By Shimshonit on July 9, 2008
As converts and would-be converts, most of our experiences of conversion are, understandably, from our own point of view. From where we stand, there are the texts and mitzvot to learn, the shul community to get to know, the rituals to incorporate into our lives. Through our eyes, the rabbi and other educators are (ideally) helpful, nurturing, inspiring, and encouraging.
This made it particularly interesting for me to read Rabbi Stewart Weiss’s recent op-ed entitled “A tale of two converts” on the Jerusalem Post online today. (Rav Weiss is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra’anana, Israel, where he assists new immigrants in their absorption process in Israel. He is also a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Arutz Sheva, and a highly regarded kosher cruise supervisor [mashgiach/scholar/posek].)
In this article, Rav Weiss describes in detail the conversion and post-conversion experiences of two converts. One, a man, was part of a group of two dozen enthusiastic students in a conversion class. When Rav Weiss entered the class for the first time (the group had been studying together for a while before he joined them), he made an announcement:
“I have two non-negotiable rules for conversion: One, you must spend a minimum of one year in the program so that you can experience the entire spectrum of the Jewish calendar. And two, by the end of that year, you must live within walking distance of a synagogue.
“Judaism is much more about faith and commitment than it is about book-learning; the simple yet faithful Jew outranks the erudite but non-practicing scholar. Your success or failure in this course is less concerned with your scores than with your sincerity.”
Rav Weiss writes, “At the following week’s session, only five students returned.”
One of the survivors of his announcement was a young man whom Rav Weiss described as a seeker, dedicated to spirituality, the mitzvot, and his community. This young man is Rav Weiss’s (if not every rabbi’s) ideal conversion candidate.
His second description is of a young woman who was steady in her observance, though not inspired or particularly active. It seems she had been dating a born-Jew off and on, and eventually married him. However, when domestic abuse and divorce ended her relationship with her husband, it also ended her relationship with Judaism.
This doesn’t suggest that the only sincere convert can be the unattached one, or that the desire to marry a Jew doesn’t frequently play a role in the conversion of a sincere person. But Rav Weiss’s stories serve as a window on how rabbis endeavor to view the potential convert from all angles, as a whole person. His or her perceived motivation for converting, desire to be a part of the community, dedication to study and the mitzvot, and sense of spirituality all play a role, according to Rav Weiss.
I liked this article. It reminded me that while I don’t have as much time to study and attend shul now as I did in my single and pre-motherhood days, I still have what matters most (at least to Rav Weiss, for whom I have a high regard), which is faith in and commitment to Judaism.
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9 responses to “Rabbi Stewart Weiss and the Rav’s Take on Conversion”
July 9, 2008 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
I have not worried in the least about my continuing dedication to Judaism though I understand things might change that make going to the synagogue more difficult in the future (such as children, or just that I am still in college). However, I have been quite glad the Conservative movement allows driving to shul rather than living in a walking distance. When I live in walking distance, I do walk to synagogue. However, as a college student and not financially independent, I only have so many options for now as far as getting to a synagogue.
July 11, 2008 at 5:51 am | Permalink
There is currently no way I can move to within walking distance of the synagogue. I would like to be closer to my community…surrounded by it…but circumstances beyond my control aren’t in favor of that right now. I don’t think it lessens my commitment to Judaism. My husband hasn’t converted and probably won’t but he didn’t have any problem with converting our son who just had his bar mitzvah or having a thoroughly Jewish home including a kosher kitchen which HE maintains. This rabbi probably thinks I am a mediocre Jew but hey, I am working in it as fast as I can. Whether that achieves HIS goals or not I don’t know but I AM working on it all the time.
July 11, 2008 at 8:40 am | Permalink
Sarah and Z,
It is a great luxury to be able to walk to shul, and I know it is not always affordable to be able to do so. (This is one of the reasons we made aliyah, to be able to live more affordably and still live near a synagogue. Or seven, in our case.) If you read the linked article, you would know that Rav Weiss is an Orthodox rabbi who was addressing a class of would-be Orthodox converts. I recognize that non-Orthodox movements have relaxed the ban on driving to shul. If you are a non-Orthodox Jew, Rav Weiss was not talking to you.
Still in college? You sound like you’re doing just fine to me. If the Conservative movement is your choice, then you are in the right place. You have a lot of life and decisions to make ahead of you. Best of luck.
Rabbi Weiss did not write this article to attack you or your observance. His article was about some of the elements that make for a successful, lasting relationship with Judaism versus some of the potentially jeopardizing factors. Rav Weiss is a wise, generous, caring soul. He, and most other Orthodox rabbis, do not consider it their business to judge you and how you live your life. I am pleased that your husband is so supportive in making your home a Jewish home, and wish you a hearty mazal tov on your son’s bar mitzvah.
July 11, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink
Shim, this was an interesting post – thanks. (Not least because I am wanting to do some research on what all the different parties involved want out of conversion, and what makes for a successful conversion from the point of view of each of those parties.)
BUT – I think Rabbi Weiss is incredibly hard on a woman whose shoes he hasn’t walked in. Do you honestly think you could be absolutely certain that your relationship with and faith in G-d would survive the trauma of an abusive marriage and its end? I hope mine might, but I can’t be sure.
Also, I think there is a tendency on the part of rabbis when a woman approaches for conversion to look at her possible ulterior motivations, whilst when a man approaches, the rabbi sees his spiritual potential – I’m struck that Rav Weiss made it a criterion to live within walking distance of a shul. But in traditional communities, the woman has little place in shul (and I’ve been within walking distance of a shul in huts l’aretz and because of no eiruv and small children had no differnt an experience than being out in the sticks – except that my husband was away more.)
I’m afraid I don’t trust the ability of most rabbonim to look into the heart and judge the potential convert – not least becuase I know people who have gone through the process and had it relatively easy because their rabbeim have supported them all the way and they have never been committed to Orthodoxy (not a problem in its own right, but I tend to believe that converts who want to be non-Orthodox should convert non-Orthodox) whereas I have known people whose heart is really in it and have been devastated becuase they weren’t able to convince the rabbeim around them to believe in them.
July 12, 2008 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with you that a traumatic relationship is likely to sour someone on the way of life she was living at the time of the trauma, and that the woman who got out of her marriage understandably gave up the life she had when undergoing the abuse. However, I think Rav Weiss’s point is that her heart wasn’t entirely in her Judaism from the start, and that her relationship wasn’t entirely stable from the start either—not a recipe for success in either situation. I don’t blame the woman for abandoning Judaism under those circumstances, or other women who escape abusive relationships in communities that turn a blind eye (or, God forbid, encourage) such abuse. Some women move on to find a Jewish home in another community, or dump the religion altogether. I think it’s wrong to judge such women. However, I think Rav Weiss is registering disappointment in this circumstance rather than harsh judgment. (He clearly cared enough about her to go and visit her when she hadn’t appeared in shul, and had the honesty to recognize she was being abused rather than had “fallen down the stairs” as another rabbi might have.) I think he and other well-meaning rabbis want the converts they sponsor to succeed as Jews and see themselves as full members of the Jewish people, rather than conditional members whose success as Jews depends on the success of their relationships or marriages.
I think as readers we can look at this and think further on it. Before converting, we should ask ourselves, Is a Jewish life something I want for myself always, or just in this specific situation (e.g. with this particular person)? If the answer is yes to the former, then by all means proceed. But if Judaism for us is only relevant in the context of being with one person, we should reconsider. Another question might be, Do I have a warm, healthy, supportive community of which I want to be a part, so that if my spouse were to die (lo aleinu), or depart, I would want to remain a part of this community, and perhaps someday find someone else to live with me as part of this community (or one similar to it)? It’s important for us to be happy with our lives apart from where we are with a particular partner. So many people who divorce or are widowed make major changes in their lives afterwards. Maybe that’s helpful to them, or necessary in moving on from their grief, or because they’ve always wanted to do things differently and finally have the liberty and incentive to make those changes. But Judaism is not a hairstyle or a neighborhood or a career; it’s a community, and a relationship with God. I still wouldn’t judge someone who felt he or she had to make a major change even there, but it’s really sad to see someone who invested the time and all the changes she had to make in her life to bring in Judaism, then decide to abandon it.
I agree with you that rabbis are not always as generous in judging women as I think they are in judging men. I think there is an unvoiced bitterness at the freedom with which Jewish men have always looked outside Judaism for a spouse, whereas Jewish women tend to focus their energies on looking for a man who is already Jewish (at least in more traditional communities). And since it’s the non-Jewish woman (and not the Jewish man) who is standing before the rabbis, it’s on her that they take out their anger and resentment. The number of women converts I know is at least double the number of men who converted, and I’m sure this discrepancy does not escape the rabbis’ notice. Couple these issues with the fact that I think rabbis who live in a very male-centered world (I’m talking about Orthodox rabbis mostly, so keep your shirts on) don’t have any great knowledge or understanding of women. Some can look into your eyes and see your soul, some are good listeners and want to learn about who you are from your own words, but others don’t have either of those skills and I think this can blind them to really seeing who we are. I’ve met plenty of this last type, and it can be sad and infuriating. I get the impression from having heard him speak and reading things he’s written that Rav Weiss is a mensch.
And I hear you about living near shul but still being unable to attend. I’ve actually lived within an eruv my whole Orthodox life (except for visits to my parents and in-laws) and still don’t get to shul often. In the U.S. we lived almost a mile from shul and loaded up the kids in backpacks and strollers in all weather, and rarely got to shul before kiddush (but if we were out for lunch that day, we had to get out of the house anyway). But here in Israel, when I live in an eruv and less than five minutes’ walk from shul, I never go. If I go, my kids come and find me, chatter, make demands, ask me to take them to the bathroom, fight over who gets to sit in my lap, ask me where we are in the davening, and generally keep me from enjoying even a minute of quiet contemplation. We’ll be about 20 seconds from shul when we move next month, but I still don’t expect things to change until the kids are older.
July 13, 2008 at 8:51 am | Permalink
I would like to concur with Shimshonit where she says, “Before converting, we should ask ourselves, Is a Jewish life something I want for myself always, or just in this specific situation (e.g. with this particular person)?”. I had an experience just this past week ( I am considering blogging about it in the future). I was taking a Hebrew class and there was a girl in my class converting simply because she is dating an Israeli.
I DEFINITELY think that the rabbis of all denominations should be asking potential converts that very question. I don’t necessarily think converting for marriage is a bad thing but I do see how it can lead to challenges or gaps later on. I believe this is partially why women who are converting do get challenged in a different way. With traditional Judaism being matrilineal when it comes to who is and who isn’t Jewish, it makes sense that women (as is often the case) get the sharper point of the stick.
July 14, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
I have found that even when someone is in a relationship with a Jew and express an interest to convert that often, that person is doing it for his or herself. It’s not always the case that the non-Jew in the relationship is doing it for marriage. An interesting article in Jewish Week pointed out that many non-Jewish spouses convert long after a civil marriage has taken place.
Thankfully, I found that my Orthodox rabbi understood me extremely well considering his status as, you know, a man.
I take issue with the view that there is no place for women in synagogue in traditional communities. They’ve probably never had the pleasure of seeing women laining at my (Orthodox) shul.
July 14, 2008 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
Thanks for adding your two cents. You seem to agree with many points I and others have made, for example about converting for the sake of Judaism rather than for the sake of marriage alone. (Plenty of us have done that.) And I’m happy that you had a particularly understanding rabbi; that can make the whole process much smoother.
I’m not sure where you’ve heard that women have no place in traditional synagogue life. Certainly not from this blog. Nechama and I have young children, and she lives in a place with no eruv which, unless you’re in the habit of employing a non-Jewish babysitter every Shabbos, makes getting to shul extremely difficult. No one suggested that we’re home because our presence in shul is not valued. My shul in America had two consecutive women presidents, women (including me) serving on numerous committees, and women running their own tefillah group. But if your shul has women leyning in a service that includes a minyan of men, it’s not like any Orthodox shul I’ve ever heard of. Enjoy.
July 16, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink
Thanks for replying so fully to my reply! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who even when I’m in a place I can get to shul never manages to get any daavening in because the children always want to talk/hug/push each other off my knee/go somewhere else!
I still think one has to be so strong to see this decision through no matter what – I feel and think things now which I could never have imagined when as a single woman, no children, never having visited Israel and knowing very little about the Jewish community really I decided to convert some ten years ago. I’m still committed – the days I think of chucking it all in, I realise how much it is a part of my life, because my whole life would change without Judaism, and I can’t imagine what it would look like. But I know how much stamina that commitment takes, and I have a really supportive husband, three beautiful children to thank G-d for daily and a Rav who is almost always at the other end of the telephone.
I understand what you say about someone never having been committed with her “whole soul”, but I just think it is so difficult to judge what is going on in someone else’s heart. Some people just don’t express it very well. I have a friend who just converted, was going through the process for 11(!) years and one bet din wrote a letter to another (in the town she was moving to) to say they thought she was only intellectually interested(!) She’s just not a particularly demonstrative person, what can I say!
That wasn’t a criticism of your original post, btw, or your response – I think you’re right, I think we all have to ask ourselves how we will hold up when the hard times hit. I just think we don’t always know the answer, and sometimes just intending or really wanting to hold up is all we can manage.