Contemporary Judaism doesn’t make it easy for converts, no matter the denomination. Reform rabbis ask for a year of study. Conservative rabbis ask for a promise of strict observance most Conservative Jews never meet. And many Orthodox rabbis would just as soon not put out the welcome mat in the first place. Overall the message is, “You’ll be a Jew when we say you’re a Jew.”
Trouble is, rabbinic authorities are ultimately not the ones who decide who’s a Jew and who isn’t. Sure, answering the ritual questions before a beit din (or Rabbinical court) and three dips in a ceremonial mikveh bath accompanied by the appropriate blessings signify that you’ve become a Jew. But it’s God/Adonai (our Lord)/HaShem (The Name) who taps converts on the shoulder in the first place. And it’s inner guidance from/a convert’s growing relationship with Adonai that seals the deal. No one makes it to the beit din and mikveh who isn’t already Jewish.
I’ve read forum posts from Jews-by-Choice who talk about when they started feeling Jewish during their conversion journeys. Some of them make a point of saying they always reminded themselves that they weren’t really Jewish yet, as if that mikveh dip is a kind of watery magic wand. While the most conservative of Jews (read: Orthodox and points right) hem and haw all the time about the allegedly proper observance of halacha (or religious law) surrounding conversions performed outside of their traditions, the fact remains, the ultra-Orthodox don’t own Judaism.
It’s not a state of affairs widely publicized outside Jewish circles, but the state-funded, ultra-Orthodox haredim minority in Israel has long been in the process of attempting to seize wider and wider control of the entry gates to Judaism. Recent legislative proposals seek to define who is a Jew in narrowly ultra-Orthodox terms, threatening to invalidate the Judaism (at least in Israel’s eyes) of most American Jews and Jewish converts–not to mention the Judaism of many Orthodox Jews, as well.
Or course, half the Jewish world lives in the United States, and Israel depends on monetary support from this largely liberal Diaspora. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out if the Israeli haredim are successful in their ambitions, a painful rift is likely to form with the American Diaspora–one across which money may simply stop flowing eastward. (So, you know, be careful what you daven for, Shas Party.)
Religious Israeli Jews are almost universally Orthodox, thus not particularly inclined to act on the matter, even if some of them think the Chief Rabbinate has over-stepped its bounds. And for secular Jews, merely going to the supermarket can be a “Jewish” act in the Jewish State, and that won’t change. So, problem growing, unchecked.
The thing is, this isn’t just an Israeli problem. In my conversion studies, I frequently encounter not only Orthodox Jews and Jewish institutions acting as if they think they own the very concept of Judaism, but also–and much more dangerously–liberal Jews who act as if Orthodoxy is correct in thinking that. (This is not a screed on Orthodoxy–here is an example of a wonderfully loving, welcoming, highly fair Orthodox blogger.)
It’s understandable. Until the 1970s, Reform Jews rejected most aspects of ritual and tradition as outdated. Only in the past 30 years or so have wearing a kippah (the skull cap most non-Jews know by the Yiddish term, yarmulke), following kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), and a host of other ritual practices become–no pun intended–kosher again in Reform circles.
For some time, official Reform institutions like the Union for Reform Judaism have promulgated printed and web-based guides to ritual practice from a Reform perspective. But theirs is still a limited body of literature, and there just aren’t many independent Reform voices writing on the topic. Especially on the Internet, most websites offering advice on ritual practice are “trans-denominational” (like MyJewishLearning), or “post-denominational” (like PunkTorah), or simply Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox (like Chabad.) Many websites even make a point–explicitly or implicitly–of establishing the most Orthodox types of observance as, essentially, the ones to aim for.
So, nu? Why? Don’t get me wrong–I love Jewry as a whole. I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and these three websites in particular offer a spectacular wealth of knowledge for lifelong and new Jews. But it’s discomforting to feel that Reform Jews basically capitulate on the concept of ritual to best-practices promulgated from outside the denomination–in many cases by non-liberal Jews who may not even recognize Reform Jews as, well, Jews.
The upshot is lots of liberal Jews who judge themselves and their ritual practice by non-liberal standards. How many Reform Jews reading this who try and follow kashrut have denigrated their personal dietary practices because they don’t have a kashered kitchen? (The term kashrut-inspired seriously needs to be excised from the Reform vocabulary.) How many Refrom Jews attracted to wearing full-time kippot might take their skull caps off in non-kosher restaurants so they won’t send the wrong signal to other Jews who might see them walk in–even though the Jews who would care the most wouldn’t be Reform Jews?
Why do we spend any time at all worrying about jumping through another denomination’s ritual hoops? And more importantly, why do we judge each other on those grounds within Reform, itself?
Here’s how all of that comes in for a landing for Reform Jewish converts…
It’s said that Jewish converts tend to take Jewish ritual and spirituality to heart more intensely (at least initially) than born Jews. That often leads to exploration and adoption of ritual as a fundamental element of their Jewish journeys in a way their born Jewish friends may find odd–or at least inexplicable.
Yet it is explicable. Famed Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel offered the best explanation I’ve yet come across about the power of ritual. As summarized here on MyJewishLearning from Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man, Judaism values “leaps of action” over leaps of faith. Jewish action becomes the meeting place with God. The “sacred act” becomes the best way to achieve a sense of “sublime mystery,” “radical amazement,” and, simply, gratitude.
As a future Reform convert, I definitely get all of that. I don’t think God expects specific rituals of me, though. The point is all on my end. I feel a lot of kavanah, or prayerful thoughtfulness, in ritual practice. In a way, it points me in a better way towards God, through the ancient vocabulary of a living community.
Yet, I’ve had liberal Jews question why I bother with ritual. I’ve been told that other Jews, liberal and otherwise, will label me “conservadox” for adopting ritual at all–or for doing it wrong. I’ve had a heck of a time finding truly Reform-inspired, objective discussion about ritual.
That’s bad enough when you’ve already managed your way through your conversion year. When you’re still going through your pre-Jewish learning, it’s a bit of a nightmare. I am, essentially, building a Jew here. Yet within the Reform movement, I feel hamstrung merely by the consideration of the very elements of Judaism that I find most meaningful. And though Reform rabbinic authorities would suggest prospective converts “do Jewish to learn Jewish,” finding little real, Reform-perspective discussion about the adoption of ritual can make you wonder during the long and arduous months of study whether you’re mis-interpreting what is coming to be the most powerful spiritual journey you’ve ever undertaken.
Even though you already know Adonai has tapped you on the shoulder. Even though you know from inside out, in some ways you’re already Jewish. There is a teaching that souls attracted to Jewish conversion were present in the desert when the Torah was handed down at Sinai–they already have and always have had a Jewish spark. In fact, the Torah talks about converts converting, not non-Jews converting.
If the Torah recognizes converts as seminally Jewish, why does modern Judaism set the bar so temporally and informationally high for converts? And why does Reform Judaism give the ritual practice at the heart of so many conversion journeys such short shrift?
It’s not like Naomi gave Ruth such a hard time. Ruth had it easy. Accompanying her Jewish mother-in-law back to Bethlehem after a family tragedy, the Moabite Ruth said,
“Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”
With those words, she was Jewish. (And she certainly didn’t have governmentally appointed haredim chasing her around to challenge her conversion, either.)
I could and would say the same things. I know my Judaism already, no matter how long any official process to “become” Jewish lasts. And my Judaism includes wearing a full-time kippah, keeping kashrut, saying brachot–or blessings–over food, performing tzedakah, observing Shabbat–the Jewish sabbath, and engaging in morning prayer. So far. As is the Jewish way, I struggle with all of it. I struggle to get it right from a Reform perspective. I struggle to get it right for me.
None of that makes me a non-liberal Jew. If I were told I had to do all of those things without any choice in the matter, they wouldn’t mean the same things to me that they do. My thoughtfulness in considering the elements of my Jewish ritual practice combined with my desire for the freedom to adopt ritual inspiration as suggested to me by Adonai instead of as demanded of me by denominational leaders makes me something else.
It makes me a Reform Jew. Here’s to more independent, Reform Jewish-inspired perspectives on ritual for Reform converts in need of ritual in their increasingly Jewish lives. That is my wish from the tips of my toes to the top of my kippah-covered head.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.