26 Sivan 5774
When Michael Benami Doyle stood in front of his beit din, his rabbi asked him how he reconciled his deep commitment to the Jewish community with the luke-warm commitment of many of the synagogue’s members at the time. Michael’s response, which I generally agree with, is that there is a prophetic aspect to being a Jewish convert. Michael says that the very act of converting makes us “take Judaism with joy and sincerity and totally in earnest because it’s so new to us, and because of that we often serve as an inspiration to born Jews who may have lost their sense of wonder about their native religious tradition.”
In essence, Michael is saying that gerim tzedek serve as a light to the Jewish community through our lived example. To me, that’s the right way to go about this prophetic aspect of being a convert.
But there are certainly wrong ways to go about that aspect, as well. To explain this statement, I’m going to combine insights from two other areas of my life here, and then tie the package up in a nice, neat bow for you. Bear with me.
First, many different sources that I’ve been reading have pointed out that in the Tanakh, the prophets were by and large very reluctant to be prophets (with the possible exception of Isaiah). G-d essentially demanded it, even though the last thing they wanted to do was go out and tell other people how to live, even if G-d required it of them. If we read the stories of the different prophets, most of them only began to speak their prophecies after great reluctance and some resistance. They did not jump at the chance to go tell people how to behave, or what to do, or what to think. Jonah is the classic example, running as far as he could and still being caught by the requirement that he speak G-d’s prophecy.
So it should be clear that it’s not fun to be a prophet. Prophets tend to say “you should change,” or “what you’re doing is not pleasing to G-d – so cut it out already.” Prophets tend to be rejected by their own countrymen. It’s not exactly a cushy job.
The second insight is that nobody likes to be told what to do by someone who’s just showed up on the scene, prophet or not. Even in non-religious contexts, this is quite clear: the new guy on the job who comes up with a way to speed up production is generally not liked by his coworkers, the new kid who can play basketball better than the other kids because he’s had some actual coaching gets drummed off the team because he makes everybody else look bad, and so forth.
My personal example is Usenet. I used to be an active participant on Usenet newsgroups, which (back in the days when rocks were still soft) were the “internet message boards” of the 1990s. This was before AOL and before Compuserve. Newsgroups were community-policed; that is, there were no moderators to come down on someone like a ton of bricks if they came into the group and started causing trouble. Instead, individuals who were group members had the responsibility of shunning the disruptive new member. This was accomplished by the use of a “killfile,” a small program that filtered out any comments from the disruptive member before you ever saw the message threads.
Sometimes my killfile had twenty or thirty people in it. And most commonly, the disruptive member would come in, say hi, and then immediately begin demanding changes to the way things were done in the newsgroup, simply because they didn’t like how things were being done in the newsgroup at that time. Since newsgroups were, in some ways, very clannish (the longer you’d been there, the more status you had, just like in real life), this usually didn’t go over very well. Oh, occasionally a new member would assimilate and become one of the group, but like as not, he or she would end up in everyone’s killfile because of the demands that the community change for them.
So there is a right way and a wrong way to go about being a prophet in the modern world. If there is a prophetic aspect to being a convert – and I agree with Michael that there is – it doesn’t involve taking it upon ourselves to demand change. Unless we are guided by G-d to do that, we need to keep our traps shut and simply be prophetic by the example of our lives. Demanding doesn’t work. Nor should we think it’s okay to demand anything. Instead, simply living the example will probably bring more people over to our side as they see that what we are doing is working.
The reason this is on my radar right now is that there’s a very well-intentioned person at my temple who is, like me, going through the conversion process. But this person is full of ideas, and most of those ideas are about how the temple needs to change, or become different – “more Jewish.” This person is also one of those extroverted, enthusiastic, and socially clueless folks who come across kind of like a very well-intentioned, good-natured bull in a china shop, with very little sense of boundaries and no understanding of the fact that they’re walking all over them. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the fact is that this person seems to think that demanding change is the right way to get it. As an example, they (and I’m maintaining gender anonymity here as well) thought it would be a good idea to wear a tallit “to make other people uncomfortable.” Never mind that as a not-yet-converted not-yet-Jew, they don’t have the right to wear a tallit! That simply did not occur to them in their enthusiasm and desire to shake things up a little bit.
While it’s certainly appropriate and necessary to confront corruption or favoritism or systemic problems when we see them, I think two things have to happen first. One, we need to have credibility. This person (and I) are not yet Jews, regardless of our yiddishe neshamot. We are conversion students. We currently cannot claim to have a dog in this fight – if a fight even exists (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t).
Two, we need to be very careful not to judge how others live their Judaism by the measuring stick we’re using for ourselves. Just as we have to own our own Yiddishkeit, we have to allow others to own theirs, even if their way of being Jewish makes us uncomfortable. In any congregation, there will be people who follow kashrut to the letter and those who have the occasional bacon cheeseburger. There will be people who can manage to avoid working or doing anything that is disallowed on Shabbat, and there will be those who have to work on Shabbat because they need to pay rent and feed their families. And the moment we start getting judgmental is the moment that any credibility we might have is lost.
This is not to say that it’s not right to make a stink about systemic problems. But demanding that people be “more Jewish” because they’re not practicing to the standard you’ve set for yourself is not right, ever, and it’s certainly not prophetic. It’s just being a jerk – and unless G-d told you to do that, you should probably cut it out.
How can you tell if G-d told you to do it? Well, from the known prophets, you really should feel reluctant. If the impulse to tell others how to live their lives makes you feel excited or happy or smug, that’s probably not G-d talking – and despite what you might think, ego is not G-d.
So yes, live your life as the convert that you are. Show your community what your Judaism is like by your example, because this is a religion of practice, and actions speak louder than words.
But unless you’re addressing actual problems, and not just things that make you uncomfortable because they’re not doing Judaism like you do Judaism, keep your words to yourself.