Category Archives: Conversion Process

Posts about the process of my conversion to Judaism.

She’asani Yisrael: The Beit Din and the Mikveh

ConversionCert

First, I want to make a recommendation:

If you have anxiety or any kind of problem that causes anxiety, do your best to have your beit din and mikveh right next to each other in terms of time. Don’t separate them by eight hours, as I did. For me, that caused a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety that, if I had had the mikveh earlier or the beit din later, I could have probably reduced, if not prevented.

We – my husband, my best friend, and I – all got up far earlier than any of us are accustomed to getting up, at 7 a.m., to be ready to leave by 8 a.m. to get to our Temple for the 8:30 a.m. beit din. The Temple is about 15 minutes away. Things seemed to be going all right – I got up, got my shower, did my meds, got dressed, had a double cup of coffee, and was mostly okay until we got to the elevator.

Of course it wasn’t working. This is the first time we’ve ever had problems with the elevator in almost two years of living here. I called the landlord and left a message about it, and then we had to go down the stairs, which was not fun and which stressed me out. We very carefully got me down three flights of stairs, with a lot of help. I don’t do stairs because my knees will not let me go up, and my bad balance doesn’t let me go down. This meant that we got to the Temple about five minutes late, and I was a little embarrassed.

Rabbi M. was waiting for us. My best friend and I came in while my husband went to go find parking for the car, but we all managed to get there within a few minutes of the start time. Once we were all seated in his office, Rabbi M. introduced us to Evan B., who is the Temple’s liaison to the URJ, and Joanne L., who is the head of the rituals and practices committee. Rabbi M. explained what the beit din was for, and then we began.

I remember Rabbi M. also asked me to write an article for the newsletter about my journey into Judaism and into this Temple. I’m sure I can do that – I’ve got so much material here already. I asked if I could move my chair a little so I could see everyone’s faces and read their lips if necessary.

I wish I could remember all their questions. Actually, I wish I’d taped the session or something just so I’d have more than memories. But over the course of about thirty minutes, I talked about the name I chose (Yaron Adam Yisrael), and this blog and its name (Shocher Adam), and how they related to my ongoing search for God (Yisrael = wrestling with God; shocher = seeker). I discussed my religious background (Catholic and fundamentalist Christian), how music was worship for me and how, if I didn’t have music, it didn’t feel like worship.

I talked about my failed attempt at the Shul Down The Street. I talked about that first Seder at my friend’s father’s house, and that first long discussion about “Fear God” not meaning “Be terrified of God.” I talked about my best friend’s input and help, and my husband’s decision to convert as well, and all the reading I’d done, and when they asked me that family question I explained that my mother was abusive but that the rest of the family was totally on board with me going through with this. I even mentioned my daughter saying “If I was going to be another religion, I’d be Jewish because they let you argue.” I talked about how the holidays were meaningful. I know I talked about ethical structure and tikkun olam. And I know that I choked up more than once, when I said “I just felt – this is my place, these are my people, this is my home.”

I talked about a couple of things Michael Doyle talked about when he did his conversion, and crediting him for the ideas – about the prophetic aspect of being a ger/JBC, and about finding my soul’s native adjective in Judaism. They understood it all.  A lot of times, I apparently anticipated their questions with my answers so that when I was done, they would say things like “I was going to ask X but you’ve already covered it.”

Evan B. asked me if there was ever a time I felt ashamed of being Jewish and I said to the contrary, I make a point of being openly and obviously Jewish. I don’t proselytize, but I wear a kippah and a Mogen David everywhere, and I do not feel any shame. I said “The only time I’ve felt actively anxious about being obviously Jewish is when the three of us were driving up through Victorville last year, and we stopped to get lunch at a truck stop, and there were swastikas in the truck stop’s bathroom. That worried me.” But I was even able to tell the day of My First Anti-Semitic Slur without too much trouble.

Joanne L. wanted to know what I was going to do once this was done – and asked me if it would be very different or not, considering how much I already knew and was doing. I said I wouldn’t know if it was going to be different until it happened. She also wanted to know how to make the Temple more welcoming for Jews by Choice and I said that I thought they were already doing a great job, but that I would think about it and definitely get back to her later (which is what she wanted).

Essentially, they got it. They really got it. It didn’t take nearly as long as I thought, and it wasn’t like my dissertation defense at all.

Then Rabbi M. asked the three of us to leave (while they rearranged the furniture so it wasn’t so crowded). We went into one of the classrooms and admired the artwork there – a big puzzle made of pieces that were hand-painted by different families in the congregation back in 2002. When we came back in, Rabbi M. had some paperwork for me. I mentioned that my husband wanted me to mention that I intend someday to be a chazzan (cantor) because everything went so fast that I forgot to mention it before, and he’d scolded me a little for not mentioning it.

The main thing in the pile of paperwork was the Declaration of Jewish Commitment, which he said I would read through silently to make sure I agreed with it (I did) and then I would read aloud while holding a sefer Torah.

He told me that my story was not one of change so much as emergence, which they found profound and wonderful (that made me blush).

Then, holding the sefer Torah, he told me that the Torah is our connection to all Jews before us and that after this, I would also be connected to all Jews both now and before, l’dor vador. And that this particular sefer Torah had been commissioned by the congregation, so that it would also connect me to this congregation. After he told me all this, I asked whether I should wear my tallit before taking the Torah, and he said yes. My best friend got the tallit out of the bag it was in, held it out to me so I could see the prayer on the atarah, and I recited it, only stumbling a moment over “vetzivanu” for some reason (Rabbi M. prompted me):

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mizvotav vetzivanu l’hitateif ba’tzitzit.

Then I put it on, and took the Torah from Rabbi M. for the first time.

When I wrote about this during the break between beit din and mikveh, I said that to that point, this was the most profound moment for me today – when I actually took the Torah into my hands. It was lighter than I’d thought, but also slightly awkward. I’d studied Rabbi M. while he held it so I’d see what to do – dominant arm around the Torah with my hand between the two scroll holders on the bottom, and then non-dominant hand wrapped around the other side bracing my wrist – and I was able to hold it without too much trouble. I read the entire Declaration without any faltering, reading all the English-written names as Hebrew names, although I did choke up a bit a time or two.

In reading the Declaration, I said that I stood before God, with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob, with Moses, and with the prophets of Israel (for various reasons and in different ways) in my intentions to become a Jew. I stated that I accepted the Torah and committed myself to a lifetime of its study. I stated that I am part of God’s covenant with Israel. I pledged to give to time and resources to supporting the Jewish community, strengthening Israel, and helping bring about justice and peace in accordance with the vision of the Prophets. I pledged to establish and keep a Jewish home, with certain definitions of what that meant; I pledged to deepen my Jewish observance by active participation in a synagogue (not necessarily this Temple, either), and that I recognized that my embracing Judaism was part of a life-long journey dedicated to tikkun olam, or the healing of the world.

I’ve paraphrased it here, because Rabbi M. wrote it, and I don’t want to publish his copyrighted information.

Below that, it had my Hebrew name (without nikkudim/vowels, so I didn’t recognize it at first!), and stated that I dedicated myself to God’s ways and to honoring all of creation, and then said the Shema to affirm the oneness of God.

Everyone present said the Shema with me.

Then they all signed a number of certificates: certificate of hatafat dam brit, certificate of conversion, and the Declaration. All three had the Hebrew name I’ve chosen: Yaron Adam Yisrael ben Avraham v’Sarah.

In Hebrew letters, that’s:

ירון אדם ישראל בן אברחם ושרה

Rabbi M. also had the check for the mikveh people (our Temple subsidizes the cost of the mikveh for new converts), and a certificate for them to sign there, for me to take with me. He also had a letter from him, on behalf of the Temple, offering me a year’s paid membership, and whom to talk to about that.

My husband choked up several times, and cried both during and after. My best friend videotaped me saying the declaration and holding the Torah, as did Evan B.  from a different angle. I will post stills from these at some point soon, when I get copies.

After that we left the office, and while Rabbi M. was photocopying my documentation I went into the sanctuary for a minute to be alone. I said the Shema in front of the Ark and read the words on the Ark doors: Mitzvot Adonai raba: meyirat eynaim. (Adonai’s mitzvot are pure: they give light to the eyes.) I said thank you. I said “These Jewish hands and this Jewish soul are here to serve you.” And I cried a little bit.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the gift shop window with the tallit around my shoulders, and I gasped. It was kind of a shock to see it. I think that’s when it hit home: I’m a Jew now. Even before the mikveh, it was still profound. I am a Jew.

I went over to the Temple office to talk to the secretary about High Holy Days tickets, and she said to just come in next week to pick up the paperwork. Joanne L. was there and I gave her my email so that she can email me about the rituals committee. I also told her that I want to teach classes at the Temple, and that I had talked to Sharon (the Temple’s education director) about it, too.

When we got into the car, my husband had the CD from our Hebrew teacher, who also sings. He forwarded it to her version of “L’Dor Vador,” and then he cried with hearing it. Those tears were a precursor for some long conversations later in the day. He was profoundly affected.

Then we went to brunch. I called the apartment management and they called back to tell me that the elevator was repaired and working fine. So we came home with about an hour to kill before leaving for the mikveh. I wrote down what had happened up to this point and then tried to calm down a little bit. It mostly worked, although I melted down at my husband simply due to stress and worry (which is a far too common thing for me, sadly).

Half an hour or so before we were planning to leave, I took out my temporary earrings, which have been in since last Friday since I can’t remove captive bead earrings on my own, got my deep-scrub shower, scrubbed my teeth, and got into clean clothes before we left for the mikveh. I took a bag with just my toothbrush and my deodorant and a comb in a small pouch, along with a pair of flip-flops, as the mikveh people had directed. I also had the certificate for them to fill out for witnesses, and the check my rabbi had given me.

The drive up was not bad. We went to the Skirball Center first to purchase a mezuzah – because now that there was actually a Jew in this home, it was fitting that we finally have a mezuzah inside the doorway. We picked out a nice one. My husband also bought a CD of music. We stopped and had a soda, and my husband stumbled his way through the prayer for installing the mezuzah – which we’ll do tomorrow sometime, probably after services. My best friend and I were elated that his Hebrew is coming along so well.

Then we went to the university where the mikveh was, about 45 minutes before we needed to be there. Sitting outside, we saw Rabbi M. arrive early too. He went inside to check us in, and I stayed outside with my husband and best friend, feeling nervous and anxious. I knew that as far as the Reform movement was concerned, I was already a Jew, but for me the rituals of brit and mikveh are so important that I didn’t feel like I was completely a Jew until they were done too.

I gave my wedding ring and my Mogen David – the only jewelry I had left on me – to my husband and asked him to hold them safe for me.

Rabbi M. came back out after a few minutes, and we made conversation. My husband said he was considering October 1st, and Rabbi M. said “Whenever you feel ready, just let me know.” Then we also asked if, once my husband had finished his process, we could do a renewal of our wedding vows as proper Jews, with a Jewish service led by Rabbi M., but the non-Jewish calendar date falls on Shabbat this year (Saturday), so it wouldn’t work. Rabbi M. then suggested we use the Hebrew date for our one-year anniversary, which is 7 Cheshvan (October 20), and that looks like what we’ll be doing. Later, my best friend offered the use of her tallit for a chuppah. We are still discussing this, of course, but it will probably happen just that way. Then Rabbi M. went back in to see what else was going on. There were two groups of people ahead of us when we first arrived, and only one had emerged.

We finally went in about five minutes after the four o’clock appointment. Judith, the mikveh attendant, took us on a short tour of the facilities, showing us all the mikveh pool, which is tiled in blue tile and has seven steps down into it. It didn’t look very deep or very wide, and I was very worried about hitting my head. This is when I found out that immersion in a mikveh is not the “lie back and get immersed” way that we’re all so familiar with from many movies that feature Christian baptism. Instead, it is a straight-down-from-standing movement, almost like crouching down into the water into a fetal position, pulling your feet up so that you’re not touching anything at all – so that you’re floating free. Once I understood that, it became less scary.

She said that once I was ready to get into the mikveh, I should knock on the outer door and then go into the mikveh room, put my towel on the rail, and go down into the water. There was a screw-in plug in the wall that allowed communication with the natural spring and the water already in the mikveh; she said to unscrew it and set it on the side of the pool, then put it back in when I was done. A few minutes after I knocked on the wall, to give me time to get situated, she would come in (behind the curtain) and ask if I was ready. She pointed out the disposable kippot, and the plastic laminated stand that held the prayers for those whose brains might fail them in anxious moments.

Apparently they usually dim the lights down to almost nothing and just let the electric candles light the room when you’re done, if you want, but I did not want. It was already dim and I had a fear of being in the dark and the water without some visual cues. I don’t want to do sensory deprivation, so I said please, no dimming of the lights – they were plenty dim already.

So after we got that all sorted, then I asked if my husband could be with me in the prep room before and after, as my arthritis makes it difficult for me to remove and put on my shoes and a couple of other clothing items. They said no problem. So he was also in the room in front of the curtain with Rabbi M., my official witness, when I did my immersions.

Since I’d already scrubbed myself until I squeaked, I just took a very quick rinse-off shower in the prep room. It was hot outside, so I did need it, but I was glad I was already pretty clean, as the shower was one of those “rainfall” showerheads and it didn’t feel like it had a lot of water pressure. I dried off just as quickly as I’d rinsed, grabbed the towel they’d provided to cover myself, knocked on the door, and went out into the mikveh room in the towel. I hung the towel on the rail and got down into the mikveh with a little help from my husband. It was extremely buoyant water, and very warm – not like a swimming pool at all, and not even like a hot tub. This had its own unique sensation. I couldn’t – quite – touch the floor with my toes, and the water was brushing the bottom of my (trimmed) beard. It was very disconcerting. It was much deeper than it had looked from above. Now I understood why you had to leap up to immerse – you needed the downward momentum to drive your body completely below the surface, or it wouldn’t happen.

My husband and I moved the small laminated plastic stand with the prayers in it to a place I could get to easily, and he took my glasses (which I had to have to see my way into the pool – I’m blind as a bat and have zero depth perception without them, although I can read close up without them on). He unfortunately set them on a black table, and with their black frames, they blended right in, which was a little problematic after the whole thing was over and he couldn’t remember where he’d set them down. He then sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the curtain, and we waited for Rabbi M., and my best friend and the mikveh attendant, who would be behind the curtain as second and third witnesses since they were female.

It felt like a long time, but it was probably only a couple of minutes before the mikveh attendant said, “Okay, Adam, are you ready for the rabbi?” I said yes. Then she asked if I was calm, and I said no, because honestly, I was so anxious about doing it all correctly that I couldn’t really be calm. I was trying, but I was just too anxious and I still didn’t feel like I was going to avoid hitting my head, or pulling my back, or doing something else incorrectly. I wanted kavanah (the deep, spiritual feeling of connection), but what I ended up with was keva (ritual and memorized prayer). But as Michael Doyle said when it was his time in the mikveh, keva is enough to get the job done.

In any case, once I made sure Rabbi M. could see what he needed to see to say whether my immersion was kosher, I took a couple of deep breaths and then let go of the side of the pool. I made sure that I wasn’t near the stairs, so that I wouldn’t touch them when I pulled my feet upwards, and then Rabbi M. said “Whenever you’re ready, Adam.”

I took a deep breath, leapt up a little bit, and plunged down. I made sure to duck my head down too, so that I would be completely underwater. It felt kind of like when you do a cannonball into the deep end, except that I didn’t touch my hands or arms to my sides. But I knew for certain that that first one would be kosher – I wasn’t touching anything and nothing touched me but the water.

I came up, wiping the water out of my eyes and slicking my hair back, and heard Rabbi say, “That was kosher.”

Completely forgetting to don the disposable kippah (d’oh!), I read the first prayer for immersion:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu al ha-tevilah.

Then I took a few deep breaths, leapt up and plunged down again, and heard Rabbi say “Kosher,” as I came back up. I took a minute to collect myself, put the kippah on my head this time, then read the Shehecheyanu. Yes, I read it. Why? Because my brain was frazzled and I just needed the help.

The last immersion took me a little longer. Like Michael Doyle, part of me was thinking, “When my head clears the water again, I’m a Jew for all time.” And part of me was thinking “Don’t screw this up, you want this to be done in three so you don’t have to re-do any of them.” And part of me was, sadly, saying “And move it along because you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t hurry up.”

But then I just cleared my mind, took a breath on a count of five, leapt up, and plunged down one last time.

When my head cleared the water, I heard Rabbi M. say that all-important word: “Kosher!” I wiped water and tears out of my eyes, went to the side of the pool, put on the kippah, and sang out the Shema for all that I had. It echoed on the tile and I was convinced I was off key, and I know that it was obvious that I was crying while I sang it. But then it was done, and Rabbi M. was telling me what a profound thing I had done, and welcome to the Jewish People, and that they would see me outside when I was ready.

And just like that, she’asani Yisrael. I am a Jew.

Then he and the other two witnesses filed out, and my husband asked me if I wanted to get out yet.

Oddly enough, I didn’t. I needed another minute or two to assimilate what I’d just done. I hadn’t hurt myself – a relief – and I had done it all correctly, except forgetting the kippah before the first blessing, but I was shaking and in tears and still trying to process. I asked him to wait a minute while I wept, until I got myself together. Then I wiped my eyes with wet hands, and went to the bottom of the steps. I said, “My tears are in the mikveh now.”

My husband was there with my towel when I got to the top, and helped me dry off. There was a bit of a frazzle moment when he couldn’t find my glasses, but then he did, and went out into the prep room to get my flip-flops – the tile was much more slippery after being in the mikveh than before. He brought them and my glasses to me and made sure I didn’t slip while we went back into the prep room.

There was a bench in the prep room. Once I had my hair combed, my own kippah back on, and my clothes on, he sat at the foot of the bench to help me get my socks and shoes on. He handed me back my Mogen David, which I put on immediately, and put my wedding ring back on me, saying, “I marry you again.” We had a private moment which I’m not going to talk about, and then it was done. I packed up my bag, and he took it, and we went out into the reception area where I was congratulated by everyone there. My best friend hugged me, elated, and said “Welcome to my people! Welcome to my family!”

Judith said she and the mikveh’s rabbi had a gift for me, and offered me a choice of one of five knitted kippot. I chose the green one (green is my favorite color, and I can rarely find a good kippah in that color) and wondered whether to switch my Mogen David kippah for it. They said it was up to me. I decided to hold off on that as the one I was wearing was chosen for the day.

Then my husband made the decision to schedule his mikveh appointment and his beit din. He will be going on October 1st. That’s five weeks away. So we’re not done yet!

Rabbi M., Judith, and my best friend had all signed my mikveh certificate, which I added to my paperwork file. Then we went out, and driving home took two hours plus, and for most of the drive we sang Hebrew songs off my playlist until my phone died, and my husband talked about his own path to his conversion and how it was different than mine. We went to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner, and then we finally got home.

Somewhere in there, I realized that something had changed. It wasn’t like my friends’ reports of suddenly looking down and seeing Jewish hands. It was more like a tightly coiled spring, that had been far too tightly wound up inside me for far too long, suddenly uncoiling, relaxing, fading. Like something that had been incorrect or out of place for years was now, finally, set right.

I had to update this before I forgot the important things. I know this is one of the longest posts I’ve done on this blog, but I hope that it’s helpful to everyone. If I’ve forgotten things, look for follow-up posts.

Also, today was the 12th of Elul, and the theme for today was “forgive.”

BlogElul 2015

I think that in finishing this milestone, I forgave myself for a lot of things I’d been and done over the years. I’m the same person, but I feel lighter. I feel easier in myself and in my mind.

I hope that’s what I was supposed to feel.

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Since sundown came, it’s officially the 12th of Elul by the Hebrew calendar.

Today is the day. When morning comes, I’ll be at the beit din at 8:30 a.m. Before the sun goes down again, I will be a Jew in truth and not just in hope and preparation.

Things will not happen in the order they did for Michael at Chicago Carless. For him it was beit din, hatafat dam brit, and mikveh. I have had my hatafat dam brit, and it will be beit din then mikveh, but there will be some differences.

  1. It isn’t going to happen all in the same building. Michael’s day was all in the same place, but the closest mikveh to my Temple is about 40 miles away, and I can’t ask the beit din to drive that far.
  2. It’s separated by about seven hours. Beit din at 8:30 am until whenever, but mikveh’s not until four pm. So there will be a largish break.
  3. We will not be going back to the Temple after the mikveh (at least, I haven’t been told otherwise), so the recognition of me as a Jew (including holding the Torah for the first time, and putting on my tallit for the first time) will very likely happen before I go to the mikveh. But in my heart I know that I will not feel like it’s done until, well, it’s all done.
  4. I am shaky and nervous, but I did get to talk with my rabbi today after our last class was over with, and when I went to Hebrew class afterwards, it became as much a class about being a Jew as it did about reading Hebrew. Everyone was very kind to me.
  5. My best friend and my husband will be with me throughout, which will help.
  6. In the break, I will have a good meal and get a very, very thorough shower and scrub-down.
  7. I will be bringing my own towel and a pair of flip-flops to the mikveh to try to avoid any untoward accidents like slipping on the tile or their towels or robes not being big enough to cover me. (Both of which I am honestly really scared about.)

Rabbi told me what would happen at the mikveh. After I do the ritual bath-and-scrub thing, which will be quick since I will have done a quite thorough bathing before coming to the mikveh, I will go out into the room where the pool is and put my towel down and take my flip-flops off before I go down into the water. After I’m under the water to my shoulders, I will let Rabbi (who is my witness) know that I’m ready. Then I will immerse, lifting my feet off the bottom of the pool so that I’m floating free, and the Rabbi will announce whether it was kosher or not by saying so. After the first kosher immersion, I will say the prayer for immersion. After the second, I will say the Shema. And finally, after the third, I will say the Shehecheyanu. There will apparently be a kippah at poolside for me to put on, to recite each prayer.

Michael was very clear about how this works to get the whole body floating free for that split second that’s necessary. You point your hands in front of you, jump up a bit to give yourself some momentum, and pull your feet up when you go under so that you float free. I am going to try to avoid pulling my back any worse than it’s already been pulled (I have a knot in my lower back that won’t quit no matter how much I stretch).

I’m bringing my tallit clips to the beit din, and my new kippah with me to the mikveh, for wearing afterwards. It has a Mogen David on it that covers the entire diameter of the kippah, a white kippah with a blue star. I have been saving it for this occasion since I got it last year.

I will pack a very small bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb, and my friend will bring the tallit with her. So I’m mostly ready. I’m just scared to death that I’ll do something foolish or say something wrong, or that my klutziness will kick in at the worst possible moment.

Worrying? Me?

Yeah, a bit.

Because, you know, that’s not Jewish or anything…

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Countdown -2: The 10th of Elul and Counting

Today was the 10th of Elul, which is two days from the day I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

It’s a little funny to me that today’s theme is “count.” But “count” can mean to tally up, or it can mean to matter.

I choose the latter meaning today. Isn’t part of Elul supposed to be figuring out what matters and what doesn’t matter?

So then: What counts to me? What doesn’t? What is really important, and what isn’t? What do I need to hold on to, and what can I let go of, while still remaining myself?

Well, of all the people in the world, my husband and my best friend count to me. My daughters count to me. My brothers and their families count to me, as does my father’s sister (my aunt), my mother’s brother (my uncle), and several of my cousins. My closest friends count to me. My rabbi counts to me. My students – new and old – count to me. My teacher and my chavurah group count to me. My new therapist counts to me.

And on a larger scale, of course every person on the planet counts to me, but not as personally or as viscerally. Some of them count simply because they’re human beings and dammit, tikkun olam, I should care about them.

And my cats count to me, because cats.

My health counts to me. My ability to earn a living counts to me. My home counts to me, although I’m thinking many of the things in the home may not anymore. I may need to find a place to pass on the people I used to be when those things did count to me, so I can leave those people I used to be, behind.

What doesn’t count to me any more? What doesn’t matter?

Making everyone like me no longer counts. Getting everyone’s approval no longer counts. Being perfect… well, that still counts, but not on every level. Only on some.

I’m tired, and it’s late, and I’ve been up since five a.m. with short sleep, and so in the interest of taking care of myself I’m probably going to cut this post a little short. But you get the idea.

Part of Elul is figuring out what counts to you.

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Countdown -4: The 8th of Elul and Hearing

Today was the 8th of Elul, which is four days before I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme was “hearing.”

When the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, it is said that their response was “na’aseh v’nishma,” or “We will do and we will hear.” (Sorry, I can’t find the proper Hebrew spelling, so you’ll have to deal with transliteration. I trust this is not a problem.) Anyway. We will do and we will hear? Wha?

That’s really odd. Shouldn’t you hear the orders before you try to carry them out? This confused me when I first encountered it, and it still confuses me now. I mean, in Judaism the goal is what you do, not what you believe, and I suppose what you believe would come to you by way of what you hear, but…

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who was confused by this. According to one midrash, Moses said to the Israelites after this astounding, seemingly out-of-sequence declaration, “Is doing possible without understanding?” To which they replied, “We will do and we will understand.”

Some traditions translate this as, “doing and understanding will happen simultaneously,” rather than “by doing, we will THEN understand.” But there’s still that whole “hearing” thing to deal with up above. It seems to me that they just let it go without an explanation. Doing is more important than hearing. We’ll get to hearing later. Right now there’s stuff we gotta do, nu?

So what can we hear while we’re doing? What do we actually need to hear while we’re doing? Or is it that the process of doing leads us to hearing that “still, small voice” inside us? Perhaps – stay with me, here – we have to do in order to be silent enough to hear. Perhaps the process of keeping your body working and moving and doing is necessary in order to quiet the mind enough that it can hear. (I know this sounds very Zen, but there’s a fair overlap in the mystical traditions of Judaism and Buddhism, so I’m not going to worry about it.)

Sitting and trying to listen while doing nothing – trying to hear while your mind is noisy and anxious – is probably counterproductive. And doctor after doctor has advised people with panic, depression, and anxiety to exercise – to DO something. And it’s well known that people who have these conditions but make themselves move – or do – have fewer problems and a slightly less bad time of it overall.

It can’t just be the endorphins.

Maybe that’s part of why we had to do first, and then hear.

Of course, this also assumes that the Hebrew was meant linearly – that it meant something to say na’aseh before they said v’nishma. There could easily be other reasons why the words were in that order, including accident. My rabbi told us that the first words of Genesis, Bereshit, when you translate the Hebrew in literal order, come out “In the beginning created God, the heavens, and the earth.” And that’s normal Hebrew grammar – the word order is usually object verb subject. But! The Kabbalists have said “What if “In the beginning” was referring to Something BEYOND God, and grammar isn’t the reason for the word order, and the word order actually matters to the meaning? What if Something created God, and the heavens and the Earth? What then?”

I seem to be taking the flip side of that argument here: what if the word order didn’t mean anything, and it was just easier to say “na’aseh v’nishma” instead of “nishma v’na’aseh“? Haven’t you ever had that happen with names, for example? Charlene and Rick, but not Rick and Charlene. Joanna and Todd, but not Todd and Joanna. It is perfectly possible that they said it that way because to say it the other way was just clunky.

But we won’t know if there’s meaning unless we can calm down the interior voices enough to listen to the interior Voice of the Eternal, either. So I’m going to leave this conundrum as an exercise for my faithful readers.

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Countdown -5: The 7th of Elul and Being

By the Hebrew calendar, it’s already the 8th of Elul. However, I didn’t post on Shabbat, so this is for the 7th. Yesterday was the 7th of Elul, which is 5 days before I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “be.” That’s also a toughie for me. Because today it’s raised the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Being is a pretty encompassing term. It’s also not a word that exists in Hebrew in the present tense – it’s all implied. This can lead to some funny weirdnesses in translation. If I say “Ani Adam,” it literally translates as “Me/I Adam.” Which is clunky in English.

But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. Grammar is something for another day. Let’s talk about being.

When we say I AM something, we mean in the present tense. In the past year, I’ve been saying I am a Jew, more and more, rather than “I will be a Jew.” Because I have felt like I am already a Jew, and this Thursday’s scheduled activities (beit din; mikveh) are just formalities. They will be profound formalities, but they will simply affirm what I already am.

So then what does it mean to be a Jew? Is it about observing a certain number or kind of mitzvot? Is it in the way you dress? Is it in how often you go to Temple? Is it about how perfect you are about being ready for Shabbat before sundown, or not missing Havdalah? This has come up so often on this blog that it might be something my readers are tired of hearing. But today I read something on Quora about Judaism that really struck me. Lisa Reiss said:

Although the term ‘sect’ is used in regard to Judaism, it’s essentially referring to level of religious observance and regional traditions not radically different beliefs.

That, I think, is the best way to sum up the differences between my way of being a Jew and an Orthodox haredi’s way of being a Jew. And even then, I don’t think I’m at a lower level of observance than he is, but a different one.

I’m still a Jew. I may not be his kind of Jew, but I’m still a Jew.

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Countdown -6: The 6th of Elul and Knowing

Today is the 6th of Elul, which is six days from when I will be officially a Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “know.” (Have you noticed that the themes of these days all seem like pretty tall orders on the surface reading? Yeah, me too.) What does it mean, to “know?” Let’s start there.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of “know:”

Full Definition of KNOW

transitive verb
1 a (1) : to perceive directly : have direct cognition of (2) : to have understanding of <importance of knowing oneself> (3) : to recognize the nature of : discern
   b (1) : to recognize as being the same as something previously known (2) : to be acquainted or familiar with (3) : to have experience of
2 a : to be aware of the truth or factuality of : be convinced or certain of
   b : to have a practical understanding of <knows how to write>
3 archaic : to have sexual intercourse with

Psalm 46:10 says (in English): “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Okay. Which form of “know” are we talking about here?

Well, too many times I’ve heard other religious people say that they know God is real, and most people who hear that will interpret it as the first part of the first definition above – to perceive directly. Which is probably one reason why so many non-religious people shrug and say “Yeah, whatever. Show me proof that there’s a God, or shut up.”

I used to do that, because that’s the definition of “know” that I always used. I also knew that it was a jerk move, but I did it anyway. I thought being a scientist meant that kind of knowing – seeing or otherwise perceiving directly.

But let’s look at the third part of the first definition, shall we? To recognize the nature of. Well. That’s a very different matter, isn’t it?

Recognizing the nature of God is not the same as seeing God in a burning bush, or seeing God come down from a mountain. It doesn’t mean having to see God in physical form. Quite the opposite. It means understanding why that is neither possible nor necessary.

The nature of God is infinite and omnipresent. When we try to impose a physical form on God, it’s our minds trying to comprehend that nature. It’s our minds trying to know by creating a form that we can perceive directly. But God is not in a form that we can perceive directly. God is infinite and omnipresent.

Just stating that may not give me a full recognition of the nature of God, but it’s a start. God is here, regardless of whether we perceive God or not. God is also there, whether we perceive God or not.

Now, I know some people will say that that’s a cop-out. For example, my Christian correspondent last year pressed me to define God exactly, saying that I couldn’t be sure my need to convert was real unless I understood God by being able to define God. But I think that’s where I started to realize that I needed to pull away from the demand that I define God – or that I had to define God in order to know God.

I don’t.

I can know that God is real, that God is infinite, and that I cannot possibly perceive God directly – but also that I don’t need to.

Sometimes, it’s okay not to know.

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Countdown -7: The 5th of Elul and Accepting

Today is the 5th of Elul, which is one week until I officially become a Member of the Tribe.BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme is “Accept.” Hoo, boy. I’m not sure I even know where to begin.

In our class yesterday, we discussed the idea that in order to change, you have to begin by not changing – by accepting who and what you are, where you are, right here, right now. For a lot of people that’s a really tough thing to do. I know it is for me. I’ve been fighting with this – wrestling with it, if you will – for all 44 years of my life. There’s always something preventing me from accepting who and what I am, where I am, right here and now.

So I guess I’ll talk about acceptance by talking about that.

Part of yesterday’s lesson in class, which came from the outstanding book God Was in This Place, & I, i Did Not Know by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, really hit me hard. It was the part where the book says that in order to improve yourself, or better yourself in any way, you have to accept your starting point. The class got very exercised about this point. One person said “But then how can I better myself, if I accept where I am right now? Isn’t that like giving up or giving in?”

I (and several others) brought up the idea that we focus too much on the goal, or what we think we “should be,” instead of the process, or how we get incrementally closer to the goal, as the main point in change. For example:

  • I’ll be acceptable once I’ve lost 30 pounds.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can run a marathon.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can quote the Talmud from memory.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I have that job.

But isn’t the truth that God finds you acceptable right now, as you are, even though you’re not perfect? Doesn’t acceptance, at its heart, come down to being okay with not being perfect? Because the truth is, none of us can be perfect, no matter how driven we feel towards perfection.

This brings up another lesson I’ve already learned before, but I’m seeing it in a new way. (Judaism does that to lessons, I notice: Turn it and turn it, for all can be found in it.) The lesson I’m thinking of is the one that says “When asked if you are keeping kosher/giving 10% of your income in tzedakah/whatever, a good answer is ‘I’m working on it.'”

  • Are you giving 10% of your income in tzedakah? Not yet, but I’m working on it. I gave $20 to a homeless man the other day.
  • Are you keeping kosher? Not completely, but I’m working on it. For example, I no longer eat shellfish.
  • Are you saying all the required brachot and other prayers? Not yet, but I say the Shema every morning and every night.

Why are we so unwilling to say “I’m working on it” instead of “I’ve got it done/fixed/handled?” Why are we so prone to demanding completion rather than process?

Robert Merton, in his theory of institutional anomie, said that the American society is far too focused on the goals and not nearly enough on the means of achieving those goals (aka the process). Is it a human condition to focus on the goal rather than the process? Or is it simply a condition that we’ve created for ourselves in this hectic world where you don’t eat unless you have a paycheck?

It might seem that I’ve strayed far afield from the idea of “accept,” but I haven’t, really. Because all this is, is accepting where we are, right now, isn’t it? It’s accepting that a goal is not the be-all and end-all, that process is the real thing, and that being 1% better than you were yesterday could mean a 365% improvement in a year, if you did it every day.

But to do that, you have to accept where you are as the starting point.

Where are you today? Right here, right now, what do you need to accept in order to move forward?

Look down at the starting line. That’s where you are, right here, right now. The finish line will wait for you.

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Countdown, -9 and counting: 3 Elul and Searching

Today is the 3rd of Elul, which is 9 days from the day I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

I have been reading about Elul this week, on Anna’s Jewish Thoughts and Jewels of Elul. And it occurs to me that Elul is a time of preparation – and I am preparing. Not just for the beit din and mikveh, but for the High Holy Days, of course. Every Jew is, in their own way, preparing for those.

Today’s theme, if you will, for 3 Elul is “search.” We can search outside ourseives or inside ourselves, but to search – to seek, if you will – is so much a part of me that it’s part of my blog name (“shocher” – שׁוֹחֵר – means “seeker”).

A year and a half ago, when I first contemplated the day I’d finally meet the beit din, I thought the following things, none of which were very realistic:

  1. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no further doubt that God exists.
  2. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts about being a Jew.
  3. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts, period.

I’m sure you can see how that’s not realistic. Everyone doubts. “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth,” as the meditation from my best friend’s siddur warned me. But how does this connect to seeking or searching?

Well, seeking includes doubting. It includes not being sure. And it includes something I’ve never been comfortable with: being comfortable with not being sure. I have so much baggage between my religious upbringing and having been abused by an emotionally disturbed parent, not to mention being autistic, that doubt has always been something I’ve been afraid of. Even as a scientist, while seeking answers about social problems from my data, I have fought the possibility that my answers might be wrong. I have fought the possibility of doubt.

But seeking has to include doubting, or it’s not seeking. Searching has to include the possibility that we might not find what we’re looking for in the form we are expecting, or that we might not find it right now but we might find it later, somewhere else, or that it might not even exist at all. Searching has to include the ability to say “I’m not sure that this is what I was looking for,” and also “I’m not sure that this answers my question.”

If the beit din asks me what Judaism has given me, I know one thing that I will be able to tell them. Being able to say “I’m not sure,” being able to say “I don’t know” – these are priceless things to someone like me. Because even now, saying “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” makes my stomach clench with anxiety.

But it’s not as bad as it used to be for me. Not nearly. Because now I have Judaism, and Judaism both allows me to doubt and more or less expects that I will doubt. I’m not going to be punished for doubting, or arguing, or having a different opinion than the Jew sitting next to me at Torah study. That’s both expected and encouraged.

So becoming a Jew has given me, among other things, permission to doubt and not feel like I’m going to go to hell for it – either literally or figuratively.

Every now and then I still have doubt that God exists. Every now and then (usually when I see something egregious or upsetting inside the Jewish community) I have doubts about being a Jew – not doubting that I want to be a Jew, or that I am a Jew, but that I can accept that Jews who attack others are still Jews too. In Christianity it was always the opposite – if they attacked people they weren’t a “real Christian.” Judaism does not give me this “No True Scotsman” dodge. But the people that I’ve written about here on my blog, who’ve made me worried and made me doubt, are also Jews. By making it formal and official that I’m a Jew, I’m also declaring a connection to them, however reluctant I am about that aspect of it.

For me, acknowledging that I will be part of one of the most hated, persecuted, and reviled groups on the planet is easy compared to acknowledging that I’ll be part of a group that includes people like the ones who burned down that Palestinian baby’s house and burned him to death, or murdered that young woman at Jerusalem Pride.

But I’m still going to do it. Why? Well, that’s another thing that Judaism has given me as I’ve been searching for these last eighteen months and more: a name for my drive for justice. Tikkun olam. Healing the world. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. And if my being a visible Jew gives an anti-Semite a moment of doubt, or if my being a visible Jew causes someone to search out answers they might not have considered before, then that’s a step in the right direction.

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Counting Down to the 12th of Elul

On 12 Elul 5775 (August 27 2015), I will officially cross the line.

Once I cross that line, I will no longer be a “convert” or a “ger.” In the eyes of my fellow Jews, I will be a Jew, and will have always been a Jew.

That’s ten days from today. Ten more days of being a Gentile, and then never again.

When I read Michael Benami Doyle’s account of the day of his conversion, I was stunned by the wonder in his words. He woke up thinking “This is the last day I’m going to wake up as a Gentile.” But I don’t think that’s going to be my experience. I already identify as a Jew, and I have for more than a year now. I haven’t really identified as a Gentile (or a non-Jew) since I started working with my current rabbi more than a year ago.

However, as I’ve said in recent posts, the day of my beit din and mikveh is not the finish line. It’s more like the starting line. I’ve made it to a certain point, but it’s like a b’nei mitzvah point. The journey doesn’t end here. I will have much more to learn, to do, and to be after this point.

Part of my mind is yammering on about all the little ticky things that go with the conversion process: how do I get my toenails that clean? Will I be able to remove my earrings, which have been in for six years and never removed because they’re captive bead rings and I have never figured out how to remove them? What about afterwards – will I be able to get them back IN? (I honestly don’t know, and those earrings are important to me – I got them at a time in my life when I was missing my father more than I can say.) Will I remember all three of the blessings at the mikveh? (Would you believe how often I’ve muttered “vetzivanu al ha-tevilah” under my breath in the last six weeks?) What will the beit din ask me? Am I really prepared for this? Will I faint? What if there’s too much traffic between here and the mikveh? Will I remember to bring the Mogen David kippah that I got for this occasion? Will I remember my tallit clips that my friend gave me more than a year ago, to go with the tallit she bought me and will bring on the day of? What if I’m allergic to the soaps at the mikveh?

And part of my mind is standing back amused and saying “All of that will be handled. You worry too much.”

Yes. I do worry too much. It’s part of what makes me who I am. (I joke that that neuroticism is part of why I’m going to be such a good Jew, too.)

So what happens between now and then? Well…

I plan to purchase our first mezuzah on the actual day, either at our synagogue or at AJU. It’s one of the few pieces of Judaica we don’t have yet. The other one is a challah platter, but I’ve already picked out the one I want that goes with our other Judaica. I will probably have my friend help me remove my earrings the night before (it will take two people) and pack a small bag to take with me – nothing like a mikveh kit, but my own shampoo, and a comb, and my tallit clips and my new kippah that is for this occasion.

And I’m going to make sure to have something more than coffee before I go to the beit din at 8:30 AM.

What happens after it’s done? Well…

I acquired a new blog follower recently who worried in her own post about the blogs she follows that I was going to stop posting once my conversion was done. I’m not sure what the status of this blog will be eleven days from now. I may still post, but it probably won’t be so much about conversion anymore. I’ve gone through the holidays as a Jew, starting with Pesach two years ago. I’ve celebrated all of them in one form or another. I may still write about these things being relatively new, but it won’t be from the point of view of a convert, I don’t think. It will be from the point of view of a Jew.

Will I stop identifying as “a convert?” As those words? Yes, probably, unless I have to explain why I don’t have a recipe for my grandmother’s matzo ball soup or rugelach (she wasn’t a Jew), or why my Judaica is all so new and shiny and modern (I bought it myself). But I will always identify as a JBC, or Jew by Choice. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone who converted, either. Many people who were raised secularly as Jews and became religious later – the baalei teshuvot – also identify as Jews by Choice. I became Jewish. The mikveh will not erase my past; it will add on to my present and my future. It will place a new layer on top of the person I still am and still will be.

Counting down to my beit din/mikveh date (I don’t want to say “conversion date,” because conversion is an ongoing process, not a single point in time) feels like my own little counting of the Omer. I know it’s not, but it feels that way. So today I say:

Today is the 2nd of Elul, which is ten days from the day I become a full-fledged Member of the Tribe.

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My Issues With Orthodoxy: A Response to Rafi Mollot

I had not intended to devote an entire post to this topic. Most regular readers of my blog already know how I feel about the Orthodox stream of Judaism, between the Elad Debacle a few months ago, the Haredim who are constantly trying to stop the Women of the Wall from worshiping at the Kotel, and of course the ongoing violence from Israeli Jewish extremists against women and children, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My position’s been pretty clear, and I guess you could say I’m with Wil Wheaton on this: Don’t be a dick.

But after Rafi Mollot‘s impassioned response to a comment thread on my blog, which asked me if I was just using stereotypes to judge an entire group, I felt that it was necessary to make this a full post.

Rafi and I got into it the other day in my post “A Wasted Yom Kippur”. You can see our conversation in the comments. I felt at first complimented, and then condescended to, by what he initially said. Part of that may have been that Rafi had not read the rest of my blog, and so did not know my position on Orthodoxy. My reasons for not converting Orthodox – now, or ever – are pretty well-known to my regular readers. Some posts which probably stand out in that area are:

Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew
They’re Not Your Shabbos Goyim, and Other Hard Truths
Hey, Pop Chassid, It’s Not a Paradox
Style or Substance? A Follow-Up Post

There have also been posts about Orthodox converts on the conversion boards that I’ve read and been part of, which boil down to: They claim that Orthodox Judaism is the only “real” Judaism, and I disagree. They usually end up being banned for trolling the boards and refusing to get along with other Jews because they refuse to recognize anyone who isn’t Orthodox as a Jew.

Most of my readers know this already. But Rafi was not a regular reader. I’m pretty sure he found me from Rabbi Adar’s reblog of that post.

At the time I responded, I was also tired and I had had a bad day, which probably colored my response. When I read his initial comment, what I got out of it was “If you’re not Orthodox, you’re not really a Jew, you know.” It rubbed me the wrong way.

So first of all, I should explain why I’m not converting Orthodox. I will refer people back to this post from now on, if I get comments like Rafi’s again, so that the explanations are clear.

  1. I’m queer. That’s not going to change. Since the Orthodox are well-known for being homophobic, I have zero interest in being Orthodox. The stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade did not help this perception.
  2. The Orthodox are, by and large, very sexist and misogynist in their practices. I find the existence of the mechitza despicable, and the reasons given for it appalling. The ongoing struggle between the Women of the Wall and the haredim at the Kotel is a big deal to me, and I’m on the side of the women, not the haredim.
  3. By and large, the problems I’ve seen in Israel (and Jewish enclaves outside of Israel) when Jews are involved are caused by Orthodox Jews (many times, ultra-Orthodox) Jews. See my intro paragraph for a few examples. Frankly, I don’t want to be part of that.

The upshot is, I have been personally told by Orthodox people, such as Pop Chassid and the various Orthodox on the convert boards, that I’m not a “real Jew” because I’m not Orthodox. It doesn’t take too many times of that happening to decide that Orthodox Jews generally have a stick up their behinds and their hands clamped firmly over their ears, singing La La La to avoid any new information. And it doesn’t take much for me to believe that when an Orthodox tries to push me towards Orthodox practices that the underlying message is “you’re not a real Jew unless you’re an Orthodox Jew.”

That said, I jumped to conclusions when I got Rafi’s original comment (I am quoting the second half here, because it’s the part that made me jump to conclusions).

On that note, and I know I’m about to open up a can of worms here, but I do so out of genuine concern for you, not to stir up controversy. Here goes… I know of quite a number of cases in which people who converted to Judaism through Reform were chagrined to learn later that their conversion was not recognized by some other streams of Judaism (particularly Orthodox). See this article on the subject: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Conversion.html

Importantly: “The Reform movement recommends that the potential convert be made aware of mikvah and mila, and that their conversion would be unacceptable to Orthodox Jews, but such notification is not required.” (And, by the way, I do believe the Orthodox have the right to preserve Judaism according to their tradition by upholding strict standards for conversion. There’s nothing wrong with that.)

So, I’m telling you because I care about you. From your description, you and I share a fair amount in common, and you certainly seem like someone worth caring about. And this important information may influence how you go about conversion or your overall decision to convert.

Since my beit din and mikveh is in eleven days, I have zero interest in changing my focus. I’m also having a conversion process that will be acceptable to just about every other stream of Judaism, including the Conservative/Masorti stream – a beit din, the mikveh, and hatafat dam brit. I had already settled that issue long before Rafi commented. But he didn’t know that, and I should have been less sharp in my response. As I said, I was having a bad day and I was tired, and that probably colored my response, which I will quote here:

I am well aware of the Orthodox position on my conversion, but this may surprise you: I don’t care what Orthodox Jews think of me. They don’t own Judaism, even though they think they do. Yes, they have the right to hold to their tradition. They do not, however, have the right to claim sole ownership of Judaism, any more than the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to claim sole ownership of Christianity.

I’ve written on this issue extensively in this blog already. I have a strong dislike of fundamentalists, and the Orthodox fit into that category. Yes, they’re Jews. But so am I. They can pretend I’m not a Jew, but they will be wrong. If the anti-Semitic pogroms came again, I’d be targeted right along with them.

This article may help you understand my position: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.670717

I am finishing my initial conversion process with my beit din on the 27th. It will include mikveh and hatafat dam brit. I say initial because conversion is a life-long process. A b’nei mitzvah doesn’t stop learning and growing after their 13th birthday; a Jew by choice doesn’t stop learning after their beit din. If I had doubts about the stream of Judaism I was joining, I wouldn’t be going through with this.

And as a matter of fact, knowing the Orthodox position has influenced how I went about conversion – I deliberately chose the Reform movement because the Orthodox make me ill with their continued fundamentalism. They can hold to their strict standards for conversion to their variety of Judaism. They cannot impose those standards on me. And when they try to impose their standards on others, we get stabbings at the Jerusalem pride parade (http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/02/middleeast/jerusalem-gay-pride-parade-stabbings/), and infants set on fire (http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.668871), and closer to home in the US, we get young women who commit suicide because their Orthodox communities hounded them into it (http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-hasidic-woman-jumps-off-ny-rooftop-bar-to-her-death/). You can probably see that I’m not interested in their views after events like this. I hold all Orthodox responsible for those deaths (and by extension, all Jews including myself, for not putting the kibosh on the Orthodox and their hateful views).

I don’t like your implication that the Reform somehow hide this information from conversion candidates – that the Orthodox only accept Orthodox converts. It was never hidden from me. It annoyed me when I discovered it (on my own, before I even contacted a rabbi), and angered me when my rabbi and I discussed it, but I am not chagrined that the Orthodox wouldn’t accept me. I am chagrined that they’re too closed-minded to accept me, because that’s their loss. Their acceptance has zero bearing on my decision to become a Jew – apart from my sense of justice showing me that they have none.

I am a Jew who practices my Judaism in the Reform manner. If you wish to follow my blog, I’m fine with that. However, I’m not fine with commentary that says that only the Orthodox are real Jews, so if that’s your stance, I would appreciate it if you’d keep it out of my blog. Having looked at your blog, I doubt that you would be comfortable here, especially after seeing your recent attack on scientists.

Framing it as “caring about me,” when you’ve read one or two of my posts, sounds too much like Christians who have tried to convince me that Judaism is wrong and Jesus is the only right way. Don’t be one of those folks, okay?

Also, don’t take my quoting of an Orthodox rabbi as any indication that I think Orthodoxy is the only way, or the only right way. Rabbi Hartman said something smart and important, and something that more Jews need to think about. That’s why I quoted him – not because he was an Orthodox rabbi. I’ve found worthy information to think about in all kinds of books and from all kinds of sources.

Rafi responded back the next day, and I had to think about it for a while before responding. I will be interleaving his most recent response with my responses to it. Hopefully we can come to some kind of understanding here.

Adam, thank you for your honest and heartfelt reply. If only most Jews had as acute an understanding of Judaism as you do, in your expression that a Jew’s journey does not end with Bar Mitzvah (or conversion, in this case), but only begins. I have a friend, a rabbi, who says, “There’s no such thing as Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, Reform Jew, etc. There are only two kinds of Jews. Growing Jews, and non-growing Jews. Where you are on the spectrum of observance is irrelevant. The question is, are you moving in the right direction?” I have heard this from a number of rabbis (who would be labelled Orthodox, incidentally). In fact, I had had plans with another rabbi friend of mine, a former colleague, to start a “movement” called “Under-Constructionist Judaism” (UCJ) based on this philosophy. We both left the organization we had been working for at the end of that year and went our separate ways, so nothing ever came of that.

Rafi, I shared something similar not so long ago in this blog, in Moving Up The Ladder, or, The Foundation of My Yiddishkeit. “You have not told me which of the men is moving upward,” said the rabbi in this lesson, and I agree with that. UCJ sounds interesting, but I wonder if it was more of a thought experiment than a thing that was actually needed by the community.

However, on the topic of your anti-Orthodox diatribe, I would like to ask you a question. Have you ever met Orthodox Jews? Interacted with them? Spent time with them? Or are all your conceptions of what Orthodox Jews are based on their portrayal in the media, or otherwise secondhand sources? I ask because your statements about Orthodox Jews in this reply are broad, sweeping statements that lump everyone into one basket.

I have met Orthodox Jews. I have several friends who are Modern Orthodox. They live on the opposite coast, so I don’t get to see them much, but we correspond on Facebook and in other venues. There is a Chabad community two blocks from where I live in the Los Angeles area, but I have received multiple cold shoulders from them when I run into them on the street or at the market, even though I wear a kippah and a Mogen David and don’t hide my Jewishness.

I also have friends who are ex-Jewish and have left Judaism altogether because of having been raised in ultra-Orthodox households, like the one that Faigy Mayer was trying to escape from when she died. I have a friend who was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, after having lived as a Jew all her life, because her mother’s conversion was not Orthodox and therefore invalid. (It wasn’t invalid. It was just unacceptable to a hard-starch Orthodox fundamentalist, which is not the same thing.) I have another friend whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor (not to mention an Orthodox Jew) whose father was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, because her mother was not a Jew – which is reprehensible in the extreme. She is one of the most amazing Jews I know.

Not only is it impossible to characterize all people within a group with one label, for certainly there must be exceptions, often “stereotypes,” and particularly negative ones, are built around the extreme behaviors of a very visible minority, but don’t represent the views of the majority, even the vast majority. Often, the characterization of a group by a small number of representatives COMPLETELY misidentifies the rest of the group. Antisemites have done this for millennia, as have other groups toward one another, and this has only yielded tragedy and destruction. I’m surprised that someone like you is not more sensitive to this. And as an Orthodox Jew myself, I KNOW you’ve mischaracterized me and my community, and I am personally hurt by your remarks. Sadly, this happens all too often. People are quick to judge one another, and I too, it seems I was too quick in my judgment of you as tolerant of other streams of thought, including “the hateful Orthodox,” which, apparently, includes myself. 

For your hurt, I am sorry. To me, you came across as someone pushing me to be Orthodox as if that was the only acceptable way to be Jewish. I wonder if you can see why you did.

However, I must address “the hateful Orthodox” comment. So far I’ve seen you get offended by my perception of Orthodoxy because you think it comes solely from “the media,” but it doesn’t. As described above, I have friends who have been personally harmed by the Orthodox movement, just as I have friends who have been personally harmed by the fundamentalist Christian movement.

There are certain beliefs that I cannot tolerate or find acceptable, such as the misogyny and the homophobia that seem to be inherent in Orthodox Judaism. How do you respond to that?

  • Do you have examples of Orthodox Jews who are willing to speak out on the side of justice and equality?
  • Do you speak out on the side of justice and equality? Or do you just say “Well, if it’s not halacha, they’re the problem, not us”?
  • Do you recognize that Torah is a living document, not a dead and fixed-in-stone document?
  • Do you recognize that liberal rabbis have interpreted its words to find that I, a gay man, am an acceptable Jew? Or do you just reject that and say “That’s not halacha”?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m honestly curious to know.

If you just reject social justice in favor of “that’s not halacha,” then yes, in my opinion you are part of the “hateful Orthodox,” just as the fundamentalist Christian who says that sex education should be abstinence-only and who wants their gospels preached in the schoolhouse is part of the “hateful Christians.” If you are open-minded and say “those things are shameful, they are a shame to all Jews, and we should not promote misogyny and homophobia against God’s children,” then you’re not part of the problem. But your initial reaction here  leads me to believe that you’re on the side of the misogyny and the homophobia, because you’re defending it.

I once heard someone say, “When non-Orthodox Jews talk about ‘Ahavat Yisrael,’ they mean toward everyone but the Orthodox.” I would like to believe that was hyperbole, but it seems to reflect a real sentiment. I must admit that I have heard over and over from people who have interacted with Reform communities (including those who came out of Reform and became Orthodox) about the enmity toward the Orthodox, sometimes unspoken, sometimes overt, that exists among the Reform, though I have personally never encountered it… until now. From what I know, it is the people who have had the least contact with the Orthodox that have the strongest prejudices. 

My experience with the Orthodox has been that when they say “Ahavat Yisrael,” they mean only the Orthodox. As I’ve already said, the Chabadniks give me the cold shoulder – perhaps because I’m not wearing black and a white button-down shirt with my kippah and my Mogen David. Who knows? They’re not welcoming; they’re shunning.

I don’t deny that they are Jews. I do feel that their behavior is embarrassing. But they wouldn’t recognize me as a Jew even if I was crammed in next to them in the cattle car. And yes, I use that phrase quite deliberately.

I know you are a good person, with a strong sense of justice, as you highlight in your article. Does anything I’m saying resonate right now that perhaps you have prejudged, and wrongly so at that? You see, I REALLY KNOW what Orthodox Jews are, and the reality on the ground does not comport with the image of the Orthodox you have presented here (which I’m certain is only a reflection of the twisted image that has been fed to you — you would never on your own paint such a character; it just surprised me that a forward thinking person like you did not see through it). Don’t you see that your condemnation of “the Orthodox” is the same crime that you accuse “them” of perpetrating? I’m not claiming every Orthodox Jew to be an angel, but they can’t be worse than any other demographic, none of which you would vilify for the actions of any of their individuals. And even if you fall back on the “hateful views” of the Orthodox as justification for your characterization of the people, I once again must assert that your impression of Orthodox views must be greatly misinformed. 

You say it is. Where is your proof? I have actual, real-life examples, both from the media and from my own experiences and the experiences of my friends, that the Orthodox are, by and large, hateful to any Jew who isn’t Orthodox. Do you have counter-examples for me? People who stood up and said “No, the Women of the Wall have the right to a Torah and to shofarim at the Kotel”? People who identified the haredi men who assaulted Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy back on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar for doing that very thing, so that they could be brought to justice? I’ll take your pointer of the OU rabbis condemning the Pride stabbings and the pricetag murders as two good examples – but that’s two examples against twelve or fourteen bad acts. Show me more. Give me some balance, here.

I humbly direct you to one of the best sources of information on the Internet for Orthodox ideology: aish.com. It is one of many mainstream Orthodox Jewish websites, none of which I think you could accuse of touting “hateful views,” quite the contrary, in fact. Why don’t you go ahead and check out ou.org, of the — GASP! — Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), and find a condemnation of the stabbing attack as well as the “pricetag” murders.

I’ve read aish.com, and it’s interesting, but a lot of it is contradictory. For example, the author of http://www.aish.com/jl/jnj/nj/100712764.html assumes that everyone has to have a Jewish spouse in order  to raise Jewish children. Well, okay, if you think “Jewish” means “being absolutely 100% tied to the mitzvot and doing everything exactly correctly”, then fine. But that’s not how I, or many other Jews of my acquaintance, approach Judaism. This author assumes that everyone wants to have Jewish children and the only way to have that is to have a Jewish partner, which is categorically not true.

But then the contradiction comes in in the “Ask the Rabbi” question today, in which the rabbi says “Any attempt is better than no attempt.” Well, which is it? If you want me to take that page as an authoritative description of Orthodox Judaism, some consistency would be helpful. I’ve had people from Aish tell me that I’m sinning for not eating halachically acceptable ha-motzi – which I can’t eat because I’m allergic to it.

I hope you will reconsider your evaluation of Orthodox Jewry. No, I am not trying to influence you to become one of us (you may well know the Orthodox do not seek converts, though we LOVE the convert, as the Torah teaches us to — you read that right, “love,” not “hate”), but I’m allowed to be genuinely caring toward others, even non-Jews, even though — GASP! — I’m Orthodox! (“No, it cannot be!”) 

I hope you can see that your approach came across as “I am trying to influence you to become one of us.” Because it totally did. By devaluing the approach I have taken to my conversion, you are doing exactly that, whether or not you realize it.

And you must understand, Rafi, that the claim of “love” grates on anyone who’s been religiously abused in the name of religious love – which I have been, multiple times, by multiple faiths. It smacks of “We love the sinner even though we hate their sin,” which is a platitude I find disgusting from anyone’s mouth.

This point is clear to me as an insider, but I emphasize the point here out of necessity for someone who may be an outsider, and yet, no matter how much I try to convey this, something tells me I won’t convince you. 

If you want me to believe you with no evidence, on your assertion alone, then yes, you’re going to have trouble. If you want me to believe you, provide me some evidence that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews were not cheering on the Jerusalem stabber or the men who set fire to that baby’s house and killed him and his father. If you want me to believe you, show me that Orthodoxy is working on fixing these problems instead of trying to brush them under the rug or give a “No True Scotsman” argument. Show me that most Orthodox were horrified and said “We have to fix this, we have to make them understand that they can’t do this,” instead of just shrugging their shoulders or actively cheering on this violence against people who were no threat to them. Show me that this sermon by Rabbi Benny Lau (who is, yes, Orthodox) and the crowd reaction are not anomalies in the Orthodox movement.

Let me suggest another great “Orthodox” website (that is, created and run by an Orthodox Rabbi): Shabbat.com. It’s a free service that allows you (among other things) to contact a potential Shabbat host ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD to arrange to stay or eat for Shabbat. Why don’t you find yourself a nice Orthodox family near you to host you for Shabbat, and then tell me after your experience about your FIRSTHAND impression of the Orthodox? I think that’s the fairest way to judge, don’t you?

I have had firsthand experiences of Orthodox Jews. With only one or two exceptions, those experiences have been uniformly negative. The friends I have who are Modern Orthodox are not local, so I can’t just go to their house for Shabbat dinners. And I can’t go to just anyone’s Shabbat dinner, because I am allergic to about a third of what would be on the table, including the challah and anything else that had flour in it. It wouldn’t be respectful to say to a stranger through that website, “I can’t eat most of what you cook; I eat a special diet; cater to me.” Instead, I hold my own Shabbat dinners and have friends over to them so I can control what I’m eating and not end up in the hospital.

I’m willing to have a discussion. I’m not willing to be the target of someone yelling at me. So if you wish to continue this discussion, Rafi, feel free to comment here – after you’ve read and understood the rules of my blog.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Wrestling Matches