Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Convert Rants: Discouraging the Conversion Candidate

Everyone hears that a rabbi "has" to discourage a conversion candidate 3 times. Some rabbis don't hold by that at all. Some do exactly three and then will begin a congenial conversion learning process. Some may or may not obviously discourage before working with you, but will continue to discourage you regularly and to varying degrees of questionable ethics. I don't think I'll ever forget the rabbi who would schedule appointments with me and then just not show up. He "forgot." At the time, I just thought he was disorganized and possibly rude, but with the benefit of hindsight, I believe it was on purpose. And to this day, I personally think that's going "beyond the call of duty," so to speak. Notably, this was not an orthodox rabbi. This is not solely an orthodox problem, though I suspect it is more widespread and generally more severe in orthodox conversions. Discouragement is one thing. Rudeness, poor manners, and cruelty are another. As if the Holocaust, anti-semitism, and kashrut aren't enough to discourage the average person from converting to Judaism!

Rabbis are one thing.

All the other Jews is another.

Every time someone has quoted that discouragement idea to me, they talk about rabbis. So then why do non-rabbi Jews like to get on the discouragement bandwagon? I personally haven't had much of a problem with this, but it's one of the most common "bad experiences" I hear from other converts. Other Jews seem to feel perfectly comfortable telling conversion candidates that Jews will make them miserable, no one will ever want to marry them, and no one will accept them or their children as Jews. Or any other thing they can think of to "fulfill the mitzvah of discouraging the potential convert." I'm sorry, but I don't believe that's your mitzvah to fulfill. Just like it's not mine to slaughter sacrifices in the place of a kohen.

Dear Jewish public:
It is up to the rabbi to decide when and if a conversion candidate should be discouraged. In fact, you probably don't know enough about the conversion candidate to make a halachic ruling whether discouragement would be a) appropriate and b) necessary. This is not your responsibility, nor your place. Cease and desist. Once it crosses a certain point, I'm physically incapable of fulfilling the mitvah of judging favorably because your behavior is so irrational, cruel, and misguided.
Abused Converts

Of course, there is the idea of the mitzvah not reminding a convert of his past and all the interpretations of that mitvah, but that only applies after the conversion is complete. And that is a totally different post that will come soon enough.

Let's look at a more foundational problem here, both with rabbis and laypeople: The ends do NOT justify the means. Nine times out of ten, rabbis are (really) genuinely nice people, but they can get caught up in this discouragement cycle, especially as the orthodox conversion procedures spiral out of control in a quest to become "unquestionable." These people don't realize the harm they're doing to conversion candidates and that the convert will remember every single cruel word, rude act, and other poor behavior. Eventually converting them is a wonderful end for the convert, but the average convert is not suddenly going to understand the pain you caused him/her, forgive you, and feel buddy-buddy with you. They will remember the means you used, and it can have long-lasting emotional and psychological effects. Most notably, it can create a deep-seated distrust of the clergy and anyone else in power in the Jewish world.

I think it's most telling that when I think about these stories, I think of an abused dog who forever jumps at loud noises and always wonders if his owner is going to pet him or hit him.


  1. Can anyone source the obligation to discourage the convert? In yevamot 47b it says we warn the convert prior to conversion that the Jews are hated and oppressed. We warn them that certain acts that are perfectly permissible now (eg. eating forbidden fats) will become forbidden if they convert. But then the text then says "We do not dissuade him too much". So where is all this enthusiasm for discouraging people coming?

    From a historical perspective Jews were pretty open to converts until the Christianized Roman empire decreed a death sentence both for people who converted to Judaism and for those who converted them.

  2. Based on th details you mention, that sounds like the right source! Conveniently, I've never heard the "don't dissuade too much" part...

  3. The next time someone not on your beit din tries to discourage you, tell them that if they aren't in a position to do the conversion they aren't in a position to discourage you.

  4. As far as I know the source is from Ruth. Na'amah tells her to go back to her family a few times before she stops discouraging her.

  5. Some of those arguments are sickening! Who the Heck would be so cruel as to discourage a convert-in-progress by telling them they'll never be accepted by the Jewish community/will have a hard time finding a Jewish spouse? Clearly they themselves are bigots, closeted or otherwise. Soooo wrong on so many levels...

  6. Mishneh Torah Issurei Beiah 14:1 - What is the procedure when accepting a righteous convert? When one of the gentiles comes to convert, we inspect his background.If an ulterior motive for conversion is not found, we ask him:"Why did you choose to convert? Don't you know that in the present era, the Jews are afflicted, crushed, subjugated, strained, and suffering comes upon them?" If he answers: "I know. Would it be that I be able to be part of them," we accept him immediately.

    Mishneh Torah Issurei Beiah 14:2 - We do not teach him all the particulars lest this cause him concern and turn him away from a good path to a bad path. For at the outset, we draw a person forth with soft and appealing words, as [Hoshea 11:4] states: "With cords of man, I drew them forth,"and then continues: "with bonds of love.