Thursday, 21 May 2009

A Black Woman's Journey to the Rabbinate...

The title of this post is the title of an article on at
and it is worth looking at -- but maybe for different reasons than one might at first think.

What hit me about the article is this woman's statement that while she was not born to a Jewish womb, she was born Jewish. I am sure we have all met a ger, a convert, who has made this type of statement -- and in many ways we find the events of this person's life intriguing and even mysterious. It just seems that there are some people who, almost from the point of birth, are searching to be Jews. They talk about how they gravitated towards Jewish friends even as a child and that the stories and lessons of Judaism touched them right from the beginning. Many of us see such individuals as Jewish souls born into non-Jewish bodies who have found their way home.

The fact is, though, the people who we define within this mold are, basically, gerim k'Halacha, converts who converted according to Halacha who are personally observant of Halacha. What is to be said in the case of this woman. Without entering into the question of whether her conversion would be accepted by Halacha (of course, applying lenient standards that, while often ignored today as a legitimate position in gerut, nonetheless are within the spectrum of halachic opinion)m how do we respond to her view of herself as a person who seems to always have been searching for Judaism, of course her view of Judaism? Is there something in a specific soul that could attract a non-Jew to Reform Judaism? And how would we look upon such a non-Jew? While maybe not technically Jewish, would this person not still meet the standard of a righteous Gentile?

I have always found these stories, of individuals who have felt that they were Jewish before even knowing what Judaism is, to be most interesting. I must admit my initial reaction is inherently one of skepticism -- yet when I hear the details of their lives, I often find myself amazed by their uncanny inherent connection to Jewishness that seems to be within them before they even could articulate the concept of Jewishness. What can I now say about this woman? She seems to have also exhibited a similar attraction to Jewishness -- yet this attraction has left her outside the pale of Torah. Did she just miss the mark in following this innate feeling inside her? Is the feeling truly real? Or was her feeling actually some type of inner motivation that took her to something that, although not truly Torah, would be a fine lifestyle for someone not really Jewish -- even as she might think it is?

I have always found the stories of non-Jews, who seem to have been internally motivated to become Jews, fascinating. Now I am wondering how to look at this story. I would appreciate some ideas.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

I am one of those converts with those inspiring, interesting stories. I converted Orthodox. I went Orthodox right from the start. I had Orthodox friends, Orthodox shuls were convenient, I had good experiences in an Orthodox community.

Incidentally, Stanton had a Conservative conversion. I think whether or not people agree with Orthodox (many have egalitarian issues, etc.), they find the dramatic changes they would have to make in their life incredibly daunting. It is even more daunting, if you can imagine, if youre are not in the right place at the right time and you show up at the wrong Orthodox shul and someone treats you poorly.

Conservative and Reform converts often hear that Orthodoxy is too exlusive, they'll never be accepted. Orthodox people are racist, etc. Meanwhile, Orthodox people can't imagine that Conservative and Reform converts have a deep, love of Torah. If they did, wouldn't they go...the whole nine yards? Sigh.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

This is typical of American liberal sentimentality.

Someone wants something, wants it real bad but doesn't actually want to make a 100% commitment to it.

So that someone takes the something, refuses to make the complete commitment and then stares down her detractors as being racist and mean, no doubt.

Aliza, would you want a surgeon who didn't go the whole nine yards to operate on you? Would you trust such an accountant? Why does Judaism get degraded as something that can be richly embraced without proper commitment?

Drew Kaplan said...

Although she will be graduating from HUC, her conversion wasn't under Reform auspices, but, rather, a Conservative rabbi.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

How does change anything?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There is an interesting divide here. Is there one faith of Judaism with disagreements on how this faith is to be practiced OR do the different branches of Judaism actually reflect different faiths? I guess behind this question is how you define a faith.

The answer to this question may be more hazy than we want to admit. We often ignore the reality of the philosophical and theological distinctions between the variant branches of Judaims. See my article Adjective and Non-Adjective Jews on the Nishma website at
I once met an individual who, as he describe himself, converted to Reform Judaism. He was a fully committed Reform Jew -- and proud of it. His conversion reflected as acceptance of the beliefs of Reform Judaism. Considering that he truly identified as a Jew, and proud to be one, I asked him why he didn't, for practical reasons, also seek an Orthodox conversion (specifically from Orthodox rabbis who maintained a more lenient view on conversion and would not demand the complete observance of Halacha). He answered, and quite adamently, that He was a believer in Reform Judaism and that is why he converted to Reform Judaism -- and it would be inappropriate for him to convert Orthodox. He felt he would not be true to himself.

What does all this mean? I think that we cannot just think of the decision to convert Reform or Orthodox as simply a question of process. There are major disagreements in faith and theology between them. On the other hand, and this was really the point of my post, most individuals in the process of conversion -- especially when they are just beginning their interests in what they see as generic Judaism -- are not aware of all these distinctions -- and this generic interest in Judaism may take them to any one of the branches. So how do we look at such an individual who ends up in Reform Judaism? Even Orthodoxy may find value in the original motivation although now the person has missed the mark. But is this person any worse than a Righteous Gentile from an Orthodox perspective.

On the other hand, Garnel's point also has to be considered. It may not be that the convert is just taking the easy way out. Yet, what the convert may also not be aware of the fact that what truly motivated him/her to be Jewish is only really available in Orthodoxy. The distinctions in practice between the variant branches of Judaism reflect differences in values and thoughts. It is one think if someone becomes a Reform Jew knowing full well that this also may mean some value distinctions bebween him/her and the Orthodox. It is another when one adopts Reform behaviour but is then upset because he/she is not getting a desired conclusion that really is only available is if one follows Orthodoxy. Sadly, the convert may not recognize that he/she is looking for something in all the wrong places.

In the end what I guess I am really saying is that it is time to be real. There are differences between the branches. There also may be similarities. Its time to clearly describe both so that people truly recognize what they mean when they say that they converted Orthodox or Reform OR they say that they go to an Orthodox or Reform synagogue. We presently mis-define the similarities and most importantly the distinctions. Time to fix this problem and the case of this woman is a perfect example of the issue.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Menachem said...

A fascinating subject which I often wonder about. However, I believe that Rabbi Hecht is treading dangerously close to trouble by implying that somehow the non-halachic (i.e. non-religious/orthodox) streams of Judaism are somehow on an equal footing as Halachic Judaism. As much as we yearn for their return to the fold, it behooves us to keep a great distance from them in most matters to prevent granting them legitimacy.

mTp said...


As a practicing, religious Jew who converted to Reform Judaism I am proud to see that she has taken her faith and practice to the point where she wants to be a teacher and leader in the community. Good for her and good for the Jewish people.

The particularistic view points held in this comment stream are an interesting approach to segregate and remove the majority of the Jewish population in the world.

Why in the world would I convert into the Judaism you so idolize? What is better about your interpretation? Are you just spouting your Shammayan logic as to belittle a population you fear? Perhaps the Karites are a better example? Or the Talmudic story of the oven may make you ask who is the majority - and G-d will laugh again?

I live in a world of Christians and assimilated Jews. Do I act as a Nazarite and remove myself from my family and community for a tradition that does not reveal itself to me? I stand at Sinai and I do Judaism with intention. I practice, study, worship and wrestle. I am a good Jew and thank G-d for creating men like Hillel and hope that those in the Shammayan camp can learn a lesson of what happen to their forefathers.

I get it from the Christians and Moslems and now I get it from the Shammayans. Which is worse? The Shammayans because they are family.