Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The mitzvah of proactive conversion

The Mitzvah to Encourage the Convert

by Harold M. Schulweis

Rabbi Dana Kaplan's informative essay enumerates the lamentations of "the ever dying people," a dirge supported by surveys and studies in the last decade and reiterated in sermons and lectures from the pulpit and platform. The bĂȘte noire has been misidentified as intermarriage. While rhetorically we admit that intermarriage is a symptom, not a cause, our institutional projects commit a fallacy of misplaced concreteness. De facto, we treat the symptom as a cause. That inversion misdirects our struggle against the erosion of assimilation.
The symptoms are external; the causes are internal, within. The internal problems of interfaith marriages call for a double pronged inreach-outreach program. That approach must precede, not only chronologically but spiritually, the situation presented as interfaith marriage.
I write from the perspective of a congregational rabbi who has felt compelled to initiate and implement a pluralistic outreach-inreach program for unchurched Gentiles and unsynagogued Jews, and who are joined by affiliated synagogue mentors, all of whom attend the lectures and seminars. The mentors have pledged to open their doors and lives to the seekers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I will shortly explain my motivation and method, but I would like first to confess my frustration with the conventional ways I have followed in dealing with the phenomenon of intermarriage.
Jeff's mother calls me with a not untypical request. Her Jeff has met Kathy who is "a lovely lady but a Catholic.” Jeff's parents are members of my congregation. They are 9-1-1 Jews, who mainly call on the synagogue in emergencies. "Would I officiate at Jeff's wedding?" …
For the sake of his parents, Jeff has come to see me. All Jeff wants is that I perform the marriage. From the initial conversations with both Jeff and Kathy it is clear that all they require from me is the performance of an "interfaithless" union. Their religious antecedents seem much the same. They are secular, privatistic, not particularly religious.
Jeff is part of our national statistics. According to the National Population Study of 1990, 1.2 million native born Jews when asked with what religion they identified, answered "None.” Jeff is de-facto, a "none-Jew,” as Kathy is a "none-Christian.”
And who am I to them? In their eyes I am a facilitator, a customs and ceremony officiant, an accessory to a wedding event, placed high on the list along with the caterer, florist and band leader. They prefer the benefits of clergy without the complication of conversion. Conversion is an instrumental matter, a temporary inconvenience, a means necessary for them to overcome the obstacle to matrimony. Still, Kathy is compliant, willing to undergo a ceremonial conversion because it will please Jeff and his parents.
But I've had experience with other Kathys before. I ask Jeff to leave us alone in the study. In pursuing the conversation with her, it is evident that there is more to Kathy than she presents. Jeff, of course, has never talked to her about the possibility of conversion to Judaism. In this he is a dedicated libertarian. He would not coerce her. Nor would I. But in the course of our conversation, it is evident that Kathy is a searching spiritual person who has done a good deal of investigation of other religions, from New Age religions to Zen Buddhism, but curiously not of Judaism itself. She is attracted to Jews and to Judaism and is aware of the warmth of the Jewish home, the absence of dogma, the emphasis on family and on education. Has she thought of conversion to Judaism?
She has been convinced that Judaism is not for outsiders. She knows this because she has been told by many Jews, secular and religious, that you have to be born into Judaism and that conversion is not the traditional way to Judaism. She echoes what I have heard from Jews and non-Jews alike and in fairly vulgar terms. She repeats the joke she was told by one of Jeff's friends. "What is the difference between a virgin and a shiksa? The answer: a shiksa remains a shiksa." The point is that a shiksa is incontrovertibly unconvertible. Being Jewish comes with the chicken soup. You cannot become a Jew by immersing yourself in a mikvah. "Blood is thicker than water." I am embarrassed by this racism but no longer surprised.
When we speak further about Jewish values, Kathy is seriously taken with the possibilities of conversion. But when Jeff returns to the study he is strangely upset with me. He had sought only a rabbinic presence, my ecclesiastical cloth to cover the embarrassment of his parents. He had certainly not expected talk about a series of classes of conversion, lectures, a Beth Din tribunal, and a mikvah immersion which would complicate their schedule. In all of this Kathy remained compliant and silent. After all, Jeff is the born Jew.
When they left I felt disturbed. It was not only that I felt myself being used by Jeff and his parents, but that I was caught in a web of symptoms. Was I treating the symptoms as if they were causes? The wrong questions were being asked and the wrong answers were given. The conversion was an afterthought. The ceremony was wagging the faith, the rite overwhelmed the passage. Moreover, the problem was with Jeff, not with Kathy. Who was the cause and who was the symptom? It was a mis-meeting. Jeff had to be spoken to differently, and Jeff's parents too. There are buried questions that must be raised. Why is my token presence so important? What has Judaism, the covenant to do with this contact? And how have I dealt with Kathy and how did she feel? Was she a commodity, an "it" used to pacify his parents' need for Jewish respectability? Did I regard Kathy as a surrogate for the Holocaustal hemorrhaging of my people, a replacement for our low fertility rates?
I sought a different opportunity to speak with them, to unlock their questions, to transmit something of the wisdom and pertinence of Jewish faith and practice. I needed to reach out to them both. If becoming Jewish is a sacred process, it cannot be confined to discussion of a celebratory event. It's not the wedding, it's the covenantal commitment to Judaism that is at stake.
I recognize that there are many Kathys out there who are reading books on religion and attending lectures in ashrams and not for the purpose of matrimony. Why is the synagogue so closed to them, why is the perception so deep and pervasive that being Jewish is a matter of birth, not becoming? I was left with many questions.
About two years ago, after many such misencounters with Jeffs and Kathys, I decided to organize and implement a Keruv program which would be different in a number of ways. With the enthusiastic cooperation of Rabbis Edward and Nina Feinstein, we created a pluralistic outreach-inreach program with some distinctive features. I sought a faculty that would be drawn from rabbis in the community, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, who would teach subject matters ranging from rites of passage to theology from their distinctive ideological points of view. The idea was predicated on the belief that God did not create denominations and that Judaism is not a seamless univocal tradition. At the end of some seventeen sessions of lectures and meetings, those unchurched seekers who sought to become Jews to choose their own rabbis, their own Betei Din so that they would choose to live Jewishly in a manner compatible with their own beliefs and convictions.
Following a few announcements in the Jewish press and in the LA Times, we found people of all backgrounds and faiths, lapsed Christians and lapsed Jews, flocking to our lectures. Each session was filled with between 400-500 Jews and non-Jews.
There were whispered criticisms. Is it Jewish? Does Judaism encourage conversion? Can a non-Jew become a Jew? Who are "they" to "us" and do we neglect guarding our own vineyard?
We had occasion during the lectures to point out to the audience of seekers what many had forgotten, had not known, or never considered. Who are we Jews and where did we come from? Had we forgotten that the first Jew by choice was the founder of Judaism, that Abraham was mandated by God to "get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father's house unto the land I will show you...and I will bless thee and make thy name great. Be thou a blessing and I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed." Judaism's birth was through conversion. Who else was there for Abraham and Sarah to make into a people except the pagan non-Jewish population around them?
Had we forgotten what we recite in the Passover Haggadah – our reminder "in the beginning our fathers were idolaters," heathens and slaves, and that on Passover we celebrate not the birth but the becoming of the Jewish people?
Did we forget that every single day throughout the year, three times a day we pray the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah, which singles out "righteous proselytes" (gayray tzedek) as a blessing for us, and for God?
Had we forgotten that on the festival of Shavuoth, which celebrates the revelation of the law, the rabbis selected not the book of Ezra, but the book of Ruth to be read to the congregation?   Did we remember that Ruth was a Moabite woman, and that in the Torah the Moabite was prohibited to be married to a Jew; and according to Deuteronomy, a Moabite was not to enter the congregation even to the tenth generation? And yet it is Ruth, the exemplary Jew by choice, who is celebrated as the great-grandmother of King David from whom the messiah is to spring.
It is important that the community be reminded that the rabbis in the Talmudic era proudly claimed Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and Yithro, the father-in-law of Moses, and Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who refused to obey the edict of Pharaoh to murder Jewish males and saved Jewish lives, as Jews by choice. With pride the Talmud informs us that Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shemiah and Abtalion were all descendants of proselytes.
But there were many voices from high sources in Jewish life who criticized our efforts and said that we should be spending more energy on "us" rather than on "them.” But surely, when "they" become "us" they are no longer "they.” Moreover, what in fact did the Keruv Program do for "us,” for the congregational mentors themselves? The numbers of synagogue mentors who came from our synagogue and attended all the lectures did so in a dedicated manner different from their attendance at other adult education courses. The mentors were enlivened by the Keruv Program because they felt possession of a significant cause. They were learning in order to teach.
The bias against outreach searches for its own myths.
"Judaism doesn't believe in conversion." Yet, the great Jewish historian Salo Baron has pointed out that 2,000 years ago, Jews were ten percent of the Roman Empire because they were extremely successful in converting pagans to Judaism. So successful, that the emperors Domitian and Hadrian made proselytism to Judaism a capital crime. It was not Judaism that prohibited the proselytization of non-Jews, but Hadrian's laws forbidding Jews to circumcise non-Jews that proscribed proselytism. Not Judaism but Roman Christianity prohibited conversion.
Still, other myths to discourage pro-active proselytism; secular Jews use other arguments to oppose an open door to Jews by choice. "Not faith but culture and ethnicity present barriers to conversion." But what cultural aspects of Jewish life do they who neither read Yiddish nor Hebrew have in mind that is beyond the reach of Jews by choice? The secularists refer to culinary matters, the joys of lox and bagels, of knishes and kugel, and a smidgen of Yinglish and Hebronics. But I know their children. They exhibit no proclivity toward gefilte fish or lox and bagels. Maimonides himself ate neither cholent nor tzimis, nor understood "mame-loshen.” Did that bar him and his descendants from Jewish identity and loyalty? Neither ethnic culture or identity is innate. They can and are cultivated through the programs of Keruv.
Speaking of Maimonides, I turn to the magnificent answer he offered Obadiah, a convert to Judaism, who asked Maimonides whether he, a Jew by choice, could recite the prayer, "Our God and God of our fathers.” Someone had told Obadiah that because his ancestors were not Jews he dare not recite that prayer. In Maimonides' response he writes, "By all means you should pray 'Our God and God of our fathers,' for in no respect is there a difference between us and you. Do not think little of your origin. If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your descent is from Him by whose word the world was created."
Thinking back to my conversation with Kathy, I realized that these non-Jews who came to the lectures had not come to my office brought by a Jewish partner seeking my ceremonial imprimatur. Most of the non-Jews during these two years were not interested in matrimony. They were spiritual seekers and it enabled me to address them differently. Importantly, I never thought of them as making up for our terrible Holocaust losses or as surrogates for our lagging demographic statistics. I never spoke to them about their conversion for the sake of appeasing Jeff's parents. They are not to be used as means for our ends.
The Kathys in our midst have to contend with Jeffs, who wonder why she spends so much time and energy, why in the world she would choose to be Jewish? In that incredulity lies one of the primary sources of our dissolution the vacuity of Jeff's Jewishness. In truth, Jeff is unaware of the superordinate system of values and wisdom and spiritual depth in Judaism, not only wonders what it is that possesses Kathy to become Jewish, he wonders what possesses his parents to insist on a Jewish wedding. Both Kathy and Jeff must be encouraged to become Jews by choice. The outreach program is as much for the native born as it is for the searching stranger.
Either educate "them" or "us" is a perverse disjunction. If Judaism is understood as a faith and culture that has something of supreme value to offer the world, then outreach is very much part and parcel of Jewish teleology. Not either/or but both/and. The reluctance to share our wisdom with the spiritual seekers is less a sign of particularistic fidelity than a trivialization of Judaism. If we have nothing to say to the other who seeks, we have nothing to say to ourselves or our own. The seekers ask us hard questions. "Tell us why Judaism is so important? Tell us how it can enrich our lives and the life of the universe?" As much as they would know "how" and "when," they ask "What for"? That root question we must answer not only for them but for ourselves and our children, for all whose chose to be Jews.
The Talmud observes that the precept to understand and to love the stranger in our midst, which the rabbinic tradition takes to mean the proselyte, appears thirty-six times in the Torah. The stranger in our midst is our very selves. Proactive conversion must be placed high on the Jewish agenda of the next century. In the words of Dr. Gary Tobin, in his new book Open the Gates, "Proactive conversion can revitalize the Jewish community."

No comments: