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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Monday, April 30, 2012

An Open Letter to Lauren

So this morning, I got a note from Twitter saying that a woman named Lauren is now following me. I do next to nothing with Twitter, but I took a look and found a link to her blog, where I read an article entitled "Intermarriage: An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis".

I started writing a comment there, but it got really, really long, so I decided to replace it with a blog post here. Just as a caveat, particularly for Lauren, let me say that I'm not trying to hurt her feelings or be mean. But I know that some of the things I'm going to say are likely to rub her the wrong way. I wish there were some way to say this without that happening.

Lauren is 21. She seems like a cool person. She hates J4J, and that's a pretty solid plus in my book. But she's been beaten back and forth with people and their agendas, and I don't know if anyone has really taken the time to explain why things are the way they are.

Lauren, you say that you feel terrible when someone says "You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish." I'll be honest. I don't understand that at all. What they're saying is, "Your mother isn't Jewish, so neither are you." Of course no one is going to say that you should convert because it's your responsibility as part of the Jewish people. Because you aren't part of the Jewish people.

You say "To be told by someone that you’re Jewish one day and to be told you’re not the next, well it’s pretty disconcerting, if you can imagine." And I feel bad about that, but those who told you you are lied. Believe me, if I could stop them from lying to people like you, I'd do it.

You say "In the halachic world of categories and laws, I have no category." But that isn't true. Your category is non-Jew. Hopefully, it's God worshipping moral non-Jew, but that's on you.

You don't have to wonder if the words of the Torah were meant for you or not. They weren't. But why is that such a bad thing? A lot of the words of the Torah weren't meant for me, either, because I'm not male. Or because I'm not a Kohen. Judaism is all about such distinctions. It's the most basic concept we have. Havdalah. We distinguish between holy and profane. Between light and dark. Between Jews and non-Jews. Between weekdays and Shabbat. Between kosher and non-kosher. Between Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, etc. Between male and female. We don't blur distinctions, and I don't think anyone with any sort of connection to Judaism has ever given you mixed messages about whether you're Jewish or not.

Why is telling you that you're 100% gentile and that we don't care if you convert or not "hurtful"? I really don't get it. Maybe try looking at it from our perspective. It is, after all, the perspective you've been trying to join since you were 19. Do you really think that we should go against everything we are because what we are hurts your feelings? Because that's what you're essentially asking of us.

You ask "What do you suggest I do? What would be ideal?" That's easy. The same thing every non-Jew should do. Keep the Noachide laws, live a good and productive life, accept that the Torah was given to the Jews by God and that it contains the rules for how both Jews and non-Jews are to live. There are a lot of Noachide organizations around. Yes, a lot of them are ex-Christians, but not all of them.

You say "I love Judaism, I’ve never had another religion, I don’t want it to die in my family." But Lauren, it already has. You converting won't change that. A convert is not halakhically related to their birth family. If you convert, you are starting a new family line. It won't redeem your father's intermarriage. That ended that branch of the Jewish people. Am I happy about that? Am I telling you that "gleefully"? No. It makes me want to cry. But it is what it is.

And that's the thing, Lauren. If you aren't willing to accept Judaism *as it is*, why do you think you *should* be able to convert? The Jewish position about converts is complicated. Some of our best and brightest have been converts, or the descendents of converts. Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir. But... well, you know what would be good? Go take a look at Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva chapter 3. Any time a Jew violates a mitzvah, they harm themselves spiritually. They harm the entire Jewish people. And they harm the very fabric of existence. It's a huge responsibility. And to allow someone to convert who isn't 100% committed to avoiding that sort of harm would be self-destructive in the extreme. See, I mess up sometimes. And when I do it, that's a bad thing. If I wasn't Jewish, that same act would be utterly harmless. You... if you eat bacon now (just as an example), no harm, no foul (except to the pig and maybe your arteries). But do the same exact thing the day after converting, and you damage the fabric of existence. That's the responsibility that lies on *our* shoulders when it comes to conversion.

There is a view that converts should only be accepted when things are bad for the Jews. Because only then can we really know that the person is sincere. Because why would someone ask for that sort of trouble. Someone wanting to convert in 1938 Germany was either really, really, really committed, or really, really, really insane. Someone wanting to convert in 2012 America may be wanting to convert for reasons that aren't so great. Like family pride. A desire to be included. Can you see why that's problematic for us?

Now... despite that view, we do accept converts. But why have you been having such a hard time converting? I haven't read through your entire blog, so I don't know the answer to that question, but the fact that you're coming to us with complaints isn't a huge recommendation, if you know what I mean. Telling us we need to open our eyes. Using the word "revolution" (even metaphorically). That said, you're 21. And everyone who has ever been 21 should remember what that's like. So maybe your impatience is a little understandable. But honestly... try and look at this from our point of view. See whether you really think the responses you've gotten are that inexplicable.

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Blogger Laura said...

Hello. I wrote that post.

So, I like your blog because you are very direct. And you feel strongly about things. I'm also very opinionated, and I actually lost a few of my liberal readers because when I realized I wanted to be Orthodox I accidentally said a lot of things that offended them.

However, going through this, and hearing the same position from other people I respect, has made me really sensitive to the effect words can have on people, even when you're just trying to show the objective facts. I learned that everything isn't black and white, cause people don't work like that. I also learned that until I experienced something someone was going through, I could never really understand. I don't know if born Jews can understand the identity crisis of someone in my position.

I know exactly what my legal category is, and believe me, I've had my fair share of people encourage me to "just be a Noahide." That's what I'd tell myself if I were a born Jew too, cause it seems so simple.

But it's not. Objectively speaking, why should being told that "I'm not Jewish" hurt? I know it's true. I don't think I'm "going against everything you are because what you are hurts my feelings," as you say, because what am I going against? Conversion isn't prohibited. And I'm not asking that anyone accepts patrilineal descent. And if I weren't "100% committed," I wouldn't have chosen Orthodoxy.

Realistically, let's just use me hypothetically, I'm not going to be a Noahide. If I can't convert for whatever reason, I'll probably join a Reform congregation, marry a Jewish man, have more non-Jewish children, and the cycle continues. I don't want to do that, but that's what will likely happen. You can't throw people into a Noahide organization with a bunch of ex-Christians and expect it will take. Objectively, it should. But objectivity doesn't take into account a person's background or feelings (I know, I took philosophy. I got good at eliminating "emotion" from arguments).

Here's a thought. Pretend you're 21. You're living a Jewish life, you daven everyday, you love Torah, you love the mitzvos, you live in the Jewish community, it is your life. Now, imagine you get a call one day from a relative and they tell you, "I didn't want to tell you this, but we've been going through the attic and looking at some genealogical records, and it turns out your mother's grandmother wasn't Jewish. Guess it got swept under the rug. Sorry. It is what it is." Imagine hanging up. How do you feel? Where do you turn? Your thoughts turn to practicalities--How can you say tehillim anymore? How can you relate to God anymore? You still want to be Jewish. You know your ancestors were at Sinai. But who are you now?

Now imagine that relative telling you that you shouldn't feel upset. After all, you can still be a Noahide. You're not losing anything per se, cause it's not like you were ever Jewish. You try to argue that it's not the same at all. You would do anything. You will convert. "Nah, it's not worth it. After all, you'd probably just be converting because you just want to feel the comfort of being halachically Jewish. That's not the right reason. Judaism's hard anyway," they say.

You feel broken. Not because you've found out you're not halachically Jewish, but because you can't tell whether you just lost everything, or if you never had it to begin with. They tell you that you should try to wean yourself off loving Torah and mitzvos now, as hard as it may be. And no one seems to notice that this is impossible. But now whenever you try to do mitzvos, you feel like a fraud. And other people, without meaning to of course, encourage this feeling. Anything to get you away from Judaism; you are a damaged product.

And no one knows why you'd be upset about that. And that's how I feel.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Lauren, I wrote a reply, but Blogger thought it was too long, so I posted it as a separate post.

10:46 AM  

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