Tuesday, September 6, 2011

UPDATED: If You Think Only an Orthodox Conversion Is "Good Enough," Then Don't Get a Liberal One!

Who Are We Talking About: Please take the time to read a few paragraphs instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to the title. I'm not talking about the people you think I'm talking about. I'm not talking about people who are converting liberal but are open to the possibility of converting orthodox at a later time. After all, that's the position I'm in! Posting from below: "I'm referring to people who, at the time they are pursuing a liberal conversion, really do not intend to ever be a liberal Jew and are simply "passing time" in the liberal community until they can move to an orthodox community. In short, it's getting a liberal conversion when you don't want one." They don't think liberal Judaism is right or valid, but it's "what's available," and they plan to flee town at the earliest opportunity to join an orthodox community. (Whether that actually ever happens is irrelevant to this discussion.) As a friend described it, "they think they can cut in the orthodox conversion line." I don't even think these are necessarily bad people (except for possibly the final group mentioned). They rationalize it away, thinking things like, "It's not lying if I just don't say anything. They (the liberal Jews in the community, including the rabbi) just don't realize what they're doing. They're misguided. They're nice people, just bad Jews. They don't really understand what orthodoxy is about."

Time for a controversial, soap-box post. Tough love, folks. Tough love. But it is meant in love. Love for all of you, as well as for the liberal Jewish communities involved.

People are interesting creatures. We are so capable of compartmentalizing what we do versus what we say. We are capable of more self-deception that any con-man could ever accomplish. And we are masters of rationalization, giving "very good reasons" for why we do things that we instinctively feel are not right, moral, ethical, whatever. So I want to discuss one of the rationalizations/self-deceptions I have seen in the conversion community.

"I'm in the process of getting a liberal conversion, but I would only feel Jewish with an orthodox conversion. I can't move to an orthodox community right now, so I figured I'd go ahead and get a liberal conversion while I'm here."

I hear this a lot. People approach me about this, apparently expecting me to say, "It's alright. You're doing the right thing. How terrible that orthodoxy forces you to make these choices!" 

But you're not doing the right thing. I admit, I can sometimes be nicer than I should be, and I do try to understand each situation on its own merits, but there are just some things I can't support you doing. And no one forces you to make the decisions you make, even Big Bad Orthodoxy. I love to listen and help you brainstorm solutions, but I will not help you rationalize poor decisions, particularly when those decisions have bad effects for both you and the liberal rabbis you are misleading.  (Later this week, we'll talk about temporary solutions for pursuing an orthodox conversion while temporarily living outside of an orthodox community.)
Disclaimer: As a general rule, we are speaking about people who are still very early in the conversion process (and yes, that may still describe you, person who has been reading books for five years!). They don't quite know what they're getting into yet, even though they think (as we all did) that Judaism is as simple as the religions they left. I'm not talking about liberal candidates who think about the possibility of "upgrading" their conversions later. (Since "upgrading" seems to be the common word, even though I take issue with it.) Everyone considers it as a possibility, and some even expect there is a high chance of becoming orthodox later. Really, everyone thinks about this. Even the people who honestly believe that orthodoxy is "against them" for being female or gay or whatever. They may laugh it off within 5 minutes, but they acknowledge that it is a possibility, no matter how remote. I'm referring to people who, at the time, really do not intend to be a liberal Jew and are simply "passing time" in the liberal community until they can move to an orthodox community. In short, it's getting a liberal conversion when you don't want one. This does not mean that they have any idea of what an orthodox Jew is or does or even know any orthodox halacha. We'll discuss that issue below. 

I'm not going to sugarcoat this for you. If I am known for nothing else, it is giving an honest answer, even when the answer isn't what the listener wants. I've lost many friends over the years for that, but I wouldn't have it any other way. (I follow the halachic approach-to the best of my ability-about when and how to tell the truth, but that would just be confusing to discuss right here, especially as the intended audience for this post is not well-versed in orthodox halacha yet. So let's not discuss that in the comments, eh?)

Here is my personal opinion on that approach to conversion. Of course, and as we will discuss several times, there are always exceptions to the rule. But the existence of exceptions proves that there is a rule!

"I can't live in an orthodox community right now."

As a general rule, I personally think that "I can't live in an orthodox community right now" is not a good reason for "settling" for a liberal conversion, especially when the intent is to get an orthodox conversion as soon as some situation changes. Most of the time, they have the ability to move within a year or two. Very few people have really good reasons for staying. A job or a house are not good reasons. Thousands of people before you and throughout the ages have made those changes successfully, even though you may be unemployed for a while or lose money on selling a house. I did it, and I'm broke as a joke, and I've been unemployed since April, but I still made the right decision. These people are generally impatient. There's nothing wrong with being impatient. I'm impatient, she's impatient, we're all impatient to become Jewish. In fact, it shows passion and enthusiasm. But that doesn't make it right to compromise on this issue.
Note: Staying close to children from a prior relationship (or keeping them close to the non-custodial parent, especially because of a court order), taking care of an ailing family member, or an inability to get a visa to another country are generally very good reasons for not moving to an orthodox community. What you do with that situation, I leave to you. I am in no position to advise you when you have those kinds of serious issues restraining you. Hashem has given you your situation for a good reason, and I don't know what that reason is.
I think the moving issue is one of the biggest myths out there about conversion. There are always steps you can take: people you can talk to, experiences you can have, mitzvot you can take on. Maybe those steps even include attending that liberal shul while you live there! What I can guarantee those steps do not include is disrespecting that community or misleading them. You don't have to tell them you aren't satisfied with their Judaism and intend to pursue an orthodox conversion, but you shouldn't hide that opinion from the rabbi if you want them to take the time and resources to convert you.

Wasting Time

For everyone else: I understand, you have outside pressures driving you: you want to get married, have children, enroll your children in a Jewish school, have a "Jewish" marriage with your Jewish spouse, etc. When you really don't think that anything less than an orthodox conversion is "right," then you're just cheaping the accomplishment of those goals. Likewise, if you want to be orthodox and get married and have children, a liberal conversion doesn't help you. It just delays your goal. Getting a liberal conversion in order to be allowed to join a Jewish dating site will (usually) not get you a mate who will be fine with you pursuing an orthodox conversion. In fact, having a non-orthodox partner can prevent or significantly delay any future orthodox conversion. (There are exceptions, but never assume you are the exception. They're called exceptions to the rule precisely because it is unlikely. Remember, don't self-deceive! Also read why I advise against dating during conversion.)

One More Thing You Have to Explain Later

Worse, getting a liberal conversion when you don't really want one is something else you have to "explain away" during an orthodox conversion Your learning towards your prior conversion generally will not matter because the rabbis will assume you learned a different halachic ruling than the orthodox one. That year you spent learning reform or conservative Judaism because you couldn't move for 18 months could have been spent learning towards an orthodox conversion instead. You'll have to take that time anyway, so why do it twice? (Remember that we'll discuss the alternatives later this week.)

If you have a prior conversion, you get to spend time and ink explaining why you sought that conversion and why you now don't think it's "good enough." Going through that myself, it's difficult. You have to explain your past failings, essentially. Using myself as an example, I have to explain that I didn't do the research I should have done about the conservative movement or asked the questions I should have asked. And that because of my experiences, reading, and study, I should have known to ask. That is ego busting. Thankfully, I don't have the complication of a non-observant partner or spouse who would also have to explain why he or she wants to become orthodox. Or worse, an already-orthodox partner describing why he or she started dating someone who wasn't orthodox.

What Drives These People to Seek a Conversion They Don't Believe Is Valid?

An interesting sociology project one day: do these people even pursue an orthodox conversion later? I would imagine that the grand majority don't. Once the liberal conversion is in place, why move, why change, why jump through more hoops? Inertia is a law of nature, but it's also a human trait. 

I think that many of those people never really wanted an orthodox conversion in the first place. Maybe their beliefs and lifestyle are more in tune with liberal Judaism, but they had the "goal" of an orthodox conversion because they want universal Jewish acceptance. I'm sorry that this is the truth, but no conversion, no matter what, has universal acceptance. None. 

If you get an independent "modern orthodox" conversion, there are people and rabbis in the orthodox community who won't accept it as valid. Even if you get an Israeli-rabbinate-approved RCA conversion, some groups would still make you have a geirus l'chumrah or not recognize your conversion. Sadly, that's life. People are people. You have to do what you believe is right and what you believe is the law of Hashem. So if you have decided that a liberal conversion is right for you and that Hashem accepts that, don't bother with what other rabbis think. It's a waste of time and will just give you ulcers. 

Don't Bank on Being the Exception to the Rule

Many of these conversion candidates somehow believe that they can get an orthodox conversion without actually becoming orthodox. (Like I said at the beginning, many are at the very beginning of their Jewish journey and just don't "get it" yet.) Because they want that universal acceptance and they're nice people living nice liberal Jewish lives and identify with the Jewish people, they again feel like they will be an exception to the rule. But orthodox rabbis believe that non-Jews can be awesome too. You don't have to be Jewish to be awesome and to identify with the Jewish people and to merit olam haba. That is what the Noachides are, so there is no need to give you an orthodox conversion if you are unwilling to live an orthodox life. 

The "Fake It 'Til You Make It"s

I intended to skip discussing people who intend to be "orthodox observant" so long as it takes to get the orthodox conversion, but I'm already being offensive, so I might as well continue. I'll be perfectly honest when I say that people like that make me physically ill because they completely undermine everything I (and thousands of other sincere orthodox conversion candidates) are doing every day. Those (very) few people are what create the conversion crisis that has thrown the grand majority of conversion candidates into the wringer. We suffer because the few have called everyone into question. Again (and especially here), you are not some exception and you shouldn't rationalize that you "really need" an orthodox conversion when you should know that it directly harms the people who sincerely want to become an orthodox Jew. Judaism values the individual, but not at the expense of others.

RULE: If you want to discuss this topic in the comments, do not name names. That is inappropriate, possibly could lead to a lawsuit, and is halachically questionable. After all, you don't know all the facts and they may really be halachic Jews. Even if the facts are as you assume, there are potentially bases in halacha for upholding the conversion as valid. So...don't go there.

How This Perspective Disrespects the Liberal Communities

Now let's shift gears to how this is harmful to the liberal rabbis and communities who help these people. 

Sins of omission matter in Judaism (wait until Yom Kippur, if you don't believe me). "Omitting" the fact that you intend to seek an orthodox conversion as soon as you are able to is misleading and dishonest. Likewise, it is misleading and dishonest to "omit" the fact that you don't think your rabbi is a good Jew and that (s)he is not capable of converting you into "a real Jew." 

I also believe it wastes the time of liberal rabbis and disrespects them to believe their conversions "aren't really good enough" but you'll go through the motions to get some conversion done. No rabbi has enough time or is paid enough. It hurts me that rabbis waste those resources on people who don't believe they are practicing "authentic Judaism" and don't believe these rabbis have the power to really make them Jewish. The argument about the authenticity of liberal Judaism is totally irrelevant to the fact that this is dishonest and disrespectful, coming from someone who hardly knows what Judaism is and is incapable of forming an informed argument about the merits of the issue. It's using someone for your own ends. And to a degree, it's self-righteous that you've "figured it out" and this congregation doesn't know what they're doing.

Now for the other perspective. A friend had the most beautiful thought on this issue. She felt that many liberal rabbis "would probably be glad to help someone at any point on their Jewish journey." And you know what, I think she's right. But, dear readers, don't use that as a rationalization for misleading those who mean well.

The Influence of Birthright

This is technically a sidenote because this is incredibly unlikely and unusually dishonest. Getting a liberal conversion because it'll be "faster" and you're getting close to the Birthright cut-off age is particularly dishonest (and potentially reaches the level of fraud because of the monetary benefit). Sure, Birthright may be a consideration (and can certainly be a perk), but it should not be the motivating factor. You would be surprised to hear that it can be. Well, probably not that surprised because we're talking about human nature, but I was surprised to hear people admit it and then expect justification from me for doing it. But at the same time, those kinds of motivations lead people to convert for the purpose of immigrating to Israel, or so everyone says. After all, those aliyah requirements and protocols were created in response to that fear. 

Judging Favorably in Spite of Everything I've Just Said

Another friend graciously offered an eloquent and positive perspective on these issues. "Judaism is a journey. VERY few of us end up where we thought we would be, and most people starting the process have absolutely no idea what being 'Jewish' means, let alone being 'conservative' or being 'orthodox.' Personally, I think there are FAR larger numbers of people who start an orthodox conversion, get bogged down, and then choose a liberal conversion. ... I feel sad for them when they spend the rest of their lives doubting their own Jewishness because they don’t have the “right” stamp of approval. I know that is not the orthodox main line view, but I suspect HaSHEM has things worked out a little better than we humans suspect. ... People are imperfect, but even in their imperfection, they are beautiful anyway. Growth is not linear, and Hashem has a plan for each of us. Maybe Hashem's plan for them is to start out in a liberal conversion with 'false' motives, and then to grow in their maturity and love for Hashem." Kol HaKavod.


  1. Regarding the Syrians, http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2008/05/syrian-ban-on-converts.html may be of interest. The "ban" is not on converts so much as conversions; TTBOMK, they _do_ accept any Halachic conversion unquestioningly when it comes to matters of Shabbos, Kashrus, etc; the differences are primarily in marriage.

    Whether this policy is a legitimate halachic right of a community or a violation of an explicit pasuk is something I will not address, except to say that one can be assured that the Rabbis involved have read some Chumash at one point or another, and it's unlikely that there's something extremely obvious that you've discovered that they're not aware of. (Similar arguments apply to, say, discussing R' Kook vs. Satmar regarding the State of Israel. Yes, both of them knew your source. No, it didn't change their mind)

    1. Originally posted: September 6, 2011 at 10:31 AM

      Ok, ok, Mike. Edited out.

  2. This is tough love, but I think it is what many of us need to hear.

    There have been times when I've been tempted, thinking I might get a warmer welcome at a Conservative or Reform Shul or, wouldn't it be "easier" to convert this way or that. Ultimately, though, I keep coming back to my original reasons of wanting to convert Orthodox to begin with. At that point, I stop my pity party and instead of focusing on the conversion process and its ups and downs, I focus on how I want to live the rest of my life after conversion. For me, I know that's as part of an Orthodox community, so this is the only process for me, tough as it might be sometimes.

    I think it would be disingenuous to waste the considerable time and energy it would take any other community to help me convert, only with plans to eventually live as Orthodox. That time and energy should be saved for those who will remain in their community and contribute to it.

  3. I give this post 2 thumbs up. I am stumped and shocked when people suggest to me that I should just convert conservative b/c it's easier. As if I was in this for the ease! oh my. People do like to take the easy road sometimes. I think it has to do with this immediate gratification mentality a lot of us have. Thinking just because we want something bad enough it should be our immediately. But perhaps that's a bit of a tangent.

    I'm also surprised by how few people know about the Noachide path. I think this knowledge would seriously cut down on this type of hasty liberal conversions. Some people identify with Jews, love Judaism and want to for all intents and purposes follow the God of Judaism, but aren't meant to be actual Jews. I remember when I first looked into conversion I was told that Noachides were merely and invention of Rabbis to keep people from converting and polluting the genetic pool of the Jews. Nice one, eh? It freaked me out! (again that's a tangent for another post!) But once I met some Noachides I actually went through several months of sizing up that option before I decided it wasn't for me and that I would only find soul contentment as a Jew. I think that every convert-to-be should consider this path strongly before moving on towards conversion.

    I'm linking to this post.

  4. I'm skipping this post.
    The converts that I've met have been very genuine :-)

  5. This post is frank and open, I like it. As a Liberal observant Jew, who happen to have converted Reform, I still say a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, it is for the Rabbi's to fight out the "political" turf. I agree what you say about sincerety. If you want to be Orthodox, convert in that stream, if not, convert otherwise. But even the RAMBAM say, all conversions, even the ones who are not perfect with regards to halacha, may still be regarded as a conversion, it is not for us to judge. But my one beef is, if you choose to convert, convert wholeheartdly (sp?).

  6. Tough topic, Skylar. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about what you've said... for better or for worse, definitely food for thought.

  7. I'm with G-Girl and Skylar. Convert with the community you intend (at that time) to join. If it's Orthodox, great, go Orthodox. If it's Conservative or Reform, do that. Don't let other people dictate your choice to you; something like this is too personal and too important. It's true that there will always be someone prepared to question your conversion or unaccepting of it. It's the way the world is. And when (not if, when) that happens, it's important that you be able to look at yourself and your community and say, "Whatever, I'm Jewish, and this is where I belong."

    I had a number of experiences that were the reverse of Redacted's. People would say, "Well, you really ought to convert Orthodox, because then everyone will accept you." Okay, first of all, no they won't. Secondly, my views of Hashem, halacha and egalitarianism are Conservative, not Orthodox. Why would I want to put on a charade for years just to satisfy that nebulous "they"? And more to the point, Hashem knows where my head is at whether I dupe a few rabbis or not. Do I really want to start out my life as a Jew with a series of lies? Thanks, but no thanks.

  8. As someone considering a Reform conversion, I can't fathom why someone would want to deliberately mislead a more liberal congregation to pass time before pursuing an orthodox conversion. Setting aside the moral and religious ethics that you've laid out as grounds for not doing this, what about the relationships you form in the process? In my instance, the Rabbi I'm considering contacting openly encourages prospective and in-process converts to come and start participating in synagogue life.
    Presumably this means you begin forming relationships with people, and learn what it means to be a Jew as you integrate yourself into this community.

    To then turn around and tell those people "sorry, but I don't think your process is good enough/legitimate/whatever" and to go into the process with that intention - I don't get it. I don't get it at all. Think about all the people you are insulting, slapping in the face, and calling not good enough. Think about the hurt you are causing for people who have presumably welcomed you, helped you, taught you. It's not just about wasting the Rabbi's time, it's about wasting the time of everyone involved, which by extension involves the community.

    If you start in one place and your heart leads you another, that's one thing, but to consciously undertake this process with deception in mind? Not at all cool.

  9. Great post...even more so than usual!

    (Later this week, we'll talk about temporary solutions for pursuing an orthodox conversion while temporarily living outside of an orthodox community.)

    I absolutely can't wait for this post. Not living in an orthodox community really is the only reason I'm not pursuing an orthodox conversion right now.

    And you raise a really interesting point, which I hadn't even considered before—I bet you would have to relearn halacha I suppose, wouldn't you? I always intuitively assumed, like I'm sure lots of people might, that having a liberal conversion would be like "cutting in line," but what an interesting thing to consider!

    I hope I'm not unintentionally deceiving my rabbi with my conversion...he told me forthright that his synagogue isn't interested in halacha, but he still told me he would talk to the Conservative and Orthodox rabbis about an hour away, to see what they had to say about me. He's super nice.

  10. If you're converting and your spouse doesn't, then Reform is the only choice you have. If you're like me and wanted to be a Jew since you were a child, I am a grateful, practising Reform conversion candidate!

  11. I don't agree at all. There are plenty of Masorti ccommunities with observant people at their core. Being a part of a Masorti community will give you the ability to accommunities skills that you will use the rest of your life. Any orthodox conversion process will take you more seriously if you know how to daven and the basics of shabbos observance.

    The Masorti movement is still a large percentage of American Jews, and if your conversion had a beit din of male rabbis who were shomer shabbath, you are certainly at least doubtfully Jewish according to Jewish Law. Giyur is more akin to becoming a naturalized citizen of the Am than a conversion, and after one has their affairs in order they should make aliya as soon as possible. A masorti community can be a great place to explore Jeiwsh culture and identity as well as the religion. If they are counting women fo minyan and there aren't ten men just daven as if you are davening at home. When you get to Israel you can begin living an observant life-style quickly and much more easily. Citizens are eligible for the nativ program in the army or english ulpan giyur with classes at night in te aviv. Or you can even go to benei brak and do it there if you prefer. Since every Jew (native-born or ger) should be making Aliyah your final destination to truly enter Judaism should not be the closest orthodox community by a few hours... if you are going to make a big move you should be coming Home!

  12. And I promise 100 percent your conversion here through the rabbanuth will give you less headaches than one in hutz laaretz

  13. I recently read a statement by a Rabbi who said "Labels are unimportant. There are only two types of Jews in the world... Observant and nonobservant". I have seen reform and conservative Jews who are just as observant as orthodox but were simply unable to convert orthodox for whatever reason. Just be observant and don't worry about labels.

  14. I am someone who's only synagogue in over a 100 mile radius is reform. So please remember that sometimes the only option is a liberal option.