Tag Archives: Jewish conversion

613, or, Pikuach Nefesh is a Mental Health Issue Too

(I’m not going to make excuses for being gone so long. Life happens and things get busy, and that’s not a failing – it’s just a fact.)

Today I want to muse a little bit about the ongoing tension many Jews by choice have with the 613 commandments and the issue of physical and mental health.

I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve had it all my life; it comes with the territory when you’re autistic. One of the ways I’ve dealt with anxiety over the years is to try to impose tight control on my world (which never works) and to try to be as perfect as possible (which also never works). And I know I’m not the only Jew out there who fits the “neurotic” stereotype, okay?

One of the things that’s helped me deal with this terror – and sometimes it is terrifying – of not being perfect and not getting every detail right is the advice I got from a rabbi about my conversion: “When someone asks you if you are keeping kosher, or giving tzedakah, or whatever observance they’re interested in, and you’re not doing it yet, just say ‘Not yet, but I’m working on it.’ Because your observance is nobody’s business but your own. Just their asking the question is rude. Feel free to ignore their judgment, because they shouldn’t be judging in the first place.”

Mostly, that’s helped. Knowing my medical issues don’t allow me to keep kosher, and knowing that my anxiety has been keeping me increasingly housebound of late unless I force myself to leave the apartment, allows me to be a little easier on myself.

Am I not trying to be observant? Am I lazy about my observance? Far from it. I observe in the ways I am able to, and if someone thinks I’m not observant “enough,” that’s not my problem. Do I always remember that? No, because I was raised in a tradition where I was expected to be perfect and any lapse meant I was lazy.

(I’m trying to find a way to talk about this issue without “outing” someone, so I’ll do my best not to name any names. Those who might know me and the person in question are hereby cautioned not to name names or give identifying details.)

Long story short, I have a friend who is also a convert, who converted in the Orthodox manner. They also have an anxiety problem and OCD. They recently lost a family member and have been observing shiva, including tearing their clothing, but recently found out that they didn’t tear it “correctly.” (Except I’ve looked, and there are multiple pages with multiple descriptions of what “correctly” means for this particular mitzvah.) And their worries center on being “outed” as a convert among their congregation and having random Jewish strangers tell them they’re not “grieving right.” They also asked why none of their knowledgeable Jewish friends had told them about the right way to tear their garments so that they would be “doing it right.”

I find this very sad, because religion is not supposed to be oppressive, especially when it’s a religion you chose. And when you’re grieving, the last thing you should have to pay attention to is these kinds of details. Isn’t that what shiva is supposed to be about – allowing the bereaved to have time not to deal with the details?

I have seen this friend get very stressed out about things that, to most people, are just details and grace notes. And I worry that their focus on these details is going to cause them harm.

But I also remember being that nervous about my last name (which is definitely not a Jewish-labeled name) or my looks (Western European, mainly Irish) “outing” me as a convert among other Jews. I also remember feeling like I had to qualify any statement I made about my Judaism and my observance with “But I’m just a convert, so…”

I used to say “I’m a Reform Jew,” until a rabbi said to me, “No, you are a Jew who observes in the Reform manner.” And now I just say “I’m a Jew” (because I am), and if someone asks, then I will expand on that by adding the stream I am part of. But it doesn’t have to be out in front anymore.

I used to beat myself up for not doing everything exactly correctly. I used to feel like I was a bad person, a sinner, if I didn’t go to Torah study every Saturday morning and have a full-on Shabbat dinner every Friday night. But anxiety is a real thing, and I finally had to accept that right now, my people-interaction skills are not great. Diabetes is a real thing, and I had to accept that some things (like gluten-free challah) are not safe for me to eat, even if eating them is a mitzvah.

There are 613 commandments that Jews are supposed to follow. (Some can’t be, because we don’t have a Temple anymore, and some are specific to certain groups of Jews – such as the Kohanim – but 613 is the generally accepted number.) That’s a lot of details to keep track of, and I don’t know of anyone who does that perfectly all the time. No one. And a lot of people – like my friend – get very stressed out over trying to do all of them perfectly all the time.

But here’s the thing. I have not yet found anything in the Talmud or Torah that says “put your health at risk to be observant.” In fact, there’s even a doctrine called pikuach nefesh – the preservation of human life – that says that, apart from defaming the name of God or committing murder, you can break any commandment to preserve human life. That means that if a commandment or mitzvah would cause your health to be at risk, you must not follow that commandment.

That includes mental health. It has to, or it doesn’t make any sense.

For example: Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the ill are excused from fasting on fast days, because it would harm their health. However, I read a blog last year from a woman who is battling an eating disorder, whose rabbi told her she is not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur (because it is too likely that fasting will switch her back into her anorexic headspace). That’s a mental health issue, not a physical health issue.

People with anxiety often don’t allow themselves to have bad days, or give themselves adequate self-care. I know. I deal with this every day. And I still have the looming guilt and shame from my abusive Catholic upbringing that makes me worry that if I don’t kiss the mezuzah on my way out of the door, I’m somehow marked as a bad, sinning person.

I was in that space for years. Mostly, I am not in that space anymore. But I am so sorry that my friend still is. And I’m not sure how to help them, because I would have loudly rejected the advice to go easy on myself back in the day.  I would have seen pikuach nefesh as an excuse.







Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

She’asani Yisrael: The Beit Din and the Mikveh


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.


Filed under Conversion Process

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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Filed under Conversion Process

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.


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Wrestling Matches

The Power of Doubt

One of the most powerful things for me during my conversion has been confronting doubt – not trying to stop doubting, but trying to learn to be okay with doubt, and to engage with doubt. It’s actually been one of the most freeing and the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

Doubt, in many of thquestion-mark-309085_1280e religious traditions I’ve been part of, is considered either sinful or the next thing to sin. It’s an indicator that you don’t have faith if you have doubt. For example, Thomas (one of Yeshua’s apostles) is vilified for his doubt – for saying “yeah, okay, you guys say he rose from the dead, but let me see the nail holes first before I believe that.” Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is an insult in Western society. We’re generally not good with doubt. Heck, just type “doubt” into a Google image search and you’ll find all kinds of images that put down, vilify, or reject doubt as a bad thing. It’s a hard habit to break – generally, Westerners (by which I mean Christians) aren’t good with ambiguity, which is where doubt resides. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. Let’s not have maybes, or possiblys – they make things more complicated and we don’t like complications.

Judaism, on the other hand, is pretty good with doubt. How do I know this? Because it’s good with debate, and debate doesn’t happen if the matter is settled, and the matter is only settled if nobody doubts the settlement. But look at the Talmud – the arguments of rabbis over the Law indicate that things are not, in fact, settled. They are up in the air!

In the same vein, today, a friend of a friend on Facebook shared this link:

Kids’ Questions are the Antidote to the Pew Study’s “Jewish No Religion” Category

One of the things that hit me hardest from this article was this part:

Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was as if this were the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish (or worse). They asked questions like:

  • “If I’m not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?”
  • “If I don’t believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?”
  • “The Romans had
     so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?”
  • “My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?”

And I noticed that what was hitting me from these questions as a main theme was the doubt. The questions are all saying things about whether doubt is a valid thing for Jews to feel, to acknowledge, and – pardon me for saying so – to wrestle with. Is it okay for me to be unsure about God? Is it okay for me to feel like God isn’t doing the job that God is supposed to do? How do we know we’re right about God being One? And in the classic question Kushner addresses in When Bad Things Happen To Good People: My wonderful grandparent died too young – where was God when that happened? (That question is very close to one of my main reasons for exploring Judaism – where was God when my father died too young at 63?)

Fortunately, the campers were assured that yes, doubt is a perfectly valid thing to wrestle with and to feel, and it doesn’t make you less of a Jew, or a less-good Jew, to have doubts.

It is okay to doubt. That has been so very, very hard for me to wrap my mind around. More than a year ago now, I wrestled with this very thing in Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth. I’ll just share the meditation from my best friend’s siddur that hit me so hard at that time.


Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.

But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

The demand of “faith and no doubt” is inconsiderate, unrealistic, and unfair. But looking at this meditation again, I can see that in the year-plus since I last posted it, I’ve come to a détente with doubt. I’ve reached the point where I can now say, “I’m not sure about that – I don’t know the answer to that” and although it still makes me nervous, it doesn’t make me feel like the world is going to end if I don’t have an answer right this second.

And if doubt is okay, then by definition, disagreement is, too. I don’t have to be in lock-step with everyone else in order to be a good Jew. I don’t have to agree with anyone else’s perceptions or experiences of God to believe in God.

That is more freeing than I can ever say in words.

The power of doubt is that it allows us to question. The power of doubt is that it allows us to form our own bond with God, in whatever way that works for us – even if that way is sometimes doubting that God exists. The power of doubt is that it allows us to learn and grow and understand.

It’s a tool I was denied for many years. But I’m never giving it up again.

1 Comment

Filed under Conversion Process, Wrestling Matches

I have this thing for counting days.

Both counting down and counting up. Heck, the little countdown widgets I had for graduating with my AA (in 2005), my BS (in 2007) and my MA (in 2008) are all still there on an ancient blog of mine, and they assure me that it’s been 10 years, 1 month, and 4 days since the AA; 8 years and 4 weeks since my BS; and 6 years and 7 months since my MA. (And, although I had no counter for it, the three-year anniversary of my dissertation defense – which I passed, thankyouverymuch – was just yesterday.

I’ve been counting up from my husband’s and my wedding day (255 days as of today!) as part of my daily gratitudes on my Facebook page.

And then, of course, there’s my beit din and mikveh date. The day I officially become a Jew.

Which, according to several online calculators, is 44 days from now. Or a month and 13 days, if you’d rather.

"MikvehAJU" by Valley2city - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

MikvehAJU” by Valley2cityOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

So. What’s left to do in those 44 days, apart from working on my class preps and getting my classes ready to go on the Monday of that week?

I will be doing more Judaism-related reading than I have been able to do since the first few months I started keeping this blog. I still have books that I started but didn’t finish on my list of “books to read.” My beginning Hebrew group is meeting once a week on Wednesdays for a chavurah to keep ourselves in practice until our teacher gets back from her summer trip to Israel. My “second” class will be re-forming at the beginning of August when the rabbi gets back from his summer trip to Israel, too, and we’ll be done with that the day before I go to the mikveh.

I need to figure out what I’m comfortable with, in terms of what happens on The Day Itself. The mikveh couldn’t schedule me any earlier than four p.m. and my beit din is at 8:30 a.m. at our temple. The two places where these things are happening are about 40 miles or so apart. I am assuming that my husband, who is taking the day off from work (he’s a better driver than me, especially when it’s concerning Places I Don’t Know How To Get To), will drive me in the morning, and we will probably then go to lunch. I will shower and scrub down before we go to the mikveh, and then he will drive me there as well. My best friend will be with us for all of this.

I will also be having hatafat dam brit at a time close to the day, but not on the day, but that’s not something I’m going to write about further because that’s just a little too private for me. Sorry. If you want to know what that’s like, Michael at Chicago Carless should be able to settle your mind with this post. I feel it’s better to do it beforehand (even though it may be only a pinprick, I know how long it takes my fingers to stop bleeding when I jab them for my diabetes blood sugar tests, and I’d rather not take the risk of having that happen at the mikveh).

My rabbi will be my official mikveh witness. My husband and best friend will also be there, behind a screen, for my privacy. Nobody will see me naked; I will have a robe or sheet or something to cover myself between the prep room and the actual mikveh itself. I am trying to memorize the prayers, but I don’t know which one my rabbi will want me to say for immersion. There’s a specific one for converts to say, you see. I already know the Shema and the Shehecheyanu, so it’s only the one for immersion that I have to memorize before then. I’ll be emailing him as soon as he’s back from Israel.

I will not be having a simcha (party or celebration) as such, on the day – another Jewish friend of mine will be at a conference across the country at that time, and has asked me to delay it until he can get back. So we may combine a Labor Day picnic and my simcha, which is fine with me, frankly.

My best friend and her parents, whose Seder I’ve now attended twice with my husband, purchased the tallit I wanted. It’s at her house and waiting for me, but I won’t see it until the day of the beit din, and I’m okay with that. Our temple does not require the mikveh, but I want it, and I don’t know if I’ll really feel like a full Jew until I’ve done it, although I will probably put on my tallit at the temple after the beit din makes their decision. (I have heard a rumor that something more happens after the signing of all the papers.) I’ve memorized the blessing for putting on a tallit, too: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav l’hitateif ba’tzitzit.

An Orthodox conversion is not in the cards for me, but after what I’ve gone through, this conversion should even be acceptable to a Conservative-stream synagogue. I hope. And frankly, today I realized that I don’t care what the Orthodox think. This article should explain why I think their claims to being the “original” stream of Judaism are pretty much bunkum: Orthodoxy’s Inconvenient Truths

In 44 days, I can say she’asani Israel and it will be not just spiritually accurate, but factually and legally accurate. I am looking forward to finally bringing my status as a Jew in line with my soul, which already is a Jew.

As for the husband, he has said he wants to go through HHDs once before converting, but he is going to talk to the rabbi about possibly going during the five days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I am quite good with this, and I look forward to it. But I know that it’s up to him, and I’m not going to push.


Filed under Conversion Process

They’re Not Your Shabbos Goyim, and Other Hard Truths

Not for me – for the ultra-Orthodox.

I chose Judaism because of several things: a sense of community, a sense of acts being more important than words or appearances, ritual that made sense to me and spoke to me. I chose Reform Judaism because Reform Jews are open-minded and welcoming while still maintaining the important traditions of Judaism – the ones that matter.

Now. Given that, what I’m seeing from the ultra-Orthodox is that appearances are more important to them than actions, and that keeping up appearances is the most important thing. And in doing so, they are behaving in ways that are bigoted, small-minded, and even dishonest.

When you hire Latinos to dress up as Orthodox Jews to protest my rights as a gay man, that’s dishonest. They’re not your Shabbos goyim. They are people playing a part to keep up appearances.

When you try to block women from praying with the Torah at the Kotel and compare them to church arsonists, that’s small-minded and sexist. That’s not a mitzvah. It’s a sin. When you beat up a man who is brave enough to give them the Torah anyway, that’s not a mitzvah either. It’s a crime.

When you cancel bar mitzvah services organized by the Masorti stream of Judaism for disabled kids because they don’t meet your Orthodox standards, that’s just outright bullying. And to what purpose?

And although I could probably find another dozen examples of ultra-Orthodox small-mindedness, this takes the cake: When you say that Reform Jews aren’t Jews, well, why would I want to become part of your small-minded, bigoted, dishonest group called ultra-Orthodox Judaism?

Sorry. Not feeling it, dudes. When you can move beyond your dishonesty and your pursuit of appearances above all, maybe I’ll consider you Jews. For now, I don’t. I consider you a pox on the People. You’re no different than the Jews whose senseless hate led to the destruction of the Second Temple. 

Oh, what’s that you say? I don’t have the authority to say you’re not Jews? Who says so?

Oh, because “sefer sheli,” huh? Because it’s YOUR Torah?

Sorry, guys. It’s my Torah too. And it’s the women’s Torah too. It’s everyone’s Torah.

When you can get beyond your circular arguments, do feel free to get back to me. And when you do get back to me, you can explain how Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, who joined the People simply by saying “Your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God” is Jewish, but I’m somehow not, even though I’d be right there in the gas chambers with you if the pogroms came again.

Grow up, already. You’re an embarrassment to all of Judaism, and I doubt you even realize it.

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Filed under Identities, Judaism

So, not that I’m counting or anything…

… but I’ll be a full-fledged Jew in 56 days and 3 hours. More or less.

Yeah. Words. I wish I had them, but I don’t. Not right now, anyway.

It’s been a long road to get here, but it’s my road.

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Filed under Conversion Process

Hey, Pop Chassid – it’s not a “paradox.”

Today, I had to make a painful decision.

I stopped following Pop Chassid, who I’ve followed pretty much since I started this journey, and Hevria, the Jewish artistic magazine he started sometime this past year, because apparently Elad Nehorai can’t be bothered to consider me Jewish unless I convert Orthodox (which will happen around the same time the sun freezes over).

Oh, he tries. He says. He tries to understand that a person can be Jewish and yet not be Jewish all at the same time. He calls this a “paradox,” that non-Jews (by his estimation) can somehow have Jewish souls. He says he can’t call people like me non-Jewish anymore, but he can’t call us Jewish either. And that somehow he has to do both.

He recognizes that he can’t call people like me non-Jewish. And yet even after that he still retreats back to the same old, same old Orthodox claptrap and says “but I still wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

Despite his attempts to think it through, he still falls back on “My feelings about this haven’t changed.”

So at the end of it he says he will both consider people like me non-Jewish and Jewish at the same time.

Not good enough, Elad. Not good enough.

I’ll just quote Jonathan Byrd: “Admit that your perspective might feel right and be wrong.” Because it is.

It’s not a paradox. It’s a decision Elad has to make, and doesn’t want to, because no matter which way he goes he’s going to hurt someone’s feelings and/or offend someone.

But regardless of his struggle, I’m still Jewish, and I’m still a Jew. Either accept that or don’t, Elad, but don’t twist yourself into a pretzel saying that I both am, and am not, Jewish. Either be honest that you’re accepting a bigoted, closedminded, narrowminded definition of Jewish (“Orthodox only”), or open your mind and accept that I’m a Jew too.

(Oh, and by the way – the Reform movement of Judaism predates Orthodoxy.)

You can call it a paradox, but what it is, is justifying a bigoted mindset. It’s the same thing as the people saying “heritage not hate” about the Confederate flag. That heritage is hate. It’s the same thing as why Christianity has fractured into thousands of different sects – because of this “you have to be exactly like us or you’re not part of us” mindset.

Demanding that Jews must be Orthodox or else not be considered Jewish is no different.

Now, I shouldn’t care what one Orthodox blogger thinks of my Yiddishkeit. And mostly, I don’t care, any more than I care what fundamentalist Christians think of my gayness or atheists think of my religiosity. But when someone says that who I am is not real, because it makes them uncomfortable? Because it creates a “paradox” for them?

Then yes, I’m offended.

She’asani Israel, Elad, even if you don’t like it. She’asani Israel, even if you can’t handle it.

Pop Chassid has been, and is, a popular Judaism blog. He has a lot of followers. But his popularity does not make him right. So:

I categorically reject his questioning of my Jewish authenticity.

I categorically reject his defense of his decision not to consider me a Jew unless I’m Orthodox.

And I categorically reject his blog, his magazine, and his attitude, until he shows some evolution in this mindset and realizes that it’s not a paradox but only an attempt to protect his prejudices.

I have friends who are Orthodox who consider me Jewish. I have corresponded with an Orthodox person on Quora who told me that Orthodoxy isn’t for everyone, and he doesn’t consider me any less Jewish just because I’m Reform.

If they can do it, Elad Nehorai can do it too.

And until he does, I’m not reading his blog or his magazine any more, and I’m going to encourage others not to, either.


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism

We have an official date

(And by “we,” I mean me, my rabbi, the beit din, and the mikveh folks.)

On August 27 2015 (12 Elul 5775), eleven weeks from today and the day after our final conversion class is over, I will meet with the beit din in my rabbi’s office and then go to the mikveh in Los Angeles.

I am shaking and excited. The rabbi called this morning to confirm the date that the mikveh folks had already set for me. The beit din will be at his office in the morning, and the mikveh sometime in the afternoon (I’m trying to get the time moved up so that they’re not quite so far apart; right now it’s scheduled for 4 pm, which is a little late considering Los Angeles traffic patterns).

My rabbi will be my witness. My best friend and my husband can be there behind the screen to be witnesses as well. I’m not going to go into other details like hatafat dam brit (it will happen, but I won’t be writing about it – too personal for me for a public blog).

But it’s settled. I will be a full, official, authenticated Jew before the High Holy Days. Before the New Year.

I guess I’d better look at tallitot again.


Filed under Conversion Process