Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Response to a Very Good Question: Why Not Fake It 'Til You Make It?

I saw a great question about conversions. I decided to post the question and my answer to that question here because I think that's a struggle the overwhelming majority of orthodox converts face at some point in their process. How would you respond?

Not to risk offending anybody, but I'd be curious as to why people chose to pursue an Orthodox conversion instead of becoming an observant Conservative Jew. I don't see the racism going away anytime soon, and the Orthodox are more likely to yank your conversion if it takes you time to get up to speed on halacha.

I understand not wanting to hurt your grandchildrens' sidduch if you are in childbearing years (although it doesn't look like Orthodoxconversion is going to help you or your children marry well.) It seems that other branches of Judaism have better resources for learning since they are more open to converts. I have no issues with being observant, but the more I study, the more it seems that artificial barriers have been put in place. (I am studying Hillel and Shammai right now.)

Or excessively conservative interpretations on issues like kol isha, which originated from a man's need not to be aroused when saying the Shema (and has been extrapolated by the Hassidim to prohibit a woman from publically speaking, even in an educational context.) I am starting to weary of the increasing frumer than thou standards which distract me from the spirituality of Judaism. It seems easier to obsess over hem length than to develop chesed. And that is the reason I want to convert -to do the mitzvoth and to develop my spiritual connection to Hashem.

Not trying to upset anyone, but I really would like to know what went into your thinking.

(Note that I didn't address each specific issue, but tried to address the overarching issue.)

This is a great question! And I think almost every orthodox convert has been at that point (I know I have!). Every person must "come to terms" with the things that "worry" them in orthodoxy before converting orthodox. I put those in quotes because I eventually learned that I didn't need to "come to terms" at all, simply because I was misunderstanding, and these weren't things that "worried" me at all!

In short, anyone who decides to convert orthodox for any reason less than believing that is the only way to be Jewish AND the only way to be fulfilled in this life is going to end up a very, very unhappy person. Also, as difficult as the orthodox conversion process has become, I'm not sure anyone has the ability/patience to "fake it until you make it." I, as well as any Jew who knows anything about the conversion process today, am SO impressed when I meet someone who "survives" the orthodox conversion process. It's truly a trial by fire sometimes.

Going deeper, why did I eventually decide these "issues" with halacha were simply misunderstandings? Because we're approaching halacha with our secular perspectives. I'm female, and I'm a huge supporter of the way halacha "treats" women! I think it allows women to be the best they can be, as a woman; and the same for the men and their mitzvot, of course. However, when you look through a secular lens, all you see is that the genders are treated differently, and our society says that is presumptively bad. (However, being in my 20s, I studied the more "modern" feminism which recognizes that there are gender differences and that women should learn their strengths and focus on those, rather than trying to be everything a man is!) And as a soon-to-be lawyer (I graduate in a couple of months!), I don't feel that my self-empowerment is harmed in any way in orthodox Judaism, but that I am more fully "myself" and that I am more able to cultivate my strengths through the mitzvot required of women. In fact, from a psychology standpoint, I think it's harmful for women to wear tzitit, tefilin, and tallis. We are such physical creatures with pretty objects, and I was so jealous in my conservative congregation because I wanted my tallis to be the prettiest of them all! That's when I realized that something was wrong, and that that's probably why I wasn't commanded to don a tallis.

On a slightly tangential note, it's interesting to me that women are so upset by the physical mitzvot required of men. However, people forget that ALL Jews (even the Reform movement holds this) are bound by the ethical halacha. We all have to avoid gossip, be honest in business dealings, judge others positively, etc. There are more than enough mitzvot to keep me busy without worrying about what men "wear" in public!

I then pointed the question writer to Liberal Conversion: the Gateway Drug for a consideration of the philosophical differences between the movements that might make a liberal convert decide to become orthodox.


  1. Hi Chavi,

    I don't think it's harmful for women to wear tallit, etc however I'm not comfortable with tefillin... not sure why. I just don't see any real prohibition against wearing them that I find convincing. I know I'm not obligated to wear them, but my tallit is clearly feminine, so I don't see it as women's clothing.

    Nice post, but the part at the beginning was confusing to me; I thought it was your question. Maybe you could utilize block quote or a smaller font or something... so it stands out.

    Any idea what the questioner was asking when the used the word "racism"?

  2. Thank you for the suggestion, I block quoted the original question and tweaked the intro language!

    As for racism, I think she really means racism. I've been working on a post about racism in the Jewish community right now...But it'll be at least a week before it's ready.

  3. It's so interesting how different mitzvot that women are not obligated in provoke different reactions. Tzitzit, tefillin, and tallit, women stay away from like the plague! But so many women embrace shofar, counting the omer, and dwelling in a sukkah.

    And when we look in the gemara, shofar, omer, and sukkah are unanimously decided on to be non-obligated. There's a fair bit of discussion and disagreement with tzitzit, tefillin and tallit. Makes you wonder if there were women donning tallit and laying tefillin not just now, but in our history.

    I still don't understand why some non-obligated mitzvot are 'forbidden' to women, while others women are encouraged to partake in. Anyone?

  4. awesome question! I ask myself this a lot. I don't have an answer that could convince anyone of why THEY should be orthodox... I can only tell you it is what I need to be. Do I like always feeling like an outsider? Do I like wondering how I'll ever fit in? Do I like the feeling that no matter how hard I try I'm likely breaking 6 halachos at any given time minimum? hmmm not really. But, there is just something inside me that needs orthodox Judaism like I need water or bread. I need it completely. I can't imagine any other way to live.

  5. In fact, from a psychology standpoint, I think it's harmful for women to wear tzitit, tefilin, and tallis. We are such physical creatures with pretty objects, and I was so jealous in my conservative congregation because I wanted my tallis to be the prettiest of them all! That's when I realized that something was wrong, and that that's probably why I wasn't commanded to don a tallis.

    I don't like this at all. In fact, it's rather offensive. This might not be your implication, but I don't think that your finding that you compared tallitot to be an actually valid reason that women don't "need" the mitzvah of tzitzit.

    I'm really hesitant to consider reasons like these...tefillin was explicitly prohibited to women starting with Rema...the codification of ten men to make a minyan started with Shulchan Aruch...tzitzit being time-based started with a minority opinion, R. Shimon. I dislike the idea that "men's" and "women's" mitzvot evolved as their own entities, all at once. I think there is a lot more allowance for other options than we realize.