Friday, August 12, 2011

My Narrow, Unsympathetic Point of View

Today, I'd like to take a minute to discuss something that I believe is important to clarify.

From a comment: "There is a lot of pain involved with conversion for many people, but I've noticed time and again that you don't seem to see this. Human feelings and embarrassment and dignity are a PART of halacha... I've read a lot of your blog posts, and I have to say, I think that you have a narrow view--your own point of view--but I find that you don't sympathize with the point of view of other converts. Not everyone else wants to be "outed" or "out there." Some of us were raised believing we were Jewish. Some of us ARE Jewish, like me, but due to lack of documentation, are not considered Jewish. Some of us have been tormented, teased, and degraded for not having the right paper work."

For the record, I suppose I should be glad that in 10 months, 275 posts, and 97,000 page views, this is the first negative contact I've received. However, I believe it was a valid point to consider. If it had been a nut-job comment with no possible basis in reality, I wouldn't have been bothered by it. So I wanted to tell you guys a little bit about me, in hopes of clarifying how I approach these kinds of problems.

First - I can only have my own view. I'm afraid I can't apologize for that one. I try to be sympathetic, but not everyone will feel sympathized with. To be perfectly honest, I'm a pretty blunt person. I do my best to sympathize, but at the end of the day, I value the truth over placating people with empty half-truths. But I try to strike a balance. And I don't bother giving the truth if someone won't listen to it. (Halacha is pretty smart there.)

However, I can assure you that I have suffered too. I don't share everything on this blog (or anywhere else for that matter), by a long shot. While my challenges have not been as difficult as those of some, they've certainly been worse than others. My own problems have been largely unique compared to the other stories I've heard in the conversion world. This means that I face unique challenges in dealing with these problems, both with the people involved and emotionally. I have to face situations without precedent. In other words, there is no accepted protocol on how to fight the situation. I'm up the creek without a paddle. And it hurts.

As for understanding that not everyone wants to be "outed," when I speak to others about my status in real life, I always preface it with the fact that I am unusual in being willing to speak about it. I tell them that most people aren't comfortable talking about it. I understand that not everyone wants to discuss it. However, I talk about it because I believe that education and demystification is the most effective way of changing things. I am one of the unusual people comfortable speaking about it, so I feel a particular responsibility for answering the questions other people don't want to. These questions seem natural to them, so it might as well be me answering them. My primary reason for starting the blog was for speaking to conversion candidates who feel alone as I did, but I have found many secondary benefits, including acting as a kind of guinea pig for Jews who want to know more about the people who choose conversion.

I am opposed to people who "blame the victim" for becoming rightfully upset by the poor behavior of others. However, not everyone with a poor choice of words intentionally hurt you. And sometimes, when we're in a particularly bad spot, maybe we shouldn't have been upset. There is a lot of education to be had in the Jewish community, I agree. However, I don't agree that stating someone is a convert is reminding them of a bad past, which is what the halacha is forbidding. Your past should (hopefully) not embarrass you. In fact, it would violate halacha to presume that your past is embarrassing. (For instance, that you are a recovering drug addict/sex fiend.) You were not obligated to the mitzvot pre-conversion, so eating shrimp (or even pre-marital sex) before is not an embarrassment. Being a convert should be a badge of honor, and most people who would say you are a convert use it in that way. If they don't, they're violating the halacha. But let's not accuse everyone of violating halacha when a) they did not intend embarrass you and b) they had no reason to believe you would be embarrassed by it. Granted, this is a huge oversimplification. At the end of the day, there are differences of opinion among both the rabbis and the converts. That's Judaism: 2 Jews, 3 opinions. Thankfully for all of you, I am no posek, so my halachic positions are irrelevant to you. And I try to tell you when there are halachic debates that I know of. I am a blogger, nothing more.

I admit that my general optimism is suspicious. Even I don't understand why I generally lack the horror stories shared by so many people. (Though I shared a few of the more standard ones here.) However, the problems I face are as serious as they come. But they come from people whose opinion means nothing to me. I suspect mental or emotional instabilities that mean that their statements/actions actually have nothing to do with me as an individual. I am a convenient target that fulfills some other emotional need, nothing more. And despite the harm they have caused me in the short term, I triumph in the end. Because I'm doing the right things with the right intent as best as I know how. I'm stronger because of them, even though I may not have wanted the lesson. It's not fair, but that's life. 

I refuse to take the halachic violations of a few and impute those halachic violations to others. Just because some people act poorly doesn't mean everyone is acting poorly. Every person and situation should be judged individually. I believe that is an underlying theme of halacha: even the slightest change of facts can completely change the halachic analysis and result. I love that. Judaism takes us where we are and requires us to analyze each situation on its own merit, rather than making sweeping generalizations. 

I read about a survey once that said people who expect the world to treat them well generally believe that the world actually does treat them well. I believe I am one of those people. Maybe I see the good that others miss and am willing to overlook the bad things that don't really matter. I don't believe that my existence is somehow objectively better than other people's, but I certainly seem to view it more favorably. In fact, if you polled my Facebook friends, you would find that I am somewhat famous for finding little joys and turning the bad situations into funny stories. I consider it a survival technique for reasons none of you will ever know.

In short, this is my philosophy of life: I am responsible for my own happiness.

So at the end of the day, I'm just me. Take it or leave it. I've lost friends for worse reasons. 


  1. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    Different people have different thresholds, I guess. I have never found your stance to be offensive. Your commitment, knowledge level, and self-honesty are commendable. This particular commentator seems not so much deeply offended as exquisitely sensitive, and I doubt anything you said or didn't say would be enough.
    It's ok to be that sensitive, but beyond a certain point, no one else can take responsibility for it.

  2. Kochava, you misunderstand the issue here, but this is not because you are unsympathetic
    and/or narrow-minded, not at all. It is just because one can speak only from their own feelings and their own experience, and this is in human nature, not out of narrow-mindness.(Like you said, one can only hold one opinion - their own :))
    Basically there are 2 groups of converts: those who had non-Jewish identity prior to conversion (first conversion) who are converting because Judaism as a religion strongly appeals to them spiritually, and then there are those
    who grew up with a Jewish identity, but are not considered Jewish by the new community - either not jewish matrilinearly and the new community upholds the halachic definition of who is a jew or even worse, inability to proove
    that one is halachically Jewish, because for example their grandmother burnt her birth certificate during the war (which probably saved her life).
    For this second group of the converts who grew up with a Jewish identity, rejection from the new community/other communities is very painful, some are bitter (perhaps rightfully)
    that they have to undergo the conversion at all, the whole point of conversion is to be fully accepted by the community and to remove any doubt... Understandably, many would rather not disclose they are converts
    and are rightfully upset that the forms disclose this private matter.
    Disclaimer: I am not the author of the original negative comment

    1. Originally posted: August 13, 2011 at 10:33 PM

      I understand that point more than you know. That issue drove a patrilineal ex of mine to attempt suicide and completely destroyed his sense of identity. I don't believe he will ever consider conversion.

      That said, how does that affect my willingness to discuss my own case? If someone is willing to discuss it without stating that it should be kept confidential, the people who hear have no reason to believe it should be confidential.

      As for the post this was originally on, my opinion has changed slightly based upon new facts I learned during the debate, but the essential point was the same: the original argument presumed that the membership committee will violate halacha. I can't agree with assuming other Jews are going to misuse the information. If they are gossips, they shouldn't be voted to or appointed to the membership committee because they have access to a LOT of personal information. It is a position of trust and leadership.

  3. Kochava, exactly... you phrased it right: it destroys your sense of identity... And many would not consider conversion, because it implies self-acknowledgemnent they are not Jewish... Others would, reluctantly, to repair the disconnect...

    I do not know if it would violate the halacha, but I believe it be unethical as causes pain and embarassment to many in the second group of converts. Either ask everyone to prove they're halachically Jewish or ask noone.

    "That said, how does that affect my willingness to discuss my own case?" - you are right, that's does not. I understood the comment only applied to the topic whether or not this should be reflected on the synagogue membership form, not regarding your blog or the question of disclosure in general.

  4. Without coming across as being the end of the day it is your blog after all.

    You are not at fault if an individual whom was raised Jewish all their life to only find out that in accordance with Halacha they aren't.

    The stance within the Orthodox community is not to recognise non-Orthodox conversions.

    It is indeed a sensitive topic which needs to be approached in a dignified manner.

    Kochava. You have no reason to apologise.

  5. I actually did not mean the case of Orthodox community not recognizing the less strict conversions...
    Kochava understood me right, I was talking about the people who are 1/2, or 3/4, or 7/8 Jewish, with a non-Jewish mother or grandmother or great-grandmother or even those halachically Jewish who do not have sufficient papers to prove it.

  6. But a person can't be 1/2, 3/4 or 7/8 Jewish.

    In accordance with Halacha a person is Jewish if they are born to a Jewish mother (matrilineal descent) or if the person converted in accordance with Halacha.

    This is where the whole debate begins about "Who is a Jew?"

    Let's say if the individual had a maternal grandmother who was Jewish this would mean the individual is indeed Jewish. I'm sure there are some Beit Din that do conduct research to determine if one is Jewish.

    Usually if the person does not sufficient documentation to prove one's Jewishness it would mean they would indeed have to convert. I am no Rabbi but as this situation you have mentioned is one of a sensitive nature it needs and should be discussed with your Local Orthodox Rabbi.

  7. Yes, yes, one can and you understand well what I meant.

    Can one be half french? Well, technically no, you either have French citizenship or you dont.
    Yet, you can be half French and everyone understands what is meant by this.
    Same with half-Jewish, both maternal and paternal halves are half-Jewish, if you are matrilineal,
    you are in (citizen :) ), if you are patrilineal, you are out (non-citizen). And converts, in this analogy,
    are naturalized citizens :)

    There is a halachic definition, which is more in terms of who gets granted the citizenship, yet, note
    that even those saying that "you can not be half jewish" understand the question perfectly well
    and the same way :)

    On top of this, different communities have different definitions, some more lax, some more strict than the halachic one, some - just different.
    Karaite judaism goes by patrilineal descent, Juhuri (mountain jews) go by patrilineal descent, some mizrachi communities do not accept converts (syrian jews?), although halachically conversions are perfectly fine.
    Then a secular definition of who's a Jew is also different. For example, halachically, if you are a baptized jew, you are still a jew. However not all Jews would recognize you as one, nor can you repatriate to Israel in this case.
    Or a similar example, if are a child of a muslim father and a jewish mother and you pracise islam, you are still a Jew in the eyes of halacha, another question is whether you would be perceived as one by other jews.

  8. Something else to think about - there are not simply "2 types of converts". There are many types. The type that convert before marriage, when they are still single, the type who converts along with their entire family, the type who was born thinking they were Jewish... etc etc... the list goes on.

    As for me I am in no away shamed of being a convert! I LOVE it and I am proud of it. But our Rabbi cautioned us to be selective in sharing this for a couple of reasons. Simply put, some people will judge negatively if you're rep proceeds them getting to actually know you. This is hard on adults, yes... but VERY hard on kids. Right now for instance my son is dealing with a lot of emotions about the conversion. He is a happy, yes... but even good changes are hard for children. Kids simply do not like to always feel like the "outsider".
    Conversely some people by nature aren't big speakers. When you "out" yourself as a convert people want to ask you about it, which can cause a lot of social anxiety on the person who might be a little shy by nature.

    There is a misunderstanding, I believe, that people who do not share this info with everyone are shamed or embarrassed of their status as a Jew, and that is rarely if ever the case. People make decisions based on the advice they get from their conversion/supporting Rabbis, the community they are in, the situations they are in etc...

    To be honest I feel like getting myself a Tshirt that says "I WORKED MY BUTT OFF TO BECOME JEWISH!!!" because I think so many people take being born Jewish for granted and it makes me sick. But... I gotta temper my thoughts in consideration to other people's feelings. Sometimes we have to put other's needs above our own wants. Hence why I personally don't tell everyone at this point.

  9. Originally posted: August 14, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    I accidentally hit delete instead of publish on my cellphone for this comment:

    The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    "Either ask everyone to prove they're halachically Jewish or ask noone."

    Oh, THAT issue. Yeah, I agree. If we're going to be checking bona fides, let's be fair, check everybody. There are a lot more people out there with questionable pedigrees than everybody thinks.