And now for your regularly scheduled programming...
I've been meaning to write this post for a while (and there is a brief version on the Conversion page). This week's posts about A Set Apart Life brought up some really good points in the comments. Why should I, a mere conversion candidate and ::gasp!:: not even a real Jew, care what other conversion candidates do? Does it matter or is it just self-frustration directed out at other people?
The short answer: What you do during conversion and after conversion affects other converts. Your actions, especially after conversion, matter. We rely on each other to be good Jews and give converts a good name. When one convert "goes bad," we all suffer for it. If you don't want to sign up for that kind of responsibility, then I'm so glad you were honest with yourself! Be a B'Nei Noach and earn an amazing place in olam haba without all these strings attached!
In order to understand the framework controlling conversions, let's talk about the world of conversion we're dealing with.
As most of the people who read this blog know, conversion has been upside-down insanity since 2006. Conversion has always been complicated and emotional, but today's situation is simply unheard of in Jewish history. The contentions over conversions have created large splits within the orthodox community; a sinas chinam, if you ask me, but no one does. There are batei din who are so against any possibility that one insincere person might convert that they are willing to push a significant majority of their sincere conversion candidates to a lot of crying and actual clinical depression (based on anecdotal evidence). A statistically significant number of them are driven to the point of suicidal thoughts (of course, also anecdotal evidence). [Statistically significant here means that the number was high enough that I would feel ridiculous saying this number of people would have developed suicidal thoughts regardless. As for the anecdotal nature of the evidence, no one keeps statistics on this. All we have are the people who reach out during the crisis and the people who speak about it after conversion.]
[This issue is basically the same debate we find in the criminal justice world over Judge Blackstone's famous quote, "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Philosophers and legal minds have debated since Greece how willing we as a society are to accidentally punish innocent people in order to do justice. What is the price we are willing to pay?]
These batei din fear everyone: Christian messianics, Chabad messianics, people who are dating non-observant Jews, people dating observant Jews, and who knows what else. The irony is when the conversion candidates claim to have none of those "problems," they sometimes suffer even stricter scrutiny for fear that maybe they're lying, especially about dating (since that's both more common and easier to catch). Many batei din try to prevent "the bad kind of Chabad" by prohibiting any Chabad rabbi from participating in an individual's process (such as being sponsoring rabbi), and/or a policy that the candidates cannot have a Chabad synagogue be their "home" community.
More importantly, every single convert (whether converted last week or 20 years ago) has to recognize that rabbis are now nullifying some conversions. Even though it is unlikely for most individuals, their conversion could be nullified due to no action of the convert. All it takes is the converting rabbi going off the deep end, even decades later. However, the existence of off-the-derech converts from the same rabbi can be enough to make the rabbi "questionable." This is often the fear when converting people who are dating someone: will the convert abandon Judaism if the relationship doesn't work out? Worse, if rabbis convert a "former Christian," what about if that person "re-discovers Christ" a year later and decides to share the "Good News" with the community? Was that person a Jew for Jesus all along?? The bad converts bring their rabbis (and thus every other person they have ever converted) into question. After all, there must be something wrong with the rabbi if he didn't screen his converts better, right? Who else did he let through??
Even worse, the Israeli rabbinate has declared that they will only recognize conversions overseen by a tiny minority of orthodox rabbis (but many of the "unapproved" rabbis are rightfully glad to be free of the responsibility!). If these "unapproved" rabbis do convene a beit din to perform a conversion outside of "the system," it generally brings the participating rabbis into disrepute, at least as far as their conversions go. What was so wrong with the candidate that they couldn't go through "the system" like everyone else?
This is just background to make sure you understand that things are bad in the conversion world. Really bad. And now it has made most orthodox conversion candidates obsessed with getting chareidi conversions (because adopting more chumrahs must make a conversion more legitimate?). They are in search of the Holy Grail known as The Unquestionable Conversion. I'm sorry to say that doesn't exist, and you should stop searching for it.
But what does this have to do with insincere conversion candidates??
This is a problem with the rabbis and the Israeli rabbinate, right? Yes and no. The rabbis turned into this primarily because there were insincere (or improper) candidates gaming the system. So they made the system harder. But the insincere candidates kept coming. And even more worrisome, the people who are insincere are more willing to put up with a harsh process because they know it's temporary. It's temporary because they don't intend to abide by the vows of their conversion. Fake it 'till you make it. Many sincere, devout conversion candidates are driven away from the process because they simply aren't chareidi and/or aren't willing to go through batei din comparable to military boot-camps. They feel strong-armed into there being only "one real Torah Judaism," as determined by one hashkafah. It's amazing that even people/rabbis in those chareidi groups who do view "just plain orthodox" and modern orthodox Jews as "orthodox and Torah-observant" Jews, often still don't trust the non-chareidi and/or soul-crushing conversion processes as being "good enough."
So it becomes a cycle. We make the process harder, and insincere people keep coming, so we'll just keep making it harder. And so on and so on. Soon, we'll all be required to follow the London Beit Din's mandatory requirement that every non-married conversion candidate must live with an assigned "frum family" for 6 months. Obviously requiring candidates to move to New York City or Los Angeles is a pretty good test of sincerity. But look, there is this even tougher test we can give to make sure they're really sincere, and anyone who wants it badly enough will be willing to do what we tell them to do. Since meals are provided, they aren't even practicing keeping a kosher kitchen, so I'm not sure what the purpose of living with a family is other than keeping the candidates under full-time supervision for 6 months. Sounds like a great idea to me! Can we wiretap them too? That'd be awesome. Here, please sign this release. Don't worry, it's all standard.
Ok, maybe that's a little overdramatic, but I actually don't see the family requirement being very far off in America. I am already seeing a huge increase in the number of people who are orthodox-observant for 5+ years and have achieved a yeshiva-level education before being allowed to convert.
How else does this harm the other converts/conversion candidates?
Put simply, converts rely on other converts to not give us a bad name. We are in this together, whether you like it or not. Just like the Jewish people get very upset with Jews who give all Jews a bad name. One person can provide the ammunition against the whole. Remember that talk about Madoff being a greedy, money-grubbing Jew? Yeah, that. Rinse and repeat throughout history.
Converts are judged based upon born Jews' interactions with other converts. Even in this day and age, converts have a bad name. Converts who can "ethnically pass as Jewish" generally try to hide or downplay their convert status because it often causes more pain than pride in the born Jews around us. And you never know who will be the nutball who finds out you are a convert and then takes it upon himself or herself to interrogate you "to make sure you're real." These people will ask who your beit din was, ask who sat on it, demand your "pre-Jewish" history, ask halachic questions, ask historical questions, and otherwise treat you terribly. All at the Shabbos table in front of 10 strangers. It's unlikely, I admit. But it always hits you when you least expect it because you don't know who has met insincere converts and is now gun-shy. Therefore, it's just good practice to be quiet and let others think you're a baal teshuva because you were born in Alaska. Just like how all the travel guides tell Americans that it is safer to tell foreigners that they are Canadian. And for good measure, better sew a Canadian flag to your backpack. Just in case.
There are already plenty of stereotypes that converts are former drug-abusers with a promiscuous history, not to mention probably being mentally/emotionally unbalanced to begin with. (And we all do know converts with those situations, and that doesn't make them bad converts.) We don't need accusations of insincerity added to that list. At least with the other stereotypes, our Jewishness isn't questioned. But once they question whether we are really sincere converts, our Jewishness itself is questioned, and us and our children (and grandchildren!) can be thrown under the bus. And this is why it's "safer" to be chareidi. (And a very shtark chareidi at that!) [Ironically, the "stricter" you go, the more likely people seem to question the details of your observance and pronounce them to be "too modern." This is simply my observation.]
So let's analyze an example, one that happens to come courtesy of A Set Apart Life.
Lina said something very interesting in the comments to her "Our Jewish Faith" post. It may not directly answer the questions we've asked about seeking a Jewish conversion, but it certainly isn't subtle. The plan is clear, and the rabbis better start ratcheting up the requirements right now because apparently the safeguards we have in place aren't working.
Just because fake/bad conversions have been done doesn't make it right, honest, or even a good idea. It seems like a great idea at the time because this is a means to an end for the insincere conversion candidate. They really, really want X. But X requires a conversion. "So what's the question, let's get a conversion!" It's selfish. It harms so many people because Judaism (especially in the convert community) is a community that rises or falls together. Pursuing a conversion against the wishes of the community that would convert you is doing what you want because you want it and they have to give it to you. Just like the kids in the marshmallow experiment: insincere conversion candidates want to eat one marshmallow now AND eat two marshmallows later. It seems as though these people have never considered whether their actions harm other people. They have not considered the consequences of their actions, both to themselves, their neshamas, other converts, and klal Yisrael. Those are not Jewish values."My husband and I are acquainted with many believers in Yeshua who have successfully undergone Orthodox conversion with a non-Messianic beit din."
Many conversion candidates do come from a Christian background and come to Judaism when they discover irreconcilable issues with the New Testament. These are some of the most knowledgeable and devout converts we have, including many former Christian clergy. But Lina's words are telling people who are still struggling with this New v. Old Testament question that they don't have to come to an answer. Or even look for one! They can have their cake and eat it too. You like Judaism, but you also like Jesus? No worries! Jesus was a Jew, right? That makes you, like, the perfect Jew!
Worse, these words provide encouragement for any kind of insincere convert because even the religiously-indifferent person who intends to be observant until married to their significant other can say to themselves, "Heck! If even closet Christians can fake it 'til they make it past a beit din, I definitely can!" This is not behavior we should encourage (or put up with). It cheapens the work and pain that sincere conversion candidates go through. So I guess I do get some personal bad feelings from this stuff after all.
[Sidenotes of Shock and Confusion: My initial thought about Messianic Christians insisting on orthodox conversion in order to be "full-fledged Jews" is WHY? I honestly don't get it. People who want to belong to a reform Jewish community don't go to an orthodox beit din. They convert within their community and live as good reform Jews. They don't bother going to the orthodox shul. They don't call up the orthodox rabbi and ask for his halachic rulings. They accept the religious authority of their community as just as valid as the orthodox community. And they also accept that the orthodox community will not accept their reform conversion. That reform convert's attitude? "That's too bad for the orthodox, they're missing out on an awesome person!" And that is how a mentally and emotionally healthy person should approach the situation. What is so wrong with the messianic community that their members are not content to accept that community as valid to do whatever it is they are trying to accomplish by converting? I'm baffled.
Why must messianic Christians (even if the above author refuses to use the second word of that label) go into an orthodox community and lie to the people there in order to secure a certificate of recognition from a community that would honestly never accept them? I can't find the quote now (no, not the Albert Einstein one), but there is a quote that defines insanity along the lines of knowingly and purposely setting yourself up to fail. But setting yourself up to fail in the area of your religious and spiritual validity before G-d?? People have contemplated suicide for less internal conflict than that can (and rightfully should) cause. I think this kind of soul-searching of motivations is sorely lacking in most insincere conversion candidates. A level of compartmentalizing your identity that I just can't fathom.]
Is that the final word?
How angry would you be if I said "Yes."?? Asking the question implies a negative answer...so what's left to say?
Even insincere conversion candidates can eventually become sincere conversion candidates. And we're human; there's room for multiple motivations (unless those motivations defeat the purpose of converting, like Jesus or polytheism). But there is a right motivation, and it needs to be present: the sincere desire to join both the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. If over time, as these candidates mature and learn more about Judaism, they may realize the error of their questionable motivations and come to Judaism for the right reasons. I can't promise it's easy to undo your past actions, and people may be hesitant. But you should realize that the Jewish community has to rebuild its trust in you. That will take time. If you really want to convert for the right reasons, you will be willing to wait or you'll become a B'Nei Noach. But you will come out on the other side with strong middos, if that's any consolation.
...And that's what grinds my gears.
L'shanah tova! G'mar chatima tova! And next year in Yerushalayim!