit of a falling out with the Pope over a divorce. There
is gradiation in terms of how conservative Anglican/Episcopal churches
are, but most Episcopal churches in the United States, at least, are
quite socially (and often theologically) liberal. My own, by Episcopal
standards, was fairly conservative; our priest identified as a
born-again Christian and was fairly socially conservative. My mother
actually wanted to leave for a more liberal church, but my brother and I
were familiar with our priest and had friends in the congregation and
didn’t want to switch, so we stayed. In retrospect, I think this
conservative streak in our church contributed to my questioning of
Christianity at a relatively early age.
mother is fairly religious; church most weeks, and as kids, my brother
and I were expected to attend. My father, by contrast, was largely
secular and only went to church on Christmas, Easter and occasionally
Sundays where something special was going on (Girl Scout Sunday,
Children’s Sunday, stuff like that). His family was pretty areligious,
though his mother once told me that he came home as a teenager and told
his parents that he wanted to be baptised, which I found interesting. I
was an acolyte (an altar girl) for quite a while, and I was confirmed
despite my own doubts both because I didn’t know at the time that one
could convert (I was ten, which was on the young side for confirmation),
and because I was under the impression that confirmation was just what
was expected of me, and I was a kid who usually tried to check the
proverbial boxes. Clearly, it didn’t take. I did like the liturgical
aspect of worship, and the “smells and bells.” As a kid, I was a
voracious reader, and I was fascinated by religions generally- still am,
to a certain extent.
3. What kinds of schools did you attend?
public schools. We lived in England for a bit when I was a kid, in
London, which was my first experience having a truly diverse peer group.
I had classmates that were Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, all different
races, and that was a huge eye-opener for me. My teachers were generally
good, and my classes were usually relatively challenging. I was a
fairly good student, I think. I went to a good state university for
college and later attended graduate school in the U.K.
4. What was your impression or experience with Jewish people growing up?
had virtually no direct experience – there were a couple of Jewish kids
in my grade, and I remember one boy having a bar mitzvah, but we weren’t
close friends at all. I knew that Judaism itself fascinated me, and my
associations with it were positive, but I didn’t have any significant
amount of interaction with Jews (aside from one aunt by marriage, who is
secular) until I went off to college. Heck, I had never set foot in a
shul before college.
5. What was the first time you felt you might have a Jewish connection?
this day, I really can’t explain it. I didn’t grow up in an area with
many Jews at all – I think there were maybe two in my grade in school,
and I wasn’t BFFs with them or anything. I have a crystal clear memory
of reading a book about the Shoah, of all things, while riding home on
the school bus at eight years old, and I just had this flash of… I
don’t know what. “Revelation” would seem to be overstating it a bit, so
I’ll just say that it was a sudden understanding that I wanted to be
Jewish. I couldn’t have articulated the conversion part then, because at
that age, I had no idea that converting was something you could do – I
just assumed that if you had the good fortune to have Jewish parents,
great, but if your parents were Christian or Hindu or whatever, that’s
what you were, so you had to bloom where you were planted. I found out
about conversion at age thirteen or so, when I had been growing
increasingly frustrated with Christianity. The more I read about
Judaism, the more I found myself saying, “Wait, I’ve always believed
that! And I’ve always believed this other thing, too!” and I knew that
conversion was what I wanted to do, but both my mother’s initial, very
negative reaction and life circumstances got in the way for a long time.
6. What was your family’s reaction to this?
I alluded to above, my mother was… less than thrilled. At first, she
chalked it up to “a phase,” which was probably reasonable when you’re
talking about a teenager but infuriated me at the time. I’d object to
going to church, and she’d accuse me of not giving it a fair shake,
saying I should really try taking it seriously, so I’d double down for a
few weeks and really attempt to buy in, which didn’t work. So we’d go
back and forth that way, at least as long as I lived at home. Once I
left for college, the dynamic changed somewhat. I had signed up to study
Hebrew, and I ended up with a bunch of Jewish friends (more
coincidentally than anything else), and I started going to services at
Hillel every week pretty early on in my Freshman year. The first time I
fasted for Yom Kippur was during my Sophomore year. I still visited my
family for holidays and stuff, but it was becomming more apparent to
them that my religous level was growing, and that this was not a phase.
mother’s issues didn’t really stem from an idea that I was somehow
throwing my salvation away, because most Episcopalians don’t believe
that kind of thing. She saw my rejection of her religion as a rejection
of her and of my family’s culture. That wasn’t what
it was about, of course, but it took some conversations (and a bit of
yelling) for her to fully believe that. My extended family, by contrast,
were very cool about it – my aunt, who is also my Godmother, joked that
she feels like she’s still covered, since I still believe in God. Heh.
My brother, grandmother and other family have all been generally
supportive of me. They’re all a bit bemused, I think, but cool with it.
And Mom has come around a lot in the last few years, for which I give
her much credit.
7. At any point, did you wonder if pursuing conversion was simply not worth it?
think everyone wonders that at one time or another. I definitely did –
usually when I was reading stuf about all of the denominational fighting
over whose conversion was valid and whose weren’t. The idea of going
through all of the work of converting, marrying Jewish, having a Jewish
baby and then have him or her summarily dismissed as “just a goy,” as
I’ve seen it expressed in some places online, really, really bothered me
(still does), and in between bouts of agonizing over denominational
questions, I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easer to be a
Unitarian or a secular humanist or whatever. But every time I tried to
put Judaism aside, I came back to it like a homing pigeon. And while I
read about other religions, I never found one that struck me the way
Judaism had. This, “Will she? Won’t she?” thing went on for nearly ten
years – it’s also one of the biggest reasons that I find the whole,
“Well, just be a Noachide!” argument to be completely non-viable, at
least for me.
think what finally pushed me to pull the trigger, already, beyond
understanding that I couldn’t just keep doing the semi-Noachide, living
in limbo thing anymore, was when I got into the Foreign Service. This
was right around the time several Consulate employees were murdered in
Ciudad Juarez, and I remember reading about their deaths and thinking,
“You know, I could be sent anywhere. I could go somewhere and die. And
if my time is up, and I’m going out like that, I’m at least going out
Jewish.” I was e-mailing rabbis before I even went to D.C. for training.
The incident in Benghazi and the recent death of Anne Smedinghoff have
reinforced a certain sense of relief that whatever frustrations I may
have on occasion with trying to live Jewishly in China or with the
Conversion Issue™ or denominational infighting or the like, I know I’m
Jewish, Hashem knows I’m Jewish, and if something awful happens (G-d
forbid), that’s really what matters. Although admittedly, it’s easier to
keep that in mind at some times than at others.
8. Can you describe your encounters with Rabbis or other Jewish families that were instrumental in your journey?
been fortunate to have had a lot of great rabbis and fellow Jews around
to help me along the way. My two best friends from college are Jewish,
and they’ve always been supportive of my decision to convert; I actually
went to them with possible Hebrew names when I was getting ready for
the mikvah. The Chabad rabbi I had in college who let me come to Shabbos
dinner every week knowing that I wasn’t yet Jewish (and probably
wouldn’t be a Chabadnik when I was) and showed me nothing but
hospitality. My friend that I met through a teaching program in Japan
who’s Orthodox, himself, but thinks nothing of having a conversation
with me about the vagaries of tefillin. The married couple in my D.C.
shul who took me in for Seders and Shabbos dinner during my conversion
process. And, of course, my converting rabbi, who, aside from being a
great speaker and smart and all of that, knew what buttons to push to
make me a better Jew and knew where I needed to be prodded out of my
comfort zone… and who didn’t bat an eye when I asked him to show me how
to lay tefillin properly.
9. How is your life different as a Jew?
example, I mapped out the dates for High Holy Days last year right
after Pesach and started looking for tickets, because I knew I was going
to leave the country for the holidays and wanted to be sure I was
squared away. Most people aren’t having these kinds of issues over
Christmas. It’s a lot easier to just go with the flow if you’re
Christian, even nominally, because your holidays are almost always the
default for society at large. Especially living in China, I always feel
under pressure to either make sure I can do something here or get out of
town for major holidays. It’s tough, and it can be lonely and a bit
exhausting, but I’ve met some brilliant people as a result, so it has
its benefits, as well.
10. Is there anything you miss about life before Judaism?
miss how easy everything was. Who cares who I marry?
Who cares what I eat? Why not work on Saturday? Now, I have to give a
lot more thought to the personal decisions I make, both in terms of what
will best set me up for success in my Jewish practices, but also
because if I’m the only Jew someone ever meets, I don’t want them
thinking we’re all jerks or something. So in that sense, I do think that
I feel a certain level of pressure to behave in such a way as to be a
positive reflection on other Jews (I don’t claim to always measure up to
that goal, but I do my best). Still, the whole “wrestling with G-d”
thing is right there in the name, so it’s not as if I didn’t know what I
was getting into, and I wouldn’t change my decision to convert.
(eel) sushi. Those are the only two pork/shellfish type things I
really, really miss, although I suppose I could swap turkey bacon for
the pork bacon on the BLT.
11. What is the best part about life as a Jew?
for lack of a better description, like my inside matches my outside
now. I feel like I’m finally able
to identify with the community of my choosing and that I’ve claimed
this identity that I instinctively knew was supposed to be mine. There
are very few times in life, I think, where one is privileged to have
that feeling, so I hold it very dear.
12. What is your experience with the Orthodox Jewish community?
broad, I think, certainly for someone who didn’t grow up in a Jewish
community at all. I was a regular attendee at Chabad in college, and I
went to a Chabad syagogue in Japan when I lived there after college. I
have a handful of frum friends, though most are
Modern Orthodox as opposed to Yeshivish or non-Chabad Hasidic. My
experiences with the Orthodox community, both online and in real life,
have been all over the map in terms of whether they were positive or
negative. In real life, I would say they skew more positive, while
online, they tend to be far more negative. Not entirely surprising,
considering how most people (Jewish or otherwise) tend to behave when
they have both anonymity and a consequence-free environment.
do think that the so-called “slide to the right” and what can look to
an outsider like increasing reliance on dozens of chumrot and the most machmir
interpretation of halacha possible is ultimately a negative development,
but it’s not my community, so it’s not really for me to say. That being
said, I do find myself resentful, on occasion, of the dismissive
attitude that some segments of the Orthodox community have towards their
heterodox brethren, and there are a number of things about the Orthodox
conversion system (in as much as it can be called a system, to be fair,
as it’s not always monolithic) that make me angry. The latter
contributed significantly to my decision to convert under Conservative
also worry sometimes about what would happen to me if I had the
misfortune to die somewhere where my remains couldn’t be repatriated in a
timely fashion, as if there’s a Jewish cemetary at all, the vast
majority of those are Orthodox-run and would likely refuse me burial as a
result of who was on my beit din. Then again, I would hope that I’ll
have better things to occupy myself once I’ve shuffled off this mortal
coil than people bickering over how to dispose of my corpse!
13. What message would you like born-Jews to hear about a convert’s experience?
all of us converted because we were dating, engaged or married to a
Jewish guy (or girl), for one. I’ve actually never
dated a Jewish guy (not for lack of trying, for the record, so much as a
severe case of bad timing). If I never get that question again, it
would be too soon.
I know a lot of converts, and I don’t know a single one that just
picked a denomination at random or converted heterodox because they
didn’t care about Torah or “didn’t understand what Orthodoxy is about”
or any of those kinds of things. Most converts I know agonized over
which denomination to choose, and virtually all would prefer that the
question of denomination was a non-issue. I can say that personally, I
did not choose Conservative Judaism because I’m afraid to keep the
mitzvot or don’t care about them or don’t consider them binding, but
because I could not reconcile my views on the halacha of egalitarianism
with the reality that, in all likelihood, if I pursued an Orthodox
conversion, it would be very difficult for me to affiliate with more
left-wing elements of the Orthodox community (i.e. women’s prayer groups
and/or partnership minyanim) where I would find the most spiritual
resonance and remain reasonably sure that my conversion would continue
to be widely-accepted and that I wouldn’t potentially endanger the
validity of my rabbi’s other conversions.
best piece of advice I can give regarding converts – all converts – is that you should never assume. Don’t
assume that you know why we converted or what our background was before
we were Jewish or why we chose the denomination we did. In fact, don’t
assume that that Jewish person sitting next to you was born that way,
because there’s every possibility that no matter how “FFB” or born
Jewish they seem, they’re actually a ger (or their
parent was). Also, don’t ask people about their status or start grilling
them about who converted them or where or who was on their beit din.
It’s super tacky, for one, none of your business, for another (unless
you’re marrying them, of course) and totally against halacha. Most of us
are happy to talk about our experiences, but on our own terms, not
because some stranger is giving us the third degree at the oneg.
favorite part is the openness with which people are generally allowed
to converse here. Anyone who reads my comments regularly knows that I’m
not afraid to be at odds with Ruchi or various parts of the
commentariat, and I’ve never felt censored or anything like that.
least favorite part is a product of the openness that I mentioned
above, which is that I’ve often read things in the comments that strike
me as hurtful, ill-informed, uncharitable or simply ignorant. This has
come out moreso on some topics than others, and I view it as the price
we pay for having an open forum for discussing these issues. I have no
doubt that there are other commenters that view my own comments as any
or all of the above, so it cuts both ways. It does bother me very much
when I read blanket statements about non-Jews (or heterodox Jews) and
what they think, believe or how they behave, for instance, from people
who I suspect have relatively minimal day to day interaction with the
non-Jewish (or heterodox) world.
evidenced by the name, I’m a diplomat, although I pretty much never
refer to myself that way- if someone asks me what I do, I tell them that
I’m a Foreign Service Officer, which is both less insufferable-sounding
and more accurate, since I think “diplomat” conjures up images of
Secretary Clinton brokering international peace treaties, which isn’t
something I do (at least, not this week). I’m a Consular Officer,
meaning that on a day to day basis, I do visa work (adjudicating visas
for people who want to visit or immigrate to the United States) or
American Citizen Services (assisting Americans abroad, either with basic
stuff like lost or replacement passports or more scary stuff like
people who have been arrested or convicted or repatriating the remains
of citizens who have died abroad). I’m currently posted in China, but
will be returning to the U.S. for a while very soon, which is exciting,
since I haven’t been back in two years (!).
Jewish identity has had a huge impact on my life as an FSO – more so than
I expected, actually. The most obvious way is when it comes to bidding.
In the Foreign Service, you “bid” on your job, meaning that you express
preferences about where you would like to go and what kind of work you
would like to do, and people higher up the foodchain than you look at
your preferences (along with everyone else’s) and decide where you’re
headed next. When I bid on my next post, I was adamant that it would be
somewhere with a reasonably-sized Jewish community. I expect that that
will always guide my bidding strategy and, subsequently, my career.
Jewish holidays, which can be difficult sometimes. Before I left the
States, I sat down with my rabbi to talk over the halachic implications
of writing a living will and burial instructions in case anything
happened (since my non-Jewish family wouldn’t know what to do in that
regard). I serve in a country with very, very few Jews (relative to the
population size, anyway), so it’s not unusual for me to be the first Jew
someone has met; I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I can
potentially be viewed as a representative for all of Judaism, even if I
don’t intend to come across that way. I was told by a tour guide that I
had literally doubled the Jewish population of Harbin (once one of the
biggest Jewish communities in Asia) when I went there on a weekend trip
with friends. Being the only Jew (or one of a handful of Jews) at a post
means creating my own Jewish community, often of non-Jews. I’m really
lucky that my colleagues are hugely supportive of that as far as things
like being my treif spotters when we go out to eat,
participating if I throw a party for Chanukah or Purim or, on occasion,
listening to me vent about how difficult it can be to be Jewish here.
the bright side, my Jewish geography is pretty fantastic these days as a
result of traveling so much for the bigger holidays (I usually try to
get out of town and go someplace with a bigger community and, if it’s an
option, an egalitarian synagogue). In the last couple of years, I’ve
spent holidays in five different countries and encountered multiple
people who knew my rabbi back in the States or with whom I had one or
two degrees of separation. You realize how small the world is when you
travel a bit, and that especially applies to the Jewish world.
unexpected about my life as an FSO is that without any effort on my
part, I’ve run into multiple other converts to Judaism- of various
denominations. The ones I know are people that I knew first in the
Foreign Service context, and after some conversation, we realized that
we were both converts. It wasn’t something that I expected at all, and
we’ve speculated occasionally on just how that worked out, particularly
as I’m sure there are more of us geirim out there in
Foreign Service land beyond just my circle of acquaintances. It’s a very
unique situation, being a convert in the Foreign Service, but
apparently not as unique as I thought!
is probably also the appropriate place to say that all of my thoughts
here are my own and not representative of the U.S. Government or a
reflection of U.S. Government policy. Why the USG would have any
position on the question of conversion to Judaism, I have no idea, but
just in case, there’s the obligatory disclaimer.
Thank you, Diplogeek! It is a pleasure to get to know you a bit better and to have more of a context for your comments.
It seems so sad to me that you chose not to pursue an Ortho conversion because of concerns about how your personal decisions afterward might reflect on the rabbi who converted you and other conversions he might perform. I am sure you are right about those possibilities, but I absolutely detest how judgmental, nosy, and petty elements of the Ortho world are.
One question for you — what degree of kashrut do you keep? (You mention no longer eating pork and eel.) I ask only because I would love to visit China one day, but feel totally intimidated by the thought of finding food there. So I am curious about your gastronomic experiences as a Jew in China.
Thanks for your comments!
I won't lie, kashrut in China is very difficult. I think if you're somewhere like Hong Kong or Shanghai, where there are slightly more established Jewish communities, it can be easier. I know there's a kosher restaurant in Hong Kong, and I think there's one in Shanghai, as well, which could help with regard to visits, but if you're living here, that's not really going to cover all of the bases.
For me, I don't eat pork or treif fish. I struggle sometimes with the meat/dairy thing (which, ironically, is easier in China, because virtually none of their cuisine uses milk or other dairy products), but I've been doing significantly better with that lately. Pork is the hardest thing to avoid here, but I'm fortunate to work with a number of vegetarians, so we sort of mutually support each other in ensuring that there are meat-free dishes on offer when we eat out somewhere. I would say the most potentially Jew-friendly food you can get here is the stuff from Xinjiang, which is a heavily Muslim region of China, so most of their restaurants are hallal, and I can be reasonably sure that I won't be playing treif surprise. The worst is Cantonese food, dimsum in particular, because if you cut out pork and shellfish, that eliminates about eighty percent of the options on offer. Unfortunately for me, my Chinese staff love to go out for dimsum. Fortunately for me, our boss is vegetarian, so their used to (very graciously) dealing with my dietary weirdness.
If you're frum and traveling in China, it would definitely be difficult, but not impossible, I don't think. There's a ton of fresh, good produce available, which would all be fine, and you could pick up rice and a rice cooker very cheaply, if you were in a position to cook your own meals. By supplementing that with some canned stuff you brought in your luggage (or picked up at one of the stores specializing in imported groceries, if you're in a big city), I think it would be completely do-able for, say, a vacation, if you're willing to be somewhat adventuresome. Living here, it can be isolating, because so much of Chinese (and, by extension, expat) social life revolves around eating out. I have a lot of respect for the Chabadniks here, because dealing with food issues day in and day out is exhausting for me sometimes, and they're dealing with nuances that I don't even consider.
I'm giving serious consideration to keeping a kosher kitchen for the first time once I'm back in D.C. and will have the resources to do so, but I need to give some thought to the logistics of it all, since I don't want to start buying new dishes and such just to trief them up by doing something dumb.
In terms of the kosher kitchen when you get back to the States, go for it! It isn't as complicated or intimidating as it seems from the other side of the fence. Any Chabad rabbi will be happy to get you set up, help you kasher (verb form of "make kosher") your appliances, tell you what you can kasher and what you have to replace. (And if you do something dumb, just ask. Frequently mistakes don't actually treif stuff up, or the situation can be fixed easily. Happens all the time, even for those of us who have kept kosher all our lives.)
You don't even need a "real kitchen" to cook in China. I bought a rice cooker with a steamer insert and used that to cook in my dorm room when I went there for study-abroad. There's no reason you couldn't do that in a hotel, and the rice cooker cost me maybe $20, so it's not as though I broke the bank on it. I made stir-fry and soup in it all the time with veggies I'd bought at the market, and at the end I gave it to the people who cleaned the dorms, because I figured they would know someone who'd just broken theirs or who had just moved to a new apartment.
There are a lot of places that will carry American brands, but they'll be the China-specific products (Chinese Oreos–they have mint in them! Who knew?), so you need to search for a shop that sells foreign imported products, like DiploGeek said, or bring a few things from home (but buy the veggie wash there and use it religiously, because bad things will happen to your stomach if you don't). People do stuff like this all the time while travelling. Why not do it in China, too? There's so much to see and so many people to talk to, and a lot of the places I went to were just drop-dead gorgeous. Basically, I think you should totally go for it.
I completely agree that China is worth a visit. If you go very far off the beaten path, you would definitely need to bring some food of your own, because you're not likely to find a foreign food store in, say, rural Guangxi Province, but you could see a lot even in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and it would be relatively manageable to find enough kosher stuff in those places to make things work. And a rice cooker can be found very inexpensively.
A similar approach would probably work in Japan, as well, incidentally. And no need to use veggie wash.
Very enlightening perspective about conversion… Thank you for sharing your experiences and coming to be Jewish with us…. Anna Fargo
Diplogeek, you really are fascinating. The Episcopalian upbringing, the longtime pull toward Judaism, and then your international Jewish geography pedigree, including living so long in China.
When disagreements heat up on the blog you and I often end up on the same wavelength, but because it's usually a matter of a shared reaction to something else I never realized until now how deep your passion for Judaism is. Makes sense, of course, because why else convert, but I didn't get it so much until this interview. Thanks for sharing all this.
I think this is the first time anyone has ever described Episcopalianism as "fascinating." Heh.
More seriously, I do love being Jewish. I love going to shul and talking about Jewish stuff with anyone who's interested. I can't imagine being anything else (which can make dating difficult, in a way, in that I have a hard time envisioning being with someone who's not as geeked-out over Judaism as I usually am). Honestly, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd probably drop everything and go to rabbinical school, but at this point, I don't see a good way to make that happen in the immediate future. Maybe someday, though.
There are definitely hassles that come along with being Jewish, but they're completely worth it, at least for me. I think it finally sunk in for my mother how big a deal this was for me when I told her that I was going to minyan four or five times a week when I was back in the States. A team of wild horses couldn't have dragged me to church that often.
I'm new to this blog, so this is our first "meeting", Diplogeek (sheesh, what a term!!) but I love, love, LOVE your post. Thank you so much for your honesty and sharing.
I second the sadness of your decision not to convert orthodox because of the impact your behaviors might have. It seems incredible – my instinct would be to say "just do what you want!" But your considerations are SO much more in line with "kol yisra'el areivim zeh la-zeh" than my first reaction. Sigh. Would that it were not so.
Mostly I'm subtly and deeply inspired by your being a person who follows their star, wherever it may lead, if it be as a Jew or as an FSO. I think this is much more apparent in other people when they are pulled to things that are different from what we ourselves our pulled to. It strengthens the much easier choices I've made in my life that demand some sort of sacrifice or stick-to-itiveness… so… Thanks!
Welcome Judith! I hope you'll join in the conversation more in the future.
I have to ask: is Diplogeek's worry about how her own future Jewish practice might hurt her converting rabbi as realistic as is here indicated? Can rabbis get into trouble if "their" converts go on to do things that don't look Jewish in some accepted way? Is it the same if a convert does some bad-attention-getting activity unrelated to Judaism (like bad news stories)?
It is such an interesting conundrum that I never would have thought of, a real ethical dilemma.
Yes, SBW, Diplogeek's concern for a sponsoring rabbi's reputation is well-founded. One of the challenges of Ortho Judaism in American is that — unlike R, C here or O in England or Israel — is that we don't have a centralized authoritative body. There is no definition of what is Modern Ortho vs. Yeshivish Ortho. So there is no centralized place to go for a conversion. Each community forms its own Bet Din (rabbinical court) and there is a lot of politics about which Bet Din is trustworthy, reliable, etc. So reputations are very important.
Another piece of this is that one element of an Ortho conversion is that the convert must promise to do their best to observe as many mitzvot as they can, i.e. be Ortho in their practice. It is not enough to be drawn to Judaism, or "feel Jewish", or even complete a particular course of study. An ortho conversion includes accepting the responsibility of all mitzvot. So Diplogeek might have had trouble finding an Ortho rabbi to convert her in the first place, since she wasn't yet ready to take on all elements of an Ortho life (and might never). And if she found an Ortho rabbi willing to convert her, her later actions could affect his reputation and the willingness of other people to accept his future conversions.
It is a messy, judgmental, political business, and certainly not the part of Orthodox Judaism that I am proud of.
Miriam, thanks for the explanation. I never got that before. I always thought the lack of a governing body for all of Judaism (i.e. also including C,R and others) was a good thing, offering a lot of leeway and flexibility. I would by analogy have thought the same about O's lack of a governing body. Now I see how the lack of a governing body can make for that kind of minute political conflict all over the place, with no one ever able to pronounce any issue resolved. Messy, definitely. In my view it is again allegorical of Judaism per se–since it's (my reading) so much a matter of a tradition of interpretation how some of the abstract and conflictual elements in the Torah actually apply to contemporary life.
Hm, I was imagining the Catholic Church as the contrast to this, but they certainly also have a lot of unresolved conflicts–like Episcopalians breaking off (and all of Protestantism), and some priests disagreeing, and different congregations quietly doing things their own ways, and apparently in some contexts priests even being married.
I know a number of people who have had to do multiple geirut l'chumra (basically, a second conversion to remove questions about the validity of the first), even though their initial conversion was according to Orthodox standards. Part of this is a direct result of the lack of an Orthodox central authority- every time you go to a new community, you need to prove that your conversion is valid to whatever (often arbitrary, if I'm being blunt) standards they set. Part of this is a result of what I consider to be an increased paranoia regarding converts within the Orthodox community and consistent, perceptible movement rightward religiously. This was another issue that I considered when I decided which kind of conversion I wanted to pursue. Because frankly, if I was still going to be constantly discussing my conversion, debating my status and re-converting to please people every freaking time I moved somewhere (which, in my line of work, is pretty often), the argument I kept hearing from people in favor of an Orthodox conversion, namely that "Everyone will accept you as Jewish then!" was completely invalid. Forget the larger moral question of whether it's a great idea to begin your Jewish life by lying that you completely subscribe to the Orthodox worldview when you may not- just from a practical standpoint, it would make no sense.
It was sort of interesting/bizarre to me that the people I knew who most often touted the merits of an Orthodox conversion were also, almost to a person, the least halachically observant. Like, less observant than I was, and I wasn't even Jewish at the time.
I did have an exchange with a secular Israeli literally a week before my conversion that has really stuck with me. It came up that my beit din was the following week, and he asked, "Oh, so what kind of conversion is it? You know, which denomination?" and I told him it was through Masorti/Conservative auspices. I started forestalling what I assumed would be the inevitable, "Oh, well, if it's not Orthodox," conversation, and he laughed and said, "Hey, you'll be Jewish enough for Hitler, and that's Jewish enough for me!" Says it all, really.
I'm blown away. I too am fascinated by your upbringing and current life. When I go to do something, be it eating, speaking, napping, I often ask myself, "Am I acting more like a body or a soul?". You have most definitely chosen to make decisions to improve your soul (and I'm not saying anyone should ignore their body. No hate mail please.)I'm very impressed by your choices and desire to continue learning and growing. You most definitely have decided you are more than just a body and have made some very difficult decisions as a result. May your journey continue.
Not sure whether to share this, but I think was precipitated by reading this post late last night:
I dreamt I was on a cruise and there was a Jewish holiday during the cruise, and I decided to go to services for that. The cruise ship had O, C and R alternatives. I was showering and changing in a suite with a friend, and it turned out that some of the O men were also using that bathroom, and I realized it would be really bad for us to cross paths at all even if we were all covered up with towels etc. There were a few awkward moments but I finessed not letting the O men realize that women were also using the bathroom and shower, by ducking out and closing a connecting door at the necessary moment. But the other woman and I were uncomfortably aware that he was right there in the bathroom by our room. I put on a wig (!!) that didn't look too bad, but ended up going to Reform services, where some girls were leaving who were wearing short-shorts that had way too much flesh on display, even for Reform suburban standards! I was confused. Talked with my girlfriend about whether we should go to the Conservative services.
Weird!! And I've been reading some Freud lately, so that makes it all even weirder!
"Bob, that settles it, no more Japanese food before bedtime."
Okay this was so funny (SBW's dream – I'm sure tesyaa's joke was funny too but I don't get the reference) I literally burst out laughing out loud in my empty house when I read it. Hilarious!!!
Tesyaa – a reference to the Bob Newhart show, right?
Glad you liked it Ruchi. I thought you would like that this is what my unconscious feeds on at night.or to my hotel
Wait, I hadn't thought of Bob Newhart at all. Just the idea of saying that to "Bob" next to me (his name isn't really Bob!).
The reference is from the final episode of the second Bob Newhart series… iconic to some, mystifying to others.
While this is not Jewishly-related at all, I would just like to say that that episode is one of my favorite TV moments of all time. Absolutely brilliant.
Another moment when this secular Jew doesn't have the required pop-culture repertoire, but the true believers do.
I'll join you in the ignorance sbw 😉
Diplogeek, thank you for that fascinating and inspiring interview (and thank you Ruchi!)
May I ask, how do O Jews react in real life when they learn that you are a convert and that you chose to convert under Conservative auspices? Do they still treat you as a fellow Jew or as a gentile?
Most of the time, they treat me as a fellow Jew (although in environments where it matters, I'm conscious of issues like bikul akum and whether or not wine is mevushal before I go grabbing a bottle at the kiddush). In some cases, I think this is out of politeness. In others, I think it's out of a recognition that the conversion question, despite what Anonymous wants to present below, is not as clear-cut as others sometimes try to make it. Ironically, the fact that they don't generally make it a huge issue is made easier by the fact that I'm female, so my participation in ritual situations where my status would have greater import is automatically curtailed.
That said, I don't generally go out of my way to spend a great deal of time with people like the Anonymous below, because honestly, life is too short, and I don't see any reason to invest my time in someone who needs to shove their perception of my shortcomings in my face all of the time. I wouldn't spend a lot of time with someone who was constantly telling me I need to lose weight "for [my] own good," either.
I must say, I was surprised and pleased that Ruchi posted this piece without mentioning in the intro or otherwise that you are not an Orthodox convert. Just using the term "convert" to apply to a non-O convert is a hugely accepting step for a fervently Orthodox Jew.
I commend you for this equanimity. I would guess that Anonymous is asking here, because it seems fair, but would never say a word in real life.
As far as trying to keep the religious needs of others in mind, I think it's just simple manners. I wouldn't secretly cook a pork chop in the kitchen of someone that I knew kept kosher, and I don't think that's any different than, say, grabbing a bottle of non-mevushal wine at kiddush. Whatever my own feelings are on this issue, if someone is going to invite me over to their house to eat, or if I'm going to daven in someone else's synagogue, it would be pretty inappropriate for me to do things that I know full well that they would find problematic. And even if some people aren't very polite or respectful of me, I do try not to sink to that level (sometimes more successfully than others). My parents, frankly, raised me better than that.
And yes, I'm very appreciative of Ruchi for asking me to do this; I didn't see it coming at all, actually, for the very reasons tesyaa mentions, and I'm aware that discussing the issue in this kind of forum could be pretty controversial and opens her up for a certain amount of criticism. So thank you, Ruchi, for even posting all of this, and for handling it in a sensitive and respectful way.
I also find Ruchi's handling so commendable and so thoughtful. Thanks for doing this.
(little bow) you're welcome.
Diplogeek: It was so interesting reading your interview and from the comments many people enjoyed getting to know you a little. I just feel it's important to clarify something. As Ruchi said in one of her much earllier blogs, being a Jew passes down from one generation to the next through matralineal descent and if you are not born a Jew, conversations by the Orthodox bes din are the only halachically valid conversations. Therefore, your comment about people saying your child(ren) would not be Jewish (I prefer that over the use of the word "goy") is an accurate statement according to halacha. And your comment about if you die, "Hashem knows I'm Jewish" I feel is not accurate. Hashem made the laws and His law is what is outlined above. We as humans can make our own rules, but Hashem doesn't change His rules. You are obviously very bright and a thoughtful person. May Hashem grant you the clarity and strength to keep growing!
Not sure if Diplogeek will want to "go there" with this comment, but I have to imagine it must be painful to her to read this, since clearly Diplogeek understands (as with her witty trademark logo that I have no idea how to reproduce) "the conversion issue".
Why does this have to be said here? Is it for the benefit of all those potential converts reading this blog (and that would be how many??) that someone has to trumpet that ORTHODOX JUDAISM WON'T RECOGNIZE YOUR CONVERSION?? Is it to unsettle Diplogeek's sense of peace in her relationship with God? Why??
Even if it is true that OJ won't recognize her conversion, do you really KNOW that God won't recognize her as Jewish? Isn't that her business? Maybe God does change his rules. Maybe we (any of us) have misunderstood them. Maybe other stripes of Judaism got it right and you got it wrong.
And do you have to say this after someone has just exposed her own passionate, vulnerable story of coming to Judaism? I don't get it. It in my view DOES reflect BADLY on Orthodox Judaism. It looks to me self-righteous at worst and really, really tactless at best.
It's to express another way of looking at things. It wasn't mean. Why is that out of bounds?
I want to commend Diplogeek for agreeing to this interview, knowing that this issue of non-Ortho conversions was likely to come up. I also commend Ruchi for doing it, for giving Diplogeek a forum to share her journey and life choices even though they are not fully in accord with Ruchi's beliefs.
It isn't out of bounds. But it is belaboring something that Diplogeek already indicated she is VERY well aware of and finds sad and frustrating, and you write it as if she didn't know that OJ views things this way. I found the tone pedantic for that reason even though you tried to couch it in encouragement to "grow".
Diplogeek is talking about what it means to imagine her dying moments, is it anyone's business to correct that (except possibly her rabbinical authority)? Is there a Torah duty to correct all perceptions of Judaism all the time? Isn't there a duty to not horn in on other people's practices? Maybe not.
And the comment does to me evoke an aspect of OJ that can be off-putting, namely absolute certainty regarding what God wants. Which is the definition of OJ, so I see that this is likely unavoidable, and it comes up on here a lot. Tact, however, is one way to avoid alienating other Jews (and other people in general) where possible, in my view. Telling someone else what God's rules are when they have just detailed their own journey is tactless, in my view.
As is so often the case, I'm more inclined to agree with SBW. That post, while I'm choosing to assume it was well-intentioned, encapsulates not only a number of my issues with Orthodoxy generally, but also some of the impressions that I had of Orthodoxy that helped steer me away from an Orthodox conversion. To those who were asking whether my practices post-conversion could really come back to haunt myself or my rabbi should I convert Orthodox, I think it's pretty evident reading a comment like Anonymous's up there that in certain circles, they absolutely would.
But yes, I was aware that the issue of non-Ortho conversions would come up. I considered it at length before agreeing to do the interview and then again before responding to the questions Ruchi sent. My conclusion was that not only have I heard just about all of this before (and it's true- as enlightening as Anonymous may think they're being here, there was no new information in their comment, which is why I found it rather condescending, particularly the backhanded compliment- "Well, you're obviously smart enough- hopefully one day you'll use that intelligence to figure out that I'm right!"), and if it hasn't caused me to have some kind of nervous breakdown or identity crisis already, it isn't likely to now.
I did have to laugh at the fact that while I'm willing to basically put my entire identity out here, sans my name (though really, it wouldn't be that tough for anyone who knows me to figure out who I am based on this interview), Anonymous either doesn't have the guts or can't be bothered to pick a pseudonym. As for saying, "It's another point of view," sure, but I'm pretty sure it's a point of view that I discussed at length in my interview and with which most people posting here are likely to be familiar, anyway. It wasn't posted to be "another point of view," but to try and "enlighten" me, which goes beyond, "Hey, just FYI," into condescension.
And, of course, there's the fact that even the Shulchan Aruch does not require a convert to be fully observant to Orthodox standards (or any standards) before the conversion is considered valid. It says right there, in Yorah Deah 28:2 that when a non-Jew approaches a rabbi about conversion, the rabbi is first obligated to say to him, "Why do you want to convert? Don't you realize how much the Jewish people suffer in this world? Are you not aware that anti-Semites persecute us and try to destroy us? Why, it was only a few decades ago that the terrible Holocaust took place, and before that there were countless pogroms. Even today there is much anti-Semitism in the world, and many Muslims wish to do away with us. And all of this is because we are Jewish. So why do you want to join our suffering nation? If you desire to attain a higher level of righteousness and morality, you should be aware that a non-Jew too can be righteous and can even reach a level of divine inspiration." If the prospective convert says, "Despite this I desire to join you; my only concern is that I may not be worthy," he is immediately accepted, and the second stage of the conversion process begins. He is taught the fundamentals of Jewish faith, the prohibition against idolatry, and a number of other laws. Then he is told, "You should know that so long as you are not Jewish it is permissible for you to labor on the Sabbath and to eat pork or other non-kosher animals. When you convert, however, all of these things become forbidden, and if you violate the Torah you will be punished." If he agrees and accepts this upon himself, he is converted.
There is no mention of turning away three times, there is no mention that if the convert should alter his observance post-conversion that one should assume he was never sincere in the first place, there is nothing that says, "He must no longer drink chalav stam," or "He must agree to send his children to twelve years of Jewish day school," which is now required by a number of batei din. Meanwhile, tractate Keritot offers even sparer requirements for a conversion to be valid: circumcision, immersion and offering a sacrifice (and the necessity of circumcision was debated). So no, I'm not convinced that everything required by, say, an RCA beit din is halachically required. I'm not expecting to resolve the conversion debate here or convince anyone otherwise, BTW. Just presenting "another point of view."
But hey, thanks for reminding me that I'm still just a Gentile, that any kids I might have will really be Gentiles, that I shouldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I should die in some third-world country and that, if I'm really lucky, I might become sufficiently "enlightened" one day to believe all of these things. Classy or compassionate it was not, but at least now I've been presented with a number of views… of which I was already aware. This would fall under my heading of "don't make assumptions," incidentally.
All Conservative converts do mikvah and hatafat dam brit and all are required to accept the mitzvot (and the punishments that necessarily go with them). This is 100% in line with the classical sources on conversion and if a converts sins after his or her conversion by not keeping kosher or shabbat, then the Orthodox community can and should call that a sin and a failure to uphold their standards. And it would be understandable if they did not want to marry that person or even admit them to an Orthodox day school, in line with their expectations for all Jews. But to call this person a non-Jew is in my opinion very questionable. Is there something that truly violates Orthodox law (the members of the beit din were not male or shomer shabbat)? Or is it really a sociological issue?
If the latter, doesn't that involve violating Torah, such as not oppressing converts, not removing oneself from the community, not questioning the validity of the witnesses on the beit din if they are shomer shabbat Jews?
All I am saying is that there was room for compromise here. If there had been a desire to rule l'kula, the Orthodox community could have set up courts with shomer shabbat eidim in order to examine converts from other movements. They could ask them the classical questions and convert them again.
One can even imagine a scenario in which all converts who are willing accept the mitzvot, etc. would be converted through the Orthodox community. Conservative Jews would rely on these Orthodox courts while Reform Jews might give their congregants a choice since some Reform converts would not be willing to do hatafat dam brit or kabbalat miztvot.
But this is not what happened. Yes, there is and was concern about creating Jews who would sin. This is true halachic concern. But the *real* concern, if I can be forgiven for saying so, was to draw a line against non-Orthodox movements. That is the real concern.
I know there is a desire to have Jewish unity under the banner of Orthodoxy. But even Orthodox Jews do not have unity under the banner of Orthodoxy. Even you will not accept each others converts. The lesson is to be careful how you treat us (non-Orthodox Jews) because you will soon come to treat each other the same way.
Now we have less unity and more mutual distrust that we could have had otherwise. In an area where the halachic requirements are low, and there is no requirement to examine the convert's life and behavior in great detail, why choose to increase them, when doing so increases the distance between different Jewish groups? This I don't understand.
I think the RCA guidelines are a good step in the sense that they are assert some standard (even if I truly disagree with adding random requirements to halacha like 12 years of Orthodox day school). But what if the eidim on the RCA beit din held by the eruv? Are they still shomer shabbat? And so on.
If we keep going in this direction, there will be no valid converts, no valid gittim … this is not good for anyone.
At a certain point, you have to say, this is not how we accepted Ruth the Moabite. Asking people to convert over and over again in order to meet standards that are not based on halacha is not how our tradition commands us to treat the ger.
Please note: "conversations" in the comment posted at 11:36 AM should have been "conversions".
I would like to say something.
I'm not interjecting myself here or adding or detracting to this conversation. I do wish to say that I, too, was aware of the issues that were likely going to arise with this post, and I think it's an important conversation to have. I think it's unfortunate (very) that feelings do get hurt (including mine) when having candid conversations about divergent viewpoints but is it better not to talk about them?
That's what this blog is about. Bringing together people who would normally not converse and allowing them/us to converse. In the process will we say thoughtless things that hurt each others' feelings? YES. I've done it, and it's been done to me. I STILL maintain it's worth it to talk, really talk, and really try to understand and really LISTEN to one another.
So, all. Thank you, Diplogeek for agreeing to this interview despite your awareness of this inevitable detour in the conversation. Thank you, Anonymous, for sharing your thoughts, and I agree that they were likely well-intentioned. Can we all resolve to try to be a bit more tactful and to also try to be a bit less sensitive and give each other the benefit of the doubt a bit more, so that these conversations may continue?
I know some will think me heroic and some will think me foolish for posting this. But if one of us will understand the other just a little better because of it, good. It's up to all of you.
The trouble with this comment, Ruchi, and the concept of "giving each other the benefit of the doubt," is that while you are clearly prepared to acknowledge Diplogeek as Jewish, many of your fellow Orthodox are not, as illustrated by the above comment, and many of us on the non-O end of the spectrum find it continually frustrating that the "giving the benefit of the doubt" seems only to flow in one direction, apart from you and precious few like you.
Where is the "giving the benefit of the doubt" to be found in telling Diplogeek "just so you know, as things stand right now you're not really Jewish and neither will your kids be?" Where is it in the unspoken but crystal-clear assumption that "growing" ALWAYS means becoming more Orthodox?
The G-d in whom I try to believe definitely knows she and I are both Jewish. Sadly, many humans will never get there.
Bratschegirl, actually I was really impressed with how some of the the other Os on here responded with respect. And maybe the relative quiet that followed the post WAS some of the usuals holding back from saying what they might have been thinking, i.e. "But she's not even Jewish! How can Ruchi publish this!" I think that is in itself commendable–just keep it to yourself, since surely Ruchi knows what's up.
It took awhile for Anonymous to speak up. Honestly I felt like "we" were holding our breaths for that to happen, but maybe that is my imagination. I've "met" some Os on here who seem to be, like Ruchi, as kind as they can be while believing what they believe. Then again, maybe they are the "less O" ones. That is always my suspicion but who knows–is DG a wig-wearing woman or a fringe-wearing guy? Myriam is twice divorced but seems pretty O to me.
So yeah, surely someone was going to come along and say it. And I guess it makes sense that for Os, "growing" IS becoming more O. So I take my turn being alienated, and then another turn feeling like, as Ruchi says, it is part of having the conversation.
And also reading Ruchi's comment reminded me that I should not relish being offended too much, having analyzed that dynamic (with DG) in the "Jew me down" post.
I was wondering whether I should comment just so no one would misinterpret my silence. Actually, if you look back (or don't bother, just take my word for it), I haven't usually commented on the interviews. I simply tend not to have all that much to say about them. But since my silence is indeed being misinterpreted, I figure I'd better weigh in.
When Ruchi first mentioned the idea in an earlier post, I wasn't so sure this interview would be a good idea. I was afraid someone would get offended. Then, when that didn't happen, I wondered if maybe Ruchi was keeping such comments out. Now I see that was probably not the case.
It's not my place to tell Diplogeek whether or not she's Jewish. First of all, she already knows the issues. Second, I don't know all the facts of the case. Third, I'm not an expert on halachah. As for what God thinks about the subject, He doesn't tell me. I believe that God expects us to live according to halachah, but I don't know His specific judgments. There are lots of aspects of halachah where we can’t know something for sure but for practical reasons we have to follow one opinion or other. (Interestingly, Diplogeek and Bratschegirl are certain God considers her Jewish, so what makes you think it's the Orthodox who have “absolute certainty about what God wants”?)
I don't think growing necessarily means becoming more Orthodox. It means becoming a better person in some way. That can mean not insulting someone when you're really, really annoyed and a great put-down comes to mind or paying a shiva call when you absolutely dread being there. It can also mean not judging people negatively. As Ruchi has said many times, Orthodoxy is a modern concept and is really irrelevant to Jewish observance. And halachah includes interpersonal commandments, not just ritual.
As for whether Miriam and I are "less O," I don't even know what that means. How are you defining "Orthodox"? I assume (never having met her) that we both keep Shabbos, keep kosher, try to avoid nasty gossip, etc. Do you mean we're less closed-minded and intolerant? Or that we don't believe everything every rabbi ever said (which would be hard, since they don't always agree with each other)?
Incidentally, I wasn't trying to keep my gender a secret until Ruchi mentioned a few months ago that no one knew. So here's the great revelation: I am a wig-wearing woman — well, not at the moment, since I'm home alone right now and haven't yet put it on today.
My reticence here was more about my general approach in the interviews. I prefer to allow the interviewee to handle the conversation and play moderator unless a specific question is addressed to me. But bratschegirl, rest assured that the benefit of the the doubt flows both ways. I could link article after article here about the suspicion, dislike, and exhortations to be nice to any stream of Judaism, from any other – I won't, because all of it (except the exhortations make me sad) but it's all reciprocal.
SBW, thanks for your comment. And yes, about relishing in offense – interesting to tie those two ideas together. When I hear something that hurts, I try to assess if it has any truth and/or where the speaker might be coming from (not that I always succeed). If you're busy feeling offended it's hard to do, and then, honestly, how can we learn anything about ourselves and our views and relationships?
DG… I'm waiting to see what others here think of your revelation 🙂
DG, I did not mean to impute to you in particular any specific opinion. I just noticed that there was no one who jumped in immediately to point out the conversion issue. Your comment here sounds like I might have offended you, and I want to respond to what might have been the points of offense.
I really appreciate your third paragraph. It sounds so well thought out but also at the same time so sincerely "believing" in a beautiful way, I mean it's a religious certitude combined with knowing the limits of what you yourself should or can do or decide. That strikes me as not just tactful but as really, deeply thoughtful. And yes, it is interesting that ANYONE can feel certain about what God knows, I have no idea how that feels.
With regard to "less O" I absolutely did not mean to diminish your Jewish practice. I guess I meant "left" in what I've seen called the right/left spectrum, although I still don't get what is "right" or "left" or "center" (since I associate these with political theory, Marxism=left, fascism=right).
From what I gather "left" sometimes translates to less stringent, sometimes to Mod O, sometimes to less rigidity in doctrinal views (but what do I know?). Isn't this why some Os think Mod Os are not "as O" as they should be? I think Ruchi described the Chassidic woman she interviewed as "more stringent", which I guess makes her more "right", and Myriam is more "left" than Ruchi? I am still trying to figure it out, and I think that part of the problem is that there is no straight line from "left" to "right". Like the right/left divides in politics, it doesn't always divide neatly, though.
And especially I don't know where closed-mindedness or intolerance fit on that spectrum. I admit that my prejudice is that "further right" would be more closedminded. Thus until this blog I would have thought that anyone who was as stringent (her word) as Ruchi seems to be WOULD be closed-minded. And I have learned a lot about how that idea of mine is inaccurate. But I feel like Ruchi is special in her openness, and also the other "right" Os on here. Testing that impression out is part of having the conversation. I figure there are people who don't post on this blog at all because it is too "open" with people like me in here saying my blunt and mostly-ignorant stuff. It's one reason I like the blog–because it messes with my categories. It's not interesting if everyone lines up precisely where I already expected them to.
Thanks for the revelation. I had figured you are a woman, didn't know whether wigged or scarved or what!
Please let me know if I can respond to what I imagine (online is difficult!) were points of offense in the comment you responded to.
Don't worry. I wasn't offended at all. I just didn't want anyone to think I meant something by my silence.
"Modern Orthodox" is a very broad term. Sometimes it's used to refer to people who are only somewhat observant. At other times it refers to people who are fully observant but believe in interacting fully with the secular world. So yes, some Os think MOs aren't as O as they should be, but I think that's mainly because they're confusing the two ends of the MO spectrum.
There are definitely closed-minded Orthodox Jews, just as there are closed-minded people everywhere. Democrats insult Republicans and vice versa. Some places are bastions of left-wing politics, and others are just as right-wing, with hardly anyone being exposed to divergent views except perhaps through the news (and then the people who express those views are vilified by the listener's friends and neighbors). I guess it's a hazard whenever people have strongly held opinions, but it's not a necessary result of strongly held opinions. I can disagree with someone and still want to hear what that person says. If we only communicated with people we agreed with, we would be stuck where we started out. We wouldn't have an opportunity to learn from one another.
As for messing with your categories, I would probably mess with everyone's categories. I'm not "right" or "left"; I'm a non-conformist. And I'm not the only non-conformist in the Orthodox Jewish world. It makes life harder, but it's the only way I can be. I think non-conformists are so much more interesting.
This is really interesting to me–how can an O be a non-conformist? Ok, they don't conform to the secular world by definition, but do you mean you are a non-conformist WITHIN OJ? Isn't the idea to conform, because it's God's law? Maybe because of the prohibition on saying negative things there is much less visibility of non-conformism within OJ, just people quietly holding their disagreements to themselves?
You have to conform to halachah, but not to other things. Not everything in life is dictated by halachah.
And there can be more than one halachicly acceptable opinion on some issues. As we've discussed elsewhere, there are laws and there are customs, although the two are frequently confused by the people following them. And there can be different perspectives on how the laws are best applied to a particular situation.
DG wears a wig; I covered my hair with a hat until my recent divorce and now I don't cover it at all. Different practices based on different rabbinic rulings/interpretations as well as different social norms. My observance is not the norm in my current community, but is still halachically based and valid. We are both coming from an Orthodox perspective of basing our actions on halacha.
Just for the record, despite my throw-down with Anonymous up there, I'm sort of happy that they got it out of their system. We all knew when the interview was posted that someone was going to feel the need to say more or less what s/he posted, and rather than sitting around, waiting for it to come up, I think it's easier to just rip off the proverbial bandaid. I actually thought I did that in my interview, since I was pretty clear about acknowledging the issues of conversion in general and heterodox conversions more specifically, but it wasn't a shock to me that someone felt the need to spell it all out again.
I think what tends to annoy me is that there's never any new information in those kinds of posts. I've heard it all already, I've given those arguments pretty intense consideration and found them wanting. It would all be much more compelling if someone had something new to add, but instead it's invariably the same-old, same-old, presented in a way that leads me to suspect that the person doing the presenting assumes that they are the first one ever to fill me in on these issues. I mean, you could come up with something creative, like telling me that the ghost of Elvis will haunt me forever if I don't get an Orthodox conversion. At least that's compelling (to me- I do understand that the standard arguments are very compelling to others).
So, just to be clear, I am aware of the normative, Orthodox stance regarding heterodox conversions. Keenly aware. Ultimately, and after a great deal of thought and research, I have decided that I don't agree with the arguments that Orthodox requirements are all, um, required by halacha (or Jewish tradition), and certainly not that, say, the RCA are inherently more qualified to convert someone (under Orthodox auspices or otherwise) than anyone else. I appreciate that others feel very differently, and of course that's their prerogative. I also think that it's entirely possible to stay true to the position that halacha does not recognize the validity of heterodox conversions and still treat those converts with respect and a lack of condescension. I've seen it happen plenty of times (most recently here, which I really do appreciate), so I don't have much patience with people who can't manage that.
Ultimately, though, if I weren't in a job where I travel so much, most of this would be moot, anyway. I don't think it's likely that I'm going to marry someone who's Orthodox (and if I did, I would probably pursue an Orthodox conversion, since I would presumably be living an Orthodox lifestyle). I don't make a habit of frequenting Orthodox synagogues when I have other options. I don't aspire to live as part of an Orthodox community. The only reasons I worry sometimes about my conversion status, at least these days, is when the question of children arises (and I've actually considered the conversion situation as a reason not to have kids at all, or to foster or something) and when I consider the reality that if I were to make aliyah, I would suddenly find myself stripped of my status and unable to marry, divorce or be buried there in a cemetery of my choosing. But those are larger issues in the context of Israel and don't apply solely to converts.
I hope I'm not stepping on anyone's toes, but I'd like to respond to SBW's above statement about conformity. Sometimes when two factors are correlated we tend to assume that one is causative of the other. In reality it may be that an entirely different third factor is actually the cause of both. I think that this is the case with Orthodox Judaism and conformity. Both, in fact, are an outgrowth of a group of people trying to serve G-d in the best way that they know how, while at the same time forming a community for support, inspiration, and practicality's sake. As far as I know the Torah does not require blind conformity to others. It does say that we have to look out for and take responsibility for each other and basically treat one another as a family would.
The Orthodox community has problems that evolve whenever any group of highly opinionated, passionate people try to create systems that will allow them to function as a community and to safeguard the values and ideas that are important to them. Unfortunately, sometimes momentum dictates that a practice continues until someone makes a conscious decision to examine the system and fix what's broken. In my own life I try not to do things just for non-conformity's sake (because honestly I think that stems from immaturity rather than conviction), while at the same time trying to do what is right for me. Through self-awareness, a lot of deliberation, and advice from people I respect, I was able to make some life decisions that are unconventional for my community without defying the Torah and halacha.
Ruchi, do you consider Diplogeek to be a Jew?
I understand you respect her and honor her choices and so on. But I'm just asking a basic halachic question. It would shock me if I ever met anyone, anyone who considers him or herself Orthodox who would accept a non-Orthodox converstion.
At least some of the posters here think you are prepared to acknowledge her as a Jew, and if so, I'd really like an explanation of this and how your halachic perspective permits this.
Hadas, thanks. It makes sense that there can be a non-conformism to some 'cultural' or community elements that would not go outside the pale of O (at least for a local community, I guess). And I can see how there would be elements that have to do with going along with one's own rabbi-counselor that might coexist with acknowledgment that someone else's counselor says otherwise (e.g. the handshake-to-avoid-embarrassment issue). For a convert I guess it might feel like (or as Miriam says, really be) that intra-O variations might look like not-O-enough practice.
But like you say, this is not just an O issue. Lefties (politically) differ on whether it's better to vote for a mainstream-but-winnable candidate vs. a true-left-but-doomed-to-lose candidate. Vegetarians might have opinions about whose shoes are more ethically correct. Ultimately I have more in common with the less-judgmental version of both of these even if they happen to disagree with my own choices. It's a matter of where strongly held views meet the desire to be open-minded.
MP seems to force Ruchi into a corner. On the one hand, it's fair game for a wide-open discussion. On the other, it is rather tactless because it makes Ruchi say something that we (or at least I) presume she thinks about O conversions–and directly make that into a pronouncement on Diplogeek instead of a general philosophical observation–whereas Ruchi has until now, as she indicated, graciously held back from jumping in to say where she disagrees.
I'm saying this as an observation about MP's comment, not to speak for Ruchi, of course.
As a member of the Orthodox community who now sees things from a different perspective, I can safely say that I used to carefully keep mental notes about which of my extended family members were "not really Jewish" based on their or their mother's conversion status. I don't think I'm giving away any secrets.
SBW, I agree with your assessment. I will use DG's eloquent words above to respond:
"It's not my place to tell Diplogeek whether or not she's Jewish. First of all, she already knows the issues. Second, I don't know all the facts of the case. Third, I'm not an expert on halachah. As for what God thinks about the subject, He doesn't tell me. I believe that God expects us to live according to halachah, but I don't know His specific judgments. There are lots of aspects of halachah where we can’t know something for sure but for practical reasons we have to follow one opinion or other."
I would also add that since I'm calling for tact, the question itself seems out of place. I'm unsure what the motivation is in asking. Diplogeek clearly doesn't appreciate this discussion, so why would we have it?
After reading what Diplogeek wrote above, quoting the Shulchan Aruch, and reading what Larry posted below about Rav Soleveitchik's (sp?) opinion, I am realizing how much grey area there is in regard to accepting a heterodox conversion. If it ever became an issue of personal relevance (say, someone my kid wanted to marry) I could see it involving a lot of discussion with a rav I trusted, and based on these discussions could see the answer going either way, depending on the individual circumstances.
Shouldn't these matters be resolved privately and individually, based on a thorough knowledge of the actual facts at hand, not broad sweeping generalizations and second hand information? As DG said above, it isn't our place to judge, we don't know the facts of the situation, and none of us are halachic authorities on geirut.
Is it really fair to ask Ruchi to paskin publicly in this regard? She is trying to moderate a conversation, not issue halachic rulings.
Can I ask a more general question, unrelated to conversion status but about matrilineality?
What if it turns out, way back in someone's family tree, someone's mother wasn't Jewish according to what now is considered O status? And no one ever knew it? I am thinking that ONE matrilineal gap wouldn't ruin the status for everyone after that, or is some other matrilineal connection enough? Is there genealogical work done by Jews to assure their own Jewish status?
Somehow this reminds me of a post on here some time back about Mormons converting Jews posthumously to Mormonism; I think the Mormons do this to ensure maximal resurrectability of those ancestors, it's not about their OWN status as part of Mormonism. Not relevant but I feel like there is a weird possibility of a connection here.
The reason I ask is because I'm generally not in favor of warm fuzzy handholding conversations where people's real opinions are obscured.
For example, it would be unpleasant to me if a friend was all smiles and sunshine to my face, but then also felt I was a misguided apikorus. I would want to know.
Someone above assumed Ruchi considers DG to be Jewish, so I was challenging that. And I still challenge that. The given answer is a way to avoid the issue. I can ask more pointed questions about bread, wine, milk, etc.
But I also don't see why you'd want to have a conversation on this topic, or post this at all, if DG is not interested, will be offended, etc.
If the warm fuzzy handholding is a fake, then I agree with you. If it's sincere, it can coexist with opinions that need not always be stated.
To me, that is the definition of shalom.
Also a comment about "keeping secret notes" as Tesyaa calls it. That strikes me as pretty ambiguous. It means it's being NOTED, yes, but privately, so it is in fact tactful. It also might mean that those 'secret' judgments are less set in stone.
Like I quietly judge my kids' friends' parents if their kids show NO sense of manners or social acuity whatsoever (adjusted for age and special needs, of course), but because it's my own quiet judgment it is more open to revision than if I were talking about it with my kids and others. It's sort of bracketed, subject to modification. I can't help noticing if a kid-guest doesn't clear her own plate or leaves without saying thank you. Just can't help it. Should I try NOT to notice?
Presumably Tesyaa doesn't bother with those 'secret notes' anymore. But can anyone really stop having 'secret notes' about things that are important to her/him? And if Judaism is that important to some people, I couldn't hold it against them if they make 'secret notes' about things, even though the idea is a little unpleasant to me.
Somehow whether it's kept private or not makes a big difference in all of this. Because private existence isn't the same as out-there existence? I'm not sure.
Of course private judgments and public proclamations are different. We can't help judging, but as long as we don't say anything (or make faces, etc.), we aren't influencing others so much with our negative judgments. Think of a woman who gets annoyed with her husband and complains to her mother about how inconsiderate he is. By the next day she's forgotten all about it and thinks he's the greatest, but her mother holds a grudge against him.
"Not everything that is thought should be said, not everything that is said should be written, and not everything that is written should be published." (Origin unknown, but I've seen in attributed in various places to the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Yisrael Salanter, and the Beis Halevi)
As far as mentally keeping track of which relatives "are" and "aren't" Jewish, the purpose was more concrete. Like, I wouldn't have asked someone whose mother had a Conservative conversion to be a witness at an Orthodox wedding. In reality, that type of issue rarely if ever came up. As you infer, I never, ever would have let on these thoughts to the people involved.
But if another Orthodox person wanted to ask such a person to be a witness, I guess I would have clued them in? That would have been an awkward situation, because of privacy concerns, but as an Orthodox person, you do feel that another Orthodox person has a "need to know".
Tangentially related, Hadassah Sabo Milner had a post from a woman who was at a crowded kiddush and saw, in the kitchen, that one of the cakes had a questionable hechsher. She wanted to alert her husband and kids across the room not to eat it, but she also didn't want to embarrass her hostess. There were some good comments on that post. But even a sensitive OJ who cares about another's feelings would usually give information to another OJ who "needs to know".
"It would shock me if I ever met anyone, anyone who considers him or herself Orthodox who would accept a non-Orthodox converstion."
You've probably met such people and don't know it. A Conservative conversion with three male non-convert shomer Shabbos dayanim, plus mikvah and bris (where applicable) is a shaila at the very least. I personally know of several cases where Orthodox rabbis have investigated the details and paskened the individuals to be Jewish, including one very well known yeshivish rabbi. It's more common with regard to older Conservative conversions, and less common with recent ones.
Anonymous, do you have any responsa / shaalos u'teshuvos on this? Or anyone else? I sometimes get into debates with people (sometimes, hahaha) and it would be good to know more about Orthodox people who accept non-orthodox conversions.
Just to be clear, in my comment I mentioned that a non-Orthodox convert would not be a kosher witness for an Orthodox wedding. That's a bad example, since a witness is supposed to be shomer mitzvos and a non-Orthodox convert who was serious about mitzvos would probably be aware of his controversial status. I can't really think of a good example where my knowledge of who was "really" Jewish would come in useful. In my house we rarely use non-mevushal wine since we have often had non-Jewish babysitters.
So I guess I can't say I had a concrete purpose for keeping track of who was "Jewish" and who wasn't, but I would bet that most Orthodox Jews who come in contact with non-O converts would do the same. Am I proud of this? Not exactly, but if you are a member of an Orthodox community, it makes perfect sense somehow.
The big things I'm aware of that could come up as a result of someone's mother being a heterodox convert (or that person themselves being a heterodox convert), outside of ritual honors like aliyot, are the issues of bishul akum and non-mevushal wine. Depending on how strictly someone holds, the former can be more of an issue or less. The wine thing, I usually just try to keep it in mind, unless I'm somewhere like Chabad, where I assume they wouldn't be using anything non-mevushal, because people of questionable status cross their threshold all the time.
As for the three shomer Shabbat, male rabbis, you've just described my beit din (I didn't request that composition, for the record, and I suppose there's a chance that one of them wasn't shomer Shabbat, but I don't believe so). I wouldn't rely on that as a way to present myself as an Orthodox convert, for the record, but I would absolutely mention it if I were meeting with a rabbi for the purposes of converting again under Orthodox auspices. I would assume that at the very least, I'd need a geirut l'chumra.
MP you are unlikely to find written shailot and teshuvot on this topic precisely because it goes against the contemporary O consensus. Rabbis may prefer to rule as they think best without publicizing the ruling and making things harder for both the ger and themselves. If I were to research the topic I'd try looking into the writings of Rabbi Angel.
Here's a quote from a recent article I read which may give you some insight into how Ruchi squares the circle of her opinions. It is written in a much more rationalist frame than the way Ruchi would put it (as someone would expect from something I'd quote) but it may be another way of reaching the same place:
As usual, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has witten profoundly and deeply about the issue of inclusivism, developing a concept of halakhic inclusivism. Based on the work of John Hick, Rabbi Sacks argues that Judaism can take three possible approaches toward preserving Jewish Peoplehood.
Exclusivism maintains that only one mode of religious thought and expression is valid and takes rejection of these norms at face value.
Inclusivism does not take rejection at face value and seeks to include in the faith community even those whose ideas and actions appear outside of the established norms.
Pluralism, on the other hand, maintains that because there are many valid interpretations of religious faith and practice, none can exclude the other. According to Rabbi Sacks, Orthodox Judaism can be inclusive but not pluralistic.
This is really good, Larry. I've referenced it a number of times since reading. Thank you.
Off topic, but some of you may be interested in reading this article from Tablet Magazine.
All of Judaism is a spectrum, many individuals with different perspectives, even if it is sometimes convenient to lump us under certain labels. The article talks about some of what is going on at the more liberal end of the Orthodox label.
Thanks, Miriam. My husband and I got to know Rabbi Lopatin during our stint in Buffalo Grove. This was interesting.
Wow, Miriam, this is really interesting. I must confess I couldn't follow a lot of it, don't know the players, streams, sub-currents, but it does mess with my categories.
I was raised and educated in what could be described as a typically Orthodox environment and was taught to be open-minded, to question constantly and to think deeply. As far as I understand growing means taking steps towards becoming a better person, thereby fulfilling my mission in this world. I was taught that this is accomplished by asking "What is G-d's will and how does that relate to me personally?" This answer is not the same for any two people as there is more than one way to serve and consequently become closer to G-d. I am able to view the world through a lens that shows many different "rights" without saying that everyone and everything is right. This in no way negates my ability and obligation to be respectful to others and to treat them with the consideration that they deserve. I can only hope that the same courtesy will be afforded to me despite others' perceptions and/or experiences.
Great point! I like that attitude. As someone with a similar story than Diplogeek (except for the fact that I did not chose to convert), I have experienced few Orthodox people who showed this respect and consideration to someone not born Jewish or who chose a different denomination.
Thanks Hadas. What you describe reflects my upbringing pretty closely. Anonymous, I'm really sorry to hear of your experiences. I can assure you that, unlike bratschgirl's statement above, Hadas and I are NOT exceptions.
I've been staying out of this conversation, but I wanted to share some of my early explorations about how I personally deal with hetereodox converts. The post is from 2006 and the group is mostly dead, so I suggest that if anyone has comments on it they do so here and not there.
The whole thread is interesting reading, so thank you for the link. I really like your initial breakdown of the implications of questionable conversion status.
Agreed. Thanks, Larry. How'd you get such a British audience?
Larry, that was really interesting although I didn't follow chunks of it owing to lack of background. It does make sense to me to ask a guest to the O synagogue: "Is your conversion/status recognized by O Judaism?" to save the embarrassment of grilling someone about their conversion/descent or asking, "Are you Jewish?" which could be offensive in its assumptions. But that would probably not be a happy solution for the O synagogue because they don't want to consider themselves "O" but just "Jewish". Still, if it goes along with not embarrassing someone, why not?
For more on getting alone in a halachically mixed community see Mah Rabu's Taxonomy of Jewish Pluralism.
SBW: I've never heard of anyone being asked such a question in a synagogue. I mentioned it to my husband and he hadn't either.
One more thought. In all of my interviews, views have been put forth by my interviewees with which I disagreed. I did not find it necessary to state that; it wasn't the point.
I should learn to listen to that little murmur of uneasiness, and walk around the block before hitting "publish" on something written as intemperately as my last comment. Apologies to Ruchi and everyone else in this conversation. Not one of my finer moments.
I didn't think it was so terrible but that was a lovely apology.
I wanted to put a bit of closure here, though, of course, everyone is more than welcome to continue the convo.
I want to thank each of you for participating in this complex dance. And I especially want to thank Diplogeek for sharing her life and thoughts with us.
Wow, I am so late to this party. Diplogeek, I'm glad to get to know more about you! You comment on my blog (crazyjewishconvert.blogspot.com – when I'm able to update it), and I've always really enjoyed your comments. I didn't think too much about the "diplo" part, which is funny because I turned down the Foreign Service because my O rabbi convinced me I couldn't do it and be orthodox! I passed the written test and never did the in-person test. We could be alternate reality versions of each other. Perhaps that's why no one has ever seen us in the same place at the same time…
I haven't been back here in ages, so I only just saw your comment, but thanks for the kind words! That's pretty wild that you turned down the Foreign Service. For what it's worth, I've heard that there's at least one frum person in the Foreign Service (of course, I've never met them, but reliable friends have), and they've apparently found a way to make it work for themselves. I think there are ways to make it work, but the "worldwide availability" thing would always be the issue, because it forces you to start from scratch every two or three years, which is frustrating for me without considerations about, say, whether my part of town has an eruv. And being frum in, say, Bangkok, where there's a big Chabad presence and easy ways to get out of town is one thing, but being frum in the wilds of Azerbaijan is quite another. I've considered throwing in the towel in favor of rabbinical school a couple of times (to the point of visiting JTS to check it out), but so far, I'm enjoying the work enough to make the religious difficulties worthwhile.
Hey, welcome back! Missed you.