Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Liberal Conversion: The Gateway Drug

It seems that most orthodox converts you meet are also liberal Jewish converts. When we liberal converts begin an orthodox conversion, we all seem to think we're crazy to be going from a liberal movement to orthodoxy. But no, you're certainly not alone.

I had the great pleasure to meet with an amazing rabbi who has worked with many converts. He estimated that 60% of the converts he had met were originally converted through another movement. Personally, I would place the number at 2/3 (66% for you math-challenged types), but I think he would have a more educated opinion! Who makes up the other 40% of orthodox converts? My guess is that many are already considered Jewish by other movements, either through patrilineal descent or a maternal liberal conversion prior to birth. I'd like to see some statistics on this one day. But then again, I have an unnatural love of statistics.

Why do so many orthodox conversion candidates have a prior Jewish conversion?

When you think about it, it's a lot easier to "ease into" being Jewish through beginning in a liberal community. It's definitely less culture shock! Going from being a secular person to being an orthodox Jew is a lot like going 0 to 90 in 2.5 seconds. I can't help but wonder about their sanity! Of course, I suppose I'm no one to judge. I started in an orthodox community, and then since I felt I couldn't measure up to orthodox standards, landed in a liberal community.

On an intellectual level, I think there are real philosophical issues that cause so many converts to seek a second (or third!) conversion, whether we realize the reasoning or not. I myself didn't realize the philosophical misgivings I had until someone actually explained the philosophy to me! Then I suddenly knew why I had felt so uneasy. Converts tend to be very curious and somewhat nerdy. Also, as a necessary side effect of conversion, we learn a lot more about our chosen movement (and Judaism) than many of our community cohorts. If you ask the average Jew-on-the-street (of any movement!) what the differences are between the reform and conservative movement, I think they could only say, "More English/Less Hebrew?"

Basically, I believe that it's the philosophical differences that lead liberal converts to orthodox Judaism. While we can't always put our finger on it, I think we all become frustrated with the idea of "pick and choose Judaism." We can't find a better word for it, but that's the idea we get. Let's discuss these philosophical foundations of the reform and conservative movements. (Of course, they have philosophies on other issues as well, but I think these are the main sticking points for many converts.)

A) The Reform Movement. I heard our local reform rabbi (a very educated and charismatic woman!) give a lecture about the current state of reform Judaism almost exactly 1 year ago. If I remember correctly, there had very recently been some important philosophical changes adopted by the movement, but I don't recall if they were related to this idea. She explained that the current reform approach to halacha is that 1) mitzvot between man and G-d is optional (each person should adopt the practices he or she finds meaningful) and that 2) mitzvot between man and man is mandatory.

B) The Conservative Movement. The conservative movement holds that halacha is mandatory, just as the orthodox do. However, they have a different interpretation of the individual mitzvot. How does the movement make rulings? There is a head group of rabbis of the conservative movement who come together and debate halachic issues, much like the Supreme Court of the United States does on secular cases. And like the Supreme Court, they write an official opinion handing down the majority ruling, but including separate minority opinions. At some point early in the conservative movement, it was decided that each congregation could choose which opinion to follow, whether it was the majority or a minority ruling. For instance, everyone knows that the conservative movement allows driving on Shabbat. Did you know that was only a minority opinion?? (Contrast: in orthodoxy, there is no group to decide. Each person must follow his or her own rabbi's rulings, as he follows the rulings of his own rabbis.) As an orthodox rabbi once told me (paraphrasing from memory), "Once you can follow the minority opinion, you can do whatever you want because eventually someone will write the opinion you want to follow."

What do these two philosophies come down to? There is no right answer. No, that wasn't a rhetorical question; that's the answer I'm giving. Curious converts with an overdose of logic become bothered by the lack of line-drawing by halacha without a ruling. While the orthodox may seem crazy from the outsider's perspective, you have to give them credit for something: they all agree that all the halacha is obligatory. Where they disagree is how that halacha should be followed. That's a much firmer logical ground to stand on, no matter what you think of halacha. I think liberal-turned-orthodox converts generally value consistency in philosophy. If the orthodox's greatest "logical fallacy" is that they think all the laws come straight from G-d and are mandatory, that's a much more consistent and tenable stance than that of the other two big movements. Orthodoxy follows its philosophy to its natural conclusion, whether or not one thinks that is a good place to end up :)

Why don't more liberal converts seek an orthodox conversion?

Quite frankly, many are probably happy where they are. More power to them! They're an inspiration to their communities, and a nourishment to their community's neshamas :)

As for the rest. This is probably an un-PC response. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the Jewish partners of converts. I think batei din (orthodox or liberal) are the only ones who realize the true importance of the significant other. Converts usually meet a Jewish significant other either before, during, or relatively soon after conversion, but the convert may not have completely grown into his or her "Jewish skin." Speaking from personal experience, wanting to grow in Judaism with an apathetic Jewish partner can bring out the foundational cracks in a relationship in ways normally only the birth of a first child can do. As they say, "an argument about the drapes is rarely about the drapes"! Then you're faced with a pretty awful decision: do you want to risk your relationship on religious changes you might not even like? It sure is a lot safer to stay in a religious place that no longer quite fits than to risk your relationship, particularly if you already have children! I do not envy that position.


  1. Great post! I'm an Orthodox convert like you, although I grew up in a Reform home with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

    I totally agree with your characterizations of the Reform and Conservative movements, but I'm not sure I agree with your statement that "[Orthodox people] all agree that all the halacha is obligatory." If wishing made it so. There is a good chunk of the MO community that seems to think tsnius, for example, is not really obligatory, even though I don't know of any Orthodox rabbis who permit tank tops and miniskirts for women (or men, for that matter!). Maybe you don't mean to include that end of the spectrum in your definition of 'Orthodox' - there's certainly a good argument to be made that once you're willing to step outside the norms of halacha without a reliable heter, your ideology isn't really Orthodox.

    I hope you have an easy time with your beis din! (And a gentle correction from one still-learning convert to another: the plural of 'beit din' is actually 'batei din'. Those compound words are the worst.)

  2. Hah, I say both batei din and bait dins. At least right now, most of my readership isn't Jewish, so I've been leaning towards using the more English-friendly one!

    As for the halacha point, you make a great point! Actually, I do include those people. But in this post, I'm referring more to the "official" positions of groups, rather than what individual people do.

  3. Elisheva, please disregard the first part of my comment above. I realized what you meant, and I fixed it! Thank you!

  4. Interesting. I'm quite surprised by the idea that so many halachic converts started out as non-halachic converts.

    One friend told me she started looking to 're-convert' about a year after a Conservative conversion, when she realized she believed in things that the rabbi clearly didn't. Like Torah was really given by God at Sinai, and is really obligatory. She was disturbed by 'picking and choosing', similar to your noting lack of halachic 'drawing the line'. We all pick and choose on a personal level out of passion or weakness (often called 'sin'); but she was disturbed by it being done and supported on a community and institutional level.

    Elisheva, I suspect that many Orthodox people who compromise (or ignore) issues like halachic modesty/tzniut still at least recognize that such things are part of a Jew's obligations. They look for ways to cheat or skip it; but they don't typically say it isn't an issue and doesn't need to be contended with. I think. I don't think Reform, for instance, even possesses an idea of a 'mitzvah' as 'commandment = absolute obligation as required by God'; unless that, too, has changed recently.

    Another important difference is there is NO 'Orthodox' movement. Doesn't exist. Torah doesn't need to be institutionally organized. It already derives authority from 'God said so'. But Reform, Conservative, etc. need movements because they need to create institutions that will legitimize whatever they choose (then choose again, differently, 25 years later) to be their present religious standards and recommendations.

    Great blog, btw. Thanks for doing this.

  5. Reform Jews do, indeed, possess an idea of a mitzvah as a commandment. Because, well, that's what the word mitzvah means.

    I'd also like to emphasize that we all "pick and choose" which commandments to follow, and when. I would say your average Orthodox person chooses to do more commandments more often and your average Reform person chooses to do fewer and less often, but nobody does all of them all of the time, without fail.

  6. I've always wondered if a similar situation applied here in the UK. I know of one girl who originally converted under the Masorti Beth Din, and is now a London Beth Din candidate.

    I haven't encountered anybody else who did the same thing. Perhaps it is because most synagogues here are Orthodox whether or not the people who fill them lead the lifestyle. Masorti are quite small here and Reform and Liberal congregations are the minority, unlike in the USA. Dayan Gelley, who oversees conversions here, told me that over two-hundred applications are made to the London Beth Din each year (around 40 make it). I don't have figures for the other movements or Manchester.

  7. Sara B, I *think* there is nonetheless a distinction to be made about 'mitzvah'. When I violate a commandment, I truly believe that I have violated God's actual requirement of me and other Jews. And yes, I unfortunately do so. Of course, when I carry out such a commandment, I also believe that I am acting in the manner that God requires of me. Not up to me to decide if I like it, or agree with it, or if it speaks to me. And all the commandments, as possible in a given circumstance, are equally obligatory. Not my choice. As simplistic as that short statement is; it is nonetheless pretty much true as a traditional Jewish belief.

    On the other hand, the CCAR Statement of Principles says, for instance, "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community." Those that address us. I understand that to mean that if I think a mitzvah doesn't speak to me, or doesn't fit my notion of contemporary life - then I'm not obligated to carry it out. That's not really a *command*. That's a suggestion. Maybe a very important or even awesome suggestion. But still only a suggestion, with nothing really wrong if I choose otherwise. There is no inherent obligation or necessity to these acts. There is also no uniform, shared obligation. What 'addresses me' may not speak to you, at all.

    Those are two very different ways of relating to the word 'commandment', no? That is all I meant by my observation above. I think the CCAR Statement bears out the position that they do not see 'mitzvah' as 'commandment' as 'absolute obligation as determined by God.' But the ancient, historical, and simple dictionary definitions of those words indeed mean 'something not volitional.'

    That's all I was pointing out.

  8. I'm enjoying reading some of your posts! (came over via Aish's dating column)

    I bet you're on target with your "un-PC" hypothesis. There's another element, though, which I was surprised you didn't factor in. I hope to continue growing in observance every year. Even if I get to "orthoprax", though, I do not ever plan to join a congregation where I can't count towards a minyan. It's that simple.

  9. Ninufar, I understand your point, and I know it's a very big deal for many of us women! I'm a little different from many converts since I started in an orthodox congregation, so that's my "default."

    I think it's very interesting that you noted counting towards the minyan rather than the mechitza! It seems that most women stop at the mechitza and never bring up the minyan point, which is a much better feminist argument (IMO)! The general explanation for the difference (which so many people never bother to explain!) is that one who is not obligated to do something can't fulfill the obligation for another. There's a better way of phrasing that, but I can't remember it. Basically, because men are obligated to pray in groups, but women are not (since women are innately better able to connect with the divine and therefore don't "need" communal prayer), only men can count towards the fulfillment of that requirement. And if all the men are fulfilling their obligation, there'd be no worry about getting a minyan in the first place!

    However, expect a post about the mechitza soonish! I'll have to get back to you on the minyan, since I'll need to do some more research.

  10. Yeah i know i'm reading this a year after you wrote it. Your last paragraph is the exact reason why I'm probably going to remain a Reform Jew for life. I converted Reform, my husband is Reform and with 1 kid and another on the way, I highly doubt things are going to change theologically.

    Still, I find your perspective on Orthodox Judaism and your conversion fascinating which is why I still read your blog.

  11. Hi - I came to this site some time ago - such a good blog!

    I've also been writing about this issue as a liberal convert (I'm converting at the moment). I have many reservations about the validity of my conversion, not least the problem that knowing me, I will probably fall for an orthodox man... and then the problems of jewish status could be a problem.

    As you say, converts like checking things off lists - very true. From what I can see, the main sticking point that divides the whole Orthodox / Progressive halachic jew status is the observance of the 613 mitzvot. Orthodox Jews are expected to observe all of these - and so are the Rabbinate who perform conversions and form Beis Din. Progressive Rabbis may or may not observe all these mitzvot, and it is this that causes the problem for Orthodox Jewish authorities because you are not considered jewish by them unless you adhere to this. This invalidates any Beit Din upon which such a Rabbi sits - and therefore automatically invalidates any conversion approved by the Beit Din! Phew!

    So, I decided, in order to learn myself what the 613 mitzvot are, to start a blog about Jewish Conversion in the progressive movement of Judaism, and to examine and comment upon the mitzvot as they stand out. I've got to say there are many that I agree with; but there are also a sizeable number that I don't agree with on a humane and logical level - and this would cause me trouble internally if I agreed to observe such mitzvot and simply didn't privately away from my Rabbi... And so the argument goes on for me... alas!

    But no matter: I admire and love my orthodox friends and fellow Jews - and we all need to stick together in these troubled times.

    Clarissa Smid


  12. I am in the process of conversion through a statewide "board of rabbis", which includes all movements ( you attend classes and then pick the movement you want to convert to). I currently attend a Conservative Shul, which I believe is a good starting point. The problem I have in my short time in Judaism is that the liberal movements are not just liberal theologically, but politically as well. It is not unusual to hear rabbis taking shots at Republicans or expressing support for liberal political positions and candidates in their Shabbos sermon.

    At a recent class, the teaching rabbi told about he asked the congregation if they believed in God. About a third raised their hand, another third raised it "sort of" and the last third did not raise their hands at all. Now, I am certain that if the rabbi had asked, "How many of you are Democrats" the overwhelming majority would not only have raised their hands, but may well have given a standing ovation. It seems to me that in America, Conservative and Reform Judaism is not even about Judaism, but about political liberalism. Being a Republican, this concerns me. I love God, the Torah and Judaism, but I do not know if I will ever be seen as anything but a second-class citizen in any shul because of my political leanings.

    1. I don't know if it'll make you feel any better, but I think all shuls are pretty political. I'm in the opposite situation as you: while the liberal Jewish movements tend to be politically liberal or progressive, the orthodox community is overwhelmingly very conservative. Well, it seems overwhelming because liberals and progressives like myself don't speak openly because we've been screamed at or threatened at too many Shabbat tables. Personally, my physical safety has been threatened twice when I suggested that liberal candidates are human and weren't planning to round up Jews for new concentration camps. My family was accused of "wanting" the deaths of Jews in Israel just yesterday at Shabbat lunch. I doubt you're alone; people have just learned to stay quiet to avoid the annoyance or mess. If you speak up, you may find many like-minded people. That's worked for me in the orthodox community. It takes just one brave person to speak up before others become brave enough to say "me too!" Maybe that can be you? Or maybe not, and you need to listen for those keywords that might indicate a kindred spirit.

      As a practical matter, I (and many others) believe a passion for politics is a very Jewish trait. In fact, I believe my progressive political values stem directly from my Judaism: I'm commanded to seek justice for the widow and orphan and stranger; I'm commanded to act with justice generally (justice justice shall you pursue), and many halachos would be considered workplace rights, just giving a few examples. That's a very common perspective in the liberal-Jewish community (in fact, "tikun olam" is probably the foundational tenant of the reform movement), while the orthodox community tends toward conservatism (in my opinion) largely as a self-protective measure (political hawks) and affinity with conservative values that the Religious Right have brought into American politics. Those aren't necessarily bad things, in my opinion (and I may even agree in some areas), but I oppose the unquestioning demonization and dehumanization of the other side, which you've seen from the other side in your community. The Jewish people are a family, and there are lots of disagreements in families about politics and religion. That's how I reconcile the issues in my own heart. I make an effort to appreciate the passion all these people have and how they sincerely want the world to be a better place (and bring more Jewish values into it), even though we disagree about how to accomplish that. And I look for places where we agree so that hopefully we can end some of this partisan meshugas.

  13. I find it hard to believe that Judaism was supportive of homosexual marriage and abortion on demand until the Christians brought their Victorian prudishness into the culture. The Torah speaks directly to these issues. Have a good day! Shalom!

  14. Oh, and I like this blog so far. You seem like an intelligent and funny lady. As one with a similar , but not exactly the same, story, this is interesting. I started the conversion process back in 2009 and got "stage fright" after losing most of my friends and isolating myself from my family ( and yes, the politics in the pulpit was a turn-off as well). I went back to my SDA church, hiding my anti-trinitarian convictions. But like you, I feel I need to be honest with myself and "get off the fence". I will peruse the blog and glean the info you have assembled at the sacrifice of your time. Blessings and shalom!

  15. Here is a link to my short story. It is also an interesting blog!