Thursday, October 22, 2009

Each One of Us is a Snowflake, Blade of Grass, Etc.

I can't help but be absolutely obsessed with the texts on conversion lately. I'm working conversion into both of my papers for both of my classes that require papers. I never wanted to be that academic, who is a convert and throws herself into conversion study. It just isn't in my nature to do that. But as time has gone on, and I've realized how little is known about conversion by the Orthodox community (outside of the rabbis, that is), I've realized that maybe, just maybe, this could be a small calling. It wasn't uncommon when I was in Reform synagogues for half the congregation to be converts, but this is less likely in Orthodox communities, with more of the members being ba'alei teshuvah than converts.

When I was once-upon-a-time a member of a conversion group blog, there was a lot of debate over what makes a "Jew by choice" just that. We had many members of our blogging community who were born Jews, but considered themselves to have "chosen" Judaism instead of going a secular or uninvolved route as far as their Judaism. I never took offense to this understanding -- after all, I think all Jews should "choose" Judaism. But what it comes down to, and what the rabbis made very clear in their lengthy writings on the convert and how to approach the convert is that there *is* a difference between the born Jew and the righteous convert. The rabbis were always clear that there should be no distinctions -- once a convert converts, it is as if they were Jews their whole life (and in truth, the convert is born with a Jewish neshama!). But in truth, their responsibilities in the community are different, their histories are different, their lifestyles are different, and ultimately how they effect change in the future and past of the Jews is very different. One can't ignore the differences; it's ignorant and harmful to do so, I think. (Just as much as it is difficult and harmful to ignore politics while pursuing the conversion process in the U.S.!)

Here is just one case where I see this. Feel free to discuss in the comments whether you agree with my opinion!

Numbers Rabbah 8:2 (From
The midrash immediately explains that God's love for converts is a response to the love expressed by the converts themselves:
"'The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects converts' (Psalms 146:8). The Holy Blessed One said, 'I love those who love Me.' This is as it says, 'I honor those that honor Me' (I Sam 2:30). 'They love Me and so I also love them.'"
"Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says 'House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord' (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen (priest) or a Levite, one cannot because one's father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry."
The midrash continues with a parable about a stag that attaches itself to the king's flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much about this one animal.
"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"
This parable responds to the unvoiced question/critique of the native Israelite: "Why does the Torah provide all of these protections for the convert? Does God care more about them than about me?" The midrash responds, "Consider what the convert has given up."
This section of the midrash concludes:
"Accordingly, God has provided the convert with special protection, warning Israel to be very careful not to do any harm to converts, and indeed, it says, 'Love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19)… Thus God made clear safeguards so that converts might not return to their former ways [which God fears they might do if native Israelites treat them poorly]."
Although some tannaitic midrashim voiced suspicions that the convert might fall back or that the convert might not entirely abandon his past beliefs, this later text places responsibility for backsliding converts squarely upon the native Israelites who disregard the protections that God put in place.
I think it's interesting that it is the responsibility of the born-Jewish community to maintain the derekh for the convert. Why? As a convert, you have to have the real oomph to put yourself through the process, a true and devoted passion for being Jewish and doing Judaism. Why should the community be expected to hold you up? Why should the community be the ultimate downfall for the convert? Is this offering a clear difference between the born and the converted Jew? You see, this is set up as such because in Judaism, community is essential!