Thursday, July 12, 2012

In Defense of the Conversion Candidate in a Relationship

Quite frankly, I’m tired of people bad mouthing conversion candidates who are married to a Jew or dating a Jew. When I was converting, it would often come up that I was single for most of the years of my conversion process and wasn’t dating once I formally entered the orthodox conversion process. Once the "secret" was out, most orthodox Jews would visibly relax and almost sigh with relief. To them, I was “one of the good ones.”

People love to say that you “can’t convert for marriage” and use that as a justification to alienate or shame candidates in relationships with Jews. But that’s not quite the rule. Yes, the Talmud forbids conversion solely for the purpose of marriage. However, rarely is that the ONLY reason a conversion candidate is considering conversion. If people in relationships with Jews weren’t allowed to convert, the Talmud would have said that instead, and the rabbis wouldn’t allow so many people to enter the conversion process with a romantic partner.

Sidenote: “Entering the process with a romantic partner” is a key distinction in itself. Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that most of the candidates who start with a romantic partner don’t finish the process with that partner still involved. Often, the relationship simply can’t survive the emotional hazards and the practical requirements of the conversion process. The road to conversion is strewn with break-ups and broken engagements.

A non-Jew dating someone Jewish and hoping to marry him or her is not enough to qualify as converting "solely" for marriage. Honestly, I don't know if the Talmud explicitly defines it, but here's my definition: the desire to convert simply to get your potential in-laws off your back. If you have no better reason than that, then you cannot be converted. (And if you lie to say you have other reasons but don't, then you will get your punishment sooner or later.) If I remember correctly (and anyone is free to confirm or debunk this), the Talmud states that once a non-Jew and a Jew are secularly married, "converting for marriage" can not be "the reason" for converting because, by definition, they don't need the conversion for the marriage.

What other reasons could exist for a non-Jewish partner to convert? Those reasons are the same reasons that could cause any person to consider converting: affiliation with the Jewish people, belief in the truth of the Torah, appreciation for the beauty of observant life, the philosophy of Judaism and Hashem resonates with the person’s innate worldview, maybe the non-Jewish partner was raised with some Jewish family members, or even grew up with a Jewish identity! (For example, a patrilineal Jew who grew up in the reform movement). Most people convert for many reasons, and I think any successful convert must have several things that drew them here. If you want to read more, check out my old post Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?

I believe people highly underestimate the number of converts who have Jewish fathers (or even the "wrong" grandparents). Contrary to public opinion, it is possible for an orthodox (or conservative, for that matter) convert to have grown up "Jewish." I would bet five dollars that a very small percentage of people consider conversion without a significant relationship with a Jew (friendship or romantic) who introduced them to the idea. It's entirely possible that the kiruv movement that targets non-affiliated Jews will reach both the halachic and non-halachic Jews equally, and is it a surprise that "Jewish" couples could decide to become more religious, only to discover that one partner is not halachically Jewish??

Non-Jewish romantic partners have converted throughout history, including in the Talmud. There is no excuse for the “zero tolerance” policy many Jews have developed towards conversion candidates who have a Jewish romantic partner or converts who converted with their spouse (whether married before or after the conversion). There is no excuse for meeting every convert who is married and wondering (silently…or aloud, as I’ve seem some do) whether the convert converted for the spouse you just met. It is irrelevant, rude, and arguably against halacha (especially when against someone who has already converted and is thus now a Jew).

Halacha “frowns on” converting solely for marriage, not the conversion candidates who happen to have romantic relationships with Jews. Yes, I believe dating during conversion is NOT the ideal way to convert, but few things in life are ideal. You have the situation you have. (Likewise, I do NOT advocate entering a relationship while converting. I think it’s very different if you enter the process with an established relationship.)

On the other hand, many Jews look down on the Jewish partner. These people may think of the non-Jewish partner as the unwitting partner to a crime, in a way. There is an element of condemnation here: the Jew “should have known better” than to date outside the Jewish community. (Or they may even believe the Jew wanted to “sow wild oats” by sleeping with non-Jews and accidentally fell in love in the process, which is even more degrading to the non-Jewish partner.)

Non-Jewish partners is one of the largest causes of bringing Jews to a renewed appreciation of Judaism, orthodox or otherwise. Usually, the Jewish partner is not orthodox and never has been. Often, they have essentially nothing more than a cultural Jewish background. The non-Jew sees the beauty in Judaism that the Jew has not seen, either for lack of exposure or negative childhood experiences. Seeing Judaism through the eyes of a person you love can bring an entirely new perspective to Judaism, especially seeing the beauty of Jewish family life because of the person you want to build a family with. Suddenly, Judaism seems relevant and even useful.

On the other hand, Hashem works in mysterious ways, especially in the ways he brings converts to Judaism. Many converts initially consider Judaism because of dating a Jew, whether or not that Jew was still around during the actual conversion process (happened to me, and he was out of my life 7 years before I converted!). Hashem brings the right people into our lives at the right time for various reasons. Why is it so hard to believe that Hashem could use a Jewish romantic partner to give a non-Jew with a Jewish neshama the impetus to investigate Judaism?

In short, yes, I do believe a conversion candidate being in a romantic relationship with a Jew is a red flag to investigate the case well. However, that investigation is the responsibility of the converting rabbis, not the yenta at the Shabbos table or for general speculation by the community. As with any conversion candidate, maybe they’ll convert, maybe they won’t. It’s not your responsibility to question their decisions or how they got to where they are today. Treat them like a fellow Jew when it comes to interpersonal relationships, even if the halacha may not “require” it for relationships with non-Jews in many situations. You never lose points with Hashem for having common decency.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I did not convert for Seth. I'm *so* tired of people assuming I did.

    I grew up Jewish. My father was Jewish. The only family I have a relationship with are Jewish. I was Jewish, just not halachically. I set out to marry a frum guy, I just met him before a dunk that in my mind was 100% symbolic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Just not halachically" - Halacha is kind of key here, no?

      Delete
    2. People constantly assume I must have converted for my husband and are shocked to learn I was in the process before I met him. I think this is sad. I think one of the major reasons is that many Jews, even Orthodox Jews, believe that marriage is not a crazy reason whereas if you're single and converting...then you must be crazy. They also can't distinguish as has been done on this blog that even those in relationships choose Judaism for themselves.

      Delete
  2. Such an awesome piece. When I try to write about this stuff from my own life, it just sounds fuzzy and squishy... "It’s not your responsibility to question their decisions or how they got to where they are today." Yes, yes yes! @DEHausfrau

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks. Like Bethany, I grew up Jewish. I was born to a Jewish father, as was my mother (yup, 3 Jewish grandparents). By the time I met my husband, I had two Jewish parents, because my mom had an Orthodox conversion after I finished college. Oh and my husband and in-laws (we were legally married before my conversion) thought the whole conversion thing was silly. So any suggestion of converting for marriage would be ridiculous.

    That being said, I haven't really had to face that kind of assumption often. Maybe it's just that we live in a smaller OOT community where most people know our story and the rest probably just assume I'm a "regular" Jew.

    ReplyDelete
  4. When my husband and I were newer to the community (and program) and were meeting/getting to know more people the constant question was "so which one of you is already Jewish???" People were always shocked that we are both converting, that we both have been drawn more and more towards Judaism throughout our lives and that that interest was what brought us together in the first place.

    It's interesting to me the mix of backgrounds of converts... but most people seem to just assume that either you are converting because of a relationship or because you are Jewish but not halachically Jewish.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you so much for this post! I'm so tired of people asking me if I converted for my boyfriend. I usually have to explain that I was more attracted to him BECAUSE he's Jewish and in fact started the conversion process a year before we met each other. I had been exposed to Judaism by relatives (one grandparent, a few cousins) and was attracted to my boyfriend because of our common interest in Judaism and our potential to live a Jewish life together. NOT the other way around! Just because I met him before I was "dunked" does not mean I converted so we could get married and please his mother.

    In fact..I'd say he's gotten significantly much more observant since dating me. He's become interested in the "why" of Judaism just as much as the "how", which he never really did before.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Don't worry about people like this. Usually they have nothing better to talk about. I had the opposite experience. Nine months before our conversion finished, we came to a big city to officially start the process after some experience in a smaller community. This certain group of people at a local synagogue near my own would also ask my wife and me, "Who's Jewish?" When we told them both of us weren't, some people would give us a weird look and their attitude would seem a little negative. Apparently, I had stumbled across a little clique of intermarried couples and one previously intermarried couple. They felt they had more of a claim to Judaism than us and tried to make sure we realized that---They were married to an Israeli, they spoke Hebrew, they had been in the process for 3-5 years etc.... This was a different experience than our own synagogue where they liked the fact that we weren't intermarried. Regardless, it's not a reason to treat anyone differently.

    I made it into a Yeshiva as soon as I arrived and studied under a really good Ashkenazi rabbi while learning with my Sephardic LOR. My wife and I had been studying halacha for quite some time even before that. My wife learned in our Sephardic synagogue's women's classes and absorbed everything like a sponge. The frustrating part was that we weren't able to make any contact with a Bet Din during the first 8 and a half months. My synagogue rabbi wanted to use one Bet Din and one of my teachers insisted that I go to the one he is affiliated with. (They are both recognized Bet Dins). I think it was a Sephardic versus Ashkenazic approach/dispute between my LOR and teacher.

    Eventually my synagogue rabbi (the Sephardic one) sat us down and started asking us tons of questions one day. After that, he had us meet him the next day, threw us in his car, and drove us over to a Bet Din. The rabbis there questioned us some more, and the Av Bet Din gave me his cell phone number to call him immediately after Arvit. We spoke about a few personal issues and he said to be ready in two weeks.

    After he converted us, we kept it very quiet. Afterall, I was always told not to go around telling people you are a convert. Later that month, I was teaching a member from this clique what muktzeh was (he apparently had no clue) and then he started bragging to me that his conversion would be done soon and that I need to do this and that. Then he asked me a direct question about my situation and I admitted that we were finished. Even though it was a big deal to me, I figured it wasn't much to anyone else. I was wrong. His face looked like he'd seen a ghost. He sneakily pretended to care all while trying to inquire every detail about it, even the legitimacy of my Bet Din, suggested possible connections, etc... He and his friends were upset about it. They said it was too fast, why did we finish before them, and would tell people who didn't even know we were converting that we were converts and expressed their disapproval about it. They even tried to give us a bad name with a rabbi who teaches them, whom we never met. Regardless of how much justification we had such as our education, they only saw what they wanted to see, in which we had been in the city for only 9 months. Nevermind any prior learning that they didn't see.

    The moral of the story is: If people want to dislike you, they will use whatever circumstance you are in against you in order to justify it. Almost every time it's not about you, it's about something they are bitter about within themselves. Just do your best.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you, I grew up Jewish (no Jewish parents at all though), but I was mostly raised by Jews. That happens when you are the one Gentile family in the neighbourhood.

    I dated several Jews, but I wanted to convert anyway. The rabbis didn't want to touch me with a 10 foot pole because I was dating a Jew at the time. Funny, almost two decades later, now they (Reform) are complaining that I didn't marry a Jew even though no rabbi would let me originally! Hey for a 16+ year conversion process, I cannot remain single that long!

    ReplyDelete